We live in a world full of chaos and commitments. Overtime, busy schedules, long work hours, family obligations, financial and health concerns, traumatic events, and varying life circumstances can lead to burnout and stress. It is no surprise that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Chronic stress and anxiety, if not managed, can send our bodies into a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, causing the sympathetic nervous system to release high levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and nor-adrenaline. In this state of hyper arousal, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, heart rate is elevated and muscle tension increases. This elevated response is useful in times of extreme danger, but not in our everyday lives. In addition, chronic stress and anxiety can negatively impact relationships, cause sleep disturbances, health issues, and lack of focus, among many other symptoms.
Bring Balance to Mind, Body, and Spirit
A great way to help manage and alleviate chronic stress and anxiety is to adopt a consistent yoga practice. Originating in ancient India, yoga aims to bring balance to the mind, body, and spirit through physical postures (asana), breath techniques (pranayama), meditation, and deep relaxation. In addition to promoting physical strength, balance, and flexibility, yoga can also positively impact mental and spiritual well-being. While yoga poses (asanas) can help to move stagnant energy, alleviate muscle tension, and release physical stress, pranayama (breath techniques), mindfulness practices, and meditation can also help. The Sanskrit word pranyama, meaning “increasing or restraining the flow of air or aliveness,” is often incorporated into the physical practice of yoga but can also be used before meditation or as a standalone exercise to cultivate a greater flow of “prana,” otherwise known as life
Breathe Your Way to a More Relaxed State of Being
While there are many different breathing techniques in yoga, belly breathing—also referred to as abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing—is the foundation of any yoga practice. Diaphragmatic breathing involves breathing deeply into the belly rather than shallowly into the chest. The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle located at the base of the lungs that helps control breathing. When inhaling, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward, creating more space in the chest cavity, causing the lungs and belly to expand. When exhaling, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, causing the belly to draw in toward the lower spine as the air is released.
Breathing consciously in a way that is slow and controlled can help reduce high levels of fight or flight stress hormones, lower heart rate, and bring the body back into homeostasis. Diaphragmatic breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response, expand lung capacity, oxygenate the body, improve digestion, lower blood pressure, and inspire a sense of peace and calm. Observing the flow of air moving into and out of the nostrils as well the rise and fall of the belly on each breath in and out increases mindfulness by shifting the focus and attention of the practitioner more fully into the present moment. Diaphragmatic breathing can be done sitting or lying down. Beginners may want to start laying down on a flat surface (knees can be bent).
- Sit comfortably, with your spine nice and tall, shoulders, head and neck relaxed; alternately, if you are a beginner, you may choose to lie down on a flat surface.
- Place one hand on your belly below the rib cage and one on your chest to create a greater awareness of the movement of breath.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible, while the abdomen expands or rises toward the hand on your belly.
- Exhale slowly through your nose or pursed lips and feel the abdomen move in toward the lower spine as you empty all the air out. The hand on your upper chest must remain as still as possible.
- Repeat for a few rounds and eventually work your way up to 10 minutes or longer as a daily practice.
Living more fully in the present moment as a meditation or mindfulness practice, rather than focusing on the past, helps us to be less emotionally reactive and overwhelmed by what’s happening around us, increasing calm and reducing stress and anxiety.
Lisa Brown, founder of Free Flowing Health, is a whole-foods, plant-based chef, certified Institute for Integrative Nutrition health coach, and yoga teacher servicing the SWFL area. In addition to having acquired a culinary education at the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC, Lisa received her certifications to teach yoga from the Kripalu Center for Health & Yoga in Massachusetts and Kundalini Yoga East in NYC. She holds a master’s degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College. After overcoming many adversities on her own personal journey of self-discovery and transformation, Lisa’s quest for knowledge, passion for healthy living, and deep desire to be of service to others became insatiable. Today, Lisa combines her work as a chef, coach, and educator to help people around the world achieve greater levels of health, happiness, and harmony.