What the Heck is Pranayama and How Can it Help You Reduce Stress?

We all know that stress isn’t good for us. But did you know that stress accounts for between 60% and 80% of visits to primary care doctors? The effects of chronic stress are also more than you may realize. Stress has been linked to accelerated biological aging, and increased chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, two processes that cause cellular and genetic damage. Scientists refer to chronic, low-grade inflammation in the body as “inflammaging.” Inflammaging has been associated with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stress, depression, and a weakened immune system.

Two biomarkers in our blood that can be used to measure the level of chronic inflammation and stress in our body are cortisol and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). High levels of cortisol is an indicator of high stress.  Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is a naturally occurring protein in the body that regulates our brain’s plasticity and promotes brain development. People who have depression, anxiety, or Alzheimer’s disease have been found to have lower levels of BDNF.

Several recent studies suggest that pranayama (yoga breathing techniques), meditation and deep relaxation can slow the harmful physical effects of stress and inflammaging.

One published study found that 12 weeks of yoga slowed cellular aging. The program consisted of 90 minutes of yoga that included physical postures, breathing, and meditation five days a week over 12 weeks. The results found lower levels of inflammation and significantly decreased levels of cortisol in participants of the study. It also found higher levels of BDNF after the yoga program, suggesting that yoga could have potential protective effects for the brain as well.

Another recent study found that a three-month yoga retreat reduced inflammation and stress in the body. The yoga retreat incorporated physical postures, controlled breathing practices, and seated meditations. Participants did two hours of sitting meditation, one to two hours of moving practice, and one hour of chanting daily. Levels of protective anti-inflammatory markers increased after the retreat, while harmful pro-inflammatory markers decreased. Researchers also found that BDNF levels tripled. Participants felt less depression, less anxiety, and had fewer physical symptoms.

Not only do these studies suggest that yoga could slow down the harmful effects of chronic stress at both the psychological and physical levels,  it also indicates the benefits of a yoga practice that goes beyond yoga poses and incorporates yoga breathing techniques, meditation or deep relaxation.

Here’s a simple calming yoga breathing technique that can lower your stress levels. You can practice it for as little as one or two minutes at work or home.

Sit in a comfortable seated position, perhaps with your back supported by a wall.

Close your eyes, reminding yourself not to judge anything you’re doing.

Take a few slow breaths in and out.

Rest your left hand on your left knee.

Fold your ring finger and little fingers toward the palm on your right hand.

Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand in the middle of your forehead, between your eyebrows. You can also curl your index and middle finger toward your palm and rest them on your forehead if that feels more stable.

Exhale slowly through your nose, allowing your lungs to empty completely.

Close your right nostril with your thumb.

Inhale gently and slowly through your left nostril for 5 counts.

Press and close your left nostril with your ring and little fingers. Hold for 2 counts.

Lift your thumb to release your right nostril, and exhale slowly through your right nostril for 5 counts. Stay empty for 2 counts.

Inhale gently and slowly through your right nostril for 5 counts.

Press and close your right nostril with your thumb. Hold for 2 counts.

Release your left nostril, and exhale through your left nostril for 5 counts. Stay empty for 2 counts.

Start another cycle by inhaling through your left nostril. Continue to this pattern for 10 cycles. After you exhale from one nostril, remember to breathe in from that same nostril before switching.

It is a proven fact, breathing techniques are valuable to slow the harmful effects of stress and inflammation.  Try it for a week and see

This Guy Took Our Breath Away.

What can you do with a 49 cent jar of bubbles and a heart of gold?

Daniel Hamiel, implementing biofeedback techniques in schools all over Israel.
Touch 250,000 kids, teach them to breath properly and develop necessary coping skills to deal with everyday life situations and trauma.

Impossible?  Not at all.

I met Daniel Hamiel at a conference this year and heard his unbelievable story that was both touching, and inspiring. Daniel created a school resilience program in Israel where missile attacks, war, and natural disasters have become a fact of everyday life. This leaves children with anxiety, nightmares, fears, difficulties with school and sleeping, detachment, and social withdrawal.  With this level of trauma everywhere, how could you hope to create balance in a child’s life in that environment?

Think about all the simple things we do to create balance within our lives.  Taking time for yourself, exercising, eating right, balancing our work and family needs; as simple as it could be, it still doesn’t ensure that we do it, despite the fact that we know it works.

Not everybody in Israel has the opportunity to create this kind of balance due to the situation and environment in which they live. The country stays in a constant state of survival mode, where people are thankful for each breath they take. Breath is life.  On a brief aside, did you know that research shows a high correlation between high blood pressure and poor breathing?

Nothing is more basic than breathing. We have to do it, but we don’t understand the impact that breathing can have on our well being.  We don’t think about the physiological function that occurs, and the impact that breathing has on our heart beat.  Did you know if you slow your breathe down, you can change your heart rate?  If you change your heart rate you feel calmer.  Breath can be a powerful tool and an easy one to master.  Daniel Hamiel is teaching many people to breathe properly through a simple and readily available activity, blowing bubbles.

Bubbles, that is a flash back memory, two little boys running around blowing bubbles, fun times. We all have fond memories of blowing bubbles with our children, they cost next to nothing, and you can do it anywhere, anytime.  But I never thought about using bubbles to teach people how to breathe. Think about what happens when you slowly exhale into a ring doused with soapy solution, a big beautiful bubble emerges. You are controlling your exhalation, probably to a count of six, and you are breathing at an optimal rate.

Daniel, along with a staff of three, has been to going into the school systems and teaching these proper breathing techniques to the counselors. In turn, the counselors teach the teachers, and of course, the teachers teach the children.  The children teach the parents and their siblings.  How simple can that be?  Simple enough to work anywhere, anytime. Daniel is helping little by little to enact change and bring a small sliver of calm into a very turbulent part of the world.

We encourage you to learn more about your breathing patterns, visit www.drweil.com.  Or, place your hand on your abdomen and count as you inhale and as you exhale.  Try to get to a count of 6 to begin with, if you are full of air before you get to 6, then pause and exhale.  Aim for 6 seconds of breath in, and 6 seconds out, resulting in 5 total breaths a minute. This is the optimal amount of breath for relaxation.

Get a feel for how you breathe, and try to bring some calmness into your crazy day.