At the end of each day, almost all of us do the exact same thing: we recharge our electronics. We do this so that we can use them the next day. Makes sense, right?
At the same time, however, we are continually overloading our nervous system and the stuff between our ears. But other than going to sleep, we give little thought to how we’re going to recharge these two vital systems.
Yet, we expect them to function optimally!
I know, I can hear you saying, “but isn’t that why God made coffee?”
All fun aside, the reality, as we’ll get to in a minute, is that all that coffee and other forms of stimulation are actually part of the recharge problem.
When we’re overstimulated, it drains our nervous system battery faster and, as it gets depleted, it can lead to increased anxiety and decreased focus and productivity levels. Most impactfully, when we don’t recharge we negatively impact our ability to achieve our long term goals in a sustainable way.
So we need that recharge. And although getting 8 hours of sleep is essential, it’s simply not enough.
Why You Should Be Nervous About Your Overstimulation
Your ability to recharge — and the root of the issues when you don’t — is found in your nervous system.
That system is basically an infrastructure of nerves and neurons that send and receive messages to different parts of the body. (If you feel like geeking out a bit, this actually takes two forms: efferently, brain to body, and afferently, body to brain.)
It acts like a two-way tomato-can telephone that lets your body and brain know what’s going on, if things are working properly, and sends alerts when there’s a problem.
When you are at ease and not over-fraught with obligations, notifications, anxieties, a lack of sleep, nutrient deprivation, and shallow breathing, that communication line works optimally.
Similarly, in this easeful state your brain (specifically, your prefrontal cortex) is able to make executive decisions readily and without reacting emotionally or defaulting to habituations.
Even our bowels optimize when we are in this state.
We call this parasympathetic function — and it’s when we’re in this state that our nervous system and brain are able to recharge.
But in our modern, stimulation-filled world, that’s not the state in which we spend most of our time.
When you, instead, get stuck in a constant state of arousal — even when it’s caused by so-called positive stress (it’s officially called eustress) like that new job, buying a house, or having a baby — you end up being more anxious, and more stressed out. In this state, which is called sympathetic function, your nervous system communications don’t work quite as smoothly.
Not only does your prefrontal cortex gets overtaxed due to an excess of decisions, stimulations, and things to manage, (causing you to default to your emotional limbic system function and increase your reactivity), but the communication line ends up getting eaten away like an iphone wire that’s gotten gnawed on by your dog (through a process called myelination, if you want to know the science-y word for your telephone cord).
All that spotty communication (not to mention a whole host of other things that go awry in this state of overstimulation) drains your batteries and keeps you from recharging them.
Using Your Breathe To Recharge
So, how do you prevent this “poor connection” situation and flip the switch from brain-drain to nervous system recharge?
Let me preface this by saying that’s there’s no simple answer. Simply adopting a meditation or pranayama practice will not optimize your communication wires in a world of constant stimulation. In fact, no one thing by itself can keep our system working optimally.
Still, that doesn’t mean that you’re helpless to do anything about this situation. In fact, quite the opposite. There are a number of well-established practices that can help you switch out of sympathetic function and into parasympathetic function to get your recharge on.
One of these practices is something called pranayama and it can help you rapidly counter the effects of overstimulation .
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is a part of the practice of yoga. But if you’re not a yoga practitioner, don’t let that scare you off. It has nothing to do with doing poses on a mat.
Yoga extends far beyond doing downward dogs and, in case you’re wondering, is not a religious practice.
It’s actually a collection of eight practices that include asana (that’s those poses you’re probably thinking of, such as downward dog), meditation, moderation, sense withdrawal, observance, concentration, integration, and pranayama. Taken together, yoga has a long and well-researched international pedigree as an anxiolytic, or anti-anxiety tool.
The pranayama portion of yoga is essentially a breath practice (although it’s a bit more than that, which I’ll get to in a moment). As such, research has shown it to be incredibly efficient in providing a positive physiological response.
