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BREATHING THROUGH EXAM STRESS




Having started a new term of Yoga & Mindfulness for Sixth Formers (and what an absolute pleasure it is to be back teaching this wonderful age group) many of whom are navigating mock exams with the real exams only months away I was reminded of the need to teach three of my favourite breathing practices not only for calm and focus but also stress-busting and fun! Not just for teens navigating exams these are great for all ages and can be practised on and off the yoga mat.

 

We know that feeling anxious or stressed is sympathetically activating (the sympathetic nervous system often referred to as our “fight/flight system”) generally leads to shallow and rapid breathing (more bpm – breaths per minute) and an increased heart rate. Other effects might include sweating, difficulty focusing, tense muscles, procrastination and trouble sleeping. The following three breathing techniques are quite different but have the benefit of rebalancing a dysregulated autonomic nervous system helping us to manage our emotional reactivity, induce feelings of calm, improve focus and clarity and maybe elicit a giggle or two.



1. Box Breathing

 

Sama Vritti Pranayama – well endorsed and practised by the Navy Seals and others in high stress jobs this “four square breathing” technique helps initiate feelings of calm when faced with a stressful situation.

“Sama” means equal and “vritti” means flow/movement and it encourages visualising an equal four-sided shape hence the name.

 

How to practice?

. sitting comfortably breathe in through the nose for the count of four.

. retain the breath for the count of four.

, exhale through the nose for the count of four

. hold the breath out for the count of four.

Continue.

 

The slower breathing helps to balance a dysregulated nervous system and the deep rhythmic breathing helps with focus. The silent counting might even act as a gentle calming mantra meditation keeping you in the present moment.

 

Retention of breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood. An increased blood CO2 enhances the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve when you exhale and stimulates your parasympathetic system. This too produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body.

 

It can also help treat insomnia by calming the nervous system at night before bed. 

 

Other benefits include improving lung capacity and encouraging present moment focus.

 

2. Breath of Joy


A very different breathing technique to the above this is more sympathetically activating, invites exhaling through the mouth and more movement through the body. It’s a great morning practice or a technique to use when feeling sluggish or stuck!

Benefits include boosting energy and mental clarity and focus. The combination of rhythmic coordinated arm movements with the breath helps to deepen the breath and counter anxiety induced shallow breathing. The involvement of upper body movements is a creative way to strengthen the arms and shoulders, rooting down through the feet encourages grounding and feelings of stability and it’s possible that you may end up in fits of laughter practising this which can never be a bad thing!


How to practice?

. Stand with feet hip width apart and knees gently bent.

. The inhalation through the nose is divided into three parts. Inhale and rase the arms in front of you (parallel to the floor). Inhale and draw the arms out to the side (creating a T shape and expanding across the chest). Inhale and swing the arms up in front (draw them overhead and lift fingers up to the ceiling/sky).

. The exhalation is through the mouth. As you swing your arms back and fold your upper body forward towards the ground exhale the breath out making a “ha “sound.

. focus on creating a rhythmic movement of the arms with the breath. The arm movements are – front, side, up, down/back.

 

Please note that there are contraindications to practising Breath of Joy - it is not recommended for those with high blood pressure/glaucoma or if suffering migraines.

 

3. Lions Breath


Simhasana Pranayama – in Sanskrit – Simha means lion.

This is another energising breathing technique which invites us to inhale through the nose with the mouth closed and exhale through the mouth open.

In addition to boosting energy and possibly even confidence and self-esteem, it is a great way to release tension in the face and jaw, alleviating anxiety and encouraging self-expression and release of stuck emotions.


How to practise

. You can practise sitting cross legged, on all fours and even in Goddess pose (high squat). If on all fours inhale through your nose and round the spine and on exhalation lift the chest and exhale through the mouth. If seated place the hands on the floor in front and lean the body forward on the inhale before then exhaling through the mouth as below. If in Goddess pose try straightening the legs and lifting the arms on the inhale and then on the exhale bending the elbows and drawing them down to shoulder height whilst coming back into your wide legged squat.

. on the exhalation and with the mouth open extend the tongue (i.e. stick it out!) and stretch it down towards the chin. Add a “ha” sound and make it as loud as you wish.

3-4 rounds should be enough to get that extra energy and mood boost.


As an added extra you could have some fun with “playful lion” and as you exhale, extend your tongue and “ha” and try moving the tongue around and from side to side whilst swaying the upper body. Maybe eliciting a smile or giggle or two!

Stop should you feel lightheaded whilst practising this.

 

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