Learning to regulate your breathing using the exercise we will discuss below will have a profound impact on your physical, emotional, and psychological health. Did you know that you take around seventeen thousand breaths every day? Most of the time you do it unconsciously. Your body takes care of your breathing for you.
Your physiology is regulated by both your voluntary nervous system and your autonomic nervous system. The first is largely under your conscious control and the second is not. Examples of voluntary nervous system activities include running, sticking your tongue out, or most other muscle movements you can think of. Examples of autonomic nervous system activities include regulation of blood pressure, movement of food through your digestive tract, and your pulse.
Your breathing is a wild card and straddles the gap between autonomic and voluntary. When you want to you can take complete control over it, but the second you forget your body takes over. Stop and think for a second about how many of your seventeen thousand breaths you are consciously aware of each day. Probably not that many if you are like most people. Obviously this can be a good thing because having to remember to breathe all the time would be a huge chore.
But the benefits of taking breathing under your conscious control more often are myriad. One of the most important is that the process acts as a parallel for bringing unconscious thoughts, emotions, and motivations into your conscious awareness. This is one of the primary goals of psychoanalysis and a cornerstone of mental health. By training yourself to become aware of your breathing you are also training yourself to become aware of your thoughts.
The stress and anxiety produced from living in the modern world is another reason to learn to regulate your breathing. The fight or flight response cued of from threatening situations had great utility for our ancestors and helped them stay alive in the wild. Obviously it still has utility today but unfortunately many situations arise where staying calm would be more appropriate. Instead our physiological apparatus takes over for us. Consider having to give a big presentation in front of a room full of imposing strangers, or facing your romantic partner when he or she is furious, or struggling to remember information for an important test. These cases and many more like them are probably best confronted by being calm, cool, collected, and in the moment. Unfortunately your body perceives a threat, adrenaline spikes, and your breathing automatically changes in order to get the most oxygen possible to the vital parts of your body to confront the danger.
The more you grow accustomed to working with your breathing in the moment through the exercise we will discuss below, the more you will become consciously aware when it has suddenly changed. You will be able to use the skills you have learned to bring your breathing back under your control, which will also lower your blood pressure and heart rate, keeping you calm and aware in the face of the perceived threat.
Ujjayi breathing is used by yoga practitioners to keep their minds settled while performing difficult poses that would usually cause them to breathe quite heavily or gasp for air. It is an excellent method for bringing calm to your mind and your body when you are feeling stressed, irritated, angry, or upset. It allows you to focus in the moment while getting vital oxygen to all parts of the body that need it. Deepak Chopra notes that Olympic athletes have begun using this breathing technique to enhance respiratory efficiency while training (Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga, Pos 887, Kindle Version).
In order to perform Ujjayi breathing, constrict your throat while you take deep, rhythmic breaths through your nose. A great description I have heard is that it is like trying to fog up a window with your breath, except that you are keeping your mouth closed and breathing solely through your nasal cavities. The sound that you make will sound like snoring or like Darth Vadar (Chopra). Do not be afraid to breathe loudly. Make sure you take long, deep inhalations and exhalations. If you start to feel dizzy or experience any tingling sensations go back to breathing normally until you feel better and then try again.
If you practice Ujjayi breathing for even ten minutes a day you will feel your stress and irritability melt away and in their place will be calm, focus, and contentment.