Pranayama – Breathe Through the Change of Season Blues
It’s quite a common occurrence that people experience a change in their mood and behaviour with the change of the season. Whilst this has only recently been labelled as S.A.D (seasonal affective disorder) sensitivity to the change of seasons and winter blues are nothing new.
Yoga can help to alleviate these change-of-season blues through the practice of correct breathing. Yoga practice emphasises a slow, deep and full breathing pattern while in the poses which allows the body and joints to open further into postures and deepen the stretches. However, it goes further with the practice of pranayama (prana = vital life-force energy, yama = restraint or control), where a variety of breathing techniques are practiced to calm the nervous system and cleanse the body and mind enabling us to find a sense of peace within.
When did you last check how you were breathing?
Amazingly most of us are rarely conscious of our breath, with our attention frequently scattered in several different places simultaneously. The reality is that our state of mind usually dictates the quality of our breath. When we’re busy, stressed, anxious or distracted, the breath can be shallow and rapid which exacerbates the symptoms of stress, depression or tension. Fortunately, the respiratory system is the only system in the body which can run autonomously as well as consciously. And this is good news. By adopting conscious breathing it helps to remedy unhealthy shallow breathing patterns and we can induce a state of relaxation and calm the mind, simply by breathing slowly and deeply. Therefore just as the mind affects the quality of breath, when we’re consciously breathing in a slow, deep and regular rhythm we can alter our state of mind.
Whilst there are many different types of pranayama practices, the following 2 exercises are basic pranayama practices which help to change the state of mind:
Deep 3 part breathing: the foundation of all the breathing practices. The practice involves breathing fully into the lungs by inhaling in 3 parts. First exhale fully through the nose to empty the lungs of stale air. Then take a slow, deep inhalation (through the nose) by expanding the abdomen (which helps draw the diaphragm down to increase the capacity of the lungs), expanding the chest and breathing all the way up until the collar bones gently lift. For the exhalation (breathing through the nose) gently release the collar bones, the chest and finally the abdomen. Repeat for 3-5 minutes for maximum benefits. Benefits include an increase in oxygen, decrease in stress levels, cleansing and rejuvenating of the body, calming, soothing and uplifting of the mind.
Nadhi sudhi. Alternate nostril breathing.
Form the shape ‘vishnu mudra’ with the right hand. Inhale slowly and deeply using the 3 part breath through both nostrils. Closing the right nostril with the thumb exhale slowly through the left nostril. Inhale slowly through the left nostril, then block the left nostril with the ring finger. Release the thumb and exhale through the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril, then block the right nostril and release the ring finger to exhale through the left. Maintain this pattern of exhale – inhale – switch for 10 rounds. The aim is to make the exhale twice as long as the inhale. Benefits include rebalancing of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, calming of the nervous system and the mind, improved mental focus, symptoms of stress alleviated, promotes better sleep.
Awareness of the breath
If you don’t feel like trying pranayama on your own, an easy exercise you can practise by yourself is simple focus and awareness on the breath. This alone helps alleviate anxiety and improve mental clarity and concentration by helping us to stay anchored in the present moment, rather following the mind’s gymnastics of habitually jumping forward to the future or dwelling in the past. Through focus on the breath (which in itself is a form of meditation) we learn to calm and still the mind.
Start by sitting comfortably, preferably with the spine in a natural, upright position. Make sure you’re breathing through the nose. Close the eyes to help ease the distractions of the mind. Bring your awareness into the body and start to notice your inhalation. As you inhale focus your attention on the sense of expansion and stretching within the body. After several slow breaths gradually draw your in-breath downwards so that you’re breathing into the lower back and can feel the bottom ribs gently expanding. Then notice as the chest expands and the collar bones gently rise. After following the inhale for 5 or 10 breaths, now bring your awareness to the exhalation and notice the sense of release and relaxation as the breath leaves the body. Each time you exhale try to let go of any tension that you may be holding in the body or the mind. After following 5 or 10 exhales, next you can bring your awareness to the sounds of the breath, noticing the subtle difference between the sound of the inhale and the sound of the exhale. Finally, bring your awareness to the nostrils as you notice the sense of coolness on the in-breath and the feeling of warmth on the out-breath. This practice should take several minutes and the benefits should be slower breathing, a calmer mind and a sense of peace within.
There’s nothing like practising in a group so try to find a class where you can learn pranayama. Or better still come and join in a Revitalize yoga session! Everybody’s welcome. So bust those seasonal blues and breathe yourself happy!