Yesterday was a weird sort of day. I woke up super excited about the work I was going to do, updating some pages on my website, writing some emails and generally being productive.

I made the biggest mistake possible for productivity. I checked the news.

It was inevitable. The Prime Minister had outlined her draft Brexit deal the day before. This is a pretty big deal, and there was obviously going to be fallout. I’ve followed Brexit developments over the last 2 and a half years, and was engrossed.

As the day progressed, and the UK Government seemed to fragment before the nation’s eyes, it became harder and harder to think about anything else. Thanks to my ‘Block and Focus’ browser extension, I did manage to get some work done, but not as much as I had hoped.

A successful day

Despite the failure to be as productive as I had hoped, I do see that yesterday was a successful day for me. As has every other day since the referendum.

Why?

I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I may not have done as much as I had planned, but I didn’t indulge myself in hugely self destructive behaviors. I got a good night’s sleep last night. I didn’t spend all day arguing with strangers online about the political situation we are in. I was anxious, but calm and balanced through my anxiety.

Remember to breathe!

Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths

Back in 2016, I wrote about my reaction to the Brexit referendum, and how delighted I had been that despite great distress at the result, I hadn’t even thought about reaching for my old ‘stress relievers’, alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana. This has continued to be the case despite feeling at times highly anxious about the future given the global political climate, Trump, the rise of the far right, climate change and so much more. I haven’t stopped worrying about these things, far from it. I just have new ways to deal with it now.

As in 2016, one of my most powerful tools for maintaining calm in a world seemingly gone mad is my breath. When I feel anxiety rising, I take some deep breaths, and centre myself back in my body, back in my present moment. I remember that there is little I can do about decisions made in Westminster or Washington, but I can bring myself to calm and peace so that I can do what I can. I can achieve nothing of any use in a stressed and anxious state.  

How can learning to breathe keep you calm?

When you get stressed out and anxious, your nervous system creates a lot of changes in your body. One of these is your breath. Changes to the breath is one of the most noticeable signs of stress and anxiety. Your breathing becomes shallow, fast and irregular, and you might even struggle to take a breath.

This sort of breathing is just what you need if you need to be able to escape from a life or death situation, but it isn’t that helpful when you need to get on with resolving a less dramatic problem. The stress response reduces your ability to think clearly, so you need to get out of it as soon as possible. Fortunately, there are many powerful breathing techniques for stress reduction, and I love to teach them!

Take a breath

Deep breathing has long been known to calm the stressed mind. When someone is stressed and emotional, the first advice they are usually given is ‘take a deep breath and count to 10’. The importance of proper breathing has long been known by Yoga practitioners, who discovered thousands of years ago that when you slow and deepen the breath, the mind and body both relax and become calm. The importance of breathing in yoga cannot be understated – without a focus on the breath, you are just doing exercise, but you don’t have to practice yoga to benefit from the deep breathing exercises it teaches.

Modern science is investigating the importance of deep breathing, and there are numerous research papers looking into the calming effects of Pranayama, the Yogic art of breath control. Science has even now started to understand why this happens. Researchers identified a region of neurons in the brain that seems to link breathing to the emotions and state of mind, sending panic signals to the nervous system if the breathing becomes shallow and fast. If the breathing is slow, these neurons don’t need to do this, and the mind remains calm.

When you learn to breathe properly using Yogic techniques, you first develop awareness and simply become conscious of your breath. This in itself is a huge step forward – we tend to go through life barely noticing the breath until there is a problem with it. Simply being aware of the breath means that you are likely to breath better. People often tell me that their breath changes simply when I am talking about the importance of good breathing, before I have even begun to teach them anything. You may have noticed that your breath has slowed down as you read this!

A simple breath to create calm

There are many types of relaxation breathing techniques that you can learn, but as with everything, it is best to start with the basics.

Sukha Pranayama is ‘The Easy Breath’. It is a simple, slow, rhythmic breath that will help you to calm the mind and relax the body.

Sit in a cross-legged position, on your knees or on a hard backed chair. You will want to be in a position that enables you to have your back straight.

Clasp your hands together, and lightly drop them into your lap.

Hold your head up with your chin level, relax your shoulders, and close your eyes. If you aren’t comfortable with closing your eyes, simply relax your gaze so that you aren’t really looking at anything.

Begin by simply noticing your breath. Notice the quality of the breath, notice the speed, pattern and depth of the breath. Feel the air moving in and out of your body, feel the way it changes the shape of your lungs, as they fill and empty.

Try to keep your mind steady on the breath, but don’t worry when it wanders. It will do this. Just notice when it does, let go of the thoughts that are distracting you, and come back to the breath.

After a minute or two, start to slow and deepen the breath. Count the length of the breath in your mind in a slow, one second breath…..one…..two…..three….four….five…..six. Aim to extend the breaths to six seconds in and out, but if that is not possible for you at the moment, please don’t try to force it, simply see where you are at, and make each breath even. If you can breathe in for four seconds, breathe out for four as well. Keep in mind that you are aiming to one day extend to six seconds, but don’t force it.

Practising Sukha Pranayama every day, and anytime when your mind feels overwhelmed and anxious, and you will notice that you become far more calm in all situations. You can even do the breathing when you are in traffic, or in the supermarket (without the closed eyes of course). Simply drawing your attention to your breath, and consciously slowing it down is a powerful way to relieve tension and stress.

Try it now and see how you feel.

Want to learn more?

In this free webinar I shared 5 different types of breathing techniques you can use to relieve stress. Sukha Pranayama is one of them, and I build on this to share others, including some simple breathing exercises to improve lung capacity. You can access the webinar right now when you register, and I will also send you a link so that you can watch it in your own time.

Register now and see how your life can change when you learn to breathe

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Esther Nagle
Teacher, writer, speaker at Balance and Breathe
Esther is a former alcoholic, smoker and all round stressed out mess. She found the path to health, happiness, freedom and joy through Yoga. She is a passionate advocate for the power of Yoga, and time in Nature, in bringing balance to life, and giving you control over your health, happiness and wellbeing.

Esther is a powerful public speaker, writer and author. Her first book, Bent Back into Shape, Beating Addiction Through Yoga, has gained many 5 star reviews and has helped many people along their recovery journey.

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