Triggering the Relaxation Response

It only takes 10 breaths 

"Krishnamacharya used to say that pranayama is the most important of the eight limbs of yoga (as listed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), because the last limb—samadhi, the pinnacle of sustained mental focus and the goal of classical yoga—can be reached through pranayama itself."

A. G. Mohan


In Trauma Sensitive Yoga, we recognize and emphasize the power of conscious breathing. When we utilize the breath to regulate mental, emotional and physical reactions, we regain control over our subjective experiences in this material world. No longer feeling victim to life's circumstances, we may cultivate a solid foundation of centeredness and empowerment simply through regulated pranayama (breathing exercises). Pranayama practice brings greater awareness of the self, on the mental, emotional, energetic and physical planes by helping us to slow down and be more present in the eternal now moment, to feel in control and ready to navigate through our daily challenges, and to become empowered to change our inner experience of the world. When we use pranayama regularly, we develop a deeper relationship with our body, one of compassion through heightened awareness and sensitivity. Breathing more deeply and fully literally slows down the activity of the nervous system almost immediately; it only takes 10 breaths. Many scientific studies prove the efficacy of pranayama practice on lowering stress levels, improving reaction time and overall cognition, as well as promoting cardiovascular health. So there is no doubt that breath is an incredibly powerful tool that many of us often take for granted.

Whether you are a trauma survivor, someone living with anxiety, or are empathic, pranayama will be one of your best tools for self-regulation and managing any uncomfortable symptoms like shortness of breath, sweating, nervousness, feelings of vulnerability or insecurity and anxiety in general. Prana (life-force energy) rides the breath so when we manipulate the pace and quality of the breath with pranayama, we move the prana throughout the body, clearing blockages and redistributing to places of shortage, evening out our whole energy field for optimum functioning and health. This is why many people report feeling invigorated or enlivened after certain pranayama exercises; they are experiencing the balancing of prana within their bodies. But don't take my word for it, try it and see for yourself! Here is a great starting practice for those who are new to conscious breathing or pranayama:

Intro to Pranayama: Deep Belly Breathing

These suggestions are like steps; once you master one you should combine it with the next one and continue to build onto your practice until you are doing all of these simultaneously.

Come comfortably into child's pose or supported child's pose (being face down to the floor will help create a safe and intimate space for you to explore the breath, as well as ground energetically; gravity also helps when re-training the abdominal muscles to breath deeply).

Wide legged child's pose with arms extended, knees come to edge of mat

Child's pose with block supporting forehead

Child's pose with round bolster

1.  Breathing through the nose, on the inhalation allow the belly to naturally expand, falling towards the floor. You may gently push through the abdominal muscles to exaggerate this inflation of the diaphragm if your body is not used to relaxing on the inhalation.

On the exhalation, draw the belly back up towards the spine, contracting the diaphragmatic muscles and pushing all the air out of the lungs. During the first 3 breaths, you may choose to exhale through the nose or the mouth. You may also choose to exhale with an audible sigh to release tension at any point in this practice.

2.  Breathing in through the nose, allow the breath to flow down into the body, first filling the lungs to capacity, then filling the diaphragm (belly).

Exhale in reverse, first emptying the diaphragm and then emptying the lungs.

3. Inhale, exaggerate the inhalation by opening up the back of the throat, feeling the coolness of the in breath moving down the trachea, filling the lungs and the diaphragm.

Exhale, elongating the duration of the out breath by creating a restriction in the base of the throat, like when you sigh with your mouth closed. Notice the warmth of the breath on the exhalation.

4. Inhale, count the seconds of the inhalation. No force, just passive observation.

Exhale, count the seconds of the exhalation. Notice which one is longer, the inhalation or the exhalation.

5. Slow the intake of the breath. Count the seconds.

Slow the output of the breath. Count the seconds.

6. Find a natural pause after the inhalation, count to 2 and exhale.

Find a natural pause after the exhalation, count to 2 and inhale.

7. Inhale, count the seconds.

Slow the exhalation, making it 2 seconds longer than the inhalation.

And the last three breaths are for you to find your natural rhythm. For calming effects, try to extend the exhalation to be longer than the inhalation (even if only by 2 seconds). This will trigger the relaxation response on a physiological level and will help invoke that peaceful, blissed out feeling we all come to yoga for.

If this is overwhelming at all, try just breathing slowly and deeply, filling and emptying out the lungs completely for 10 breath cycles (inhale + exhale = one breath cycle). You can always build from there.

Doing this twice a day will help you cultivate a steadfast sense of well-being, resiliency and confidence. You can use this simple introductory practice any time to relieve stress, gain perspective, and generally wind down. For the empaths, it is integral to take time everyday to focus on reinforcing your center so that you are not so easily influenced when in the presence of large crowds or intense people with whirling energy. For those with anxiety, a regular pranayama practice will help to diminish the overall symptoms you experience and will serve as an immediate tool to combat panic attacks. The more you practice conscious breathing, the more aware you are of your body and you will learn to recognize signs of oncoming anxiety earlier and earlier, making the symptoms easier to manage or avoid altogether.

"For he who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be the greatest enemy."
Bhagavad Gita (6.6)

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