The perfect breathing practice to relieve stress and anxiety

In all my classes this month we are focusing on our breathing. Breathing and yoga go together like bread and butter, but it can take a bit of practice to make it all work. The overall effect is a calmer mind and body when done well. While the breathing practice we try to maintain during a vinyasa practice, called ujayi breath, is wonderful calming breath, if you’re experiencing stress and anxiety there’s another one should should really consider practicing.

That breath is alternate nostril breath.

I often say I wish I had known about this breath when I was auditioning for orchestras when playing the bassoon was the career I thought I’d spend my life in. The anxiety of that experience always left me with shaky hands, a dry mouth and not much in the way of coping mechanisms to work with that bodily state other than taking more auditions. Now, I use this breath any time I’m experiencing stress or anxiety. The key though is to have an established practice. Only then will you remember to do it in your time of need.

Alternate nostril breath is said to balance the energy channels on the two sides of the body. Those energy channels just happen to coincide with our two nostrils. The right side is said to be the more energetic side, the left side is said to be the more calming side. By doing this breathing practice you are bringing those two sides into greater balance and harmony. The effect can often be felt after just a few repetitions.

Here’s how to practice this breath:

First, choose a hand position that works for you. I usually offer three different possibilities. The first is Vishnu mudra. The first two fingers are curled into your palm. You use your thumb and the last two fingers to alternately open and close the nostrils. It looks like this:

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The second possibility is to instead take the first two fingers and anchor them at your third eye space or the space between your eyebrows. Just as above, the thumb and pinky fingers are then free to open and close the nostrils. That looks like this:

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The third option is to just choose to do it however is most comfortable for you! That might look something like this:

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Once you have a hand position that works for you you’ll then follow this sequence to perform this breathing practice (these instructions assume you are using your right hand):

  1. Close the right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through the left nostril.

  2. Immediately close the left nostril with your right ring finger and little finger, and at the same time remove your thumb from the right nostril, and exhale through this nostril.

  3. Inhale through the right nostril. Immediately close the right nostril with your right thumb and exhale through the left nostril. This completes one full round.

You’ll continue this sequence for about 3-6 rounds to start. Allow the breathing to be slow and deep without being forced. Always end with the exhale through the left nostril (remember how we said this was the calming side above? That’s why. We want to end on a calm note!).

When you’re finished, take a few breaths through both nostrils and take the time to notice the effect of your practice.

If you are experiencing congestion or there is a blockage in the nostrils best not to try to do this breath. If you’ve been practicing it for a while, imagining it can be highly effective as well, but you first need to have an established practice.

You can practice this breath a couple times a day for a couple of rounds to start out. Over time as it becomes more comfortable, you can extend how many rounds you do at once. With time and practice you’ll notice a greater calming effect. You may also find this breath helpful in times when your energy is feeling low. The balancing quality of the breath works the other way as well.

Did you find this helpful? Do you practice this breath regularly? Do you have questions about this practice? Let me know in the comments!

Be here now

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As I'm writing these words, a rough week for many of us has just come to an end. And not a very satisfying end. An end that has more of a question mark on it then ever. Many of us have been forced to relive our own traumas that we may have set aside for years. Many of us may have engaged in heated debates with friends or family members. Many of us are feeling worn out and dragged through the dirt thanks to media in many forms.

I don't care what side of the debate you stand on. What I care about is that you take care of yourself in the best way possible right now. One strategy I've been using and I'd like to offer to you is being fully present. How can that help in times like these? Read on.

This may seem like the exact WRONG time to be talking about being present. How do we do that when the present is just almost too much to bear? I’ve asked myself this question a lot this week. I’ve wondered how do I stay present with what’s happening, keep being an informed citizen and yet not loose my mind as I watch horrendous suffering come to the surface in others and old traumas rise in myself as well? How do I do any of this when all I really want to do is run and hide?

First, I have to know my limits. I am only human. I can do my best and my best has to be enough. My limits may not be the same as yours. I have to accept that. My limits may not be the same as those of my family and friends. I have to accept that and I have to call upon them to respect my limits and respond in ways that honor my boundaries. I may need to speak clearly about my limits to others. I may have to accept that they will not appreciate my limits. I will need to honor them anyway the best I can, perhaps without their help or support. No one else can know your limits. Only you can know where your boundaries are. Be clear in protecting your limits. And when you’ve reached that limit, turn off the TV, put down the paper or turn off or put away whatever it is that all this was coming to you through, or ask the person you’re talking to to allow you to change the subject or simply walk away. It’s more than ok to make it stop for awhile.

