“Whether we like it or not, we are all either in a stage of prevention or in a stage of recovery from COVID-19.” These are words that will get you thinking – am I doing everything I can to support my own health during this time?
Prema Yoga Institute, the NYC-based school where I am studying for my 850hr I-AYT certification (now all online), has gathered an incredible faculty of doctors, nurses, psychologists, and yoga therapists to create this course, and I am so grateful and proud to be enrolled!
Over the next five weeks I’ll be learning and re-learning clinically-informed techniques that can potentially bring more oxygen into the lungs, calm the nervous system, help clients clear excess fluid from their lungs, and more. I will even have my own mentor to help guide me on my way to better breath coaching.
While not a substitute for medical care, the Breath Coach Course is intended to teach supportive wellness activities that complement traditional health care; and some of these techniques are already being instituted in COVID-19 ICU units and other hospitals in New York with success! This makes me so hopeful that as a yoga professional I can make some small difference.
In the beginning of our training manual, there is a call-to-arms for us yoga professionals that I wanted to share because it is so inspiring to me:
“Healthcare professionals are the first responders, and the first part of our duty as laypersons is to control the spread – following all advised precautions including mask use and social distancing.
As yoga professionals, we can also provide a second means of support: We can teach the breath.
We can support prevention with down-regulating techniques for a healthy immune system.
We can support our clients in managing anxiety and depression through breath techniques.
We can teach how to increase the concentration anti-viral gas within the respiratory tract, and how to best oxygenate the blood using breath, stretch, and restorative postures.
We can encourage coherence among the systems of the body, and give our clients mindfulness techniques to support their recovery should they get ill.
We, as yoga professionals, cannot stop this disease. We cannot treat it or cure it, but we can do our part. We are arguably the largest profession in North America that addresses the breath everyday.
We can do our part. We can teach the breath.” (copyright Prema Yoga Institute, LLC 2020)
I’m all in! I hope with this training I can do my part to help. I am downright so excited to be enrolled. And of course, part of my homework is to teach these techniques, so help me do my homework…come to class or set up a private session with me.
Speaking of homework, here’s my favorite ever…an anatomy coloring book!
We can learn something from our dogs! We sometimes worry when Lucy practices her Cooling Puppy Pranayama, but she knows what she’s doing. Panting is the primary way for dogs to cool themselves off because they don’t sweat the way humans do. Instead, dogs cool themselves through their mouths using the evaporation of moisture from the mouth and tongue, and by exchanging the hot air of their lungs with cooler external air.
For us humans, Cooling Breath, or Sitali Breath, can help in much the same way. We can “drink the air” through a curled tongue to cool down!
How to Practice Sitali / Sitkari Breath:
Close your eyes, take a few normal breaths, then open the mouth and form the lips into an “O.”
Curl the tongue lengthwise and project it out of the mouth.
Inhale deeply across the tongue and into the mouth as if drinking through a straw.
Focus your attention on the cooling sensation of the breath as the abdomen and lower ribs expand.
Withdraw the tongue and close the mouth, exhaling completely through the nostrils. During each exhalation, you can also lightly touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, inviting the tip of the tongue to send coolness toward the upper palate.
Swallow now and then if the throat feels dry.
Continue this cycle until you feel refreshed.
If you are unable to curl your tongue, try Sitkari breath. Gently press your lower and upper teeth together and separate your lips as much as you comfortably can, so your teeth are exposed to the air. Inhale through the teeth and exhale through the nose.
Besides building breath awareness, this practice is said to calm hunger and thirst! Sitali breath cools the body, adds moisture to the system, and may reduce fatigue, bad breath, fevers, and high blood pressure. Try it for yourself and let us know how it goes!
For more Pranayama or Breathing Exercises, visit the Breath Page.
Why we love Bhramari Pranayama: As we’re exhaling and creating the droning sound, like that of a bee, we’re also lengthening our exhalations – which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the side in charge of resting and digesting. Calming, centering, grounding…bee’s breath is just what we need these days!
🐝Bhramari is the Sanskrit word for “bee,” and this pranayama or breath exercise is so named for the humming sound produced – like the gentle low buzz or droning of a bee. We like it best for its ability to drown out an anxious mental loop, and find it incredibly grounding and centering.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee’s Breath):
Calms and quiets the mind
Releases cerebral tension
Stimulates the pineal and pituitary glands, supporting their proper functioning
Soothes the nerves
Relieves stress and anxiety
Lowers blood pressure
May have a positive effect on tinnitus
Bolsters the health of the throat
Strengthens and improves the voice
Supports the healing of bodily tissues
Induces sound sleep
“The busy bee has no time for sorrow.”
