You’re anxious about being able to afford gifts for everyone on your list. The company party sounds like the worst idea in the world. Someone you loved recently died and you’re grieving, not feeling jolly. Interacting with your family gives you nightmares.
Welcome to the holidays.
While some situations can be avoided with a quiet exit or careful planning, others are inescapable. For those times, I employ my stealthiest strategy for calm.
When we think of finding peace and calm, the image is dreamy. Perhaps out in nature, somewhere expansive, and blissfully alone. Not in the midst of a Black Friday sale surrounded by savings-crazed shoppers or at a loud dinner table. The trick is to rewrite the narrative that you need to be alone in nature to find peace and calm. It can be cultivated within, regardless of environment. The tool? The breath.
While regulating the breath, or pranayama, is a part of a tradition that operates as its own “limb” of the larger tree of yoga, it is often first introduced to students in studio classes as a side dish to the physical practice. It can stand alone, however, as a tool for finding a well of internal peace.
The first step: awareness. Our breath patterns aren’t just a reflection of our current state but can also shape it. The way we breathe greatly influences our entire system. A short, sharp breath high in the chest can indicate cardiovascular stress, like when you sprint, or emotional stress — like acute anxiety. A smooth, soft breath, one that fills and leaves the belly, indicates a state of relaxation.
To understand why breathing is so influential, look to the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The former regulates other body systems and prepares them for physical activity, sending signals to increase alertness, dilating pupils, and increasing heart rate and blood pressure. The latter does just the opposite, preparing the body for rest and digestion, slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and softening skeletal tissue. It is clear which branch of the system is the one that leaves us feeling at ease. But how to trick our bodies into activating it?
The beauty of breathwork is that we can regulate current emotional and physiological states and bring ourselves back to rest and relaxation simply by mimicking the breath pattern that happens in that state. Diaphragmatic breathing, or breath that involves the entire abdomen, is where we begin. Understanding where your breath naturally travels is quite easy.
Lie down somewhere comfortable, place a hand on your chest and one on your stomach, and watch to see where the breath moves. Work towards breathing more fully into the hand that’s on the stomach.
Once you’ve achieved a full diaphragmatic breath, it’s time to even out the length of the inhale and exhale. Think of it like a tug of war: you don’t want either inhale or exhale to win. The easiest way to do this is to count the length of your inhale, and then your exhale. Gently work towards having the same count on both. For most adults, a comfortable counted breath lasts about 3 to 4 counts on inhale and exhale. This pranayama should feel easeful, so if it doesn’t, drop your count to something more manageable.
I breathe this way when I’m in line at the store. When I’m checking my bank account, credit card statements, and writing cards. When I’m preparing for guests, walking into a crowded bar, entering a party. If it doesn’t tip the scales back to a more neutral place, then I know I’m ready for an upgrade.
A second technique starts the same way, but with extra length to the exhale. I usually start with an in-breath of 4 and an exhale of 6, ideally working up to a doubly long exhale. This can act as a downshift for the nervous system. As before, ease is the name of the game. If you feel at all out of breath, drop the count. Go back to the original practice.
That’s it. Once you’ve got your counts, you’ve got your pocket of peace to accompany you through the holiday season and beyond.