It is not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it. Hans Selye
Stress. The dreaded word. Stress can be external or internal. Most of you are familiar with external stressors (work, family, trauma) or stress triggers. What would an internal stress threat feel like? Here is one example.
A Stress Story
Imagine camping in Denali National Park, Alaska. You have a beautiful tent, amazing scenery and fresh air – the likes of which you’ve never experienced in the city. You wake up early before the family stirs to get your yóga-āsana practice in before the hike. First, you warm up facing the sun, do a few rounds of sun salutation and finish with a few of your favorite āsanas. Then, you settle into a comfortable seated pose for meditation. You are watching your breath and relaxing into its silence when the thought a black bear pops up. You recall the warnings given by the park ranger and then the mind takes off in lightning speed into a ‘what if’ story.
What if while you’re sitting in meditation a black bear appears and you won’t hear it or see it because you are listening to your breath and your eyes are closed? How badly will you be clawed if a bear jumps out at you? This wondering starts in the head as anxiety or even as a preoccupation of the mind rebelling to be tied down to meditation. It all starts with ‘if’.
Here is what is important to remember. The subconscious cannot tell what’s real from what’s fantasy. Remember you don’t know that you are dreaming until you wake up. Triggered by the thought of a black bear the body begins to respond as if the threat is real, activating the stress response in its traditional sense. In essence, you have triggered the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. A domino effect of various glands is elicited, flooding the body with hormones, and you feel anxious and agitated at once. You blame the park ranger for putting this thought in your head (he was only doing his job) and then blame your spouse for bringing you to this dangerous park.
Your eyes fly open. Uncertain what to do next, you start looking for the black bear. The body goes into a alert mode and becomes stressed. This idea of reacting to an imaginary bear could create an endless mental chatter of the possibility of a threat leading to the activation of the stress response.
This type of reaction can include other imaginary ‘what if ‘ threats – like what if I’m caught in a blizzard, get robbed, plane crashes, what if I fail in my exam, what if a tree falls on my car or I get into an accident while driving to work; endless imaginary worries. Of course one must use common sense when necessary. Remember ‘You‘ are triggering these fictional stresses. In any case, this slightly stressed state is soon accepted as normal. Shortly, this stress is likely to create tension at the muscular level (head, neck or back pain) or at the physiological level (high BP, diabetes, etc.) and at the mental/emotional level (anxiety depression, anger), eventually compromising overall health. You then consult the doctors expecting a magic pill that will make it all go away instead of inquiring, “Why do I have this pain? Why am I imagining stress in my life?”
Prāṇāyāma, breathing practices in yóga has proven to work wonders on the body and mind. Breath, as you know, is the vital process of the body as it fuels the burning of oxygen and glucose for energy to power the physiological activities of each cell. It also influences emotional and mental states of the mind. The flow of breath can be described as follows; length of inhalations and exhalations and durations of the pauses in between. The inhalations, exhalations and pauses can vary according to the time of day, blockage in the nostrils, extent of concentration, heightened emotions, sickness and of course, stress.
For relief from stress, you could say Prāṇāyāma is almost like a magic pill, especially Viśāma Vritti, Unequal Breath. Vritti means fluctuations. Viśāma means unequal, irregular, difficult, among other meanings. What this means is the same length of inhalation, exhalation and retention of each breath is not maintained. Iyengar cautions that this technique must be kept simple in the beginning as the variations in the ratios are countless and difficult.
Where there is a practice of unequal breath, there must be a practice of equal breath. Most popular prāṇāyāma is the deep 3-part yógic breath called Dīrgha Prāṇāyāma. When you practice this breathing technique according to the fixed ratios, it helps to equalize and deepen the breath. When inhales, exhales and pauses are equal, the technique is referred to as Sama Vritti Prāṇāyāma. Both are wonderful stress relieving techniques.
Before learning Viśāma Vritti Prāṇāyāma, Unequal Breath, it is best to learn the deep yogic breath and equal breath in order gain conscious control of the breathing processes and to understand how it affects your mental and emotional states. Working with pauses or retention (Kumbhaka) has not been addressed here. This part of the technique must be attempted only after a long period of disciplined practice and must be learnt from one who has mastered Kumbhaka in their personal practice.
