Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • November 2016
Written by 

Just breathe! — Linking health to mindfulness through breathing

Have you been under stress lately? Your answer is probably YES! Stress is all around us.

Jobs, relationships, kids, parents, bills, birth, death, divorce and even a wedding are all sources of stress. Not all stress is bad. Some studies even suggest that we need a little stress in our lives to keep us healthy and on top of our game. But too much stress with no way to cope can cause big problems in our physical and mental health.

It’s the little things that sneak up around me that cause the greatest amount of stress in my world. Due dates, relationship tiffs, surprise responsibilities, a one point football game and more, all add up like drops of water in a bucket. If I do not empty that bucket it will overflow and cause problems.

The effects of stress are numerous. Stress can affect your brain chemistry with an overflow of cortisol, like a leaky faucet. This constant dose of cortisol can affect sleep, memory and cognitive function. Due to the body response during fight or flight reactions, constant stress affects the heart, which may raise your risk of heart disease. It affects the stomach by slowing digestion, which can lead to inflammation, weight gain and reduced immune function, and can cause an increase in physical pain due to adrenaline rushes to muscles. This constant tension in muscles caused by adrenaline without actually using them to fight or run can lead to many physical conditions such as spasms, stiffness, spinal misalignment and nerve impingement.

Breathing mindfully is one of the best ways to dial back stress and manage your daily life.

Yogis have known this for centuries and now modern research is backing them up. Yogic breathing exercises and mindfulness practices have been shown to help in many areas of physical health. Measured breathing helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the stress response in the body. It improves heart rate, helps control blood pressure, tones the diaphragm, improves digestion and increases the overall ability of the practitioner to breathe. Just breathe deeply and fully, which increases oxygen intake. Yogic breathing reduces anxiety, improves mood and has been shown to help improve quality of sleep.

There are many techniques for breathing more fully in yoga practice. Some practices are designed to increase energy, some bring about a calmness with increased focus and clarity.

Below I have outlined a basic practice called alternate nostril breathing. This breath is easy to learn and helps balance the energies in the body and mind.

When you start working consciously with the breath, it naturally increases in volume.

Perfect, just leave it be. You’re not trying to breathe more, but instead to increase the quality of your breath and your sensitivity to it. As Americans we have been trained that more is better. When breathing this is not the case. Simply allow your breath to grow with your awareness.

Sit in a comfortable posture in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Sit tall and do not lean back into the chair if you can avoid it. Use lumbar support if necessary. Breathe normally through your nose on the inhale and the exhale. If you cannot breathe through your nose or sit for at least 5 minutes comfortably this is not the practice for you. (Contact me for suggestions on how to proceed with modifications.) Breathe slowly and smoothly for 2 to 3 minutes. Quality over quantity is your goal for breathing. Let’s begin:

  • Exhale completely and close your right nostril with your right thumb.
  • Inhale and exhale completely without force through your left nostril three times.
  • Inhale through your left nostril, close your left nostril with your right pinkie finger, hold the breath for a moment, release your right thumb and exhale through the right nostril.
  • Inhale and exhale completely without force through the right nostril three times.
  • Release both nostrils and inhale and exhale three times through both.
  • Close the right nostril with your right thumb and repeat the same pattern two more times with both the left nostril, right nostril and then both nostrils. (Three to five rounds is plenty.)

After completing the alternate nostril breathing practice sit quietly and watch your breathing with no effort or control on your part. Alternate nostril breathing calms and centers the mind by bringing balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which join our logical and emotional self. Regular practice of measured breathing helps keep the bucket of stress from overflowing. And it makes you feel great! Enjoy!

Kathleen Kelly

Kathleen Kelly is the founder and director of the Bay Area Yoga Center in Green Bay, which she opened in May of 1994. She has been practicing the art of yoga for the past 32 years, and has been a teacher of Ashtanga yoga in the Vinyasa tradition of Krishnamacharya since 1993. Kathleen is registered with the Yoga Alliance at the Advanced level. Kathleen trains yoga teachers at the 200- and 500- hour levels. In May of 2005 Kathleen took her priest vows in the Hollow Bones Zen Order, an American Zen Buddhist Community. Kathleen combines the practice of Ashtanga Yoga and Zen Meditation in her teachings and as her life’s practice. She received her first yoga teacher certification from the White Lotus Center in Santa Barbara, California, in 1993. She can be reached at or [email protected] or 920-265-2217.

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