Pranayama is the practice of learning how to breathe consciously and increasing our vital energy. Regardless of life’s ups and downs, the breath is always with us and is our most tangible connection to the present moment.
Nevertheless, it is surprising how little emphasis is placed on breathing throughout our daily routines. It’s the same tune we’ve heard before: We wake up. We run out the door. We work all day, barely stopping for a lunch break or a deep breath. We multitask all day and then run errands after work. We have dinner perhaps while watching TV or being on our phones, and then we go to bed only to do the exact same thing the following day.
Running around all day, living and breathing on autopilot, isn’t optimal for our physical and psychological well-being and yet most of us do this often, self-included.
Some statistics about stress
- According to Health Canada, more than 70% of Canadians feel stressed on a regular basis.
- Statistics Canada reported that more than 30% of adults between the ages of 25 and 54 claim that most days were quite a bit or extremely stressful.
- Women were 1.5 times more likely than males to report that most days were quite a bit or extremely stressful.
- Interestingly, the proportion of residents who reported that their days were ‘quite a bit’ or ‘extremely’ stressful was higher than the national average in Quebec (26.2%).
The impact of these findings by Statistics Canada indicated that high levels of daily stress resulted in a lower rate of life satisfaction.
Physically the body responds to stress with a “fight or flight” response, explains Barbara A. Brehm in her book Stress Management: Increasing Your Stress Resistance. The heart beats faster and harder, blood pressure rises and breathing becomes more shallow and rapid. Over time, countless studies, including several conducted by Stat. Can., have shown that chronic stress can lead to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis and rheumatism, migraines chronic bronchitis and stomach or intestinal ulcers.
How to manage stress with pranayama
Practicing proper breathing techniques is perhaps the simplest way to help the body cope during strenuous times while allowing the mind to relax and focus on the task at hand. Yogis say, “When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so is the mind still.”
The yogic practice of breath work is called pranayama, which also means to control vital energy. There are three types of breathing: clavicular (shallow), intercostal (middle), and diaphragmatic (deep).
Clavicular Breathing: Air enters the body by raising the collarbone and shoulders. This method of respiration is the least efficient since it only involves the upper part of the lungs. When we are stressed or anxious, we often revert to this type of rapid, shallow breathing. (Studies show that more women breathe this way, as women react to a higher range of stressors than men.)
Intercostal Breathing: Often referred to as ‘athletic breathing,’ the intercostal form of respiration fills the middle region of the lungs by lifting the ribs and expanding the thoracic cage or chest wall. When combined with diaphragmatic breathing, the body is properly oxygenated.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: This type of breathing is categorized by the swelling of the abdominal region, as the diaphragm subsides on the inhalation and the base of the lungs fill with air. The rhythmic lowering of the diaphragm produces a constant, gentle massage of the abdominal area and helps the organs function correctly. (Most men breathe this way.)
Dirga pranayama or three–part breath
The most energy efficient method of breathing incorporates all three types of breathing— diaphragmatic, intercostal, and clavicular. In yoga, it is important to breathe in and out through the nose, because the air that enters and exits the body nasally is warmer and more filtered than through the mouth.
As you inhale –
1- Lower and flatten the dome-shaped diaphragm – ‘breathe’ into your belly’
2- Expand the rib cage;
3- Raise the upper part of the thorax and collarbone.
As you exhale –
1- Lower the collarbone and upper thorax area;
2- Deflate the rib cage;
3- Gently contract the abdominals and squeeze out any residual air left in the lungs.
TIP: Focus on the exhalation
Most people believe that, in the act of respiration, one must give precedence to drawing in the breath. However, unless we first exhale the breath completely, it is impossible to inhale correctly. At the end of the exhalation, the abdominal muscles should contract to help empty the lungs of impure air.
Pranayama is also an excellent segway into meditation as it calms the mind and has myriad benefits.