Wednesday, April 18, 2012

3 simple breathing techniques for stress relief

The stress dis-ease

Stress is a huge issue for millions of people around the world. Health professionals now know that elevated levels of stress have a huge physiological impact on the body as well as the mind. If the stress is not relieved, the body engages in a "fight or flight" response, drawing energy away from other vital functions. After only a few days or weeks of elevated stress a person will start to experience notable side effects: body aches from clenched muscles, headaches, insomnia, digestive problems. Over time, the immune system is weakened and we become prone to illnesses, have increased or decreased appetite and our basic bodily functions like the bowels, hormone production and menstruation can be affected.

And of course, stress also affects our relationships, as we are prone to mood swings, irritability, depression, outbursts of anger, anxiety and uncharacteristic behaviour. Stress has also been linked to serious and chronic conditions like heart disorders and ulcers.

The good news is that there are some simple techniques (including movement, meditation and breath work) that anyone can use to help reduce the physiological condition of stress.


Breathing away Stress

The following pranayamas - techniques for working with the breath - can be practiced by anyone and are effective at calming the mind and the body (although if you feel any strange side effects or/and have a medical condition, caution is of course the best way forward!). They can be practiced one by one, or in the sequence suggested here. I also recommend you get a timer - use a function on your watch or phone, or download a free app - so you're not spending energy thinking about the duration of the exercises. Also, please note that the effects of each breath, given in parentheses, are generally accepted but not universal - the results will be different from person to person. In addition, these are results of a regular practice - a one-off attempt may not lead to noticeable improvement although you should be able to feel some calming effects even after only once.

These can be practiced together or individually, any time, anywhere! On the train, on a plane, in a long line, with the kids, at your desk, even in your car (with the eyes open of course)! But for absolute best results, find yourself a nice quiet space, maybe light a candle or two, play some relaxing music, and get some comfy blankets and pillows so you can sit and lie down comfortably.

1. Belly breathing (3-5 mins)
(Calming, relieves anxiety, reduces anger, stabilises mood swings)

[Once you've practiced this technique for a bit, belly breathing can be done sitting or standing and is super-effective if you need a quick calm-down breath, because you can do it anywhere, even mid-meeting or conversation, without anyone else really noticing. But to begin with, try it lying down. The first few times, it can also be helpful to place both hands on the belly, although eventually you may not need them anymore.]

Begin lying down with both hands on the belly, eyes closed. Take a few moments to become aware of your breathing. Then as you inhale, try to channel as much of your breath as possible into the belly, feeling the hands rise as the belly expands. As you exhale, feel the hands fall back towards the body. Once you are comfortable, make the breaths slower and deeper.

When you practice this breath, your chest and shoulders should remain fairly still, since you are channeling the breath into the belly. To check this, try doing belly breathing with one hand on the belly and one hand on your upper chest. If you are belly breathing correctly, the hand on the belly should rise and fall, while the hand on the chest should stay relatively still.

2. Chandra Bhedana Pranayama - moon breath (5-8 mins)
(Calming, cooling, improves sleep, reduxes anxiety or panic)

Begin this pranayama kneeling on the floor, with your hips resting on your heels. Put cushions underneath your feet and knees, and between your heels and buttocks if that's more comfortable. If you're not comfortable on the floor, sit on a chair with both feet on the ground, about hip width apart. Take a few deep breaths here.

Once you are comfortable, raise your right hand and place your index and middle finger on the forehead. Your right elbow should be hanging loose in front of your body. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril. Breathe deeply and slowly in through the left nostril. At the end of your inhalation, release your thumb and use your ring finger to close your left nostril. Exhale a long deep breath through the right nostril. Continue breathing in through the left, out through the right. For best effects, keep the spine straight and the belly completely relaxed.

When you are done (Try about 3 minutes to begin with, working to 8 minutes which is considered a good time for the breath to be effective), sit quietly and breathe normally, and observe the effects.  This is a good one to practice about 20 minutes before you go to bed - or even in bed if you can't sleep!

3. Bastrika - the bellows breath (3-6 repetitions)
(Reduces stress, depression, anxiety, headaches, and boosts the immune system. This is an energising breath so best not performed at night - try it first thing in the morning, or use it in the office during a break!)

If you can, sit in a kneeling position to perform this breathing technique, with your buttocks resting gently on your heels. If that's not comfortable for you, sit on a chair with both feet flat on the ground, about hip distance apart.

I've given you two variations here to try. For both, begin by taking a long full breath in through the nose, filling the belly and chest as much as possible.

Variation 1 (classic variation): Raise your arms all the way above your head as you inhale, taking a deep, full breath. Exhale rapidly in one go, "blasting" air out through the mouth and bringing the arms down rapidly as you do. As you inhale again, raise the arms all the way up. Repeat 10 times initially, building to 3 sets of 10 with resting breaths in between.

