how to use your breath to relieve stress

Have you ever noticed your tummy starting to gurgle when you come into Savasana at the end of a class, or a relaxing pose in yoga? It’s perfectly natural because as we start to breathe and relax we soothe our nervous system and move into “rest and digest” mode. Our bodies go back to doing things like digesting our food, things it may have stopped doing fully when we experienced stress.

We do need a certain amount of stress to motivate us and get us out of bed every day. We live in this fantastic human body and its main aim is survival so if we are faced with any challenge, our body and mind respond by preparing us to flee, fight or freeze in a situation where we need to protect ourselves. When we become anxious, nervous or fearful our stress response is activated. The sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and it prepares us for action. Adrenaline is released to get the heart beating faster, and blood pressure and pulse rates go up. The increase in heart rate improves the blood flow to the vital organs and muscles. Functions that are not immediately essential (like your immune system) are shut down, your stomach stops many of the functions of digestion, and saliva production is reduced. When the initial surge of adrenalin subsides but the fear of something happening is still present, the brain will produce hormones that prompt the adrenal glands to release cortisol and the body stays on high alert.

The stress response is the same for perceived stress as it is for actual stress and sometimes the body overreacts to stressors that are not life threatening, such as work pressures…. or no Wifi! Long term stress can have an impact on our physical and psychological health.

So how do we switch out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system? Breathing is the fastest way to impact your nervous system. The quickest way to calm the nervous system is to breathe in and out equally. Try it now.

Count your breath in…count your breath out… see if you can get the counts about the same and continue. Counting the breath as you breathe in, and counting the breath as you breathe out…

It doesn’t matter what the number is, but that the breath is the same. In Sanskrit this is called ‘Sama Vritti’. Now notice how you feel, without any judgement. Notice how it feels to be you, a human being not a human doing. By slowing down the breath and breathing a little deeper you start to send a message to the body that you are not in a fight or flight situation but that everything is OK. You are relaxed and safe.

You might notice that the breath allows us to be in the present moment, right here, right now. This is important because often it is not our situations that cause us to feel stressed but our thoughts about the situation. We often spend time worrying about the future, about events that have not happened…. and may never happen. As you sit and observe the breathing, breathing in and breathing out, you will be aware of thoughts that come bubbling up. You may be aware of those thoughts that start with ‘if only…’, or ‘it would be better if’ – and you may see that those thoughts are starting to stress you out. Observe the thoughts but don’t let them hook you and take you to another thought but come back to your breathing. Breathing in 1…2…3…4… Breathing out …1… 2…3…4…..and relax.

Vicky teaches a free class of yoga for those living with cancer in Chelsea on Thursdays at 11.00am. On Wednesdays she also teaches yoga (level 1-2) in Chelsea at 4.30pm, yoga (open level) at at 11.00am and Yoga Gently (open level) at 2.00pm in Camden.

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