At the end of a recent class, one of my students asked if I could recommend an exercise or posture that might help him feel a little less stressed and as he put it, scatterbrained, at the start of his day. I first let him know that what he was describing was quite normal. Most of us feel some stress for the first 30-45 minutes after waking as we anticipate the events of the upcoming day. The clinical term for this review of our daily calendar is the cortisol awakening response.
Now, this routine process can become more of a concern when we already experience significant stress due to a major life event, illness or work-life imbalance. In these cases we don’t always bounce back from this morning stress bump and often experience difficulty staying focused and interacting effectively with others (my partner can verify this). To be honest, when I am operating in this stress fog at the start of the day, I am much more likely to make a big mess preparing my morning tea, nick myself shaving, or not see that pedestrian in the crosswalk…stress can rob us of precious awareness of what’s happening around us and within us.
Research suggests that slow focused breathing can gently activate the attention centers of the brain and dampen our body’s natural stress response upon waking (1,2,3). I have made the exercise below part of my morning routine…in fact it’s the first thing I do upon opening my eyes…even before reaching for my phone. Feel free to try it now, or set a reminder for yourself in the morning.
From a comfortable position on your back, with your legs extended or bent at the knees, place one hand on the belly and one on the chest.
Inhale slowly through the nose for three seconds.
Exhale softly through the nose for three seconds.
Extend the breath to four, five or even six seconds if that feels good.
Try to relax and focus on the rise and fall of the belly and chest with each breath.
Stay for as long as you like, or your morning routine permits…
I hope this simple exercise can help you feel a little more grounded and observant as you start your day. If you would like to learn more about mindful breathing and stress, explore the three wonderful resources below and in the Wellness Resources section.
Brown, R. & Gerbarg, P. (2012). The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance your Emotions. Boulder, CO: Shambala.
Dana, D. (2020). Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection. New York, NY: Norton.
Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. New York, NY: Riverhead.
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.
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.