Meet Lisa, who just found out she is pregnant. She and her husband have been trying for a baby for a long time. Lisa is happy, joyful and her face is glowing. She goes out to dinner with her husband to celebrate their joy. She can feel the calmness and happiness in her body.
Let us look at Steve and Lisa from a different perspective. Steve had activated his sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of our nervous system which goes into overdrive when we are tense, stressed and sad. Lisa, on the other hand, has switched on her parasympathetic system which has an opposite effect - making us feel more relaxed, less stressful and happy.
Time passes, and Steve continues to be stressed, but one fine day he comes to know he has a new job - he immediately switches to a parasympathetic state, while Lisa gets into stressful mode during the later part of her pregnancy and switches to a sympathetic state. If you may have noticed, we tend to switch from one mode to another depending on the conditions and situations in life.
The situations in life are usually not in our control, but do we have the ability to shift the way we react to the situations? Can we really control the way we react? The answer is a resounding “Yes”. There could be a way to activate our parasympathetic system ( your calming, restful companion) - by regulating your breath - which is called Pranayama - the ancient yogic art of controlling and regulating your breath.
Your breath is like a window to your inner state of mind - shallow and fast breaths, like those you experience after exercise or after a bout of anger and anxiety states, indicate an activated sympathetic system, while deep slow breaths - the kind of breathing pattern you observe when you are calm, relaxed and happy - is your parasympathetic system in action.
Which state do you want to be in, if you had a choice? Isn’t the answer clear - the relaxed state. How do we go into this relaxed state?
Pranayama is a yogic practice of focusing on breath. It is a mode by which you elevate the energies in your body through your breath. When you breathe in a slow, controlled and conscious manner, by engaging in breathing practices, you can relieve minor fatigue, anxiety and depression. The fast and shallow breaths which we take when we are stressed causes a buildup of oxygen in our blood stream and a corresponding decrease in carbon dioxide in our blood, leading to a shift in blood pH. This causes a condition called respiratory alkalosis which can result in muscle twitching, irritability, confusion, increased heart rate and anxiety. Controlled slow breaths on the other hand, as in pranayama practises, raises the carbon dioxide levels in the blood and pushes the pH of the blood into an alkaline state. This also activates our vagus nerve which is the nerve which belongs to the parasympathetic system and this in turn calms us. Activation of the vagus nerve leads to the release of acetylcholine, a substance which also lowers our heart rate.
So, how do we practice pranayama?
First, allow your body to be completely still and relax. Observe your breath - letting your breath flow inside and outside naturally. Concentrate and feel the breath as it passes through your nostrils, observing the speed of breath, the side of the nostril where it is more free, the consistency, and the temperature of the air. Bring awareness to each breath - both inhalation and exhalation. Slowly and actively expand your inhalation by taking deep breath inwards and feeling the expansion of the lungs against your chest, ribs and abdomen. Do this to the count of 4. Avoid being forceful, just take in as much as you can. Once you feel full expansion, slowly practice to exhale completely and deeply, to the count of 4. Practice this technique.
As you get more comfortable with the above practice, you can alter the counts of inhalation and exhalation and add in a moment of stopping breath between inhalation and exhalation. When you practice these calming breathing techniques regularly, you can boost your concentration, focus, and immunity. Breathing can regulate the amount of noradrenaline - a chemical which is released in abundant amounts when you are stressed and very little when you are tired, but just the right amount when you practice calming pranayama.
For those interested, sign up for our live pranayama Zoom sessions every Monday and Thursday at 9 PM EST and 6 PM PST.