– William Blake
How to Practice Bee’s Breath:
Sit comfortably but upright, with a stable foundation to support you.
Gently close the lips, keeping the teeth slightly apart, and bring the tip of your tongue to the space behind the upper front teeth. (Keep the jaw relaxed throughout your practice.)
This part is optional: You can actually use your thumbs to “close” your ears (for me, not all the way feels better) and then gently cover your eyes with cupped palms. There are other ways to practice with the fingers fanned out, but this is most comfortable for me. It does take the experience a little deeper inward.
To begin, take a deep breath in through the nostrils.
Begin to exhale slowly, making a steady, low-pitched ‘hmmm’ sound at the back of the throat—like the humming of a bee. Focus on making the sound soft, smooth, and steady. The positioning of the tongue allows the vibration to better resonate throughout the head.
Continue for as many repetitions as you like. After the final exhalation, allow your breath to return to normal and observe any changes that have occurred.
Maybe you can even feel the vibration continue throughout your head and body after you’ve stopped humming!
Practice it in our chair yoga class:
🐝How do you feel after your bee’s breath practice?🐝
Sit or lie flat with with one hand on your belly right under your ribs and the other on your chest.
From this position, take one deep breath through your nose while letting your belly nudge your hand outward. Ensure your chest isn’t moving as this happens.
Next, with pursed lips, breathe out like you’re whistling.
As you feel the hand you’ve placed on your belly go in, use it to push out all the air.
Repeat this several more times.
Why Belly Breathing?
The lower half of your lungs is the thickest and most closely compacted, which means more oxygen can enter the bloodstream.
Consciously breathing into the lower half of your lungs by engaging the diaphragm, literally allows you to ‘breath more life into’… you.
Oxygenated blood travels to the heart, where it’s pumped to the rest of the body via blood vessels that move into surrounding tissues.
Ultimately, oxygen reaches every cell that makes up the body.
If your upper chest is moving when you breathe then you’re not using the lower part of your lungs, which means you’re not breathing optimally.
Chest breathing engages only the top part of your lungs, and remember that the lower half of your lungs is the most oxygen-rich.
If you’re breathing with your chest and not your diaphragm/ belly you’ll likely overuse your neck and shoulder muscles, which are not meant to be breathing muscles.
What are the benefits of belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing?
Diaphragmatic breathing has proven to:
Improve respiratory function, by relaxing tight chest muscles and by increasing lung capacity. Research suggests that diaphragmatic breathing can be especially helpful to those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Lower heart rate and blood pressure, and is even recognized by the FDA in the treatment and regulation of hypertension. It also improves circulatory system function by maximizing the delivery of oxygen to the bloodstream and to each of the trillions of cells in your body.
Maintain blood pH levels (the scale of alkalinity to acidity.) Blood acidity is neutralized with the release of carbon dioxide from the lungs. Deep, slow breathing helps the brain and lungs continuously optimize pH levels.
Engage your diaphragm internally which in turn massages your abdominal organs and glands, stimulating them and promoting their healthy and optimal function.
Boost the immune system because as the diaphragm massages the internal organs and glands it helps move lymph (fluid containing the immune system’s white blood cells) throughout the body to their targeted locations.
Detoxify the body. Controlled breathing stimulates lymphatic movement. One of the key functions of your lymphatic system is to flush toxins out of your body. Your lungs are also a major excretory organ. With every maximized exhale, you expel waste, toxins, and excess carbon dioxide from your system.
Maintain healthy digestive function and help ease upset tummies. The same diaphragmatic massaging motion that helps flush toxins also helps stimulate blood flow of your intestinal tract, ensuring your gut muscles keep on moving as they’re intended to.
Breathing deeply can help prevent acid reflux, bloating, hiatal hernia, and intestinal spasms.
Deep breathing also helps quell the stress response, which compromises digestion. It’s worthy to note here that multiple studies and research confirm a high correlation between digestive/ gastrointestinal issues (i.e.: IBS) and mental health imbalances such as anxiety and depression.
Increase theta brain waves. Theta brainwaves are associated with the state of deep relaxation and dreaming sleep, as well as increased creativity, super-learning, integrative experiences, and increased memory.