Variation 2:  Bring your hands to your hips. Take a deep, full breath in, and as you exhale, "blast" the breath out through the mouth in short bursts. As you do so, begin to bend forward at the waist. It may take a few tries to get the rhythm that is right for you, but when you do, you should end up "blasting" the breath out in 6-9 short bursts, with the last of the air leaving your lungs as you reach the lowest point (lying on your knees, with the head resting on the floor or a pillow). Repeat 3-6 times.

After the last repetition of either variation, remain folded forward with your head resting on a pillow or the floor. Breathe normally and observe the effects for a minute or so.


How it works

The breath is the body's most critical function, so it's no great surprise that the way we breathe can have an impact on our state of mind, emotions and well-being.  Our breathing is controlled by a great big dome-shaped muscle called the diaphragm that sits underneath the rib cage. The diaphragm is attached - yes, physically attached - to the layers of tissue that surround the heart muscle. So when we breathe, it affects our heart as well: rapid, shallow breathing puts stress on the heart, causing it to beat faster, while slow, deep reduces tension on the heart muscle, causing it to beat a bit more slowly.  

When we are stressed, we unconsciously tend to breathe shallowly and quickly, and the body pumps more oxygen to the heart in case it needs to engage a "fight or flight response". This automatically puts other, "secondary" bodily functions on hold, especially "nourishing" processes, such as digestion, sleep, and restoration of the cells (which is why we get sick so much when we're stressed!). The breathing techniques here emphasise deep, regular breaths and activate areas of the nervous system (the parasympathetic system) which tell the body to relax and engage in healing and nourishing processes.


Stress and Yoga Asana - a postscript

Many health professionals nowadays recommend yoga for people who are overly stressed. However, your average yoga class today may not actually be a stress-reducing experience. Dynamic forms of yoga, especially if there is not a lot of time for relaxation at the end of the class (10 minutes should be the minimum, but I've been to many classes where only 5 mins, or 3 minutes are left for relaxation!) may not bring your body and mind out of stress. Some of the most dynamic forms also seem to bring out in us a competitive and self-critical edge as we are challenged by the postures - not exactly a way to let go of anxiety!

If you are seeking a yoga class for the explicit purpose of reducing your stress, give yourself the gift of really doing it right! Find a class that is relaxing and breath focused. Yin Yoga and restorative yoga are especially good for stress relief because the long, supported stretches activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is concerned with rest, nurture and healing.

Blog image from:

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Simple excercises for wrist pain

Wrist pain can be a serious disturbance, both in daily life and on the mat. Although by no means a substitute for seeing a qualified doctor or therapist, here are some simple exercises that can help to release strain in the wrists and build up their strength and flexibility.

You don't have to have done any yoga to do these stretches! However, keep in mind that these are NOT intended for anyone who has or is recovering from a serious injury, and remember that in yoga, pain = no gain: so if you feel pain in any of the stretches, stop doing it immediately.

I'll start with some simple exercises, and then include a few general tips about wrists in yoga practice at the end of the post. Unfortunately I don't have my camera handy, but I will update this post at a later date to include some pictures!

Simple exercises for stretching and strengthening the wrists

Remember that yoga works through a combination of movement, intention and breath! So before you do these stretches, establish a deep, even breath. As you go through the exercises, keep the rhythm of the breath in mind, and focus your awareness on the sensations you are feeling.

1. Circles with fists
  • Start in a kneeling position, and stretch your arms out to either side (keeping the shoulders relaxed as much as you can).
  • Beginning on an exhalation, make fists with the hands, squeezing tightly. As you inhale, flex the fingers and thumb out as wide as they will go.  Repeat this 5-10 times.
2. Press/pull
  • Next, inhale and press the palms away from you and spread the fingers wide (as if you were pushing away two walls on either side of you). Exhale and bring the tips of the fingers and thumb together in a "point", and draw the point down towards the floor and maybe even farther back towards your body.
  • Repeat this inhale/exhale 5-10 times
  • Come to the inhale (palm press) position. Engage the arm muscles and really press outwards through the palms as if you were pushing away two walls on either side of you (recollections of Star Wars, anyone??). Stay for 5 breaths.
  • Come to the exhale (pointing) position. Draw the "point" towards your body and stay for 5 breaths.
  • Experiment with moving the wrists in slow circles, with the hands in either the palm press or the "point" position. Do this for 5-10 breaths and then switch directions. Get creative - see if you can have one wrist go one way and the other wrist move in the opposite direction!
  • Shake out the wrists
 3. From all fours
  • Begin with the palms flat on the mat, fingers spread wide. Lift all the fingers up off the mat, and then from thumb to pinky press them all down again, and then from pinky to thumb, lift them up again. Do this a few times.  You can also lift one finger at a time and then replace it.
  • Very gently, turn the right fingertips back towards the body, placing the palm on the floor, and stretch the wrist in this reversed position. If it feels ok, you can also gently wiggle the fingers and thumb here. Hold for about 5 breaths then repeat on the left hand.
  • If the above two felt good, you can also repeat this turning the hands to the right, and then to the left. so that if you had an imaginary compass, you would have completed the exercise with the fingers pointing in all four main directions.
  • Very gently, lift up the right hand and place the back of the hand on the floor, with the fingertips pointing towards you.  Waggle the fingers and thumb slowly a few times. Then draw the tips of the fingers and thumb together in the "point", lifting the fingertips off the floor to point up towards your body. Be very gentle and only go as far as feels ok.  After 5-10 breaths, release and do the other side.
  • Come back to kneeling, and gently massage the wrists and lower arms, or shake the wrists out to release any other tension.