Second, I can use what I know about the brain and yoga/meditation to stop the repetitive loop of past traumas playing out in my mind. Did you know that when you relive a memory, your brain doesn’t know if it is something that happened in your past or if it is happening right now? Many times the same chemical responses, such as the release of stress hormones, can be found when we recall an event. If we end up in the endless thought loop of remembering a trauma, we are basically putting our bodies and minds through the same experience over and over again. Sometimes we need to do this to make sense of the event, to find resolution or to simply fully deal with the trauma. But sometimes we can get stuck in a pattern of thought that just becomes harmful. This is why knowing your limits is first. If it’s time to get those negative thought loops to stop, being present is where we begin.

How? Start as above in step one and turn off the news, put down the paper or the social media or whatever it is that’s triggering you. Choose a technique you find calming. Your technique might be similar to one you use in meditation. You can follow your breath, you can look at an uplifting image or you can repeat a mantra. Whatever you choose, bring your mind fully to it. See it, feel it, experience it for all that it is. The more curiosity you can bring to it the greater the chances of stopping the cycle of damaging thoughts.

But what does that really do? It empowers us to reclaim the here now. And the here and now is actually pretty safe if we really look at it closely. If you are reading this you are likely sitting at a computer or looking at a device. If you take a deep breath and let it out the next breath is going to come. And the next. There is no one attacking you. There is no one hurting you. You are just here, reading these words and taking a deep breath. It’s all pretty simple right here and right now. The next moment may not be that way. But this moment is. This breath is ok. This breath is safe. In this breath all is well.

So you take this little vacation from it all and you live and breathe to see another day. To take action in another moment. You are rested enough and centered enough to do whatever is next. And that is all anyone can ask in these crazy times we live in.

And if you truly need help processing and dealing with it all, remember that yoga and meditation can only take us so far sometimes. Don’t be afraid to call and ask for professional help. There’s no shame in that. That’s also part of knowing your limits.

When yoga isn't enough...

The quote above is one I think of often as I interact with people wherever I am. We all have our moments when we act less than skillfully. The reasons can be many and varied given the day. But sometimes it's not a matter of being skillful or unskillful. Sometimes it's simply a matter of having a very human experience depending on the challenges we are facing in the moment. Yoga gives us some really wonderful tools for navigating life's challenges.

But I'm here to tell you it isn't always enough.

You may be quite surprised to have a yoga teacher tell you that, but I speak from personal experience. Sometimes yoga just isn't enough to get you through. Sometimes there is no amount of breathing, meditation, movement, mindfulness, philosophy, prayer or focusing on the divine that is going to help you make your way through the challenges of the moment. Sometimes it is just so dark and you are so far down that you may not even be able to call upon your steady practice to get you out.

I've been there. And not so long ago.

After I moved the studio to Milford I reached a breaking point. I have battled anxiety and depression since I was 15 years old, so anxiety attacks were not unfamiliar. It was somewhat interesting to me that it happened AFTER the move was done, but about a month later I started having anxiety attacks that were so bad I really thought I might need to go to the hospital because there was something wrong with my heart. Many challenges were conspiring to bring that about at the time. Moving the studio, my first year teaching a teacher training, personal relationship challenges, etc. Sure I used my yogic tools, but they kept happening and they were approaching debilitating. It was time for something else.

Therapy.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because I'm observing so many things lately in our world. The stigma around life not being neat and perfect (blame social media if you will but this was happening in the world long before social media). The lack of coping mechanisms we are typically brought up with in this society. The shame that often surrounds needing to ask for help, even from those that are closest to us. This is all a recipe for not only unhappiness, but depending on the severity of the issues, danger.

I'm here to tell you that life can really suck sometimes and asking for help is not a shameful act. It's the greatest act of self love and self care you can do. That doesn't mean it's easy. That doesn't mean it isn't hard, but it is so important.

