Beat Holiday Stress with Pranayama
Pranayama, the formal yogic practice of controlling the breath, is more magical than Santa Claus, the Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman combined.
Breath awareness can transform the holidays from a potentially stressful season – with all the traveling, the cooking, and the corralling of family – into a manageably busy celebration of the season of love and light.
Before we dive in, why not take a moment to do the Rainbow Breath.
Stress affects us all in different ways, and during the holidays it often manifests itself in the family dynamic. It’s uncanny how quickly a bit of lighthearted family banter can turn into a heated political debate. Instead of letting the tension build up until it eventually explodes, we can learn to manage stress on the fly simply by watching the breath.
Not only can a few balanced inhales and exhales help bring calm, but it also empowers parents to model the best kind stress management behavior for their children. This sort of behavior modeling is especially useful for school-aged children who might find themselves navigating stressful academic and interpersonal situations for the first time. It’s easy to forget that at one point we all had to learn how to manage the stresses of daily life. Whether the pressure comes from school or from the holidays, simply learning to watch the breath is an invaluable tool.
Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of ancient Hindu Ashtanga Yoga. It’s comprised of breathing techniques of varying complexities. It can be as simple as balancing the in and out breaths, a technique called Sama Vritti.
Of course, at its most advanced, pranayama is more than just control of the air moving in and out of one’s body. “Prana” is another word for the energy that flows throughout the universe, the energy that is the universe. Learning to control one’s own breath is the act of mastering all the energy that makes up the entirety of one’s body, mind, and little segment of the universe.
The fact that we experience physical sensations like stress relief, balance, and invigoration from these practices is perhaps just a sign that we are more closely tuned-in to the interconnectedness of the universe than day to day life would have us believe.
Pranayama is closely intertwined with asana, the yoga poses used to strengthen the body. Without breath awareness, the body can be an unwieldy partner.
Strength based asanas help body-conscious people like surfers, the most fluid movers of all, train their minds and bodies to navigate the unpredictability of the ocean. In addition to the physicality of a regular asana practice, surfers also credit pranayama with improving their underwater breath control and the ability to stay calm in stressful or worrisome situations.
If pranayama can work to calm a person with an enormous wave about to crash down upon them, there’s no doubt that it can help relieve a little holiday overwhelm.
If you find yourself feeling anxious this holiday season, try one of these four stress relieving pranayamas from yoga.com:
Sama Vritti – Balanced Breathing
Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position with your back straight, or lie down for a more restorative practice. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your natural breath. Just observe, and do not change anything at first. When you’re ready, begin to inhale on a count of 4, and exhale on a count of 4, matching the length of your inhale and exhale. As you practice more, experiment with counting to higher numbers—just make sure your inhale and exhale stay the same length. Continue breathing this way for several minutes, or until you feel your mind and body relax.
Adham Pranayama – Abdominal Breathing
Begin lying down with both hands on your belly. Close your eyes and take a few moments to become aware of your natural breath. When you’re ready, begin to focus on your inhalation, and try to guide as much of your breath as possible into your belly. Feel your hands rise as your belly expands beneath them. As you exhale, feel your belly fall sink towards the floor. Once you are comfortable, make the breaths slower and deeper. As you practice, check that only the belly, and not the chest, is rising and falling. Continue this practice for 5-10 minutes.
Nadi Shoddana – Alternate Nostril Breathing
Sit in a relaxed, comfortable position, breathing naturally and easily. When you feel ready, press your right thumb against your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril. At the end of your inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril. Continue with this pattern, inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril. Practice for at least 3 minutes. When you finish, take some time to allow your breath to return to normal, noticing the changes in your breath and mind.
Brahmari – Humming Bee Breath
Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight. Bring your hands toward your ears, and firmly press the tops of your index fingers into your ears, blocking out all sound. Inhale deeply through your nose, and as you exhale release a low, continuous, loud humming sound. Focus on the vibrations moving from your throat to the top of your head. Inhale normally, and as you exhale start humming again. Practice for a few minutes or until you begin to feel calm—it won’t take long!
All four of these techniques are great for beginners.
It’s important to keep in mind that the more advanced pranayama practices stir up a lot of energy and require more mastery. Just as we become more adept at certain yoga poses over time, conscious breathing also takes practice. Unskilled attempts at advanced breathwork can lead to hyperventilation.
If you’re a beginner in pranayama, it’s a good idea to work with a teacher to explore the depths of the practice before attempting any of the more advanced techniques on your own. Happy holidays, and happy breathing!
How has breath awareness changed the way you handle stress? Please share in the comments!