(Photo: Getty Images)
Ujjayi. Alternate-nostril breathing. Deep, belly-filling inhalations. If you’ve ever felt a little silly during all those exercises at the beginning of yoga class, know you haven’t wasted your breath—a new study suggests they can help ease depression and anxiety. (Take our depression quiz to find out if you’re just bummed out or if it’s more serious.)
Italian researchers put 69 people with generalized anxiety disorder, depression, or similar conditions through a two-week workshop in Surdashan Kriya Yoga, or SKY. Though SKY includes some poses and meditation, the core component is a sequence of 5 breathing exercises: slow breathing, alternate nostril breaths, fast breathing from the diaphragm, rapid exhalations, and cyclical breathing. (For more mind and body tips, get your FREE trial of Prevention + 12 FREE gifts.)
After graduating from breathing bootcamp, participants practiced at home and went in for weekly follow-up sessions. Six months later, their anxiety scores had decreased by about 44%, and many no longer qualified for a clinical diagnosis. Scores on a comprehensive measure of psychological symptoms—including depression, phobias, and hostility, among others—also fell by 45%. And many people reported better sleep, improved self-awareness, and even fewer PMS symptoms, says study author Roberto Sanlorenzo of the International Association for Human Values.
The magic of breathing comes from its effects on rebalancing the autonomic nervous system, says Ronnie Newman, MEd, director of of research and health promotion at the Art of Living Foundation (the non-profit that developed the SKY protocol). One branch of this system, the sympathetic nervous system, speeds up our breathing and heart rate, widens our pupils, and otherwise revs us up to fight or flee from a threat; the parasympathetic nervous system calms our bodies back down when the coast is clear.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Breathing stands as the only part of this equation we consciously control. “As such, it provides a powerful portal for directly impacting our autonomic nervous system and determining to a large degree whether the stressful sympathetic or the peaceful parasympathetic is dominating,” Newman says.
Though the fight-or-flight response can save our life in a true crisis, our brains often require recalibration in our modern world of traffic jams and email alerts. “Our sympathetic nervous system tends to be overstimulated, and the sympathetic nervous system is a root of tension, stress, anxiety, depression, all of these negative affects and undesirable side effects.”
Anyone can begin reaping the benefits of breathing for reducing stress and boosting creativity and happiness at home. Start with two 5-minute rounds of Nadi Shodhan pranayama, or alternate nostril breathing, per day (watch the video below to see how to do it). Inhaling through a single nostril activates an area called the prefrontal cortex on the opposite side of your brain. The right prefrontal cortex controls your parasympathetic drive, and the left governs your sympathetic response.
“By alternating between the two, we activate one, then the other, and it tends to balance them out,” Newman says. And if you’re interested, the Art of Living Foundation offers Happiness Courses, which cover the full SKY technique for general wellness; search the site for an option near you.
Related: 20 Super-Healthy Smoothie Recipes
Alternate Nostril Breathing
To do it:
Sit comfortably with your left hand on your left knee, palm up, and your eyes closed.
Bring your right hand to your face with the index and middle fingers between your eyebrows, your ring and little fingers gently on your left nostril, and your thumb on the right nostril.
Press your thumb down on your right nostril and exhale through the left.
Inhale through the left nostril, then press it gently closed with your ring and little finger.
Release your thumb and breathe out through your right nostril.
Inhale again through the right nostril.
Repeat, continually alternating inhalations and exhalations, for 5 minutes.
By Cindy Kuzma
This article ‘The Easy Breathing Technique That Can Lower Your Anxiety’ originally ran on Prevention.com.