How To Breathe To Engage The Parasympathetic Nervous System And Calm Down

Did you know that by taking even just a minute to slow your breathing and focus on it enough to deepen your inhale and make your exhale as long as possible, you are actually signaling to your nervous system that all is well and both your mind and body will calm down?  

It’s true!  

To understand how this works, let’s review what our amazing Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is, shall we?  The ANS is responsible for controlling the activities of organs and involuntary muscles like the heart and smooth muscles.  Because the ANS oversees and directs them to do their good work in their world (our bodies), these all function harmoniously without us consciously thinking, “Beat, heart, beat…. Release acid, stomach…. Hey, liver, I think now would be a good time to secrete sugars and enzymes…”  

The ANS is made up of two parts:  Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.  The Sympathetic Nervous System is the part of our physiological stimuli that signals us to respond with increased action.  This is where the ever-famous “fight or flight” response comes from.  The Sympathetic Nervous System tells the heart to speed up and the mind to become increasingly alert.  The Parasympathetic Nervous System activates more tranquil responses in the body like a lower heart rate and releasing saliva when something smells yummy.

Our primitive mind is wired to look for stressors — that’s why it’s so much easier to recall negative thoughts or get caught up in dramatic imaginings than positive ones.  That’s also why when we are stressed we tend to become more scatterbrained or overwhelmed with fearful thoughts of what might be.  What sometimes feels like a fluke (to me, at least) because we seem to become stuck in an uncontrollable loop of negativity, is technically a protective measure of the Sympathetic Nervous System.  The good news is, the human brain has been found to be quite elastic and this pattern is easily shiftable by mindfully engaging our breath.  

Yes, our breath.  

Breathing is a conscious action we can take on the more superficial level to signal to our behind-the-scenes automatic self.  A miracle of being human if you ask me!

 

***My 8 year old daughter walked into my office at this point in this writing as I was reading it aloud from the beginning to make sure it flows sensibly and she listened attentively.  When I was done her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and she simply said, “Whoooooaaaa.  That’s cool!”  It really is, isn’t it?!  We should all take a moment every now and again to acknowledge the coolness — for lack of a better term — of being human.***

 

I digress…

Doing relaxed breathing exercises on a regular basis when we are not experiencing stressful circumstances is a healthy effort that can help us stay calm more often.  This practice can generally lead us to have calmer responses to stressors.  Think about it, when your best friend is super stressed and freaking out, isn’t your first instinct to tell her to breathe?  

When we practice pranayama* as part of a weekly routine, we learn to automatically slow down our anxiety with the breath.  Over time we become more calmly responsive and trusting in the face of negative tension.  Taking those settling breaths in the midst of angst becomes second nature.  Or at least a little easier.

*Pranayama simply means, “breathing exercises.”  The Sanskrit word translates into life sustaining energy — or breath (prana) being drawn out (ayama).

The reason I prefer a breath-centered, flowing yoga practice is because it includes constant calming pranayama.  The body only moves once and inhalation or exhalation has been activated.  The breath is the trigger that sets off the reaction of movement in the body.  The breath is slow, deep and long so the body moves gently even into the most advanced postures while the mind slows down its chattery thought patterns.  I recommend practicing mindfully flowing yoga with attention on the breath as well as focused breathing exercises as part of a regular routine.

You won’t always have a lot of time to do a full yoga sequence.  I totally get that.  So, below I’m outlining a simple breathing exercise you can do every single day, to generate a more naturally calm state throughout your entire being by conjuring your brilliant Parasympathetic Nervous System.

This exercise is so simple, you can even do it in public without looking like a “weirdo.”  LOL! 

 

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STEP 1:  NASAL BREATHING

One of the most effective yet simple ways to beckon a soothing internal response from the Parasympathetic Nervous System is to slowly breathe through the nose.  When we are stressed we tend to breathe in a panting-like manner, quicker shallow breaths through the mouth.  Nasal breathing is naturally slower.  So, to start a calming breathing practice, simply breathe as deeply and slowly through your nose whenever it occurs for you to do so.

The first step in most mindfulness programs is to simply pay attention.  So by taking little breaks throughout your days to pay full attention to your breath, you are becoming more mindful.  Look at you, all monk-like and stuff!

Before moving onto Step 2, take at least 1-5 minutes engaging in this deep, slow nasal breathing:  

  • Sit up nice and tall with your shoulders in a relaxed position drawn backward and downward to softly open the chest.  Let the natural sway of the lower back remain intact, but don’t over-sway and jut out the lower ribs.  Line up the shoulders over the hips and the chin over the belly button.

 

  • Notice the current rhythm of your breath.  Does it feel stuck or tight anywhere along the way?  Are your inhales and exhales short or long?  Don’t judge, just notice.

 

  • When you feel ready, slow that rhythm down.  Take deep, slow breaths through the nose into the lungs.  Work to fully expand through the ribcage, diaphragm, and mid-back with each inhalation.  See if you can take a teensy pause between your inhales and exhales, holding the breath in or out.  Just be calm and quiet during the little pause.

 

  • Blow your nose if it gets stuffy or runny and begin again.

 

 

STEP 2:  EXHALATION ELONGATION (this would make a good name for a Jazz record)

Now that you’ve centered yourself with nasal breathing, it’s time to do the deeper work that will bring forth a tranquility response from your Parasympathetic Nervous System.

  • Take a deep slow breath in through the nose.

 

  • Softly pause before exhaling.

 

  • Exhale quietly through the mouth for as long as you can.  This exhale will be longer than the inhale was — almost like if you were singing and holding out a note.  The breath should not be forced out in any way.  Let it be released gently, incrementally.  Do feel a small engagement at the top of the diaphragm as you push out the last bit of the exhale, but this is a natural engagement.  You are not to pull the belly back or thrust the chest down at all.  Keep the shoulders relaxed.

