Ahhhhhh . . . Yoga Breathing Basics

Stress is never pleasant, but it can be particularly problematic for people who have rheumatoid arthritis. High levels of stress can exacerbate RA symptoms and increase inflammation in the body. Fortunately, there are many self-care strategies that can mitigate the stress we are feeling. One technique is so common that it almost sounds cliché: take deep breaths. Yet there is science behind this strategy.

When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system can cause our body to use shallow, rapid breaths. This is part of our “fight or flight” response, designed to react to life-threatening situations, which can also increase blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones in the body. This can be helpful if you’re trying to escape from a tiger or are going into battle, but isn’t beneficial if you’re working on a big project or having marital troubles. Deep breathing counteracts the fight or flight response, kicking in our parasympathetic nervous system, which serves to calm us down.

Yoga practitioners have understood the benefits of deep breathing for thousands of years, making it as essential to yoga as the poses are. If you have no interest in yoga, you can still reap the benefits of its breathing techniques. I utilize two methods of yoga breathing. Both are relaxing, but one is more calming and the other is more energizing.

The three-part breath is a fundamental of yoga practice, and can be performed sitting up or lying down, as long as the spine is straight. Begin by placing your hands on your lower belly, as this will help you inhale and exhale completely. Imagine that the trunk of your body is a glass, and the air coming into your body is water pouring into the glass. Slowly fill your lower belly with air (your hands should feel your belly expanding). Next, fill the diaphragm/bottom of your ribcage with air. Then fill your chest with air. When your “glass” is full, hold the breath a few counts. Then slowly exhale just as you would pour out a glass of water, with the top emptying first, then the middle, and finally the bottom. Exhale completely, drawing your belly button toward your spine. Repeat the process. The goal is to inhale and exhale slowly and completely, with the mind focusing on the body’s actions, rather than on worries, concerns, or tasks.

The “cleaner-outer” breath, formally known as “kapalabhati,” is an energizing way to release stress. Begin by sitting upright with a hand on your lower belly. Relax your stomach, exhale, and then inhale as fully as you can. Then forcefully expel the breath by quickly pulling your belly button toward your spine. Having a hand on your belly helps ensure your tummy is moving inward. After this rapid exhale, let your lungs refill naturally, without putting any effort in the inhale. Then continue these cycles of exhaling with a quick, strong motion of your belly toward your back, followed by brief, natural inhales. Do this 40-50 times (you don’t need to keep count, but rather stop after a couple of minutes or so, whenever you feel you’ve had enough). While doing this, think about everything you want to get out of your system, such as pain, stress, tension, fatigue, worry, anxiety, dread, etc. With the final exhale, breathe out all the air and wait for a moment, holding your body empty of air. Then when you need your breath, take in a deep inhale, filling the entire belly and chest with air. Hold this breath in, thinking about all the things you want to bring into your body, such as vitality, energy, optimism, love, forgiveness, enthusiasm, or hope. When you need air, release your inhale. You should feel refreshed and energized. You may even feel a moment of light-headedness. If that’s the case, just breathe normally for a few minutes while seated until you no longer feel that sensation.

These two simple breathing techniques can bring relaxation, energy, and a sense of well-being, which is a lovely counterpoint to the sensations RA can cause. As there are benefits to performing this breath work for even a few minutes, it’s a practice that can be incorporated into one’s daily routine. In addition, as these breathing techniques can be performed in a chair or on a bed, they can even be practiced during flares.

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