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! 

 

copyrightmagareeshimountainmeditating.jpg

 

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 Year's Traditions #inspiredbyyoga

I love the last week of the year.  I feel like so much settles and calms down, giving us a peaceful moment to catch our breath and be more still.  

I find myself more and more effected by the hustle energy that leads up to the holidays.  It’s then — when the outside world creeps into my mind that my yogic practices come in extra handy to keep me centered and calm.  Or at least working toward being centered and calm!  Then, once that whole fast paced, 8,000 sale emails a day, extra tasks to do, festive activities not to be missed, scattered and busy (albeit love-filled and truly enjoyable) season passes, it feels like a giant exhale to me.

All nighters filled with clanging glasses and loud horns to ring in the new year are a cherished memory of my past.  Though I do love to don a sparkly crown and dance the night away, now once New Year’s Eve rolls around, I’m in the mood for a simple, heartfelt evening spent with my favorite people.  There’s still bubbly and delicious food, but I’ve traded the fanfare for something a bit more #inspiredbyyoga.

MY FOUR FAVORITE NEW YEAR’S RITUALS

#1 NEW YEAR’S REFLECTIONS
Taking this time to reflect can bring forth clarity you’ll carry with you in the new year.  It can allow you to feel peace within and take mindful actions.  And, it can be done simply by the even the busiest among us.

I want to be clear, I’m not talking about taking time to make new year’s resolutions and contemplate all the things you “should have done” in 2017!  If that’s where your head is at New Years, I encourage you to stop should-ing on yourself and be here now:  in acceptance and grateful for the opportunity of today as well as every opportunity the last 365 days have brought you.  Opportunities to be authentically you.  Opportunities to expand your capacity to love.  Opportunities to connect.  Opportunities to be present.  Opportunities to learn and grow forward.  Opportunities to choose happiness.  It would be virtually impossible to take advantage of every opportunity life gives us every moment, but taking time now to reflect on them allows us to really see and benefit from them.  Science tells us that mentally reliving or imagining positive events is almost as heart connecting as actually living those moments.  Amazing!  After reflection, when wonderful opportunities appear again later, we tend to be more aware of them, more ready for them.

So, give up the pressure of New Year’s Resolutions by releasing judgement and embrace New Year’s Reflections!  You can do this alone or with a loved one (who probably has some memories of amazing moments of you that you’ve forgotten!).  

Here are some of my favorite prompts to reflect upon.  See if you can come up with at least one for each of these:

  • What have I accomplished?
  • What failures gave me something to learn from?
  • What's worked?
  • What hasn’t worked?
  • What have I wished for more of?
  • What have I wished for less of?
  • What new things did I learn?
  • What have I forgotten about that I might like to rekindle?
  • Where and when did true happiness bloom in my days?
  • What has brought me great joy?
  • What am I currently feeling most passionate about?
  • What might I like to let go of?
  • What were some happy moments of 2017?
  • What am I looking forward to in 2018?


#2  HONORING THE EARTH
In our family we like to make a sacred circle around a globe each New Year’s Eve, surrounding it with symbols of each season.  We sit together doing a short Vippasana mediation (focusing on our breath) and then I usually guide a little meditation conjuring gratitude for Mother Earth and all her wonders.  After that we go around the circle sharing happy memories from, and discussing the brilliance of nature during each season.  Last year our friends made a giant crisp rice globe and we even lit a candle in it and sang happy birthday to the earth.  I hang out with incredible people!

symbols from each season for us to circle

symbols from each season for us to circle

#3 HAPPINESS/GRATITUDE JARS
A fun tradition among my tribe is making an annual Happiness Jar (or box, or bag, or envelope….).  If you don’t already know, a Happiness Jar is a place to keep little reminders of your happiest moments throughout a year.  Some people like to write their happiest moment of each day (we say ours nightly at bedtime) and others like to write down something special to remember each week.  The notes get dropped into the jar, filling it as the year goes on.  On New Year’s Eve/Day it’s fun to go through the notes from last year and read them aloud, reminiscing sweetly.  

Additionally, started a few years back by my dear friend, we now like to make a gratitude jar on New Year’s Eve.  As with the Happiness Jar, we drop notes of grateful memories from the passing year and one by one we pull them out and read them aloud.  Our hearts feel fuller and our spirits glow as each note is read!

my friend uses cut pieces of her kids' artwork for happiness notes - so pretty!

my friend uses cut pieces of her kids' artwork for happiness notes - so pretty!

#4 MAKING WISHES & SETTING INTENTIONS
You might like also to make lists of wishes or intentions for the upcoming year and share them with each other so you can check in throughout the year and see how those are manifesting.  The only rule I set for this is that there is NO pressure, attachment or expectation placed on any wishes or intentions by you or your vision holders!  Simply state what’s in your heart now and allow things to unfold naturally, in the ways that feel best in the new year.  If it feels right, they can be let go or changed at any time!

Some people like to use flash paper to make their wishes — that nifty stuff you can write on and then light on fire and watch as it floats up and dissipates.  A lovely reminder of the impermanence of everything, the importance of letting go of attachment to the outcome, and the sweetness of trusting all is well.  I was gifted adorable seed paper this holiday and am looking forward to writing some wishes and intentions on it, planting the pages, and watching them bloom!

my wee girl (even wee-er) making wishes & listing gratitude

my wee girl (even wee-er) making wishes & listing gratitude

so sweet!

so sweet!


Whatever your traditions, may you feel loved and supported from inside and out as you step boldly and welcome this new year into your heart!