RELEASING STRESS THROUGH "BREATHING"
To effectively combat stress, you need to activate your body’s natural relaxation response. Techniques such as deep breathing, visualization and meditation can help. Deep breathing is one of the principles of Pilates and is focused in
#1: Deep Breathing
With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices, too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and music.
How to Practice Deep Breathing
- Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
- Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
- Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
- If you find it difficult breathing from your abdomen while sitting up, try lying down. Put a small book on your stomach, and breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale.
#2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation:
Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relaxes different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of your body. This can help you react to the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.
Progressive muscle relaxation can be combined with deep breathing for additional stress relief.
Before practicing progressive muscle relaxation
Consult with your doctor first if you have a history of muscle spasms, back problems, or other serious injuries that may be aggravated by tensing muscles.
- Start at your feet and work your way up to your face, trying to only tense those muscles intended.
- Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
- Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
- When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
- Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
- Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
- Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
- Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
- Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
- It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.
#3: Body Scan Meditation
This is a type of meditation that that focuses your attention on various parts of your body. Like progressive muscle relaxation, you start with your feet and work your way up. But instead of tensing and relaxing muscles, you simply focus on the way each part of your body feels, without labeling the sensations as either “good” or “bad”.
Practicing Body Scan Meditation
- Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing for about two minutes until you start to feel relaxed.
- Turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for three to five seconds (or more).
- Move your focus to the sole of your right foot. Tune in to any sensations you feel in that part of your body and imagine each breath flowing from the sole of your foot. After one or two minutes, move your focus to your right ankle and repeat. Move to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg. From there, move up the torso, through the lower back and abdomen, the upper back and chest, and the shoulders. Pay close attention to any area of the body that causes you pain or discomfort.
- After completing the body scan, relax for a while in silence and stillness, noting how your body feels. Then slowly open your eyes and stretch, if necessary.
Visualization, or guided imagery, is a variation on traditional meditation that involves imagining a scene in which you feel at peace, free to let go of all tension and anxiety. Choose whatever setting is most calming to you, whether it’s a tropical beach, a favorite childhood spot, or a quiet wooded glen.
You can practice visualization on your own or with an app or audio download to guide you through the imagery. You can also choose to do your visualization in silence or use listening aids, such as soothing music or a sound machine or a recording that matches your chosen setting: the sound of ocean waves if you’ve chosen a beach, for example.
Close your eyes and imagine your restful place. Picture it as vividly as you can: everything you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Just “looking” at it in your mind’s eye like you would a photograph is not enough. Visualization works best if you incorporate as many sensory details as possible. For example, if you are thinking about a dock on a quiet lake:
- See the sun setting over the water
- Hear the birds singing
- Smell the pine trees
- Feel the cool water on your bare feet
- Taste the fresh, clean air
- Enjoy the feeling of your worries drifting away as you slowly explore your restful place. When you are ready, gently open your eyes and come back to the present. Don’t worry if you sometimes zone out or lose track of where you are during a visualization session. This is normal. You may also experience feelings of heaviness in your limbs, muscle twitches, or yawning. Again, these are normal responses.
#5: Deep, Cleansing Breath
Sometimes all you need to release stress from your shoulders, back, or the rest of your body is a few big, cleansing breaths.3 Breathe in deeply through your nose and take in as much air as you comfortably can. Then release it, and focus on emptying your lungs. (Many people hold air in their lungs after an exhale, so emptying your lungs on a deep exhale can help you to get more fresh oxygen into them.) Repeat this breathing exercise for a few breaths and release the tension in your back, your shoulders, and anywhere else it tends to reside.
#6: Alternate Nostril Breathing
This breathing exercise variation has been practiced for thousands of years as a form of meditative breathing.4 As you inhale, place your finger over your right nostril and only breathe through your left. On the exhale, switch nostrils and only breathe through your right. You can breathe at whatever pace is comfortable for you, either a 5-8 ratio, a 4-7-8 ratio, or whatever pace feels most relaxing for you (see "counted breathing," above). Repeat this exercise for up to five minutes.