Pranayama, or yogic breathing, is an important part of yoga. But many yoga classes focus on the physical postures and don't include many breathing techniques. That's a shame because pranayama practices can make a big difference to how you feel - and fast.
The way we breathe directly influences the way we feel, think and behave. That's because our breathing regulates the autonomic nervous system. Each time we inhale, we activate the sympathetic nervous system - that's the 'fight or flight' mechanism that readies us to deal with looming threats. Each time we exhale, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system - this is the 'rest and digest' function that allows our bodies to go into repair mode, sleep soundly and build nurturing relationships.
Many of us are living with chronic stress and get trapped in the 'fight or flight response' - even when there's no immediate threat, our bodies respond as if we're in danger. We feel anxious and find it hard to relax or concentrate. Changing the way you breathe can quickly move you out of that high-stress response and into a state of calm alertness. It's free, easy to do and there are no negative side effects.
Simply reminding yourself to breathe is a good way to start - when you feel stressed, notice how you're breathing. Often the breath becomes shallow and short when we're under pressure. Bringing your attention to the breath can automatically regualte the flow of air into a more functional pattern - slower, deeper and more relaxed breathing.
Yoga offers many different breathing techniques to help shift unconscious patterns of breathing that are the result of - and cause of - stress. One of my favourites is Nadi Shodana. Nadi Shodana involves breathing through alternating nostrils, using the fingertips to gently close one nostril at a time. As long as your nostrils are both clear, this is an easy and relaxing way to get started with pranayama. Here's a video on how to do it.
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Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.