 Some general tips about wrists in yoga asana

If you practice yoga asana, some types of postures can put a lot of strain on the wrists, which are pretty complex and delicate things!  In particular, downward facing dog can really put the wrists under stress if you are new to yoga or holding the pose for a long time.  Here are some tips that hopefully can help.

  1. Always check the alignment of your hands in downward dog. Ideally, your hands should be as wide apart as your shoulders. Wrist pain in yoga can sometimes originate from the shoulders, so really check this if you aren't sure! You can use a bit of chalk or a crayon to mark where your shoulders are on the mat if you are lying down, and then place the hands accordingly. Next, fingers should be spread, with the middle fingers pointing straight forwards and the thumbs pointing towards each other. This should make it so that the creases of the wrists are aligned parallel to the front edge of the mat.
  2. Practice your alignment and taking weight onto your hands by using a wall: placing your hands at shoulder height, palms against a wall, fingers spread as wide as you can, and push your palms strongly into the wall.  Practice pressing evenly through the palms and engaging the muscles of the arms. Then, gently lean towards the wall, bringing a bit of weight to bear onto the hands, and practice holding for 5-10 breaths.
  3. Try to press evenly through the hands, especially by pressing through the base of the thumb, the base of the index (pointer) finger, and the outside edge of the hand.  Also, take some of the load into the lower arms by pressing the fingertips into the mat and strongly engaging the muscles in the forearms.
  4. Consider using some support, especially if you are new to yoga or have very delicate wrists. One option is to place a foam block under each hand - this is a great way to do downward dog in general, and also works for other poses with funky wrist alignment (note: if you are doing this, it helps to put the blocks against the wall to make sure they don't slip, especially if doing a pose like urdvha dhanurasana).  Another option is to use a rolled up yoga mat or a nice firm blanket at the top of your mat, and place your hands on it rather than the floor.
  5. Modify the pose: Respect your body and don't push it too far! For downward dog, another alternative if your wrists are bugging you, say in a vinyasa class, but you still want the benefits of the pose, is to bring your forearms to the floor for a modified downward dog (also called dolphin pose).
  6. If you are doing stronger postures like arm balances, you can create a more forgiving surface for your hands by folding up your mat or using a firm folded blanket or a towel (make sure your hands won't slip).
I hope that helped! Any experiences or tips to share?

[top image from: source:]

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Gesture of Fearlessness

It is said that when the Buddha came out of his meditative state, having "awoken", he made a simple gesture with his right hand - raising it to shoulder height, palm facing outwards.

This is Abhaya mudra, the mudra of fearlessness.

What is it to be fearless? It's not about risk taking, or living on the edge, or extreme sports. It's not to be confused with foolishness - the fearlessness here is the ultimate one: the release from the fear of suffering eternally through the wheel of samsara.

This liberation from fear is at the roots of the yoga tradition. In a state of samsara the mind/soul is endlessly wandering around and around the wheel of birth, suffering, death and rebirth into the same suffering. The eightfold path of the Buddha, and later that other eightfold path proposed by Patanjali are like roadmaps to lead us out of suffering, to liberate our souls from the fears that weigh us down. Fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of not being enough, doing enough, achieving enough. Fear is the force that constricts the heart - it is the opposite of love, and surrender.

Often the yoga journey takes us to the edge of our fear. Whether it is our fear of falling over in a balance posture, our fear of hurting ourselves or being hurt, our fear of being 'inadequate' in an asana posture or meditation, or the wide-open heart that fears being wounded, the practice is constantly bringing us in touch with our fears. This is a good thing, because without fear, how can we truly surrender to fearlessness?

As I write this I am embarking on another step in my yoga journey - my level 2 teacher training. It's a huge step, and yet one that feels completely the right way to deepen my knowledge of yoga asana, pranayama, and pratyahara (posture, breathing and withdrawal of the senses), as well as yoga therapy, ayurveda and restorative yoga. One thing is for sure: it will take a lot of fearlessness to get through it! And the only way out, is through.

Over the next 6 weeks I hope to blog about it more, and share some of the great knowledge that my new teachers are sharing with us. But for today, I leave you with this: for just a moment in your day, go with fearlessness into the world. This is not to say that you should suppress your fears - on the contrary. Acknowledge your fears. Explore them. Seek to understand them, so that for an instant, you may let them go. In the space that they liberate then, may you find a moment of peace.