Caution: At any time during the practice if you feel dizzy, anxious or agitated, stop and restart at a later time or another day. If you still experience similar symptoms, please discontinue and consult a knowledgeable yóga teacher or your physician.
- Comfortable seat is paramount as always. Whether you are seated on your yoga mat, using blocks, blankets for hip and lower back support or seated in a chair, remember to respect what your body needs at that moment.
- Keep your spine straight, shoulders relaxed, head and neck aligned with the spine and chin parallel to the floor.
- Bring your attention the breath. Start by noticing the in-breath and out-breath.
- After a few rounds of breath observation, introduce the count in 1:1 ratio as follows:
- ÓM 1, ÓM 2, ÓM 3 for your in-breath and ÓM 1, ÓM 2, ÓM 3 for your out-breath.
- Since the ratio is same on both in and out breath, it becomes Sama Vritti, Equal Breath.
- Do 5 rounds using 1:1 ratio.
- After the fifth round introduce 1:2 ratio – i.e. change the count of the out-breath only to make it unequal as follows:
- In- breath ÓM 1, ÓM 2, ÓM 3
- Out-breath ÓM 1, ÓM 2, ÓM 3 ÓM 4, ÓM 5, ÓM 6
- Essentially you are making the exhale twice as long as the inhale. This is unequal breath.
- Once the 1:2 ratio is established, do 5 rounds of Viśāma Vritti Prāṇāyāma.
- Return to normal breathing and notice any changes in the quality of your breathing, as well as your mental and emotional states.
- Do not change the counts without becoming completely established in the initial pattern and without consulting a knowledgeable yóga teacher.
As you learn this breathing technique, you become more aware of physical sensations of stress. Once you know what the stress response feels like, you can make a conscious effort to practice this breath the moment you start to feel stress symptoms. This can prevent stress from escalating out of control.
Unequal Breath and Stress
Over time, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and muscle tension. Opposite of stress response is called the relaxation response. As a counterpart to the fight-or- flight response, this occurs when the body no longer senses apparent danger. This means that the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, eliciting the relaxation response and the body functioning returns to normal.
Viśāma Vritti Prāṇāyāma is very effective in triggering the relaxation response. The relaxation response helps to counteract the toxic effects of chronic stress by slowing breathing rate, relaxing muscles, and reducing blood pressure. When we relax, the flow of blood increases around your body giving you more energy. It helps you to have a calmer and clearer mind which aids positive thinking, concentration, memory and decision making.
As with any skill, your ability to relax improves with practice. It’s vital to be patient with yourself. Don’t let your effort to practice different techniques to elicit a relaxation response become another stressor.
Viśāma Vritti Prāṇāyāma is one technique to activate the relaxation response. If this doesn’t work for you, try another technique, Here are two other practices in yóga that combat stress and anxiety: Bhramarī Prāṇāyāma and Śunmukhi Mudra. You can use them in your seated practice sequence or separately whenever necessary.
Also, some people, especially those with psychological issues (diagnosed or undiagnosed) and a history of abuse, may experience feelings of emotional distress during the use of some techniques and may react negatively. Although this is rare – if you develop symptoms of emotional discomfort while trying any of these techniques, stop what you are doing and consider talking to your yóga teacher or mental health provider about your experiences or other options.
Remember to enjoy your practice. Don’t practice with an attitude to get better at the techniques. Practice to get better at living; living with peace and joy. You cannot control what goes on outside. But you can become better at controlling what goes on inside – with practice.
Spend time with people who bring out the best in you. Be thankful you are blessed. Life is too short to be stressed.
Iyengar. B.K.S. 1992. Light on Yóga: A Guide to Yóga. HarperCollins Publishers, New Dehli, India.
Niranjanānanda Sarasvati, Svāmi. 2009. Prāṇā and Prāṇāyāma. Yóga Publications Trust. Munger, Bihar, India.
Stephens, Mark. 2010. Teaching Yóga: Essential Foundations and techniques. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. USA.
Satyānanda Sarasvati. Svāmi. 1999. Bihar School of Yóga. Munger, Bihar, India.