We all know that breathing is vital to our basic survival. For most of us, it is just something that happens. We don't really give it much thought. We just know that if we don't breathe, we won't have much to worry about.
One of the best tension reduction techniques I have incorporated into my daily routine is something we yogis call Pranayama. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word with origins in ancient India that translates to the 'extension of prana or breath'. It is often referred to as the 'art and science of yogic breathing'. However, while yoga was introduced to the West in the 1940's and is prolific at this point, pranayama has only recently become popular. This is likely a result of recognition by allopathic researchers that controlling the breath has innumerous health benefits including reduction of stress, anxiety, hypertension and blood pressure..
Although many yoga instructor's integrate pranayama into their classes, I find that they tend to focus on only one or two techniques. There are more than a dozen that I know of (and likely dozens more I don't). I am a bit of a fan, but for the sake of brevity, these are my five favorites and why I use each one:
Ujjayi - "ocean-sounding breath" helps me to get grounded, focus and to become more present. I tend to use it often when I am feeling overwhelmed and while I am doing sun salutations.
Nadi shodhana - "alternate-nostril breath" calms my mind and balances the left and right sides of my brain. This leaves me feeling centered and able to tackle anything.
Simhasana - "lion's breath" reduces stress, relieves tension in my neck, jaw and face and relieves TMJ pain. I have really bad jaw pain and this is one of the only things that helps besides acupuncture.
Bhastrika - "bellows breath" wakes me up when I am feeling tired or lethargic. Sometimes I do it at the beginning of a yoga class if I am low on energy and need a boost.
Bhramari - "humming bee breath" helps relieve frustration, anxiety and agitation. It literally feels like I am cleaning out the cobwebs and is also supposed to be great for people who experience ringing in the ears.
I learned these methods and more when I took a course at the Art of Living in NYC, in my studies at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and during yoga teacher training at the Joschi Institute in NY. Word of caution. It is really important to learn these techniques from someone who has received proper training because each one has different contraindications. There are numerous tools online, as per below, but nothing is better than in person training with a licensed yoga teacher who specializes in pranayama.
On that note, here are just a few resources I recommend to anyone who is interested in further exploration: