Updated: Sep 17, 2019
In my last blog, I said that I would go into diaphragmatic breathing in more depth, so here goes…
Also known as yogic breathing or pranayama, diaphragmatic breathing unwinds the negative effects of stress by reducing stress-related hormones and peptide levels. These effects are sudden and long-lasting, as indicated by recent studies on a group of 50 IT professionals in Bangalore, India which found that stress hormone levels (cortisol) dropped significantly after practising yogic breathing.
Stress Arousal system:
Stress can be triggered by an increase in the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood because of shallow and fast breathing. Deep and diaphragmatic breathing activates the parasympathetic branch of autonomic nervous system which is the opposite of the stress arousal system called the sympathetic system.
Diaphragmatic breathing releases endorphins, a self-manufactured natural opiate that has been scientifically shown to carry messages of attachment and bonding (the scientific terms for love), and to stimulate feelings of caring and forgiveness, in addition to acting as a natural painkiller. Endorphins create a positive state of mind and boost optimism, self confidence and feelings of self-worth.
In short, diapragmatic breathing is an effective way of coming back to yourself when your emotions start to push you around.
It works in two ways – oxygenating your blood (slowing your heart) and flexing your diaphragm – stimulating your body to release endorphins (neutralising the adrenaline released when we are stressed).
I’m going to concentrate on four exercises, none of which require any special knowledge.
Traditionally, each breathing exercise would be practiced for about 15 minutes. In my experience, people who are stressed have shorter attention spans and I suggest that my clients practice each exercise for 3-4 minutes, moving through the sequence.
Find a comfortable place to sit. Close your eyes and feel yourself relax. Spend a few moments appreciating yourself, your seat and the world around you. Now bring your attention to your breath.
Where do you most feel the breath? Follow the movement of the breath from where it enters at the tip of your nose all the way to your belly, and see where your attention is most keen. Feel the breath entering and leaving. What sensations are there? Does it feel hot or cool? Is it short or quick? Is there a pause between breaths or between the inhalation and exhalation?
Just watch your breath, observe its natural movement, be aware that you are breathing. Closely observe every detail about your breath from the place where your attention rests - the tip of your nose, chest or belly. Watch one whole breath entering and filling and leaving and emptying, then watch another, and then another.
Now for something a little stronger…
Alternate Nostril Breath
Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breathing.
Close the right nostril with the right thumb. Simply press the thumb against your nostril to block it.
Inhale slowly through the left nostril. Fill your lungs with air. First, feel the diaphragm move down, allowing the lungs to expand and forcing the abdomen out; then feel your chest expand with your collar bones rising last.
Remove your thumb from your right nostril. Keep your right hand by your nose and your lungs full of air.
Use your ring and middle finger to close your left nostril. Most people find it easier to continue using the same hand to block either nostril, but you’re welcome to switch hands depending on which nostril you’re blocking. You can also switch if your arm gets tired.
Exhale slowly and completely with the right nostril. Feel the collar bones dropping, chest deflating, and abdomen shrinking as the lungs collapse. When you’ve finished exhaling, keep your left nostril closed.
Inhale through the right nostril. Fill your lungs.
Breathe out slowly through the left nostril. This process is one round of Anulom Vilom Pranayam.
The next exercise is my personal favourite…
Humming Bee Breath
Close your eyes. Focus your breathing
Place your thumbs in your ears, your index fingers above your eyebrows, and your remaining along the sides of your nose.
Keep each pinky finger near a nostril
Breathe in deeply through the nose.
First, feel the diaphragm move down, allowing the lungs to expand and forcing the abdomen out, then feel your chest expand with your collar bones rising last.
Breathe out while humming. Note that the humming sound should originate in your throat.
When you practice this, the humming sound resonates in your head, providing an anchor for mindfulness practice.
I find it an excellent way of stepping away from the thoughts and feelings that suck the joy and energy out of life, allowing me to refocus on stuff that is more interesting, enjoyable and/or important to me.
The next exercise is, possibly, the most powerful technique we are going to explore in this blog. When done properly, you can really feel your diaphragm flexing. This is the whole point – flexing the diaphragm for 15 – 20 minutes stimulates the release of endorphins (which neutralise adrenaline and help us regain our equilibrium faster).
Shining Forehead Breath
Inhale through your nostrils normally until your lungs are full. Keep your inhalation slow but unforced. First, feel the diaphragm move down, allowing the lungs to expand and forcing the abdomen out; then feel your chest expand with your collar bones rising last.
Exhale through both nostrils forcefully. This places the emphasis of the breath on the exhale rather than the (natural) inhale. Assist your exhalation by pulling in your stomach muscles to expel air. Exhaling should take much less time than it took to inhale
“Forced” exhalation means that the contraction of your stomach muscles helps push the air out of your body. It does not mean that the exhalation should be uncomfortable for you in any way.
Diaphragmatic breathing is not a miracle cure and should not be considered as a substitute for medical consultation for physical, mental and psychological illnesses, but it is a powerful natural technique for maintaining emotional balance and building resilience.
Pranayama may not be suitable for everyone. It involves a rise in intra-abdominal pressure. It is contraindicated for people suffering from diseases that are in a severe and uncontrolled stage such as, but not limited to:
Advanced (bleeding) piles and haemorrhoids
Any kind of hernia
Any persistent cough
Anything with acute symptoms
High Blood Pressure
Incontinence of Urine
Major Psychiatric Disorders
People who have undergone major surgery should wait at least three months before practising diaphragmatic breathing. If in doubt first consult a medical professional for guidance.
Anyone undergoing physician-prescribed therapy that experiences improvements through pranayama should seek the advice of their doctor before reducing dosage or stopping treatment.
Heaviness in the head or Mild headache: Some people complain about heaviness in the head or mild to moderate headache after practicing breathing exercises. This is quite common, and it settles down on its own. But, if it continues it may be due to excessive force being applied during the exercises. Take it easy, and do the exercises gently and more slowly. Put more emphasis on feelings and enjoying the exercises rather than applying force.
Other possibilities of persistent headache after beathing exercises are high blood pressure and chronic migraine headaches. I would advise clients to get their blood pressure checked if they are on the borderline or have hypertension before doing breathing exercises. I have had many people suffering from migraine headaches for years who have benefited from practicing diaphragmatic breathing, as one of the reasons for precipitation of migraine attacks is stress and pent-up emotions and pranayama can provide an emotional release.