 

  • Repeat for 1 minute.  For most people this will be somewhere between 5 and 8 breaths.  Try to calm the thoughts in your mind by only paying attention to your breathing.  It can help by thinking, “I am inhaling.  Inhale.”  / “I am exhaling.  Exhale.”  That way your mind has something to do at the cognitive level and won’t wander so much.

 

  • As you enjoy this practice, increase the time you spend doing it to up to 5 minutes.

 

 

I hope this practice brings you closer to a sense of reverence for being human, for being YOU.  I wish for you to find a calm state more often, especially in stressful times.  There are always going to be stressors in our lives, but our response can be shifted from fight-or-flight to one of trust and calm clarity.

NEW Broadcast ;)

Negativity and violence seem to be the loudest headlines these days getting all the attention. It’s hard to stay grounded with so much fear and anger energy coming at us all the time. And in this day and age of social media on top of media-media, it really is coming at us all the time. Even when we are vigilant about what we allow into our day to day, somehow, it’s there. Sometimes we can just feel it. Sometimes we hear about it through the grapevine. Sometimes we pay close attention to it. How can we as members of one human family not pay some attention? We care!



So I’m here with a little news-reframing love note for you today (and a little recipe gift below...). A simple pop-in to say I feel your caring and I am caring along with you. I see your concerns and I am concerned along with you. I feel your days of exhaustion and therefore momentary indifference and then your rising up again into positive action. I am right there with you. My hope is that you will take time EVERY day to remember no matter what is going on around you, YOU ARE A LIGHT BRINGER! You can be the change you wish to see in the world. You are PLENTY and you are PERFECTION and you make a difference!!



The messages I got in my yoga practice this morning were these: Be quiet so I can hear the truth that there is so much wonder and magic in our world! Be mindful with my energy and my focus! Remember that all is well and above all, even when I wonder why I would bother: I AM A LIGHT BRINGER. It’s my calling. It’s my sacred contract. It’s my responsibility to seek out the good, the joy, the light. To live with as much good, joy and light as possible, and to share the good, the joy, the light.



I could withdraw and just try to live a happy life, hoping that my happy energy would have some radiant effect (and I’m absolutely certain that our happy energy does have a profound radiant effect!), but I feel this deep intention to take action and remind you of your splendor!



So, if you have — or someone you care about has — been feeling a bit winded by world events lately, I want to offer you a few little tips to continue to live your bright life…
 

  • When all seems glum or overwhelming, seek first to understand. Remain positive and hopeful; TRUST!
  • Trust that you are loved and supported.
  • Trust that good things are coming and good things are happening NOW.
  • When you’re stressed, you’re likely future tripping or dwelling on the past and looping in an eddy of wanting that which is impermanent to be permanent. Try for a moment taking a deep breath through your nose and, if only for the moment it takes to breathe one breath, BE HERE NOW. (be sure to breathe through your nose and not your mouth, this is more centering for your nervous system)
  • Trust in your amazingness — you are such brilliant design, capable of shifting your thoughts from negative ones to positive ones.
  • Trust that the world is healing. Even when we don’t see or grasp the healing, there is healing happening now. When we look for that, we either find it, or we create it, so look for the healing opportunity of every situation.
  • Accept. Acceptance always moves things along a magical path.
  • Trust that we are all in good hands. When it comes time to choose leaders, choose from a place of heart-ness — that place where we are all connected and want what’s best for everyone. Or step into your own light of leadership and lead with your heart.
  • Nourish yourself. My little voice is very wise and usually quite amusing. Today she told me, “Whole foods are soul foods!” (she also said, “Tea time is me time” and I had a good giggle!) Instead of reaching for that bag of chips or tub of ice cream, see what happens when you care enough for yourself to feed your soul byway of your body with natural goodness. When we treat ourselves kindly through food and proper hydration, we view the whole world more positively so don’t skimp on this step! You’re so worth it and you’ll be able to shine your light more freely when you're nourished.



Along the lines of “WHOLE FOODS ARE SOUL FOODS” and “TEA TIME IS ME TIME” I want to share a favorite Fall recipe with you. I made this for myself this morning, not having had it since last Autumn, and I was so pleased. I felt truly nourished by this tea latté treat.

 

I hope you make a little time for yourself to enjoy this! If you don’t get around to making it for yourself, I think I’ll be serving this at the upcoming Autumn Yoga Retreat Day on 11/11 where I intend to brighten retreaters’ lives and inspire them to live their light. If you’d like to sign up and join this lovely group of humans connecting to heart, light and gratitude, here’s a link with info: AUTUMN YOGA RETREAT DAY EVENT PAGE You’ve still got a few days to receive Earliest Bird Pricing and get 20% off!



Pumpkin Spice Cha Cha Chai Blender Latte
by Maggie Verderame


INGREDIENTS:
1 Cup Almond Milk (or milk of your choice)
1 Cup Brewed Magareeshi Cha Cha Chai Tea
2 Tbs Pumpkin Purée (this works with any hearty squash)
1 Tbs Pumpkin Pie Spice
1 Tbs Maca Powder
1 Tbs Chia Seeds
1 Tbs Hemp Seeds
1 Tbs Coconut Sugar
1 Tbs Honey -or- Maple Syrup
5 Ice Cubes (standard size)


METHODS:
Add all ingredients in the order they are listed to a blender. Whizz up until smooth.

For a cool drink, use cold almond milk and tea.

For a smoothie, used cold liquids and add more ice cubes.

For a warm latté, use warmed almond milk and hot tea. Omit ice cubes.

 

CHEERS to your health and happiness!  Namast-YAY!

CHEERS to your health and happiness!

Namast-YAY!