Caregiving is demanding—sometimes even disempowering. It’s as if everything – your time, your energy, your “old life” – is being drained from you. Many caretakers feel completely buckled under the weight of the overwhelming burden and responsibility they carry and turn to unhelpful habits like cigarette smoking, alcohol or marijuana to cope.
But another healthier, more empowering way of coping is available. You can do it any time, anywhere, even while driving. It’s legal, you can’t overdo it, and it requires only one (totally free) accessory: your breath.
The practice of pranayama is the act of manipulating the breath to change the energetic state in our body (e.g., our mood, energy levels, etc.). These exercises date back to ancient India and the origins of yoga, which is thought to be from around the 5th and 6th centuries BCE.
Breath is power
Breathing is powerful. Our inhale brings in life-giving oxygen, and our exhale releases toxic carbon dioxide. This life-giving cycle occurs on an automated basis, as with all the rest of the organ systems in our bodies. However, our respiratory system is the only automated body system we can choose to self-regulate. In other words, while most of our body systems are on permanent cruise control, we can hijack our respiratory system and put it to work, setting the things that are wrong in our bodies – like our mood or energy level – back to right.
“Our bodies operate most efficiently in a state of balance, pivoting between action and relaxation, daydreaming and reasoned thought,” explained James Nestor, journalist and author of “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.” “This balance is influenced by the nasal cycle and may even be controlled by it. It’s a balance that can also be gamed.”
That game is pranayama.
Pranayama exercises to improve mood
Mood is a common struggle with humans in general. We have work, school, budgets, children, relatives, taxes – the list goes on and on – clamoring at the chance to impact our mood. Research shows, however, that pranayama can benefit mood in multiple ways.
Pranayama to balance mood
Nadi Shodhana (alternate-nostril breath) – Nadi Shodhana is a powerful pranayama technique that brings our body back to equilibrium. Whether you’re too high, too low, too agitated or too lethargic, Nadi Shodhana will bring you back to your logical baseline. This pranayama technique works by leveraging the differences in how each side of the nostril connects to the part of the central nervous system that controls our arousal levels (i.e., mood).
Nestor likens the right nostril to a gas pedal; stimulating this nostril with a forced inhale or exhale will activate the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” mode that puts the body in a more elevated state of alertness and readiness. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, our circulation, body temperature, cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate increase. So, breathing through the right elevates our mood if we feel down or sluggish, and can also help clear away brain fog.
Breathing through the right [nostril alone] elevates our mood if we feel down or sluggish, and can also help clear away brain fog.
The left nostril is the brake pedal. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the sit-back-and-chill side that reduces blood pressure, cools the body, and reduces anxiety and agitation. It also stimulates the part of the brain’s prefrontal cortex that helps us process negative emotions.
Healthline has easy-to-follow instructions for Nadi Shodhana breathing:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed.
- Place your left hand on your left knee.
- Lift your right hand up toward your nose.
- Exhale completely, and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
- Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
- Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
- Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
- This is one cycle.
- Continue for up to five minutes.
- Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.
Sama Vritti (Balancing Breath or Counting Breath) – Sanskrit for “equal movement,” Sama Vritti is a perfect preparatory pranayama practice that uses equal-length inhales and exhales. Whether you are preparing the body for meditation, for a performance, for a conversation, or for more pranayama practices, Sama Vritti will calm the nervous system and your counting will harness the thoughts of the mind, bringing them together for a common activity: breath counting.
- To perform Sama Vritti, find a comfortable position, whether that is seated in a chair, lying on your bed, even standing and walking around the grocery store. The secret here is to be mindful of the breath.
- Once you’re comfortable and your awareness has found your breath, begin to settle in. Without making any changes to your breath, start to feel how the air naturally enters and exits the body. Where does it enter? How long does it stay? Where do you feel it the most? Do you notice any bumpy spots? Areas of tension or holding in the breath cycle? Often people find these at the transition between inhales and exhales. See if you can smooth these transitions out just a fraction more each breath.
- Now begin to count the inhale. Breathe in slowly for four steady counts. Go at any rate you please, just keep a steady cadence, like a metronome. Gently turn to exhale, breathing out for four steady counts. Continue this for several rounds.
- If this counting feels too short, slowly increase the count, working your way up to a steady count of 10 (i.e., breathe in for six, out for six, breath in eight, out eight, breath in 10, out 10). Only go to a count that you can maintain comfort and ease in the body and mind.
- Do 10 rounds of this breath at a gentle pace, continuing to relax the effort and remaining present. If you lose count, simply begin again.
- As you finish your practice, let the breath return to normal. Notice the peaceful changes in your body and the mind with rhythmic, balanced breathing.
- Now you’re ready to move on to your next activity or on with the rest of your day. Return to the practice any time you feel stress or angst.
In his book, Nestor takes Sama Vritti several steps further when he likens it to Resonant (Coherent) Breathing, a practice that places the heart, lungs and circulation into a state of coherence, allowing these systems of the body to work at peak efficiency and blood flow increases to the brain.
