Breathing Through Parenthood: How to Use Pranayama to Manage Stress

Parenthood and stress

Juggling career aspirations, parenting duties, and personal growth can leave even the most driven individuals feeling overwhelmed. But don’t panic! Luckily, the practice of pranayama (or any other form of breathwork) can literally offer a breath of fresh air to ambitious working parents like you and me. Why? Because pranayama can be a powerful tool for managing stress. 

Imagine this scenario. It’s a hectic morning. You are trying to get the kids ready for school while also preparing for a crucial work meeting. Stress levels are high, and patience is wearing thin. However, rather than being swept away by the chaos, you are using the power of your breath to find calm amidst the storm.

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What is Pranayama

Pranayama is a Sanskrit term that consists of two parts: “prana,” which means “life force” or “vital energy”, and “yama,” meaning “control” or “regulation”. Together, pranayama can be translated as control of the breath, or life force energy. 

In some interpretations, the term “pranayama” can also be divided as “prana” and “ayama.” While “yama” means to ‘restrain’ or ‘control,’ “ayama” signifies the opposite – ‘to not do that.’ Therefore, in the practice of pranayama, our aim is not to control the prana, but rather to release or liberate it.

In the context of yoga, pranayama refers to a set of breathing techniques designed to manipulate the breath in order to achieve various physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.

The practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgement.

B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on Pranayama

Pranayama And the Nervous System

Pranayama is a powerful tool that has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, increase focus, and enhance well-being. It can regulate the nervous system through various mechanisms:

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Many pranayama techniques stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), also known as the “rest and digest” response. This activates relaxation and counteracts the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

Balancing the Autonomic Nervous System

Pranayama can help balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS regulates involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, or respiratory rate. Thus, through adjustments in breathing rhythm and depth, pranayama can impact the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the ANS. As a result, it can foster a balanced state within the nervous system.

Increasing Vagal Tone

Some pranayama techniques, such as Bhramari, stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system. By increasing vagal tone, pranayama can enhance relaxation and improve digestion.

Reducing Cortisol Levels

Chronic stress may disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to heightened cortisol levels and heightened sympathetic nervous system activity. Studies from the National Institutes of Health indicate that consistent pranayama practice can reduce cortisol levels, the primary stress hormone. This reduction in cortisol can enhance resilience and emotional balance.

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Four Pranayama Practices to Soothe Your Nervous System

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Who has time for yet another thing to add to the endless to-do list?” Trust me, I get it. As a parent and busy professional myself, I know that time is precious. But here’s the beauty of pranayama: it can be practiced anytime, anywhere, and in as little as a few minutes a day. So, the next time you find yourself on the brink of a parental meltdown or drowning in work-related stress, take a moment to pause and breathe.

Here are a few simple yet effective breathing exercises that you can easily incorporate into your daily routine:

Samavritti Pranayama

Samavritti Pranayama involves equalizing the length of the inhalation, exhalation, and the pauses between them. It is often also called “Box breathing”, or “Square breathing”, which is a great visual to use. Imagine tracing a square with your breath. Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale through your nose for a count of four, and hold your breath again for a count of four. This is one cycle of breath. Repeat as many cycles as feels comfortable to you, focusing on the equal length of each breath and the sense of calm it brings.

Visamavritti Pranayama

“Visama” refers to irregular breathing. In this breathing exercise, the breath is intentionally altered in multiple ways. This includes changing the length of the inhalation, the pause after inhaling, the exhalation, and the pause after exhaling.

My favorite Visamavritti pranayama’s ratio is: 4-4-6-4. Let’s break it down: Inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of six, and hold your breath again for a count of four.  Visamavritti helps to activate the body’s relaxation response and quiet the mind.

Bhramari Pranayma (Bumblebee Breath)

The basic variation of the Bhramari pranayama is very easy to practice. Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. When you feel ready, take a deep inhalation through your nose. As you exhale, create a low- to medium-pitched humming sound in your throat (like the one bumblebees produce). Sustain this sound for the entire length of your exhalation. Notice how the sound vibrations gently resonate through your tongue, teeth, and throat. Repeat this practice for several rounds, maintaining your focus on the humming sound. After completing the practice, continue to keep your eyes closed and return to your natural breathing pattern. 

Sitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)

Sit comfortably with your spine straight. If you can, curl your tongue into a “U” shape. If it’s not achievable to you, gently purse your lips together. Inhale deeply through your curled tongue (or pursed lips) and feel the cool air streaming inside. Exhale slowly through your nose. Repeat for several rounds. Experiencing the soothing sensation it produces as it relaxes your body and mind.

Now it’s your turn. Give it a try! Incorporate these pranayama exercises into your daily routine. Don’t forget to listen to your body and practice with awareness and intention. 

Conclusion

Parenthood is without doubt the most challenging job in the world. But if you are a working parent, you have two jobs to commit to. This puts a lot of pressure on you and increases the level of stress you might experience. The practices of self-care and pranayama (or other breathwork modalities) can help you navigate the ups and downs of parenthood and career by regulating your nervous system.

Remember, consistency is key when it comes to pranayama. Even just a few minutes of practice each day can make a significant difference in your overall well-being. So, the next time you feel stressed or overwhelmed, take a moment to pause, breathe, and reconnect with the present moment. Your body, mind, your family, and your colleagues will thank you for it.

Are you interested in yoga, fitness, and personal development? So am I! Are you trying to juggle parenthood and work? Me too! In my blog, I write about all these topics (and more!) as I want to help working parents find energy, strength, and balance in life.

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