Your lungs work hard 24/7 to bring fresh supplies of oxygen into your body and to rid it of carbon dioxide - a waste product. Between 12 to 20 times per minute, your lungs team up with the muscular output of your diaphragm to expand and contract in an elegant dance that is breath. This effort goes relatively unnoticed by most of us, but once you begin to bring your awareness to what your breath is doing in any given moment, you will start to see patterns and connections between the emotions you are experiencing and how you are breathing. This is the first step to mindful breathing.
All stress starts and ends with the breath. When we are under pressure of any kind we stop breathing – note what happens to your breath when you are rushed, surprised, scared or angry (it stops). And when the breath returns, it’s usually choppy, uncoordinated, shallow and incomplete. This is the sympathetic nervous system in action. Now on the contrary, when you are calm, relaxed, and content the breath is soft, easy, and gentle. This is the parasympathetic nervous system at work. Learning how to work with and control these systems through breath is how you will begin to stay centered, and focused in any given situation. When distress arrives, check in with your breath. Stay connected with it.
There are many different pranayama (breathing) techniques that will help you to gain control of your breath, and the more you practice, the easier you will be able to stay centered during stressful situations. One of my favorite techniques to practice during meditation is nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing).
Just two minutes of alternate nostril breathing can bring about notable effects. By bringing attention to both nostrils, the practice is said to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain (connecting our emotional side to our logical side), strengthen the respiratory system, and balance the nervous system. We tend to favor one nostril over the other, and this exercise encourages equal distribution of oxygen to each side of the brain, improving cognitive functions considerably. It has been practiced in ancient India for centuries.
Find a comfortable seated position and breathe normally for a few moments to get grounded and settled. As demonstrated in the photos, lift your left hand placing your index finger and middle finger above your nose between the eyebrows. Close your left nostril with your thumb and inhale through your right nostril for 4 counts. Close your right nostril with your ring finger, hold the breath for 2 counts, then release your left nostril and exhale for 4 counts. Inhale though the left nostril for 4 counts, close the left nostril with the thumb and hold the breath for 2 counts. Then release the right nostril and exhale for 4 counts. Repeat this for 8 rounds of breath.
On a side note - I also like to aid this breath work and heighten my meditations with aromatherapy jewelry. You'll notice in these photos I am wearing mala bracelets on the hand that I use to control my air flow. My favorite oils to use during meditation are clary sage, lavender, patchouli, and lemongrass. My favorite aromatherapy jewelry brand is EleSense.