Calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath.
– Sutra 1.34, Book 1, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
I used to struggle with chronic panic attacks.
They’d come on suddenly and out of nowhere and would leave me gasping for air.
It was this feeling of not being able to breathe that led me to study my own breathing.
I was so freaked out by the experience of not being able to catch my breath that I knew I needed to learn how to regain control of it.
So I started observing my breathing at different points throughout the day.
If I was feeling anxious, I’d notice my breath and find that it was short and shallow.
If I was feeling afraid, I’d notice my breath and find that it was short and shallow.
If I was feeling angry, I’d stop and notice my breath and find that it was short and shallow.
I noticed that my breath was deep, even, and long after practicing yoga or during deep meditation.
I soon realized that my breath could be my ally or my foe, depending on who was in control at that moment – me or it.
When our emotions are heightened, such as when we’re stressed, overwhelmed, or fearful, it can feel like our breathing gets hijacked and we lose control.
This is because breath and emotions are intimately tied together; they impact one another and form what I like to call the Breath-Emotion Loop:
Breathing rhythms send messages to your body that affect your mood, your stress levels, and even your immunity.
The way you breathe can literally change your emotional and mental state.
If you breathe fast and shallow, your brain’s arousal center becomes hyperactivated. This can lead to increased alertness, wakefulness, excitement, or anxiousness.
If you breathe slow, deep, and long, you’ll become calmer because the arousal part of your brain isn’t being activated. (1)
Conversely, our breath automatically responds to our emotional shifts.
Emotions cause changes in the body, and breathing is one of the bodily processes most impacted by emotions. (2)
Yogic researcher Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani explains it like this:
“Emotions and breath are known to have a deep relationship.
Animals such as the rat and rabbit have fast breathing and so are extremely nervous, mentally unstable, emotionally restless, and live only for short period of time.
In contrast, the elephant and turtle are slow, deep breathers and consequently have calmer personality and longer lives.”
So how can we make our breath our ally in moments of stress and emotional chaos?
By simply observing and becoming aware of our current breathing pattern, we can break the cycle and take back control.
Once we realize that our breathing has been hijacked (i.e.: we’re breathing short, shallow, and erratic) we can choose to consciously switch gears.
USING OCEAN BREATHING TO TAKE CONTROL:
“When the breath wanders the mind is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still.”
-Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Embarking on the yogic path really helped me rise above my anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and PTSD.
A cornerstone of this path is the practice of yogic breathing or pranayama.
I have utilized many effective yogic breathing techniques throughout the years but my go-to from very early on is a technique called Ujjayi breathing.
Ujjayi is also called ‘Ocean Breathing‘ because when you practice it your breath mimics the sound of ocean waves.
This is because we gently constrict the back of the throat when we inhale and exhale.
(Think of Darth Vader in Star Wars.)
When you couple Ocean Breathing with deep belly breathing (abdominal breathing), you increase your rest/ digest/ relaxation/ regeneration response because you stimulate your Vagus nerve, a key nerve that passes from the base of your brain, down your face and throat, down to your gut. (3)
Sustaining focus on the sound of your breath while practicing Ocean Breathing will make it easier to concentrate and silence the mind’s chatter.
Multiple studies suggest Ujjayi can be effective in working with anxiety, insomnia, and PTSD.
The wave-like sounds of this breathing technique can provide you with some much-needed soothing in the middle of heightened moments or emotional chaos.
Just a few minutes of Ocean Breathing breathing can offer you a welcomed sense of control as well as a wave of calm groundedness.
Here are some proven health benefits of a consistent and regular pranayama (yogic breathing) practice: (6)
- Increase resilience in coping with stress, anxiety, anger, and depression effectively
- Regulate emotions
- Balance the nervous system
- Decrease stress response
- Increase rest/ digest/ relaxation/ regeneration response
- Regulate blood sugar levels
- Lower cholesterol
- Improve sleep cycle and quality
- Improve digestion
- Boost immunity
- Improve respiratory function
So let’s try it, shall we?
Do this with me, step by step:
1 – Sit comfortably and with the back upright.
2 – Take a deep breath in through your nose for 5 counts by expanding your lower belly as your lungs fill with air. (Keep your chest and upper body still.)
3 – Hold the air in for a count of 3.
4 – Slowly exhale all the air out through your nose for 7 counts (your lower belly will now contract inwardly towards your spine as you lungs empty of air… Again, do your best to keep your chest and upper body still.)
5 – Breathe normally.
6 – Relax your shoulders, neck, jaw, mouth, eyes.
7 – Place the tip of your tongue at the roof of your mouth and keep it there for the remainder of this pranayama. (*There are nerve endings in the roof of your mouth that can activate the calming side of your nervous system.)
8 – Close your eyes.
9 – Inhale through your nose for a count of 5 and tighten the back of your throat to produce the sound of an ocean wave (remember to engage your lower belly and keep your upper body still.)
10 – Exhale through your nose for a count of 7 while tightening the back of your throat to produce the sound of an ocean wave (remember to engage your lower belly and keep your upper body still.)
11 – Keep inhaling and exhaling just like this and bring your awareness to the sound of the waves emanating from within you. Keep your awareness on the ocean sound and feel the waves of vital energy ebbing and flowing inside you.
12 – If a thought comes, let it come… feel it fade as you return your awareness to your inner waves.
13 – Keep this breathing pace of inhaling for 5 and exhaling for 7 for at least 10 rounds (2 minutes.)
The more the better when it comes to increasing inner calm.
Consistency is the key to really reaping the full range of mental, emotional, and physical benefits of this ancient practice.
Use this technique whenever you feel any uncomfortable or confronting emotion.
Creating the habit of using this tool in the moment can really save you lots of vital energy and inner resources instead of spinning your wheels.
Your breath is something you have with you at all times, no matter what.
It also happens to be a tried and tested (and proven) tool to help you deactivate your inner stress alarm while also activating your innate soothing and healing systems.
Take advantage, it’s 100% natural and free.
On average we take anywhere from +/- 17,000 – 23,000 breaths each day.
What if you dedicated just 20 of those breaths to a daily Ocean Breathing practice?
What might happen if you learn to surf your inner waves?