You know the feeling. It’s like a looming presence above you; a pressure inside. Your chest feels tight, your heart is pounding, your breath racing. You have a knot in your stomach, your mind is speeding through thoughts, your body on high alert. This is stress, and it is not pleasant. We all know it well; some feel like this all the time, and we know that these symptoms, if they persist, can be debilitating to the point of serious illness.

What we don’t all know is that there is a simple thing we can do, which will lower our blood pressure, reduce heart rate, lower cortisol (stress hormone) and bring the body into what is known as ‘rest and digest’ mode. And this can happen in just a few minutes, and you need no special skills to achieve it. Even better you don’t need to ‘take’ anything! No drink, no drugs, no meds! It’s like magic. All you have to do is breathe consciously.

Even before we were all plunged into a global Coronavirus pandemic, it was clear that the level of stress experienced by many, and the serious associated health issues that result from it, was reaching unprecedented heights. In this post we will look at what is going on in the body when we are stressed and, more importantly, the simple steps we can take to help relieve the pressure and return to a more relaxed state and mitigate the negative health impact of chronic stress.

the impact of stress

A stressful situation, whether physical, emotional or psychological, triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produce profound physiological changes. This combination of reactions to stress, which is often referred to as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, evolved as a survival mechanism to enable us to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Important as the switching-on of this life-saving stress response is, because of the physiological toll it takes on the body, switching it off again once the danger has passed is equally vital.

Unfortunately, life today is full of triggers that we find stressful. Work, family, relationships, exams, social media, news, etc. The problem becomes chronic; there is no let-up in the stress response and this has serious implications for our physical and psychological health. The high-octane ‘flight or fight’ state remains switched on, and the entire system suffers. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-blocking deposits (1) and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction, as well as contributing to obesity (2).

so what’s going on in your body?

Imagine you are crossing the road and a car (the stressor) swings suddenly around a corner and speeds towards you. Before you know it, you have reacted, jumping back out of the way and reaching the safety of the pavement. Your heart is racing, you gasp, your palms are sweaty. All of this happened in an instant because your brain triggered a chain of events which ended up with your adrenal glands releasing two hormones into your blood stream, adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline is key in the ‘fight or flight’ response, constricting blood vessels, increasing blood pressure, and causing the heart to beat faster and increasing blood flow to the muscles, heart and brain. The second hormone, cortisol, essentially prevents the body from doing anything which is not essential for dealing with the immediate danger, such as digestion, so blood flow to such systems is reduced. This response is carried out by what is known as the HPA Axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal Axis).

The adrenaline/cortisol surge (fight or flight) is controlled by the Sympathetic Nervous System, and when the danger is passed the Parasympathetic Nervous System takes over and the HPA Axis is switched off, restoring the hormonal balance in the body; adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, blood flow to the internal organs normalises, re-inducing the ‘rest and digest’ state.

magic breath

Acute Stress, like the above example, it is short lived and quickly resolved. If, however, the stressor is perceived as a continuous threat, the HPA Axis remains active, and we feel stressed all the time. This chronic stress causes high blood pressure, poor respiration, elevated heart rate, reduced digestive function, increased inflammatory response, decreased immune function, build-up of fatty deposits etc., which can ultimately lead to serious illness. In addition to the decline of physical health, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are also common. This is a vicious cycle which can persist unless we take action to switch off the HPA Axis and restore balance.

And this is where the Magic Breath comes in. Breathing practices are hugely effective in reversing the stress responses in the body. (3) The body responds very quickly; blood pressure is lowered, heart rate decreases, cortisol levels drop, immune function and digestion improve, parasympathetic nervous system activates, and we feel calm and relaxed.

life is breath and breath is life

We all begin life with an inhalation and end it with an exhalation. Breath truly is life, and the quality of our breathing can really impact the quality of our life (4), (5).

The entire practice as outlined here can take as little as 10 minutes. Ideally practice on a regular basis; daily, if possible. I recommend reading the instructions below carefully and then watch the video. Including it in a comprehensive self-care programme of good diet and yoga/exercise will make it even more efficacious. As you become more proficient, you may wish to develop this practice, with the help of an experienced teacher, into a deeper Pranayama practice. For now, the important thing is to get started and experience its benefits of the practice for yourself.

a simple technique for everyone

Optional Stage Zero: Relaxing the breathing apparatus (Do this first if your chest or abdomen feel tense.)

  1. Lie down on your belly on a comfortable surface. Free the belly so that it feels completely comfortable. Rest your forehead on your forearms.
  2. Breathe naturally and as you do, feel the upper abdomen expanding gently into the floor. No effort, or interference, simply allow the breath to be and allow the free movement of the belly.
  3. Continue for 2 minutes.

Stage One: Balance inhalation and exhalation.

  1. Gently take any comfortable seated position (on the floor, on a stool), in which the spine can be straight and you can breathe freely and fully.
  2. Observe your natural breath for a few rounds.
  3. Consciously connect to the exhalation and on the next inhalation, breathe in for a count of 4 seconds, then out for a count of 4 also. (If 4 is too much start with a 3 second count.) Continue to breathe in this way: In- 1, 2, 3, 4, Out- 1, 2, 3, 4.
  4. Continue to breathe like this for 2 minutes.

Stage Two: Doubling the exhalation

  1. Continuing directly from Stage One, now begin to extend the exhalation, until it is twice as long as the inhalation.
  2. Do this in slowly, ensuring there is no strain. Now the breath is: In- 1, 2, 3, 4 and Out- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
  3. If there is any feeling of difficulty in extending the exhalation, reduce to a breath ratio of 3:6, that is: In- 1, 2, 3 and Out- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  4. Continue for 2 minutes.

Stage Three. Sit quietly with the Breath

  1. Having completed the previous stages, sit quietly and allow the breath to be completely natural.
  2. Relinquish any conscious directing of the breath and simply observe its flow. Notice its qualities, notice how you feel.
  3. Stay with this for another 2 mins or longer if you have time.

join david on facebook live

You can join David on Facebook Live (@YogaVedaLivingDublin) at 12:00pm on Saturday 20th March in which he will go through this practice step by step and answer any questions you may have.

david collins

Co-Founder and Director of YogaVeda Living, David has been teaching yoga for 30 years. He was original trained as a scientist, before taking up Yoga. His breathwork/pranayama studies began with Paul Dallaghan many years ago, who introduced him to the Kuvalayananda Tradition, as taught by Sri O. P. Tiwari, and have continued under the direct guidance of Sri Sudhir Tiwari for the last 7 years. For more about David see Bio.

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