To breathe is to choose to live. To breathe mindfully is to choose to live with purpose.
Sometimes when life gets really stressful, we can feel trapped or stuck. It can feel like we don’t have options, only to survive it as unscathed as possible. But we always have at least one option: We can choose to breathe. Just the act of choosing the breath can be enough to feel a certain reclamation over our life, but sometimes the way we choose to breathe can change the way we experience life itself. Below I’ve listed different breathing pattern types and how they change the body’s experience. Just slip these in your back pocket for a day you need to feel more control, choice, or calm.
The Big Release
This is the system reset. Take your breath from the chest and into the belly for the deepest breath you have taken all day. Exhale with an open mouth to release tension. Doing this will quickly lower your heart rate and jumpstart a healthier pattern of breathing. We tend to largely breathe using our chests, but this keeps our breath shallow, decreases the amount of oxygen that circulates through the body, and causes more emotional tension and stress. Give yourself a couple moments to breathe in deeply and audibly exhale and you will likely notice that after doing so your breathing switches to a deeper, more diaphragmatic pattern.
The Curious Breath
If you are feeling like you are watching your day pass without really feeling or engaging with it, then you may benefit from a more mindfulness-based way of breathing. Take just a few minutes to close your eyes and sit in silence. Then, without changing anything, just notice your breath. Is it in your chest or belly? What is the speed and depth? How does it feel in your nose and throat? Then, if you notice that you may feel more comfortable if you changed your pattern of breath, do so and take note of how your body physically changes. Combining breathing with mindfulness has double the benefits: lowering heart rate, decreasing stress and anxiety, along with increasing focus, concentration, productivity, and creativity.
The Controlled Breath
You have so many options when it comes to breathing, and if you’re feeling cornered or stuck in a certain aspect of life, you may try to experiment with any combination of the following:
The Slow and Steady
This is the tried and true pattern of breathing to help control heart rate, lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, and assist your immune system. If you are looking for a simple way to bring a sense of calm or don’t have the space to get creative with the above techniques, try closing your eyes and breathing in and out as slowly as you comfortably can. Try to make your exhales slightly longer than your inhales. Do this for at least a few moments and you may find this gives you just enough to persevere.
Let us remember that we may always choose the breath, and in doing so choose the lives we live. Namaste, friends!
Sleep. Isn’t it the thing we always need more of? I talked about the benefits of sleep for your mental health in this article here, but I wanted to offer some yoga poses for a night of restorative Zz’s. And bonus: All of these can be done from bed!
One of my favorite ways to crawl into bed is to gently pull the covers back and then plop down, laying for a few moments in whatever position I landed. I use this as a transition time to notice my breath, deepen my breathing, and tune in to how my body is feeling. The beauty of this is that even though it doesn’t have a fancy Sanskrit name, it is definitely yoga. Yoga happens in any intentional moment of breath.
From there, I do any number of these to relax my mind and body and to improve my quality of sleep. These are my go-to poses that I would suggest for anyone without specific physical issues, so of course use your better judgment for my friends struggling with bone or joint pain.
Supported Child’s Pose
Grab 2 or 3 pillows and stack them in front of yourself on the bed. Pull your knees wide apart and bring your toes touching. Fold forward and rest one side of your face on the pillow. Bring your arms to the sides of the pillow or tuck them underneath. Remember to release your breath deeply and relax your face muscles, especially the jaw.
Reclining Bound Angel Pose
Lying flat on your back on the bed, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together. I like to place pillows underneath each thigh and my head for extra support. Most people like to place their hands on their belly to feel the rise and fall of each breath. I prefer to place my hands on my hips to allow the weight of arm to slightly push them down. Focus on breathing deeply as always.
Supported Spinal Twist
From your back, bend both knees to a 90 degree angle and let them fall to the right. Stretch your arms out from the shoulder making a T. Turn your head to the left and let your cheek rest on the bed. You can place a pillow between your knees for support and to make this a more restorative pose. Whenever you’re ready, bring your knees and head back to center, then fall to the opposite side.
Last but not least….
From any of these poses, gently bring yourself to lie flat on the bed. I like to stretch my arms up over my head while I stretch my legs and feet out as far as I can go. Then I release my limbs while releasing a large audible breath. The key here is to relax the jaw and face muscles. From there, progressively relax your muscles moving down to your feet. It’s okay if unwanted thoughts pop in your head. They’re just thoughts, and I promise they can’t hurt you. Just keep breathing through them and allow them to pass. If they’re clinging on, you can picture them passing like clouds. You’re witnessing them, but then they move on and leave space for the skies to open up. Keeping your eyes closed, you can use your imagination if you’re having trouble relaxing your mind. You can either picture yourself on vacation (really bring to mind all the sights, colors, textures, sensations, and smells), or you can tell yourself a story like you would tell a child at bedtime.
Try these next time you need a little help transitioning from your stressful day or getting your mind and body into a space ready for sleep. And remember my cardinal rule for rest: No screens as aids for sleep.
Breathe deep. YOU’VE GOT THIS.
Western views of yoga would tell us that it is a great exercise for strengthening muscles and increasing flexibility; however, yoga is a practice that has been used for over 5,000 years and in the more traditional sense has little to do with the appearance of our bodies. A more traditional view of yoga is focused of self-knowledge, wisdom, and enlightenment.
Do those three things sounds familiar? It’s what we strive for in talk therapy. Therapists help guide clients through self-knowledge and self-realization with the intent of self-actualization. In this way, I believe that traditional views of yoga are better suited for the therapeutic practice.
Therapeutic yoga focuses on developing knowledge of the emotional and physical experience and how they are connected. With an understanding of this connection, we can learn to withstand moments in life that are distressing, because we have learned how changing our physical experience can change our mindful one. With practice, we become intuitive about what messages our bodies are sending us about our needs in the current moment. And with guidance, we learn how to change our present moment to make it better.
In practice, this is vastly different a yoga class you might have experienced where the focus may feel like improvement of the body, reaching past your limits of comfort, or “deepening” poses and your practice. By contrast, a therapeutic yoga teacher will offer you the opportunity to learn more about yourself and how your body and mind interact to create an emotional or mental health experience. Put simply: We care more about strengthening your wisdom than your abs.
Trauma-focused or trauma-informed yoga is a subcategory in therapeutic yoga which I practice. It means that I help people who have experienced a past trauma learn to understand and manage their symptoms, while becoming more comfortable in their physical experience and expanding their tolerance for moments which cause distress (like panic attacks, anxiety, and hypervigilance to name a few). This form of yoga takes great care to provide a safe and comfortable atmosphere, offering choice, autonomy, and opportunities for empowerment.
Whether you are coming in for trauma or a different issue, I create a yoga sequence that is specific to you and your needs. Our sessions begin and end with a check-in so that I can tune in with your experience and provide therapeutic support. Another benefit of practicing yoga with a mental health therapist is that you have someone there to support you if memories or difficult emotions surface. You have someone to help you make sense of what is coming up and make sure that difficult experiences are managed.
Yoga sessions can be a great compliment to your traditional talk therapy. It can help you move through symptoms that are presenting themselves physically, and perhaps best of all for trauma clients, it can make your body a safe place to live in once again.
If you think you might be interested or have more questions, contact me!
Emily Wagner, trauma expert, yoga therapist, and mental health counselor provides education for anyone looking to improve their mental health.