It enables the body to activate its parasympathetic nervous system, including decreasing your oxygen consumption, heart rate, blood pressure, and even slowing your brain wave activity — all while providing a boost of energy and alertness! Move over coffee!
The Magic Recharging Power of Pranayama
While that may sound incredible — all that from breathing? — it actually makes perfect sense if you think about it. Imagine for a moment how a baby breathes.
They gently allow their belly to swell on the inhale and, on the exhale, the belly falls. It’s effortless. It’s gentle. It’s slow. Its full of ease.
With our frayed telephone wire connectors, however, most of us breathe shallowly in our chest. We over-breathe.
This over-breathing leads to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream and a corresponding decrease in carbon dioxide. That imbalance, in turn, upsets the ideal acid-alkaline balance in the blood. This imbalance combination can cause things like muscle twitching, irritability, anxiety, and lightheadedness — all lumped under the category of respiratory alkalosis.
But as I mentioned, pranayama is more than just a form of breathing.
According to ancient texts, sutras, and the teachings of yoga, prana is our life force, or our chi. Ayama means to regulate or lengthen. So, the practice of pranayama is the regulating of our life force.
More practically, it’s a series of nasal-based breaths in a particular inhalation, suspension, and exhalation pattern.
Some of the most commonly practiced iterations of pranayama include ujjayi, bhastrika, bhramari, kapalbhati, and nadi shodhana.
But don’t get scared off by all these fancy-shmancy sanskrit names — they’re just names for these nasal breathing patterns.
The magic happens because this slow, easy nasal breathing increases the carbon dioxide levels in the blood and, as your blood pH level becomes optimized, your parasympathetic nervous system is activated. When that happens, that telephone wire tells your body to release acetylcholine, lowering your heart rate, and acting as a pain reliever.
Simply mimicking a sad, angry, or happy breathing pattern created the corresponding emotional state within the participant.
And not only does this slow, gentle, belly-softening nasal breath provide an instant dose of “calm,” activating your parasympathetic nervous system, it also delivers a dose of energy.
(As a side note, there’s even some evidence that nasal breathing can help reduce aging, at least telomerically speaking, by reducing the shrinkage of DNA end-caps!)
Building a Relationship with Your Breath for Your Emotional Health
But the benefits are not merely physiological. Pranayama has also been found to improve emotional regulation.
Pierre Phillipot and his colleagues, did a scientific study on respiratory feedback, cognition, and generation of emotion. They found that simply mimicking a sad, angry, or happy breathing pattern, created the corresponding emotional state within the participant.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation, explains the connection between breath and emotions perfectly:
“Our breath is linked to our emotions. For every emotion, there is a particular rhythm in the breath. So, while you cannot directly harness your emotions, with the help of breath you can do that. If you are in theater, you would know that a director asks you to breathe faster when you have to show anger. If you have to show a serene scene, the director would tell you to breathe softer and slower.”
If you take the time to get to know the natural shape and rhythm of your breath and how it responds, you will build a relationship with it. From there, you can better understand when you are responding in anger, joy, or jealousy, and use that information to guide yourself into a parasympathetic, recharging state!
And that’s what pranayama is all about!
5 Pranayama Techniques To Try Today
So, pranayama is your special, high-voltage recharger. But how do you get started?
The good news is that there are 5 simple and accessible pranayama exercises you can implement at any time.
A quick note, however, before I explain each of these practices. For reasons that are too complex to get into here, if you’re pregnant, have high blood pressure, or are menstruating, you should not practice Alternate Nostril Breathing or Skull Shining Breath.
Do not practice the following two pranayamas if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, or are menstruating.
As I said at the beginning, this is not a quick fix, color-by-number practice. It won’t magically transform and optimize your brain, protecting it from any and all external or internal stimuli. Achieving that state demands that you apply all those the unsexy basics like continuously working on your sleep health, your nourishment, and your relationships.
Still, these practices are a great way to allow your body to momentarily experience parasympathetic state, which is a great way to move yourself in the right direction and give yourself a much needed recharge.