Be an effective relaxation technique. This is because your breath acts as a switching station for your nervous system, specifically between the two branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (stress response), and the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response.) Deep, slow breathing relieves stress and relaxes you, and also engages your sympathetic in ways that work for you, not against you. In this way, deep breathing helps send your body signals of safety so that you can enter into a higher state of functioning – one that is healing, regenerating, and conducive to sustained fulfillment and thriving.
Be an effective option for treating emotional and mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence. Jorge Luis Borges
I have practiced hot yoga on the same mat in the same studio for nearly ten years. It’s a little frayed around its edges and is starting to lose some of its no-slip grip. I should have replaced it six months ago but I have to admit I am attached to this mat. We have been through a lot together. Attachments like these seem innocent enough, but there’s something else going on here and I feel I am finally getting to the bottom of it. Every time I roll out this mat and look down on its signs of wear, I tell myself a little story. It’s a story that celebrates my hard work and dedication to my practice through the years. It feels good to keep repeating this story, which is why the mat keeps living to see another day. The problem is this story has very little to do with my yoga and a lot to do with keeping my ego happy. Without diving too far into the weeds, approval has always been important for me, even when I generate it on my own. This deeper stuff is great to shine some light upon, but will have to wait until a future post for closer examination. What is important here is my attachment and its happy little story 1) take my focus off what I am actually doing on the mat and 2) obscure the fact that I’d be safer on a new one.
When we loosen our hold on something or someone, we stop feeding the stories they inspire and bring greater awareness to whatever we’re doing in the present.
This is how our attachments work…under the radar, but still in plain sight. The new car, the coveted job title, the approval of those close to us (…or not so close). Our attachments play starring roles in all our favorite stories. Of course, the attachments themselves are not the problem…it’s how we cling to them and spin our stories around them that can get us into trouble. After all, I should have replaced my mat six months ago…I have just been getting in my own way. In many Yoga and Buddhist traditions, attachment is viewed as a major source of suffering in our lives. Non-attachment or non-possessiveness (aparigraha) is considered so important, it is held up as one of the five yamas, or ethical principles of yoga that help guide us through our daily interactions and activities. The logic here is straightforward: when we loosen our hold on something or someone, we stop feeding the stories they inspire and bring greater awareness to whatever we’re doing in the present.
And this is where our breath comes in. We hold on to our breath just like anything else we are afraid of losing. When we let go of our breath, we reset our nervous system and loosen the hold of even our strongest attachments and most compelling stories. The Foundation Breathing exercise presented below focuses on the exhalation and that sublime stillness before we take our next breath. Approach it with an open mind. With some practice you will likely find it, as I have, to be a powerful addition to your self-care toolkit.
Foundation Breath Basics
Our attachments (people-possessions-beliefs-expectations) can be a major source of pain and suffering
The Foundation Breath can pull us from repeating story loops and loosen the hold of our attachments
Research suggests that diaphragmatic (belly) breathing moderates clinging and controlling behavior by increasing our attention, improving our mood and reducing our stress levels (see references below).
Breathe in through the nose – Release the breath through the mouth – Pause – Repeat
Start with a 2-3 sec. inhalation-exhalation and 1 sec. pause and move up from there.
Breathing in through the nose conditions the air for absorption in the lungs.
Breathing out through the mouth (vocalization optional) focuses attention on the exhalation.
Slow down persistent worry over pending medical test results or financial strains.
Lessen chronic stress due to workload, a challenging boss or an upcoming performance review.
Let go of the expectations related to your balance in tree pose or your strength in triangle. As one of my teachers puts it: “One percent of the pose done correctly provides 100% benefit.”
Hafenbrack, A. 2017. Mindfulness Meditation as an On-The-Spot Workplace Intervention. Journal of Business Research. 75, 118-129.
Ma, X., Yue, Z., Gong, Z, Zhang, H., Duan, N., Shi, Y. Wei, G. & Li, Y. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(72): 1-12.
Schmalzl, L., Powers, C., and Henje Blom, E. (2015). Neurophysiological and neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the effects of yoga-based practices: towards a comprehensive theoretical framework. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9:235.
Sullivan, M., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonz, S., Taylor, J. & Porges, S., 2018. Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,12(67), 1-15.
Each of our breaths is an open window into the present moment.
