Daniel Cordua, LMT, RYT
Many people who come in for massage seeking relief from muscular tension have difficulty relaxing because they cannot ease their breath to a fluid restful pace. Even while on the massage table, many clients breath remains shortened and irregular, which prevents them from relaxing deeply.
As I have become more experienced as a massage therapist and as a yoga teacher, I have become more attuned to the subtle connections between our breath and stress levels.
Anxiety often manifests as shortness of breath and irregular breathing: automatic fight or flight responses to a perceived danger to our security. This shortness of breath perpetuates a cycle of feeling stressed, which then has a negative affect on our physical body: muscles tighten, shoulders hunch, foreheads wrinkle, and jaws tighten.
Although breathing is unconscious, cultivating the habit of a relaxed, deeper breath can lower stress levels. Using conscious breath work, the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight response – can be turned into a parasympathetic response – a state of rest and digest. Breathing techniques can lower the increase in heart rate and blood pressure that stress produces and even train the mind (and therefore body) to be calmer in stressful situations.
Here are three simple breathing exercises. I practice them regularly, and find them helpful in maintaining relaxation for both body & mind:
• Deep-bellybreathing (Ujayi breath): This technique is simple andeffective. First, find a comfortable seated position that facilitatesgood posture - your shoulders relaxed, spine straight and your core engaged. Loosen your jaw. Rest your hands on your lap or on your knees and then close your eyes. Start to breath ONLY through the nose. As you breathe, raise the sound of the breath by slightly constricting the back of your throat (as though you were fogging up a window with your breath– making a “Darth Vader”-like sound). Try to maintain this pattern and find your own internal metronome. Stay with it, keeping the rhythm constant.
While breathing, make a point to inflate & deflate the belly, not the chest, with inhalation and exhalation. Continue breathing in this way, with eyes closed, for 5 minutes at first. Slowly, increase the time spent breathing from there. As you breathe in this manner attempt to let go of any passing thoughts; just try to observe them as they float up into your mind. And, at the same time, cultivate a feeling of being absorbed into the rhythm that you have created with your breath.
• Another simple breath exercise is Breath Retention: Start by using the same posture and breath as you would for the Deep-Belly breathing. From here, as you start to inhale through the nose then hold the breath for the count of five. Then…. Very slowly exhale back out through the nose. Finally, hold the breath for another count of five at the end of the exhale… Slowly start to inhale… Repeat.
• Alternate Nostril Breathing: Again, begin in the same manner, as you would while performing Deep-belly breathing. For this exercise, place your left hand on the left knee with your palm open. Raise your right hand then place the tip of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand in between the eyebrows, the ring finger on the left nostril, and the thumb on the right nostril. The ring finger will be used to open or close the left nostril and thumb will do the same for the right nostril. Press your thumb down on the right nostril and breathe out gently through the left nostril.
Now, using a slow count of five, breathe in from the left nostril, hold, and then press the left nostril gently with the ring finger, closing it. Removing the right thumb from the right nostril, breathe out from the right side using the same slow count of five. Continuing this pattern for nine rounds, breathe in from the right nostril and exhale from the left.
All three of these breathing techniques can be used together, separately, or at various times of the day. The Alternate Nostril Breathing is usually the most stimulating. Try them out – for as long or as short a time as your busy day allows – but DO try them out. Consistently using these techniques will provide a definite change in the state of your mind, body, and spirit!!