Deal With Stress

The Power of Breath: Stress-Busting Breathing Exercises From Yoga Traditions

Woman using stress-busting breathing exercisesRemember the strategy for dealing with unpleasant situations, “take a deep breath and count to ten”?  Like many a time-honored practice, this has not only been a foundation for healing practices in diverse cultures all over the world, but modern scientific research is finding validity in the effectiveness of this simple practice.

From ancient cultures, energy cultivation practices such as Taoism, Buddhist meditation, Qi Gong, Tai enhance vitality, heal afflictions, and forestall the aging process. Regular practice is very empowering on an emotional and spiritual level also, and has been used very successfully to help women begin a new life when recovering from environments where they have experienced abuse and oppression.

Stress-busting breathing exercises

Simple Relaxation Breathing

Simple relaxation breathing is a practice that takes only a few minutes, and can be done anytime and as often as you like.  Given the high stress of modern life, it is a good idea to take a “tension break” several times through the day, especially if you have a sedentary work.  Taking time out for a stress break will enhance and supplement the other things you do to create a holistic lifestyle and build your quality of life.  This simple practice definitely has a cumulative benefit, growing in power over time as you continue to use this simple and effective tool.


Sit comfortably, yet with your back straight for this exercise.  Ideally, your ears, shoulders and hips should fall in a vertical alignment. Throughout the day, as tension builds, the fight or flight muscles of the neck and shoulders shorten and tighten, causing the shoulders to hunch up, the back and chest to round and compress the lungs and spine, and the head to slump forward. As a consequence, modern people typically never take a full breath, nor fully empty the “used” air from the lungs. Research suggests that the average person is using 50% or less of lung capacity during rest and normal daily activities.

Have your hands resting in your lap; this allows the shoulders to relax.  Having the hands lay quietly with the palms up encourages an open relaxed feeling. You’ll want to check to ensure that your hands are not clenched; it sometimes helps to begin by spreading the hands on the thighs for a bit while beginning the practice, allowing the fingers to open and relax. Then, move the position to a palm’s up position; the body language of this gesture is open and accepting.

Breathe quietly for a bit. Meditation music or healing music is very helpful for this simple practice.  Walking nature, gazing at a favorite plant or a beautiful flower, or looking out the window at clouds or a natural landscape are also very enjoyable and relaxing. Some traditions tell us that just by looking at a medicinal plant or a beautiful flower has a healing effect, if only we take the time to pay attention and be aware of the subtle responses we feel.  If stressful or negative thoughts come up, it is best not to fight them, but to simply recognize them as negative and let them go. Here’s where healing music, a walk in nature, or gazing at flowers or clouds is especially helpful, as the mind can become obsessed and embroiled in unwelcome thoughts and feelings, especially when involving matters not in our control. Remember that for this “pause for relaxation”, our intent is not to do problem solving, but simply take a moment to allow the mind to quiet, the body to relax, and to breathe. The simple act of redirecting our attention to Nature and Beauty work wonders for the soul.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

This is a very basic traditional Yoga breathing exercise that Dr. Anthony Weil recommends on his website, which he describes as being very effective for stress and which can be done as many times throughout the day as you wish.  Unlike more advanced specific breath exercises in some Yoga practices which require the guidance of an experienced teacher, this simple exercise is easy, and safe to use on a daily basis. This is a simple sequence of four breaths; how deep or how long the breaths are is not important, but the regular rhythm of the breath is important. If your breath is short, that’s OK; if it is long and deep, that is OK also; simply proceed.  The inhale is through your nose, and the exhale is through your open mouth. Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth, just behind the upper front teeth. You will follow a simple sequence by breathing in, through your nose, for a count of four; hold the breath for a count of seven; then breath out, through your mouth, for a count of eight.  Repeat this three more times – a total of four breaths.

The Power of the Breath in Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong practice

The benefits of Yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi all have proven health benefits, and are increasingly recommended by many physicians who see firsthand the very real benefits in their patients who practice on a regular basis. Correct breathing with each movement is a very important component of the practice and should be learned right along with the beginning basics, for it is all too easy to develop bad habits.  Modern people tend to not breathe well as it is, so these practices such as Yoga, Qi Gong or Tai Chi specifically develop the breath practice until it is not necessary to think about it. Part of the purpose for the basic breathing practices used in these systems is to deepen the breathing in order to fully oxygenate the body and clear “used” air from the lungs, to move energy and circulation through the body, to develop suppleness in the muscles, and trigger true relaxation while at rest. Strengthening the breathing will often be surprisingly challenging, as modern lifestyles are often relatively sedentary and a new practitioner will be calling on muscles that have been shut down for a very long time.

 Strength in Numbers

To begin learning a wellness “energy cultivation” practice, many people find it helpful to enroll in a class or retreat, where you can enjoy the benefits of the group energy of the class, as well as from the teacher’s experience. Each person is different – each individual will likely find that one system may be the most attractive and interesting.  Definitely choose what works best for you, and what you enjoy the most, as this has a powerful effect on the results as well as on your continuing inclination to take care of yourself. We learn and benefit more when we are having fun and experiencing joy; the quicker a healing practice moves out of being a discipline or struggle, the better.

Selecting a class or retreat may be as simple as choosing the teacher who most inspires you; that magic is more important than the system.  In fact, it is postulated that the traditional systems of the various methods of meditation, Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi have common roots.

When choosing a class, workshop or retreat, definitely take the time to investigate, and choose a teacher that not only inspires you, but who is very well grounded in the practice.  Especially, a thorough teacher needs to emphasize using the breath during practice. Initially the focus and energy will be spent getting familiar with the movements, whether Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong , yet it is a good idea to incorporate the breathing practice that goes with each movement right away, because it is all too easy to develop bad habits.

In the beginning, while learning a basic system, you will benefit from the guidance and experience of the teacher. Because beginnings can be a challenge, there is a huge benefit from the group energy of the class, which will help encourage and sustain you as your energy and vitality increase. Buddy up with a friend; often we will let ourselves down and renege on promises to take better care of ourselves; we are far less likely to let our practice partner down.  Once you are confident and comfortable with the practice you can simply practice at home.

Using the Relaxation Breath When Getting A Massage

It is on the exhale breath, that an automatic relaxation response is triggered, as you ask for extension or relaxation during a movement. This is why, when you receive a massage, the massage therapist will ask you to take a deep breath, and then exhale with the movement of the mobilization or pressure.  The therapist is utilizing the automatic relaxation response to the exhaled breath to enhance the effect of the massage. In classic Shiatsu massage, the person receiving the massage is not passive, but actively breathing in coordination with the massage therapist.


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