stress relief

3 Things You Can Do to Breathe Better Now

When it's hot and humid outside like it is now, a lot of people tell me they can't breathe.

Especially if you have asthma or COPD, the air feels too heavy to pull in and your breath is short and unsatisfying.

You try to breathe in, but the inhale feels tight, like there isn't enough space.

But what you may not feel is that the exhale is probably also short.

When you don't get enough air out of your lungs on the exhale, then you don't create the natural vacuum your body relies on to pull air in for your inhale.

Now, forcing all the air out in a big whoosh is not going to solve the problem. Do that a few times, and you'll either hurt yourself, or you'll make your breath even shorter.

Here are three easy things you can do to breathe more easily today:

I've put them in a five-minute yoga practice recording for your convenience.

Try to do the practice once a day for a few days in a row, and your breath will be so much easier and full.


Restore: Deep Breath, Deep Peace

The following is a restorative yoga sequence designed during the Yapana Being: Restorative Yoga Training with Leeann Carey. It includes progressively quieter backward-bending poses to relax the body while expanding the front of the body and chest for access to a deeper breath.

All postures can be found in Leeann's book, The Yapana Way.

Props Used

1 Chair

1 Bolster

2-3 Blankets

2 Blocks

1 Strap (optional)

1 10-pound Sandbag (optional)

The Sequence

  1. Virasana - Hero Pose
  2. Matsyendrasana - Fish Pose
  3. Jathara Parivarttanasana - Revolved Stomach Squeeze
  4. Supta Baddha Konasana - Reclined Bound Angle Pose
  5. Setu Bandhasana - SupportedBridge Pose
  6. Legs up the Chair
  7. Savasana (brief)
  8. Meditation
  9. Savasana
Hero Pose

Hero Pose

Fish pose.

Fish pose.

Legs up the chair.

Legs up the chair.

How Stress Hurts Your Health

Studies estimate that 75-90% of visits to primary care physicians are for disorders caused by or linked to stress.  While the workplace is the most common source of stress for American adults (up to 40% say their job is very or extremely stressful), causes of chronic stress abound for adults, adolescents and children, and can include major life changes, financial problems, demands of family or children, and issues like violence and threats to personal safety, environmental pressures leading to substance abuse or other unhealthy lifestyle habits, and social isolation or loneliness.

You’ve likely experienced the effects of stress on your health first-hand–perhaps you’ve gotten a cold easier when working against a difficult deadline at work, or craved sugary, carbohydrate-rich foods at the end of a stressful day.  These subtle signs of an unhealthful stress response may not have been enough to have prompted you to change in the habits, decisions and relationships which contribute to your stress.  You should know that the harmful effects of chronic stress are real, and they have been shown to lead to diseases such as obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, depression, substance abuse, and cardiovascular disease.

How stress works

Chronic stress disrupts the homeostatic relationship between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands, often referred to as the HPA Axis, and excites the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). A stressful experience triggers the release of cortisol by the HPA axis and epinephrine/nor-epinephrine (aka, adrenaline/noradrenaline) by the SNS, which initiates a cascade response within the body.

The function of this stress response is to prepare the body for “fight or flight” by mobilizing stored energy, directing blood flow to major muscle groups in the arms and legs and sensitizing tissues to hormones and neurotransmitters, enabling us to respond quickly and effectively when faced with a threatening situation.

The physiological effects of stress.
 

Cortisol helps to produce an excitatory state by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose levels, and increasing the sensitivity of body tissues to hormones and neurotransmitters, ensuring that the muscles have plenty of oxygen and energy and respond immediately.

 

Epinephrine and norepinephrine increase heart rate and also increase blood viscosity to promote clotting in case of injury.

 

The side-effects of chronic stress

Over time, increased blood pressure, heart rate and clotting can fatigue the heart, potentially leading to heart disease.

Chronically increased blood glucose levels can lead to tissue damage throughout the body and precipitates diabetes.

Decreased insulin levels can lead to increased hunger, fat storage and  weight gain.

In small amounts cortisol increases anti-inflammatory activity to speed recovery, but when elevated, it weakens the immune system and decreases anti-inflammatory activity to prevent the body from overreacting to foreign bodies or disease when resources need to be reserved for reacting to the stressor.

In order to suppress the immune system, cortisol activates the increased production of tryptophan pyrrolase, the enzyme which initiates the irreversible breakdown of tryptophan.  Tryptophan is required by the body for the manufacture of both serotonin and melatonin—when stores are depleted, both serotonin and melatonin levels plummet.  Reduced levels of these neurotransmitters have been linked to many symptoms of depression.

Chronic overstimulation of the HPA axis and the disruption of hormones and neurotransmitters within the body can lead to dysfunction in any or all of the systems involved.  For instance, the adrenal glands may be fatigued by continuous stimulation during periods of physical or emotional stress, and in that state are no longer capable of a healthy response.  This can lead to exhaustion, poor immune response and depression.

The stress response system exists so that we can respond to immediate stressors, such as predators and other life-threatening situations; once the stressor is removed, HPA axis and SNS activity is reduced and the body returns to homeostasis. However, situations of chronic stress lead to continuous activity of the HPA axis and SNS, which causes systemic imbalance, and ultimately can promote physiological disorders such as diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and autoimmune disease and psychological disorders including depression, anxiety, alcoholism and eating disorders.

