Calming pranayama: how to breathe to reduce stress – Part 1

Pranayama, or yoga breathing techniques, is one of the best ways to practice how to breathe to reduce stress and relieve the symptoms of anxiety. These three calming pranayama practices will help you to manage stress and feel more relaxed. 

When it comes to finding ways to quickly manage stress in your day-to-day life, nothing is more effective than calming pranayama. These yoga breathing techniques are not only a great way to start or finish your day, but can help to bring you back into a state of calm and relaxation any time you start to feel stress or anxiety levels rising. 

Although there are types of pranayama that can energize us, when it comes to pranayama for stress relief it’s better to focus on those which activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This nervous system slows down our heart rates and activates the body’s ‘rest and digest’ response, helping us to feel relaxed and calm. 

So, here are my 3 favourite calming pranayama exercises to practice on a regular basis when need of some stress relief. Each one activates the parasympathetic nervous system, decreases feelings of stress or anxiety[link to article 3], and improves cognition when practiced regularly. 

Diaphragmatic breathing 

Also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing, this is one of the best ways of learning how to breathe to reduce stress. And whilst it may sound deceptively simply, it’s actually not something that many people are used to. Although in fact, we all breathe like this when we’re born! It’s only as we grow that we learn to breathe using our chest more than our belly.

Often when we feel stressed, we breathe shallowly from the chest – instead of taking full breaths using the diaphragm. This in turn triggers the body to feel more stressed, as it activates the sympathetic nervous system – the body’s fight or flight response [link to article No. 1]. The more stressed we feel, the more we breathe from our chests! So, this simple technique is one of the fastest ways to break the circuit and stop feelings of stress when they arise. 

How to practice diaphragmatic breathing

  1. Find a comfortable seated position or lie down on your back with pillows for support. Relax your neck and shoulders and close your eyes. 
  2. Place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your heart. Take a few normal breaths through your nose and notice the rise and fall of your chest and belly as you breathe. 
  3. Now, try to feel your breath in only the belly. Your hands are there to guide you – the goal is to feel your hand that’s over your belly rising and falling as you breathe, and the hand that’s over your heart should remain still. 
  4. Take deep, slow inhales through your nose, filling your belly as much as you can and try not to allow the breath to rise up into your chest. Exhale slowly through your nose, gently squeezing the breath out of your belly using your abdominal muscles and diaphragm. 
  5. Your breath should be gentle and smooth. Avoid heavy breathing, mouth breathing or making sound while breathing.
  6. Continue like this for as long as you like. Ideally, practice diaphragmatic breathing for around 12 minutes each day, morning or evening and slowly it will become automatic. 

calming pranayama

Anulom Viloma – Alternate nostril breathing 

Also known as nadi shodhana pranayama, alternate nostril breathing is one of the most important exercises in traditional hatha yoga. This calming pranayama balances the way we breathe through the right and the left nostrils, which in turn balances the way the energy flows between the right and left sides of our bodies and our brain. Try to make time (around twelve minutes) to practice this calming pranayama each day or build it into your yoga practice – it makes a great preparation for meditation.

How to practice nadi shodhana pranayama 

  1. Bring one of your hands in Vishnu mudra: using your right hand (or left if you prefer), fold down your index and middle fingers down to touch the base of your thumb, leaving your thumb, ring and pinky finger extended. The ring finger will go on the left nostril and the thumb on your right nostril.
  2. Bring the left hand (of right if you are performing Vishnu mudra with the left hand) in Gyan mudra. To perform this mudra, bring the tip of the thumb and index finger together, forming a circle. Keep the remaining three fingers outstretched with the palm facing upward.
  3. Start with a comfortable inhale through both nostrils then close your left nostril with your ring finger and exhale and inhale slowly through your right nostril.
  4. Next, close the right nostril with the thumb and exhale and inhale from the left nostril. This is one round. Continue like this for about 12 minutes. You can set a gentle ring tone or timer, so you know when the time’s up. 
  5. The whole practice should be as slow and smooth as possible. Gradually the exhales will become longer than the inhale, and that’s a good sign!

Sama Vritti pranayama 

This is another of the yoga breathing techniques that can almost instantly help you feel calmer in stressful situations. Also known as box breathing or equal breathing, this calming pranayama consists of equal ratio breathing with breath retention after both the inhale and exhale. You can set the count that you’re comfortable with, and the more you practice, the longer this will become. For example, if your count is 4, you will inhale, hold the inhale, exhale, and hold the exhale all for 4 seconds. This calming pranayama can be safely practiced by anyone. 

How to practice sama vritti pranayama

  1. Start by sitting in a comfortable position, either on the floor with your spine tall, or in a chair with a straight back. Relax your shoulders and close your eyes. 
  2. Deeply inhale through your nose for a count that you are comfortable with, without forcing the breath. Hold your breath after you’ve inhaled for the same number of counts. 
  3. Slowly exhale through your nose for the same number of counts, and finally hold the exhale for the same number. 
  4. As the name box breathing suggests, many people find it helpful to visualize tracing or drawing the four sides of a box or square as they are practicing this pranayama. 
  5. Continue to breathe like this for as long as you feel you need to, although trying to aim for at least four minutes will be the most beneficial. 


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