The Simple Magic Of Breathing

It’s no surprise that the social fabric of the 21st century is quite different than a hundred years ago. As women, we are in a transformative epoch where we are constantly redefining gender norms while trying to maintain some semblance of "balance" in our lives. We are busier than ever, working 12-hour workdays, maintaining our social lives, finding time to exercise, and, for some of us, taking care of families. As we are “strapped for time,” it’s easy to forget the value of self-reflection and taking some time out for ourselves. At face value, we are preoccupying ourselves with a whole slew of different activities, but in reality, how many of those things are we actually doing for us?

When I was a working professional in New York, I prioritized my daily meditation and yoga practices. If I couldn’t begin my day with them, then I made time at work. Bemused, my friends would often wonder how one could find room to turn inward when my exterior was constantly turned on with work and social activities. “I don’t have enough time in the day,” or “I’m completely wiped out after work,” were typical responses that I would hear from people. But, to me, it was never a question of time; there was always time. Rather, it was a question of dedication towards cultivating a mindful practice and having the right resources to do so.

Mindfulness practices, such as yoga and meditation, are dynamic in that they can be practiced anywhere, including the workplace. They needn’t be limited to a fancy yoga studio with an overpriced mat. In fact, many companies are following suit with the idea that these practices make for a more holistic and productive workplace, and are offering regular workshops in their offices for their employees.  And it’s true--when your brain is fried from sitting at a computer for five hours, or you’ve hit some serious writer's block, taking a 15-minute reset period away from your work zone can clear your mind and open the channels of clarity and progressive movement. With that in mind, employers should respect and welcome your need to cultivate a practice in the workplace, as it shows your sincerity towards taking care of yourself, and, in return, your capabilities as a professional.

So what are the practices that can be done in a time-sensitive space, such as one’s workplace?  Clearly, it isn’t a 15-minute asana session where you’re lying on the floor of a conference room with your legs waving in the air. But there is another highly sensitized function of the body that has massive effect in calming the nervous system and can be done sitting down or even in the comfort of your work chair. What is it, you may ask? It is none other than your breath. In yogic parlance, this practice is referred to as “pranayama,” which involves the controlled inhalation, retention, and exhalation of the breath. A form of deep breathing, pranayama is known to activate the brain’s parasympathetic response, stimulating the vagus nerve, and in turn calming the mind and body as well as reducing your blood pressure and heart rate. It effectively helps to manage the body’s stress response, while reducing the strain on the muscles of your neck and upper back.

The word “pranayama” is an umbrella term for different practices that vary in their technique. But, ultimately, they all involve some manipulation of the breath to control our nervous responses. And by nervous, I mean the responses of the brain and the one you get when you have a deadline right around the corner. One of the most common practices in pranayama is Ujjayi, which in Sanskrit means "leading to success." Like other pranayama techniques, Ujjayi has been shown to enhance activation of the parasympathetic system contributes to mental relaxation and reduction of stress.

Here are the steps:

  • Close your mouth, take a deep breath in through the nose

  • Make sure to count the number of seconds that you’re inhaling

  • After you’ve inhaled, use your right thumb to close your right nostril.

  • Now, exhale through your left nostril while constricting your throat muscles. If you are doing this correctly, you will hear a low but sweet and uniform pitch as you exhale.

  • While exhaling, make sure that the number of seconds is double that of your inhale*

  • After you get the hang of this practice on the outflow, gently constrict your throat as you inhale. One inhale and exhale constitutes one round. Repeat this practice anywhere from 10-15 rounds.

One of the important techniques of pranayama is maintaining a 1:2 ratio between one’s inhalation and exhalation. Your exhalation should always be double that of your inhalation. Thus, it is important to not overstretch yourself and breathe according to your capacity. Why is this so? The longer we retain our breath, the longer we retain carbon dioxide in our brain. And prolonged natural retention of carbon dioxide is what works with our neuro-receptors to give us that “calm, cooling effect” that helps counter stress.

Although this practice seems to be uncomplicated in its instruction, it’s important to remember that pranayama heavily impacts the nervous system. Therefore, it’s always safe to sign up for a class or two in your respective locality, learn the techniques properly, and cultivate a routine of your own that you can regularly bring to your work space! Once you are able to apply it on a daily basis, you will notice higher self-awareness along with greater clarity of mind that will help with your productivity and efficiency in all aspects of your life.