Stealing from the Yogis: How Anyone Can Use the Breath for Mood & Energy

I want to let you in one of yoga’s key sources of leverages over human mood and emotion.  My goal is for you to take this strategy taken from the science of yoga and run with it (perhaps literally), tailoring it to your unique body, mood, lifestyle and preferences.  And guess what, it doesn’t have to involve what you think of as yoga.

Here it is:  the body’s relationships with carbon dioxide, which is manipulated by breath or respiration rate, has huge implications for mood and energy level.  It boils down to this:  Fast breathing excites the nervous system, while slow breathing calms the nervous system.  Brilliant!  

Here’s what happens:  when we engage in fast breathing, elevating our respiration rate and literally hyperventilating, the blood vessels in the brain contract, reducing the flow of oxygen in the brain.  You may have experienced this as physical sensations of dizziness, light-headedness, and mental/emotional experiences of giddiness, exhilaration.  It’s all due to nerve excitement.  

Conversely, slow, deliberate breathing results in the brain receiving more oxygen.  This has profound mental ramifications: expanded awareness, emotional stability, calm centeredness - what we seek and apparently lack when we're in an anxious or stressed-out state.  The lengthened exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulates the vagus nerve which basically means you calm the hell down.

OK, Elizabeth, I get it.  How do I practically utilize this information to impact my energy level or mood?

If you’re feeling anxious or super stressed, you want to calm the nervous system.  How:

Start with an activity that MATCHES your already high respiration rate, by jumping rope, going to a bootcamp class, running, 48304830 Sun Sals, whatever.  BUT THIS IS THE KEY: thereafter, gradually bring that high respiration rate to its OPPOSITE, super slow, controlled, deep diaphragmatic breaths.  How?  Dedicate several minutes to stretching and deep breathing, transition from a high-tempo run into a gentle yoga class, you get the drift.  

On the other side of the coin, if you’re feeling lethargic, depressed, fatigued, or simply tired, you want to elevate your mood and your energy level by activating your sympathetic nervous system.  How:

Start where you are, with something that’s easy and manageable.  Don’t go from 0 to 60.  You’d punch me in the face if I told you to get up and sprint around the block.  (Please don’t punch me in the face.)   It doesn’t match your current energetic level.  It’s not helpful, compassionate, or sustainable to drastically force yourself into a mood and energy that you simply don’t find yourself in.  Instead, start slow, with easy stretching, gentle yoga, an energizing breath practice that you can do seated (like Kapalabhati or Bhastrika).  Gradually, easefully bring the heart rate up over the course of your practice:  gradually transition yourself into an exercise that will elevate your respiration rate -- jogging, cycling, Vinyasa, you name it.

Got it?  To reiterate, the key is meeting your mood and energy level and gradually, gracefully transitioning it to its opposite.  The individual components can look like ANYTHING IN THE WORLD YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR BODY!!!  It can be as unique as you.  You don’t need to be a yogi or an athlete to harness this science for the benefit of your own mind, heart, and life.

Try it out!  Let me know how it goes!  What unique combination of practices did you engage in to meet and balance your mood by capitalizing on the powerful connection between respiration rate and the nervous system?

Implementing Exercise to Alleviate Winter Depression & Fatigue

Every time winter rolls around, the same ol thing happens.  Hibernation time.  Me + a stack of books + a good old romcom + a glass of wine and I’m all set.  See ya in spring.  A notable decrease in energy, fatigue, a desire to be alone, difficulty concentrating, all are common experiences during this period of shorter daylight hours.

Well, do I have good news for YOU if you're like me and the 4820482042840284 other people that experience this.  Exercise, particularly vigorous exercise, is one of the most powerful tools for alleviating not only seasonal experiences of depression, but mild depression during any time of year.

Research has shown that exercise can prevent depression, immediately elevate mood after a single bout, and reduce depressive feelings quickly after instituting a consistent workout regimen.  

Here’s the quick & dirty on WHY:

  • Exercise has biochemical effects that have an antidepressant impact on the brain
    • Regulates neurotransmitters that antidepressant drugs target
      • norepinephrine - wakes up brain, gets it going, improves self-esteem
      • dopamine - improves mood and feelings of well-being, jump-starts your attention
      • serotonin - important for mood, impulse control, self-esteem
    • BDNF
      • Protects neurons against cortisol in areas that control mood, including the hippocampus.  When trapped in patterns of negative thinking, it improves ability to adapt and think in new ways, break out of pessimistic patterns and self-concepts
  • Psychological effects, like self-efficacy.  You exercise, and then feeling something like this: Hey, I took the initiative, I know what I need to do to make myself feel better because I KNOW that once I get there and get moving, I’ll feel great.  And this feeling of mastery is motivation to keep going.  YO I TOTALLY GOT THIS.

Here’s the quick & dirty on HOW to harness exercise’s antidepressant potential:

Vigorous exercise, 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity on most days (running, cycling, swimming, circuit training, group aerobic classes, hiking, etc.)

I know what you’re thinking.  Some days it just feels impossible.  Just. Can’t. Move.  How can you set yourself up for success?  Strategize yo!  A couple ideas:

  • Reach out to someone you trust and schedule a workout date.  In fact, studies show that the neurological benefits are greater when exercising with someone else, as serotonin is increased by social interaction.
  • Start with an energizing breath practice, like Kapalabhati, to bring some energy, lifeforce, whatever you wanna call it into your body.  It’ll raise your heart rate and breath rate and perhaps give you the extra little oomph to get up and get moving.
  • Start slow, like going for a brisk walk or simply allocating ten minutes to hit the treadmill.  Look for reasonable, achievable goals that aren’t overwhelming, and each day aim to scale from there.
  • For me the most important of all:   SHIFTING FOCUS FROM PHYSICAL GOALS TO LIFE GOALS.  It’s fine to want a six-pack and a toned booty.  I would be straight up lying if I said I never aimed to attain these.  But think about how you want to feel in your life.  How do you want to show up in the world and in your relationships?  How do you want to pursue your goals and dreams?  What kind of person do you want to be?