Just Breathe. How Your Breath is the Key to Conquering Nerves

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Words by Louise Longson

When I first began teaching yoga I used to get incredibly nervous before I taught a class. It’s not a great start to a yoga lesson when the teacher is anxious and shaking with nerves! But what saved my teaching career were these simple pranayama (breathing) practices, which instantly calmed my nerves. Here I’m going to share how you can use your breath to conquer your nerves and combat stress, even whilst sat at your desk.

We’ve probably all experienced that feeling, before an interview, an exam or an important meeting, when you’re suddenly gripped by anxiety. Your heart starts racing and your breathing becomes fast and shallow. Your muscles may tense and you start to sweat.

Sound familiar? It’s all part of our bodies fight or flight response. The brain can’t tell the difference between stressful events and actual physical danger, so it responds in the same way and sends a message to our bodies to get ready to fight or run for our lives. Even everyday stresses like a looming deadline or a delayed train can cause our fight or flight response to kick in.

The good news is that by deliberately slowing and deepening the breath you can send a return message back to the brain indicating that you’re not in danger and it’s safe to relax. The even better news is that we can do this anytime, anywhere and with instant results!

You can practice the following steps sat at your desk or on the train.

  • Start by bringing your awareness to your breath. If you are breathing through your mouth, switch to breathing through your nose. Mouth breathing is both a cause of and a symptom of stress and anxiety.

  • Try to slow your breath down and focus on the exhalation. Count the length of your inhale, then try to exhale for a longer count. For example, if you inhale for a count of 4, then try to exhale for a count of 6 or 7.

  • If you can, place your hands on your abdomen. As you inhale try to expand the abdomen, feeling it soften as you exhale. If you practice this technique at home, you’ll become familiar with abdominal breathing and you can practice it hands-free.

My favourite pranayama practice for calming anxiety is Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breath. This was my go-to practice for those early teaching experiences. Once you’ve practiced this technique at home you can do it anywhere, although you might want to hide in the toilets or dive into a quiet corner if you want to avoid some odd looks. Now don’t get me wrong, hiding in the toilets isn’t the perfect place to practice Nadi Shodhana. Ideally, you’d be sat on a meditation cushion and not the loo, but this is an emergency measure.

  • Using your right hand, rest your thumb on the right nostril and your ring finger on the left nostril. Your first two fingers can rest between the eyebrows.

  • Gently close the right nostril with your thumb and inhale only through the left nostril.

  • Close the left nostril with your ring finger. Release the right nostril and exhale.

  • Inhale back through the right nostril only. Close off the right nostril with your thumb, release the left nostril and exhale. Inhale back through the left nostril before closing it and releasing the right nostril to exhale. Repeat a few more times and for a few minutes if you can.

  • When you’ve finished, let the breathing return to normal and watch the natural breath for a few moments. Notice how you feel.

Next time you’re feeling anxious before that big meeting, or teaching your first yoga class, let your breath come to your rescue.

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Louise is a yoga teacher and forever a yoga student. She loves to share the yoga philosophy and practices that have transformed her life, helping students to find a sense of peace and balance during class that carries over in to their daily lives. She is passionate about following a vegan lifestyle and loves to cook nourishing, tasty food, especially when sharing it with friends. www.louiselongsonyoga.co.uk

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