Cultivating Resilience: The Breath Effect
You probably know at least one person who you’d describe as resilient. Resilient people seem to weather life’s ups and downs with grace, good humor and ease. Why is that? What secret power do they have that you don’t? Turns out there is no secret to being more resilient and, it is easier than you might think.
Resilence and the Breath
Resilience is the capacity to rapidly and effectively respond to stressors as they arise and return to a state of balance. The source of our stressors can be internal or external, physical and psychological. We all experience stress, but the key to being resilient lies in your breath.
When nervous, threatened, afraid, or anxious, we tend to take short shallow breaths. Shallow breathing makes use of the “back up” breathing muscles of the neck and chest to inhale, resulting in over-breathing or hyperventilation.
You hyperventilate when you to take in excessive amounts of oxygen and breath out too much carbon dioxide. The result is your heart beat faster, you feel short of breath, and more anxious. Rapid breathing send a signal to your body to be on red alert, known as the “fight-or-flight response.” While your body can sustain this kind of response for short periods of time, it is not designed to be on alert all the time. In fact, chronic stress can lead to a host of health issues.
When the breath wanders, the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.
~from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika
That’s where slow, mindful breathing can help. Breathing more slowly activates the recovery part of your nervous system, referred to as your “rest-and-digest response.” Slow breathing not only lengthens the duration of your exhalations, but also reduces the number of breaths you take in a minute. In fact, studies of slow breathing show that breathing at a rate of about five breaths per minute reduces stress, increases alertness and boosts your immune system. Fortunately, your breath is something you can easily learn to regulate and control.
Automatic vs. Behavioral Breath Control
Fortunately, most of the time our breath occurs as if on auto pilot. We engage in daily activities, such as sleeping and working, without much thought to breathing. This is because our breathing is controlled by the brain stem and the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
But the breath can also be brought under conscious control, referred to as “behavioral control.” We do this routinely when talking, singing, whistling, eating or playing a musical instrument. This mechanism is useful for managing emotions.
For example, if you feel stressed, you can consciously slow down your breath which has a calming effect on your nervous system. Emotions such as contentment, peacefulness and joy are typically associated with slower, smoother breathing and parasympathetic nervous system activation.
By contrast, challenging emotions, such as anger, anxiety or frustration, tend to be associated with shorter, more erratic breathing patterns as discuss above. The same is true when you are feeling sluggish. By taking a few full, deep breaths, you can energize yourself. Pretty cool, right?
The breath is our primary way of interacting with the universe. At birth, we inhale and draw the world into our lungs and when we die, we exhale our energy back into the universe. The ancient yogis said that we were allotted a certain number of breaths. They believed that when we used them up, we used up all of our life energy and would die. Pranayama is a way of harnessing that life force energy.
The word pranayama consists of two components: prana which means “energy” and ayama which means “to stretch, extend, expand, regulate, restrain or control.” Pranayama practices are a way to learn to control and regulate your breath. A word of caution, however: pranayama practices are powerful and should be done carefully so as to not upset your nervous system. Below are some important guidelines to follow.
Four Guidelines for Practicing Pranayama
According to Kristine Kaoverii Weber, founder of Subtle Yoga, the first rule of pranayama is never force your breath. Allow the breath to be smooth, subtle, easeful and natural. If you feel short of breath, agitated, lightheaded or anxious, stop immediately and just breathe naturally.
Next, never hold your breath. Pausing your breath, as with retention practices, is not the same as holding it in or out. Even when the breath is paused and no air is moving, it should remain smooth and natural, as if you were still breathing in gently at the end of your inhale or out at the end of your exhale. This is particularly important for pregnant women, those with high blood pressure or other heart conditions, or those with breathing problems such as asthma or emphysema. If you are unsure, check with your physician before engaging in breath retention practices.
Third, when practicing breath retention, the pause after the inhalation should not exceed the length of the exhale. This means if you are inhaling for a count of four, your retention should be four or less. Because breath retention can be challenging (especially when first practicing it), I recommend no more than a two count retention.
The fourth and final guideline is to keep your inhale shorter than your exhale. This is particularly important for people who have experienced cardiac arrhythmia or have chronic high blood pressure. Remember– longer exhales tend to be calming which is often the effect we are seeking.
Pranayama Practices for Resilience
Here are two breath practices to help you build resilience. The first one, Chandra Bedhana or “moon breathing,” can be used when you need calming or centering. The second practice, called Breath of Joy, is more uplifting and energizing for those times when your energy is low. Give them a try and let me know what you think.
publishes 11/30/20; updated 11/13/23