Resonant (Coherent) Breathing is exactly the same procedure as Sama Vritti, except you always use 5.5 to six seconds as your inhale and exhale count. Now, while it’s impossible to get 5.5 to six seconds exactly – and while apps may help you (try Paced Breathing or My Cardiac Coherence), just try your best.
“A last word on slow breathing,” Nestor writes. “It goes by another name: prayer.”
The following sacred chants, each found in a different cultural tradition across the globe, is spoken according to the 5.5-to-six-second ratio: 5.5 to six seconds to vocalize, followed by 5.5 to six seconds to inhale:
- The Buddhist chant Om Mani Padme Hum
- The traditional chant of Om (the “sacred sound of the universe”) used in Jainism
- The sa ta na ma chant used in Kundalini Yoga
- Latin version of the rosary
- Catholic prayer cycle of Ave Maria
Pranayama practice to relieve physical tension from stress
Viloma Pranayama – This breath temporarily increases tension through the inhale, then activates the parasympathetic (rest-and-chill) nervous system on the exhale. This is a great breath technique at the end of a long day:
- Inhale for two counts.
- Hold breath for two counts.
- Repeat the first two steps until you are filled with air.
- Exhale everything in one calm, smooth breath.
Pranayama exercises to combat anxiety and negative thoughts and feelings
Rumination is a negative thought pattern that becomes repetitive when people are trying to process their emotions. They become “stuck” in negative patterns of replaying past hurts without moving toward solutions or feelings of resolution.
Pranayama is a great solution for rumination, particularly Krama Pranayama (or three-part yoga breathing):
Krama Pranayama (or three-part yoga breathing) – The intense concentration required by Krama Pranayama will offer a nice reprieve from racing thoughts:
- Find a comfortable position lying face up.
- Inhale through your nose to fill up your chest for two counts.
- Inhale through your nose to fill up your upper abdomen for two counts.
- Inhale through your nose to fill up your lower abdomen for two counts.
- Exhale through your nose to empty your lower abdomen for two counts.
- Exhale through your nose to empty your upper abdomen for two counts.
- Exhale through your nose to empty your chest for two counts.
- Repeat steps two through seven.
Pranayama practice to relieve anger, agitation or feeling flustered
Ever feel hot when you’re angry, agitated or flustered? Your sympathetic nervous system is working on overload, increasing your blood pressure, which can cause flushing. Sitali and Sitkari Pranayama will help you literally “cool it” and “simmer down.”
Sitali and Sitkari Pranayama – Sitali Pranayama is often “the cooling breath” because of its calming effect on the nervous system. It also improves focus while also reducing anger and agitation. It’s a helpful tool for anxiety, too. (Note: Sitali requires the ability to curl the tongue like a straw, which is a genetic trait. If you’re unable to do it, jump to Sitkari, which offers the same benefits.)
How to practice Sitali:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your spine naturally tall, shoulders relaxed. Your head and neck should be in alignment with your spine and your chin gently tucked.
- Begin practice with conscious breathing for a few minutes.
- Form an “O” shape with your lips, curl your tongue lengthwise into the shape of a straw, and project it out of your mouth.
- Inhale deeply through your tongue, as if drinking through a straw. Focus your attention on the cool breath across your tongue as you fill your diaphragm with your breath.
- Bring your tongue into your mouth and exhale slowly and completely through your nose.
- Variations: During each exhalation, press your tongue to the roof of your mouth to send coolness to your upper palate. You may also lift your chin toward the sky on your inhale and draw it back into your chest on your exhale.
- Start with two to five minutes of Sitali breath and increase to 10 minutes over time.
- Finish with several minutes of silent meditation to feel the sensations in your body and notice if your system feels refreshed, cooled or renewed.
How to practice Sitkari:
- Follow the first two steps above.
- Gently press your lower and upper teeth together and separate your lips open, with your teeth remaining together so your teeth are exposed to the air.
- Inhale slowly through the teeth and focus on the sound of the breath moving through the gaps in the teeth and the sensation of the air on your teeth.
- Close the mouth and exhale through your nose.
- Repeat Sitkari breath for two to five minutes and increase over time.
- Follow step eight above.
Pranayama for depression
Depression covers everything like a blanket, but one pranayama practice is an effective remedy for depression.
Breath of Joy – This is a quick, energizing pranayama practice intended to do just what its name hints to: bring joy. It also energizes, refreshes, lifts your spirits, clears away cobwebs, and releases tension.
This video practice of the Breath of Joy exercise is followed by a Zen-inspired relaxation sequence that requires a small stone to help focus your concentration (you may also use a crystal, bead or another small sacred object). Be sure to choose your object before you begin this practice so you have it easily at hand.
Pranayama exercises for better sleep
4-7-8 Breathing – Made famous by Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, this technique places the body into a deep state of relaxation and is an effective strategy to help you fall asleep:
- Take a breath in, then exhale through your mouth with a whoosh sound.
- Close the mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, with a whoosh, to the count of eight.
- Repeat this cycle for at least four breaths.
Better health through better breathing
As you practice these pranayama practices, keep in mind that humans complete about 25,000 breath cycles a day. That means we have 25,000 chances to make everything that feels wrong feel right once again.
Go with joy. Happy breathing.