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?

On Emotions, & A Simple Calming Breath Practice for Anxiety

I’ve been wracked with anxiety lately.  I would be impressed with my performance as a multi-tasking machine over the last several weeks if it weren’t for the fact that I no longer view “multi-tasking machine” as, like, a cool thing to be.  Between moving to a new house, starting one new job and continuing to work for myself (I’m def the most intense boss I’ve ever had), I have been buzzing with this unrelenting frazzled energy, mentally preoccupied with a to-do list as long as the line to get into tenjune circa 2010 looming over my head.  (Dorky NYC inside joke ;-)

My anxiety level is such that I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night on the verge of a panic attack.  (Although sometimes this can be attributed to a literal feeling of suffocation as Roscoe my pup repositions himself on my head.)  To calm myself and balance this energy, I’ve incorporated breath work (pranayama) into my daily regimen.  I’d like to share one particularly simple and quick practice with you that I learned through my study of the intersection of yoga and movement with mental health.  However, you don’t have to be a yogi to do this practice.  All you need is you.

First, a little bit about why this is a thing:

We are born into these bodies that have emotions already pre-built into them.  Kinda like how Facebook already had those Stickers built into the Messaging area and we only had to start receiving messages to activate our Sticker-using.   (Weirdest analogy ever.)  Emotions are built into the infrastructure of our bodies.

We feel happiness and attraction, hatred and disgust, and states of anxiety and depression because they are survival tools that have helped all humankind determine if what we meet in the outside world is a potential threat, a potential mate, or not worth our time.

We receive information about the outside world and our safety in it through our nervous systems (the brain, spinal cord, nerves, nerve pathways), which communicates if we’re in danger or safe.  If our nervous system deems that we're at risk (like the time you saw a bear while on a hike or a creepy person on the subway), it activates a stress response that enables us to react and get out of harm’s way.  (Our blood pressure increases, heart rate beats faster, and digestion slows down, so that we’re geared up to run or fight.)

This gets problematic, however, because our own thoughts, such as worries about the future, relationships, self-image, etc. also act as stressors, putting the sympathetic nervous system into fight-or-flight mode in response to the inner environment of fantasies, emotions, and thoughts. This explains why when you’re thinking about your current financial situation (if it’s a stressful one), you find your breathing becoming shallow, increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure, speeding up the mind, and you suddenly feel physically amped up and agitated.

Harnessing this knowledge, however, can help us self-regulate and bring ourselves into a state of balance.  On the other end of this continuum, slower breathing and long extension of the exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest system.  

Stimulating the relaxation response via the PNS counteracts that hyperaroused state of the sympathetic nervous system that drives feelings of anxiety and hypervigilance by lowering heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, and stress hormones.  In short, activating the PNS helps you to chill the hell out physiologically, which bleeds over into the mental and emotional realm.  By channeling the proven interplay between the body and mind, we can use the body (via the breath) to bring the mind and emotions into a state of calm, grounded balance.

One last note that I’d like to make clear is that emotions and emotional states, like anxiety, are not inherently bad.  While they may feel yucky and be inconvenient, they also create a life full of passion, excitement and beauty.  And, what’s more, while they may feel so solid, as if they define who we are, (“I’ve always been anxious and I always will be”) practices such as these help us learn how to relate with them so that they don’t rule us and our lives,  so we can bounce back from experiencing emotion without being overrun by them.  We feel and experience that we are much more than whatever emotion we are visited by today.

THE PRACTICE:  Extended Exhalation Breath

How to use this: This practice is super useful because it’s one that I can do on the spot, if I’m in the thick of an anxious spell, like waking up in the middle of the night feeling panicky, or obsessing over thoughts about how overwhelming the next few days’ busy-ness seems.  

That said, it’s important to practice it when you’re not in the midst of an anxious bout so that it’s embodied and there for you when you need it.  Practice, practice, practice.  By doing so, you’re forging new neural networks in brain, changing emotional patterns we’ve been learning to repeat over the course of our lives.

The quick and dirty:  inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6.

More deets on how to breathe for my perfectionists:  Start by simply inhaling through the nose, letting the belly expand as you fill the lungs, the ribcage, and then the upper chest.

Exhale, allowing the chest, then the ribcage, then the belly to empty, pulling the navel up and in.  

On the next inhale, notice the breathe as it travels through the nostrils and into the belly, then ribcage, then chest for a slow count of 4.

On the exhale, slowly release the breath for a count of 6.  This may feel a bit weird at first; know that’s normal.  We don’t normally breathe this way.  Continue breathing this way for 5 minutes.

Continued Practice: Eventually (over the course of multiple practices), aim to gradually lengthen the exhalation to twice the length of the inhalation. (If you inhale for a count of 4, gradually lengthen the exhale to a count of 8.)

I draw on my work as a Certified LifeForce Yoga Practitioner and the groundbreaking work of Amy Weintraub (Yoga for Depression) as well as the research of Bo Forbes (Yoga for Emotional Balance).