When panic over the virus began to reach my mind a couple of weeks ago, my very first thought was: I can’t breathe deeply enough. Even while in otherwise perfect health, I was noticing my lungs simply could not be filled. Maybe you, or someone you love, felt something similar, and maybe that feeling has been persisting for weeks now.
That feeling has a name, a cause, and — most importantly — a solution.
Shallow breath, a racing heart, and heightened blood pressure are all results of the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress. When our mind senses we might be in danger, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and our veins are flooded with adrenaline. In truly dangerous circumstances, this can prove useful: a rush of adrenaline causes heightened blood pressure and shallow breathing, which help to increase our heart rate and prepare us for short-term, potentially life-saving, physical exertion. (Think: running away from a tiger.)
As we know, not all dangers can be escaped this way — however, our bodies cannot determine that on their own. But thankfully, when our racing minds provoke this stress response in the body, we have the ability to bring ourselves back down by simply breathing.
Well, not just breathing — but breathing particularly deeply, and preferably rhythmically. Doing so activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which reverses the effects of its counterpart (the sympathetic nervous system): lowering the heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, providing calm, and, if practiced regularly, helping to strengthen the heart and elasticize the lungs. The opposite of fight-or-flight, this branch of our nervous system is responsible for rest-and-digest.
A favorite breath of mine is Ujjayi breath. Sometimes known as “Ocean Breath” because of the sounds made on each inhale and exhale, this breathing technique is particularly good at helping ground, calm, and strengthen the practitioner, forcing one to bring their attention to each breath moving in and out of their lungs — and providing the soothing sounds of ocean waves along the way.
To practice Ujjayi breath:
- Begin in a comfortable seated position with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed; to start, it may help to place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest, so you can feel the air moving in and out of your lungs
- With your mouth open and relaxed, gently and slowly breathe in to fill your abdomen, and then fill your chest — making sure to keep the back of your throat slightly contracted (not to fill it with air)
- Once you’ve comfortably filled your lungs with air, begin to exhale by slowly letting the air fall out of you in a whispered sigh, as though you’re fogging up a mirror. Notice it falling first out of your chest, and then out of your abdomen. Make sure to exhale slowly, and notice how it feels and sounds as you do — if done right, it should sound like faint ocean waves crashing along the shore
- If you’re having a hard time focusing on contracting your throat muscles, try focusing on breathing solely into your abdomen and chest, feeling the air as it rests in these places. It may be easier to focus on where to breathe rather than where not to.
- Once you’ve grown comfortable with breathing with your mouth, try breathing with just your nose instead, and your hands down to your sides. Ujjayi breath can also be incorporated into your typical exercise routine, particularly if you’re doing yoga.
- If you’re finding your attention pulled away from your practice, try focusing on the sounds each breath makes as it falls in and out. Each breath moves up your lungs like an ocean wave — flowing from the abdomen and ebbing at the chest — and you can use the sound of that “wave” to ground your focus.
Ujjayi & Meditation Techniques
Ujjayi breath pairs very well with visualization techniques, which enhance its meditative & calming qualities. A favorite of mine, and one that I often teach students, too, is imagining each inhale as something Good being breathed into me, and each exhale being the release of something Bad from me. This can include good and bad thoughts, feelings or qualities, or just general Goodness and Badness in the form of light and dark.
Tips for Teaching Ocean Breath to Kids
While this guide was written for the eyes of parents and adults, Ujjayi breath can be very easily taught to children, too! If you’d like to teach it to yours, try encouraging them to focus on the “wave” of air — perhaps allowing them to lay down and place a stuffed animal on their stomach and chest so that they can take their friend “surfing.” If you want to help them focus on exhales (making the “ocean” sound), try encouraging them to fog a handheld mirror as they breathe out.