So, I have a therapist. I speak to her nearly every week. She helps me process what's happening in my life at the moment. She helps me process things from my past. She helps me see that I have choices in every moment. She helps me look at the world differently when things are just too overwhelming to bear. She helps me see how my past colors my present and that when I really look at the dark shadows, I can shed light on them and I can be and feel different in the here and now. She listens to me and helps me understand that yes, I have faced more than my fair share of "stuff" and that I'm not crazy to feel the way I feel sometimes. 

And as a bonus, she knows who Krishna Das is.

Therapy doesn't make me a bad yogi. It makes me a smart one. I knew that I couldn't climb my way out of my anxiety on my own. I knew that it was time to face some of the demons that had been swept under the rug for far too long. I knew myself well enough to reach out when I couldn't solve it myself and THAT is something that DID come from my yoga practice. As Sally Kempton speaks about in this interview, I was lucky enough to have a solid enough practice and enough experience with discernment to know that my pain was doing injury, not helping me grow. Rather than staying with it, it was time to make a change.

If you are struggling with the deep hard things of life, definitely do your practice. But also don't be afraid to ask for help beyond the yoga mat. Call a friend or family member and see if they can talk to you. Maybe you don't even talk about what's bothering you at the moment but you just talk. Maybe that person knows a good therapist. Maybe you call a national hotline. But remember that therapy is out there and while it may take more than one try to find a person that resonates with you, the seeking is worth it. You are worth it. 

If you are local and looking for help and don't know where to begin please check out Milford Regional Counseling Services. I don't have personal experience with them but I've heard good things. If you don't have health insurance they may be able to help.

I wish you peace and a guiding light of hope as you find your way through whatever challenges life is serving you at this moment.

A breathing technique for controlling stress and anxiety

I continue to hear from many of you that controlling stress and anxiety and taking care of yourself are a main focus for 2018. You are not alone! This is one of the wonderful things about marking a new year; we get to rededicate ourselves to something important. 

Here's a simple breathing technique that might help. We tend to think that in order to help ourselves the solutions need to be complicated or involve a complex sequence of steps. The truth is that it can be as simple as conscious breathing. That's not to say that you'll never be stressed out again if you do this technique! As we all know, life happens! But what we can do is make sure our toolbox is full and our practice is steady so we can reach for the right tool in that moment of anxiety.

Here's how it works:

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Lay on your back with one hand or both hands on your low belly just as you see above. Do your best to breathe through your nose, but know if you're a bit congested you can always breathe through the mouth. Close your eyes if comfortable and focus on your breath. As you breathe in, direct the breath down into the hand on your belly and allow your belly to expand so it lifts your hand up to the sky. As you exhale, let it all fall back toward the earth. Continue like this for several breaths. It may take a few tries to get your belly to relax enough to really fill with the breath. Don't get frustrated, just keep going. 

That alone is a wonderful practice and could be complete in itself!

If you'd like to take it a step or two further, try this:
Shift one hand to your rib cage. Now when you inhale, expand the belly just as you've been doing but then continue that expansion into your ribs and the hand that's there. Feel the ribs move out into your hand. On the exhale, reverse the process. Ribs draw in first, then the belly deflates.

Repeat that several times.

If you'd like to go one last step further, shift a hand to your heart center or center of the chest area, just above your breastbone. Now breathe into the belly just as you have, the ribs just as you have and then see if you can find one last little sip of air under your collarbones. Again you'll exhale in reverse, so the chest releases followed by the ribs and then the belly. Do this for several breaths.

When you're finished, let the breath return to normal for several breaths before you roll onto your right side and come up to sit. Take a moment there before moving on.

This is called three part breath and is a wonderful way to help calm mind, body and spirit when life is a bit tense. You can do this in bed before you go to sleep or even when you first wake up in the morning. If you notice you get a bit light headed at first it should pass, but just let the breath work go if it gets uncomfortable and try again at another time. 

When you finish the practice, pause to notice the difference in your body, mind and perhaps even spirit.

A great yogic tool for bringing stress and anxiety under control

A great yogic tool for bringing stress and anxiety under control

I see out there in the world through social media and other avenues that one thing people are looking to do with their intentions for the new year is bring stress and anxiety under control. Here's one of my favorite techniques from my yoga practice for doing just that:

Chanting!

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