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?