Your Breathwork Toolbox For Keeping Holiday Stress Under Control

Photo: Luca Pierro

The holidays can be the best of times and the worst of times, all at the same time. Whether traveling stresses you out or it's your extended family, a painful breakup, the loss of a family member, or a simple sugar crash after eating one too many cookies—it's OK. Really.

One of the reasons we practice yoga, eat well, meditate, and this year (as reported in mbg's 2018 wellness trends) even started a breathwork practice all year around is to make sure we can stay present and stay with whatever emotions may arise. The holiday season is ripe for meeting edges, old versions of ourselves, ghosts of people passed and past, and more.

To set up for practice, sit on a block in virasana (hero's pose), or blanket or pillow. Ideally the hips are above the knees to take the pressure off them, but you can sit on a couch or lie down for this as well. Here are three breathwork techniques that will help you handle whatever comes your way:

1. To feel grounded: equal parts breathing.

Equal parts breath is also called Sama Vritti in Sanskrit and yoga practice, which translates to square breathing (equal on all sides, with four sides).

To practice:

  • Inhale for three counts and feel energized and rejuvenated by the breath, like spring.
  • Hold for three counts at the top, reveling in the pregnant pause of summer.
  • Exhale for three counts, as you let go like autumn leaves falling to the ground.
  • And hold for three counts on empty, feeling the stillness of winter.

Do at least five rounds of this but more if you need to, in a quiet space where you can steal 10 minutes away to yourself.

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2. To feel balanced: alternate-nostril breathing.

In ayurveda, Nadi Shodhana, or alternate-nostril breathing, is thought to balance both hemispheres of the brain.

To practice:

  • Bring the index and middle finger of your dominant hand together and set them on the insides of your eyebrows. Use those fingers to spread the brow wider as you breathe.
  • Place your ring finger on one side of your nose and your thumb on the other.
  • Inhale deeply through the nose, and exhale deeply through the nose.
  • Closing your right nostril with your finger, inhale deeply through the left for three counts.
  • Hold the breath for one count while you switch—this should be more of a transition than a hold.
  • Exhale the breath out the right nostril while plugging the left, and hold the breath out for a count.
  • Then inhale through the right while the left is still plugged.
  • Hold for a count at the top to transition, opening the left and closing the right.
  • Exhale out the left while closing the right.
  • Hold for a count at the bottom.

Repeat this pattern slowly for three to five minutes. It's OK if you have a stuffy nose—continue through it if you can. You may notice that alternate nostril helps to clear it up.

3. To cleanse: skull-shining breathing.

Kapalabhati is Sanskrit for skull shining. Some yogis also call it "breath of fire" because it's warming, but breath of fire and skull shining breath are actually different. In Kapalabhati (skull-shining) breath, the exhale isn't forced and comes on its own. In breath of fire, however, the exhale is as forceful as the inhale.

  • To prep, breathe normally, but use only your nose. On the inhale allow your belly to expand, and on the exhale, bring your navel into your spine, contracting the abs. This mimics the breath movements you'll do in Kapalabhati.
  • Take three big inhales and exhales to start.
  • Inhale halfway through the nose and exhale short and sharp through the nose, snapping your navel into your spine. If you're new to this practice, it can be helpful to keep your hand on your belly to feel its movement.
  • Allow the exhale to come naturally, passively, and automatically, softening the belly for a moment.
  • Take these breaths at a rate of one to two per second, counting the exhales. Start with a round of 20 or 30 and work your way up to 100 eventually (this may take months—this is normal!).
  • When you finish your round inhale fully, hold at the top, bring your hands above your head, and clasp your thumbs like a shadow puppet bird.
  • Take three more sips of air through your mouth and exhale sigh it out the mouth.

Try this technique two to three times—yogis and practitioners say it clears the mind and helps to cleanse the inner organs, too. If you want a demonstration of what this looks like, skip to 6:52 of this yoga video—it's a short, sharp inhale and exhale through the nose.

Please note that you should talk to your health care professional if you have any medical issues that would be agitated by breathwork. If you're pregnant, stay with tool No. 1 without any holds.

Don't have time to work out? Here's your guide to staying in shape this holiday season.

And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.

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