Waiting to exhale: How to relax when you're stressed

By Suzy Green-Cindrich, Three Trees Yoga and Healing Arts Center in Federal Way

Feeling stressed?

With the economy in the toilet, workplace stresses and the kids home for the summer, we have plenty of material to allow anxiety to take us over. When we find ourselves in a state of stress, the mind starts to turn in circles, running over the same worries again and again. As the mind turns, tension begins to build in the body. We have a difficult time getting into a productive problem solving mode. The turnings of the mind can keep us up at night, which adds to our stress load, and a vicious cycle has begun.

The science of yoga gives us many breathing techniques to combat stress by slowing down the mind, allowing the body to relax. Here is a great one that you can utilize anywhere, whether you are driving in rush hour traffic or about to head into a job interview.

Start in a comfortable seated position, against the wall or in a chair to start. If you aren’t comfortable, you will never be able to completely release tension. Place both hands on your lower belly over the navel, fingers pointed toward each other. Slowly start to breath in and out of the nose, directing this breath down to your hands. Let the belly fill like a balloon with each inhale. Feel the fingers spread apart as the belly expands with air. As you exhale, just be aware of the navel relaxing naturally and without effort toward the spine. Repeat this several times, keeping the shoulders relaxed. If it takes effort or feels unnatural at first, just stick with it. You are retraining an old habit, and the first step is to bring awareness to it.

Once you feel comfortable with this long, slow and deep breath, begin to bring your attention to the short pause at the top of the inhalation just before you take the next exhalation. See if you can start to lengthen that short pause.

The next step is to use what is called a ratio, or a count, with your new breath. A good place to start is 5-3-7. Take a long deep inhalation counting to 5 in your head. Suspend that breath, holding the inhalation for the count of 3, and then exhale completely to the count of 7. Repeat several times. If you start to feel like you need a longer inhale, change the count. You could do a 7-3-9 count. Just try to keep the exhale longer than the inhale. If you find that suspending the breath makes you feel uncomfortable, then don’t do it. Just inhale 5, exhale 7.

The next time you are stressed or have insomnia, notice the quality of your breath. Where do you feel the expansion in the body? Are you breathing into your belly or your chest? Are your inhales and exhales rapid or long? Typically an anxious breath will be shallow, short and high in the chest rather than the belly. Then give the ratio breathing a try. Once you feel at ease with it, teach it to your kids. It can be a wonderful tool for test-taking anxiety as well.

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