Life doesn’t always follow our plans, does it? We have our intentions, our plan, and when everything seems to be under control we’re pleased. But circumstances can change. Especially when we least expect it! Even the smallest changes can upset a tried and true routine, bringing about a panicked, stressful state (this is true for me at least!). And since stress wreaks havoc on the body we’re better off when we are in control of our reactions. After all, life is full of surprises!
There are many strategies out there that help strengthen one’s ability to cope with stress, but one of a my favorites, a simple and easy one, is meditative breathing. A few minutes of conscious breathing restores harmony and balance to my mind and body almost immediately.
Meditative breathing techniques are known as pranayama, which means “control of breath.” I first discovered it when I started my yoga practice as a stressed-out 20-something working long hours in a fast-paced city. The exercises felt awkward and unnatural at first, but once I started seeing the benefits – a relaxed body, a clear mind – the practice spilled into my day to day routine, helping me cope with stress and anxiety any time of day.
Many years ago a teacher shared with me this simple pranayama exercise, which, when practiced regularly, can help strengthen our immune system, aid in detoxification, and improve digestion. It can also help regulate the autonomic nervous system (where our “fight or flight” response comes from) by naturally supporting our body’s ability to relax and de-stress.
Ready to give it a try? Here’s what you do:
Start sitting down, with your back straight and feet on the ground in a quiet space
Close your eyes and exhale through your mouth, pushing all the air out of your lungs
Next, breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of four and hold the breath for eight seconds
Release slowly, through the mouth, to the count of four
Repeat three times
On the fourth exhale, open your eyes and take in a comfortable breath through your nose. Pause for a minute and notice how you feel, scanning your body and mind. In the first few tries you might feel lightheaded, but this quickly goes away.
When is it best to practice pranayama? Try practicing first thing in the morning when you wake up (before the day begins to affect the mind), and in the evening just before bed (to relax and calm the body and mind at the end of the day). The best part of this exercise is you can take it anywhere: in traffic, at the office, or on a crowded subway. Any time you feel your body could use some centering, breathe away!
I like to put it to use when I begin to feel overwhelmed by my to do list. Or when I start to feel overstimulated by my surroundings, like when I’m in a crowded airport, or waiting in a long line at Whole Foods with a toddler who wants out of her stroller. Thanks to the simple (and discreet) steps, I can de-stress and refuel wherever I am.
While many circumstances in life may be out of our control, what is in our control is how we react to them. Pranayama not only helps the body recover from the effects of stress and anxiety internally, but you can inspire others when they see you handle unexpected changes with grace and ease!