Most of us tend to think of our breathing as an unconscious, involuntary process. But it is also one of the few automatic systems in our body that we can control. Research shows that when we pay attention to our breath, good things happen. Conscious breathing can help us reduce stress, increase attention and improve our mood (Heckenberg et al., 2018; Tang et al. 2015). It should come as no surprise that yoga, mindfulness and many mind-body exercises are built upon breath awareness. Our breath is always there for us, 24,000 times a day. Each one of these breaths is an open window to the present moment, where we can check in on ourselves and practice a measure of well-deserved self-care. After all, we need to take care of ourselves just like we take care of our family, friends and co-workers.
The three exercises here can help you get started with everyday conscious breathing. Take a few moments after watching each video to become more comfortable with the breathing techniques. We hope that over time you will increasingly find the windows in your normal (and not so normal…) day, to catch your breath and feel calm focus in the present moment.
Building Breath Awareness
Before we expect any magical transformations from our breath, we have to first acknowledge it. Like anything else worth doing, conscious breathing takes practice.
Everyday Breath Awareness – Take a few moments to identify a few different qualities of your breath. They can be related to sound, movement, posture or any other quality of your inhalation or exhalation. Set a challenge for yourself to notice your breathing at five different moments during the day. It could be right after opening your eyes in the morning or before drifting off at night. A few breaths can break the tedium when you’re waiting in line and help to reset your posture when you’re sitting behind a desk all day.
Challenge yourself to notice your breath five times throughout the day.
Balancing the Breath
Now that you have learned how to pay closer attention to your breath, let’s explore how we can control the breath to help us manage our most challenging situations. Our breath is closely linked to balance in our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The inhalation is associated with the sympathetic, or action-oriented, side, while the exhalation is closely connected to the parasympathetic, or recovery side. Research has shown that breathing with inhalations and exhalations of equal duration (also called resonant or coherent breathing) can support a calm focused mindset (Streeter et al., 2017).
Building Resilience – Practice balancing your breath as you prepare for challenging situations that demand steady nerves and close attention. Over time, this exercise can help you to build resilience and bring your A-Game when you most need it!
Letting Go of the Breath
Now that you feel a little more at ease tuning into the breath and controlling it to build calm focus, you can try using the breath to relieve stress and find greater contentment. Deep breaths into the belly and their complete release send powerful messages to the brain’s alarm centers that everything is OK and there is no need for “fight or flight”. This means our bodies aren’t flooded with stress hormones including cortisol and norepinephrine that keep the cardio gas pedal pressed down and compromise our physical and cognitive functioning over time. Deep breaths in and out help us release muscular tension and quiet our most persistent worries anchored in the past or future.
Stress-Relieving Breath Tips
Start this exercise breathing in and out through the nose. The nasal passageways clean and warm the incoming air, while also controlling with more precision the volume of the breath. Imagine sipping through a straw rather than taking a big gulp.
Allow your belly to gently expand as you inhale and freely release as you exhale. This movement in the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). This gives your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) a well-deserved break.
After you feel comfortable breathing in and out through the nose, try exhaling through the mouth and prolong the exhalation to deepen the relaxation response.
Produce an audible sigh, “aaahhhhhh…”, during the exhalation to enhance your awareness of the breath and its stress-reducing benefits.
The breath is our lifetime companion and always there when we need to hit the pause button, reflect for a moment and then proceed. We hope you are able use these conscious breathing exercises to take better care of yourself and those around you. Feel free to share with us any insights you have on your breathing journey moving forward!
Our breath is always there for us, 24,000 times a day.
References Hafenbrack, A. 2017. Mindfulness Meditation as an On-The-Spot Workplace Intervention. Journal of Business Research. 75, 118-129.
Heckenberg, R., Eddy, P., Kent, S. & Wright, B. (2018) Do workplace-based mindfulness meditation programs improve physiological indices of stress? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 114, 62-71.
Streeter, C. C., P. L. Gerbarg, T. H. Whitfield, L. Owen, J. Johnston, M. M. Silveri, M. Gensler, et al. 2017. “Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 23 (3): 201-207.
Tang, Y., Holzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16 (April 2015) 213-225.
Posture, breath, and balance are fundamental to wellness, yet few of us are actively incorporating them into our everyday lives. For example, how are you sitting or standing right now? Have you noticed taking a breath recently? Are you actively using your core muscles to stay upright and balanced? Bring greater awareness to these synergistic fundamentals and become less stressed, safer from injury and more self-aware in your environment. Indeed, physical, mental and emotional health all start with the Big Three.
One of the most effective tools for managing stress is right under your nose! The breath is one of the few automatic functions we have control over; and the benefits of taming the breath are endless. A daily practice of focused deep breathing is one of the best tools for improving health and well-being and is available to us at all times. Harvard Medical School reports that focused, deep respiration can have many benefits, as listed below.
