This Breathing Exercise Will Reduce Your Stress and Boost Your Well-Being
“Take a deep breath”: it’s a phrase you may well have said to yourself when you’re feeling anxious (just before a blood test, for example) or frustrated (if you’ve just been cut off in traffic, maybe), when you’re trying to relax (such as during meditation), or if you’re cross with someone (take a deep breath before saying something that you might regret). In yoga, breathing is seen as a reflection of our mental and physical well-being. This is where pranayama comes in. If you practice yoga regularly, you may already be familiar with this term. Translated from Sanskrit, prana means “breath” or “vital life force”, and yama means “length” or “expansion.” Pranayama can mean breath or energy control. Through targeted breathing exercises, we endeavor to control our breath and vital life force, which determines how drained or energetic we might feel, and can directly influence our well-being.
I first experienced the full effects of pranayama when I gave my very first yoga class and demonstrated alternate-nostril breathing. I was teaching a group of about 15 attendees at our office. I was really full of trepidation about how it would go. Originally, I had planned some alternate-nostril breathing for the beginning of the lesson, so that the students wouldn’t be thinking about their work, but instead fully focused on their yoga. In retrospect, I think I needed those breathing exercises just as much as anyone else. After a few breaths, my heartbeat settled, I was less agitated, and I felt ready to get going with the yoga flow.
Why Should You Practice Alternate-Nostril Breathing?
Alternate-nostril breathing is said to have a calming and balancing effect in yoga, and I can attest to that from my own experience. Put simply, you breathe in through one nostril and out through the other, balancing left and right. According to yoga theory, this cleanses your energy channels. Scientists have also investigated alternate-nostril breathing and identified the following effects:
#1 Reducing Stress
A 2018 study found that male subjects who practiced alternate-nostril breathing for 30 minutes daily reported reduced feelings of stress after 3 months. By comparison, the control group, which did not practice alternate-nostril breathing, did not notice any improvement. 30 minutes is a long time for most people, and in this case, the subjects were also supervised by a yoga teacher. But you don’t have to practice alternate-nostril breathing for half an hour to benefit from it – 5 minutes can be enough at first.
#2 Improving Cardio-Respiratory Endurance
Cardio-respiratory endurance is the ability to sustain physical activity for an extended period of time, such as going for a jog or cleaning your home from top to bottom. Swimmers have high levels of cardio-respiratory endurance: they can hold their breath for a long time and take quick but deep breaths in between. A minor study published in 2017 examined pranayama’s effect on lung function in professional swimmers*. In the study, the swimmers practiced alternate-nostril breathing and two other breathing exercises for 30 minutes, five days a week for one month. The researchers found this had a positive effect on the athletes’ respiratory endurance. Better respiratory endurance could lead to improved performance. More extensive studies are needed to examine these findings in greater detail.
#3 Increasing Well-Being
A study from the Journal of the Indian Medical Association examined how pranayama and yoga practice affect well-being and anxiety levels in medical students. The students were divided into two groups. The first group practiced pranayama for six weeks, while the second group did sun salutations. The results showed that performing slow breathing exercises (pranayama) for six weeks improved anxiety levels and general well-being and increased the group’s parasympathetic responses. The sun salutation group, on the other hand, experienced no effect on these parameters, but only an improvement in general well-being.
How Alternate-Nostril Breathing Works
As a beginner, it’s fine to use a 4-4-4 rhythm (inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds). Later you can increase to 4-4-8. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit in a comfortable, upright position.
- Put your right hand in the Vishnu Mudra position by bending your index and middle fingers and keeping your remaining fingers extended. This then forms a kind of pincer grip for your nose: use your thumb to close your right nostril and your little finger and ring finger to close your left nostril.
- Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril for 4 seconds.
- Close both nostrils and hold your breath for 4 seconds.
- Open your right nostril and exhale for 4 seconds.
- Inhale through your right nostril for 4 seconds.
- Close both nostrils and hold your breath for 4 seconds.
- Open your left nostril and exhale for 4 seconds.
- That’s a complete round.
- Breathe in again through your left nostril and continue along the same lines.
- When you’re just starting off, do alternate-nostril breathing for 5 rounds.
- Always end the practice by exhaling through your left nostril.
Tip: You can do alternate-nostril breathing as part of your yoga practice or as a separate exercise. If you have a blocked nose, you can also do the exercise mentally. Alternate-nostril breathing is harmless for most people. If you suffer from asthma, lung or heart disease, consult a healthcare professional beforehand.
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