Thursday, 10 May 2012
One of the most powerful tools we have to reduce stress, calm the body and focus the mind is the breath.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your ‘fight or flight’ response which, when activated fully, speeds up your heart rate and your breathing and releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This is terrific if you are being chased by a bear or when you need to lift a 2 tonne car off a small child! However, if the threat is that you are late for work, or was cut off by another driver then this elevated body response is not that great for your health. Especially if you tend to be late to work often. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the function of some other body systems are reduced to divert energy to where it is needed so we can react to the perceived threat. To remain in this state is unhealthy, especially if those body systems happen to be digestion and immunity.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for relaxing, resting and digesting. It slows the heart rate, reduces blood pressure, and calms the body and mind, allowing all the body’s systems to return to their optimum efficiency. A much healthier state, don’t you think?
Using the breath is a very quick and easy way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the mind and body.
The simple breathing practice (Pranayama) we have been working with in class this term is a very quick and easy way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Simply breathe in for a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 6, at whatever speed suits your breathing. The breath should feel easy and comfortable, without any strain. Once you feel this has become rhythmic, you can add a gentle ujjayi breath (whispering or ocean breath at the throat) on the exhalation. You may then find that the counting slows down further, calming the body and mind further.
Simply being aware of the breath can have a positive effect on calming the nervous system as well. We breathe approximately 25,000 times a day (some of us breathe up to 30,000 times). But how many of those breaths are you actually aware of? Take a few minutes now to be fully aware of your next 10 breaths. You don’t even really need to stop what you are doing. Just notice the breaths, feel the air entering the body, filling and expanding the body, then the body releasing and letting go with the exhalation.
There is some interesting information about the breath and breathing here.
Enjoy your next breath.