Benefits of a Regular Breathing Practice:
Lower blood pressure and heart rate
Relief from stress, anxiety and depression
Improved memory and focus
Ready to get started learning a few simple breathing techniques?
In this morning’s meditation, I weighed the concept of balance. At first it was a lot of thoughts, then it was more about the feeling of it, and then it was both. In those thirty minutes or so, I must have had a hundred thoughts come and go before I really started to pay close attention to one thing: my breath. Maybe after about ten minutes, some equilibrium was achieved between my in and out breaths. Just breathing in, breathing out, for equal lengths of time. Feeling the inside of the body, feeling the outside of the body. Noticing how after a while, there did not seem to be much difference between the two, and a certain state of wholeness was felt. I was in my mind and my body at the same time, without noticing one or the other too much.
This state of balance between mind and body, of just being, can transform everyday well-being.
As human beings with overly active minds, we love to categorize and assign value to things. We make instant internal pronouncements about everything! Personally, I notice myself closing up or getting ready for a fight when something is not to my liking, or someone is doing something that offends me. I always want a smooth ride, for my life to be happy all the time – without acknowledging pain, by resisting suffering – even though sorrow is a regular part of being alive. Just like everyone else, I place a greater value on joyful happy experiences. When I feel pain, I don’t want it! And that’s all perfectly natural.
“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both… One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”
How we react during uncomfortable moments is key: maybe we get angry and lash out at anyone who enters into our crosshairs, try to numb our pain or loneliness with excessive exercise or alcohol, or just run away and leave our jobs or marriages. Maybe we keep telling ourselves the same story about how unfair it is that we have to experience this type of suffering, and that the world really owes us something for having to go through this. And we continue to marinate in more suffering, except now we have created it for ourselves. By reacting, resisting, and complaining, we deny ourselves the full experience of being human and quite possibly the transformation that our pain might bring.
Being “mindful” or “in the present moment” helps us find balance throughout our day, experience more joy in little things, and facilitate a wiser navigation and acceptance of our suffering as part of our human existence.
I’m trying a new approach for myself. When I feel myself wanting to pull away or get angry, or something just really hurts, I try to give it some space by breathing. Maybe little by little, I can begin to open to the idea of accepting it so that I can move through whatever it is more gracefully. And in turn, when things go right, and I feel on top of the world, I’m trying not to get swept away by my own ego. We’ll see how it goes. For me, it all comes back to the breath. By practicing balance between the in and out breaths, practicing this non-dualistic non-judgmental approach, I start to experience a larger sense of balance. I know there’s suffering, I know there’s joy, and I also know that in a way they are the same. They are things we experience as part of being alive. So I’m brought back to balance and being alive and just being.
By just sitting and breathing, we become more aware of our own everyday well-being, which is shifting and changing with each breath.
Would you like to practice this with me? Try the Balancing Breath Exercise as a step towards transforming your own everyday well-being!
Join us at 12:00pm on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for an all levels Gentle Flow class! We’ll breathe, stretch, and move to restore precious vitality. This class is safe for all levels: whether you’re a total beginner, haven’t gotten to the mat in a while, or have a regular practice. Show up in whatever state you are in, and be guided through an accessible fun sequence designed to connect mind, body, and spirit. Blocks and straps are provided, and some extra mats are available as well. $10 to drop in or use your existing class card.
Saturday November 24th – 12:00pm-1:00pm
Wallingford Presbyterian Church – Fellowship Hall
110 E Brookhaven Rd, Wallingford, PA 19086
Drop in for $10!
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Post Thanksgiving Gentle Flow Yoga Class
About the Instructor: Ann MacMullan Jeans, a native of Swarthmore, is a certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and teaches in the Philadelphia area with her company Team Sun Wellness. Ann believes in the healing power of yoga and meditation for everyone, no matter what age, level of fitness, or life circumstance. For more information, email Ann at email@example.com.
“I have been a grateful student in Ann’s yoga classes for a couple of years. I have especially appreciated her non-judgmental and very encouraging approach. Her classes offer increasing challenges for students to stretch their bodies and their repertoire of yoga poses, but always in a compassionate, supportive, and peaceful atmosphere. In addition, her subtle humor and intention to connect personally with her students makes practicing yoga just plain fun. As Ann expands her teaching opportunities, I hope to follow her for as long as I can move my body!” -Judy S.
*Affordable yoga in a supportive community environment*