5 Calming Breath Practices for Stressful Times

The breath is a powerful force we rarely stop to think about. Just as it sustains us, it can also greatly affect our mood and our emotions.

This is because the breath and the nervous system are intrinsically linked. In a healthy, relaxed individual, the heart rate is slightly elevated during an inhale and slightly depressed during an exhale. Known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia, this indicates healthy heart rate variability (HRV), which is the variation of time intervals between heartbeats. 

Heart rate variability is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, and it’s also one of the strongest indicators of vagal tone. Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve. This nerve is tied very closely to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response.

The vagus nerve (Latin for “wandering nerve”) meanders far and wide throughout the body, from the brain stem to the gut. It innervates a number of major organs, such as the heart, lungs, and many of the abdominal organs of the digestive tract. Because the vagus nerve has many parasympathetic fibers and is deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulating it can help transition you from a state of stress to a state of relaxation. This nerve acts as a catalyst to initiate your parasympathetic response.

Because some of the nerve’s fibers pass through the diaphragm, deep, diaphragmatic breaths can provide a healthy stimulus to the vagus nerve. And because heart rate lowers during exhalation—triggering a parasympathetic response—deep exhalation helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system as well. In general, breathwork plays a major role in regulating vagal tone, heart rate variability, and ultimately, the autonomic nervous system as a whole. 

Of course, we breathe all the time—we have to in order to survive. But more often than not, our breath is automatic and unnoticed. But when we practice pranayama (breathwork), we draw our full attention to the breath and observe and/or control its movements, which can be hugely beneficial for alleviating stress, and may even help to reduce its onset. 

The following are a few examples of pranayama techniques you can practice (either on their own or together) to help soften into your parasympathetic nervous system and bring mindful awareness to the present moment. This is in no way an exhaustive list, and not every breath practice will be appropriate for everyone. But it’s a good start for utilizing relaxing pranayama practices, particularly during times of great stress.

1. Diaphragmatic Breath

As noted, deep, diaphragmatic breaths powerfully stimulate the vagus nerve, and thereby the parasympathetic nervous system. So this breathing technique can help to slow the heart rate and lower or stabilize blood pressure.

The diaphragm is the primary muscle of relaxed breathing. So when we are in a state of deep relaxation, our diaphragm is doing a lot of the breathing work. Similarly, we can potentially trigger a state of relaxation by specifically targeting the diaphragm to take deep breaths. 

To practice:

• Lie down on your back and bend your knees to plant your feet on the floor.

• Place one hand over your abdomen just below your rib cage, around your diaphragm. 

• Draw a full breath in through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand beneath your hand.

• Exhale slowly through your nose as you feel your hand sink toward your spine.

• Continue to breathe this way for as long as you’d like.

2. Bhramari (Humming Bee’s Breath)

Bhramari is the Hindu goddess of bees, so this breath is meant to emulate the humming buzz of the fluttering of bees’ wings. It also emulates the sound of om, which is widely experienced as soothing and grounding. 

Because this technique utilizes the vocal cords to produce sound, it greatly stimulates the vagus nerve, a branch of which also offers sensory innervation through the larynx. Vocalizations such as humming, chanting, or singing can positively affect the vagus nerve and stimulate the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.

And, because this technique emphasizes exhalation, it helps to further stimulate the vagus nerve and thus initiate a parasympathetic response.

To practice:

• Start in any comfortable position: seated, standing, or lying down. 

• Close your lips and take a long, full inhale through your nose.

• Keep your mouth closed and exhale as you release a slow, steady humming sound. Allow your exhale to continue until you’ve dispelled almost all the air from your lungs.

• Repeat for as long as you would like, and feel the vibration of your hum resonating throughout your body.

3. Sama Vritti (Equal/Square Breath)

While this breathing technique can be translated as "equal fluctuations of the mind," it's often called “equal breath” or “square breath.” This simple practice can be quite powerful in regulating and slowing your breath, and therefore, affecting vagal tone. Breathing in a very structured and cyclical pattern forces your breath to equalize. 

You can use whatever count feels comfortable for you, but the goal is to equalize all parts of your breath in order to activate your parasympathetic nervous system—and to also slow the fluctuations of your mind.

If breath retention makes you light-headed or dizzy, then focus simply on equalizing your inhales and exhales. If you are pregnant, it is recommended that you avoid breath retention.

To practice:

• Start in any comfortable position: seated, standing, or lying down. 

• Inhale to a slow count of four.

• At the top of your inhale, hold your breath in for a slow count of four.

• Exhale for a slow count of four.

• At the bottom of your exhale, hold your breath out for a slow count of four.

• Repeat this cycle. If you’d like, you can increase your equalized counts.

4. Nadi Shodhana (channel cleansing/alternate nostril breath)

This soothing pranayama technique is believed to balance two major energy channels in the body: the pingala and ida nadis. They allow for the flow of prana (life-force energy) and are said to represent, respectively, our solar and lunar sides as well as our left and right brain dominance. 

According to tantric subtle anatomy, the nadis originate at the base of the spine, with the pingala nadi terminating in the right nostril and the ida nadi terminating in the left. By practicing alternate nostril breathing, we seek a state of equilibrium by equalizing the flow of prana through the two channels. 

The slow and relaxed breathing this technique creates also helps to increase vagal tone. A higher vagal tone allows your body to relax more quickly after a period of stress.

To practice:

• Begin in any comfortable position: seated, standing, or lying down. 

• Lightly rest the thumb of your right hand on your right nostril, and your ring finger on your left nostril. Either rest your index and middle fingers near your third eye center (the space between your eyebrows), or fold them into the base of your palm.

• Take a full, normal, deep breath, and exhale.

• Before your next inhale, press your thumb into your right nostril to close it off. Inhale only through your left nostril.

• Before your exhale, press your ring finger into your left nostril to close it off. Release your thumb and expel the air through your right nostril.

• Inhale through your right nostril.

• Then press your thumb into your right nostril and release your ring finger. Exhale through your left nostril.

• Continue as above, inhaling through your left nostril, and then closing off the left nostril and exhaling through the right nostril.

• Continue on, inhaling through the right nostril, and then closing off the right nostril and exhaling through the left nostril.

• Continue with this pattern.

• When you’re ready, end with an exhale through your left nostril so that you complete the circle where you began.

5. Anapanasati (Mindfulness of Breathing)

This extremely simple technique is practiced just as the name implies: by breathing mindfully and as naturally as possible while observing the breath. 

To practice:

• Start in any comfortable position: seated, standing, or lying down. 

• Listen to the natural flow of your breath.

• If it’s helpful, you can focus your awareness on the space where the air enters and exits from your body (either the tip of your nose or the space just above your lips). 

• Become the mindful observer of all that arises and falls within you (physically, psychologically, metaphorically, spiritually) as a result of your breath.

• Continue to observe your breath in this way for as long as you’d like. 

Pranayama Is a Powerful Tool to Help Navigate Turbulent Times

Our breath is one of the few autonomous functions of the body that we can also consciously control, making it an incredible resource that’s at our disposal anytime, anywhere. 

Science has confirmed that our breath can powerfully affect our physiological and psychological states, which means that pranayama has the capacity to offer serious relief during times of stress and anxiety.

You already utilize your breath 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So why not bring to it a bit more intention and mindful awareness in order to help regulate and ease stress levels? You’ll likely find you have little to lose and much to gain.

About the teacher

Leah Sugerman is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveler. An eternally grateful student,... Read more

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