I have it under control—my breath, I mean. And when you can control your breathing, you have significantly more control over everything else. In yoga, the study and practice of breathing is termed pranayama. Moreover, pranayama has changed my life.
I’m going to get all science and nerdy here for a minute, but bear with me (or skip this paragraph if you really don’t want to hear it). Unlike many of our body functions, breathing is both a voluntary and an involuntary human function. Used properly, breathing--by optimizing its affect on the vagus nerve--can affect your heart, brain, breathing, and even digestion. While the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the all-too-familiar "fight of flight" response, the the vagus nerve has a mostly parasympathetic function (also known as "rest and digest"), counteracting the effects of the sympathetic nervous system. Healthy people have a fairly stable balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic tone, resulting in homeostasis. While the sympathetic nervous system commonly increases heart rate, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for lowering heart rate while also reducing the the heart's contractile force. While activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in inhibited guy motility (digestion), parasympathetic activation helps to "keep you regular," so to speak. And, while the sympathetic nervous system causes vasoconstriction--resulting in increased blood pressure--the parasympathetic nervous system works to not only dilate blood vessels, but also the body's sphincters (allowing one to use the restroom more easily), and so much more.
Basically, what I’m saying is that by controlling my breath, I can prevent my heart from racing, thwart the sweaty palm dilemma, and—most importantly—continue to think and perform rationally. Other people notice this about me, too, and I’m often asked, “how are you not nervous?” before a big competition or presentation.
Of course I’m nervous, but I’ve learned that most people equate nerves with the above-listed physiological responses. The inability to control those physiological changes often causes people to act and think irrationally, and then they “choke.” So, here are a few breathing exercises that might help you avoid a sympathetic nervous system catastrophe before your next high-stakes event.
1. Belly Breathing
This practice is best performed (at least, initially) while lying on your back with your knees bent. Once in that position, place your right hand on your breastbone (the center of your chest right between your nipple line) and the left hand atop the belly button. As you breathe in, focus on first bringing the air to the space right below the left hand, feeling only your belly rise at first. As you continue to inhale, allow your breath to penetrate to the top of the chest, feeling your right hand rise.
As you exhale, reverse the order by first feeling the right hand (chest) drop back toward the floor followed by the left hand (belly), being careful to exhale completely. It may take several, focused repetitions of this practice to master the sequence. After you have gotten the hang of effectively breathing into your full belly (more optimally utilizing you lung capacity), you can progress to practicing belly breathing in a sitting or standing position followed by the next technique, controlled breathing.
2. Controlled Breathing
This technique is the money-maker, as it is the mastery of this technique that will allow you to effectively be in control during those high-stakes encounters. I literally perform a (shortened) version of this practice before every speech, interview, or competition.
Regardless of whether I am sitting, standing, or lying down, I like to maintain my hand positions on my breastbone and abdomen. Although the hand placement is not necessary to effectively perform this technique, using your hands will help to remind you where to focus your breath, helping you to remain present throughout the practice.
As I warm up to this practice, I like to start with a count of four: inhale for a count of four then exhale for a count of four, repeating that twice. Next, I inhale and exhale for a count of five, repeating that twice. I repeat this sequence counting to six, seven, then eight.
Next, I combine this technique with a hold at the top of the inhale. For example, I inhale for a count of four, hold my breath for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four. Keep in mind, that you should feel completely in control and relaxed throughout this practice. The number one rule of yoga is NO JUDGEMENT, so if holding your breath for a count of four makes you anxious, that's an easy fix--do not hold your breath for a count of four. However, the more you practice this technique, the easier it will become. Trust me.
3. Progressive Relaxation:
Although this technique's description initially seems counterintuitive, this technique can be surprisingly effective in reducing both physical and emotional tension. Progressive relaxation involves systematically tensing a specific group of muscles before allowing that muscle group to completely relax. I like to start with my feet and work my way up to my face. Additionally, this technique can be performed while sitting comfortably or lying down.
Starting with the feet, curl your toes tightly for approximately five seconds. Although these five seconds may cause slight discomfort, the five seconds of tension are immediately followed by a complete relaxation of the muscle group accompanied by an exhale (i.e. sigh of relief). Next, tighten your calf muscles by pointing your toes like a ballerina for five seconds, then relax and imagine your calf muscles melting into the ground as your breathe out (the louder the exhalation, the better). Then, to address the muscles along the front of your lower leg, pull your toes up toward your knees forcefully, hold for five seconds, then relax. Using the same general principle, this practice would be repeated for every part of the body--drawing tension to the thighs, hips, abdomen, chest and arms--eventually ending with the face. For me, instead of scrunching the face, I prefer to perform my best lions breath face (pictured below) with a loud, forceful exhale, before eventually enjoying the sensation of full-body relaxation.
As with most things in life, mastering these techniques will require practice, but you'll be all the better for it. Whether you're preparing for a big test, a performance, a sporting event, or meeting your new boyfriend's parents (I know it's that time of year ;-), the more in control you are in any situation, the better. You've got this!