Find out why many health professionals are recommending yoga to reduce stress and to help alleviate its harmful effects in How Yoga Relieves Stress.

Resources:

McCall, Timothy (2007). Yoga as Medicine: the yogic prescription for health and healing. New York: Bantam Books.

Moffett, John R., and MA Aryan Naboodiri (2003). “Tryptophan and the immune response.” Immunology and Cell Biology, 81, 247-265.

Ross, A., & Thomas, S (2010). “The health benefits of yoga and exercise: A review of comparison studies.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16, 3-12.

Walton, Kenneth G., and Debra Levitsky (1995). “A Neuroendocrine Mechanism for the Reduction of Drug Use and Addictions by Transcendental Meditation.” In Self-Recovery: Treating Addictions Using Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Ayurveda, Vol. I, by David F. O’Connell and Charles N. Alexander, 89-117. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, Inc.

How Yoga Relieves Stress

Transient

Increasingly, research shows that practicing yoga quiets the stress response system by regulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).  (Read more on how stress works.)

Studies reveal that yoga practice:

  • decreases levels of salivary cortisol, blood glucose levels, plasma rennin levels and 24-hour urine epinephrine and norepinephrine levels
  • regulates the heart rate and significantly decreases systolic and diastolic blood pressure
  • increases immune system function and decreases markers of inflammation

In addition to these physiological effects, yoga has also been shown to decrease anxiety, relieve symptoms of depression, and increase feelings of emotional, social and spiritual well-being.

So science has confirmed what yogis have known for centuries: yoga reduces stress.  But how does it work?

The eight limbs of stress-relief

The traditional system of hatha yoga, as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is composed of eight limbs of yoga.  These eight limbs are the practices which lead a yogi on his path to enlightenment.

Guidelines for living, the yamas and niyamas, direct a practitioner in his behavior and thought. The yamas include compassion, honesty, non-stealing, self-control, and non-greed.  The niyamas include cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self study, and recognition of a higher power. Living by these guidelines helps avoid the complications that dishonesty and lack of self-control bring about, as well as the negative thought patterns that lead to judgment, discontent and greed.  By adopting an attitude of compassion for ourselves and all beings, we gain balance and peace of mind.

Physical postures, or asanas, promote strength, balance, flexibility, and the optimal functioning of the human body.  Many poses directly calm the sympathetic nervous system.  Forward bending poses which squeeze the abdomen against the thighs momentarily increase perceived blood volume and pressure, and the body responds by dilating blood vessels and decreasing the heart’s pumping volume to lower blood pressure.  Slight prone backbends which put pressure on the abdomen (like bhujangasana, or cobra pose) have a similar affect.  Heart-opening poses that place pressure on the adrenals mildly stimulate them, which can be helpful if chronic overstimulation of the HPA Axis has led to their dysfunction or fatigue.  Other restorative poses, such as savasana (corpse pose) or viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) allow the skeletal muscles to relax completely, releasing physical tension.

Breath control, or pranayama, can stimulate or calm the nervous system in addition to focusing the mind.  While poor or abnormal breathing patterns can chronically overstimulate the autonomic nervous system (leading to anxiety or fatigue), deep and even breaths engage the diaphragm and induce a calming effect.  In particular, inhaling and exhaling at a 1:2 ratio (in which the exhale is twice as long as the inhale), increases oxygen and decreases carbon dioxide in the body—this increase of oxygen is picked up by receptors in the brain stem and the aortic and carotid sinuses and initiates the body’s relaxation response by slowing the heart rate and reducing blood pressure.

Non-attachment, referred to as pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses, is the practice of detaching one’s mind from external objects and occurrences.  While practicing non-attachment, we may be aware of the object, but we control the mind’s focus to keep it from engaging with the object.  This prevents us from becoming personally affected by what arises outside and allows us to maintain inner peace.

Meditation comprises the final three limbs: dharana, immovable concentration of the mind; dhyana, meditation on the profound or divine; and finally samadhi, union with the divine, to the degree that the concept of self dissolves as the practitioner becomes one with the universe.  Meditation and deep relaxation practices quiet the mind and body and enhance the practitioner’s awareness of his entire being (corporeal as well as psychological and spiritual).

In a typical group yoga class, students practice postures and breathing, and often meditation.  These three exercises alone can activate the body’s relaxation response and quiet the mind.  The other limbs, especially the guidelines for living (yamas and niyamas) and the practice of non-attachment cultivate a peaceful presence that you can carry into all areas of your life, on and off the yoga mat.  This state of peace is a foundation from which you can respond to situations in a healthful, objective and effective manner, instead of allowing them or their consequences to overwhelm.

 

Resources:

“Blood Pressure Reduction.”  Alternative Medicine and Rehabilitation: A Guide for Practitioners.  Wainapel SF, Fast A, editors.  New York: Demos Medical Publishing; 2003.

McCall, Timothy (2007). Yoga as Medicine: the yogic prescription for health and healing. New York: Bantam Books.

Ross, A., & Thomas, S (2010). “The health benefits of yoga and exercise: A review of comparison studies.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16, 3-12.