Breath Into Happiness: Techniques to Relax and Reduce Stress

Posted 22 Apr 2018


Elaine Kelly

Breath Into Happiness: Techniques to Relax and Reduce Stress

We know beyond any doubt stress can be detrimental to our health.  It might be work-related, family issues or simply having a lot on our plates, but stress is something we need to combat if we are to lead healthy, happy lives.

In today’s post, I’m going to share a few simple breathing exercises that will help to lower stress levels and expand your lung capacity allowing more oxygen into each cell in your body and releasing carbon dioxide and stress from your body.  In yogic terms, we call breathing exercises, Pranayama.  Prana means our life force energy and Ayama means expansion. So, we are expanding our life force energy.  Ancient yogis looked to nature for clues to longevity and they saw that animals that took the least number of breaths, lived the longest.  They created these practises to lengthen the time between our breaths and also slow down our heart’s beat.   We all want to live long and healthy lives, so let’s get started.

Belly Breathing

This is the most basic of the breathing practises and you should therefore aim to master this one before trying out the others. It’s very simple, and requires just a few steps:

  1. Sit down comfortably, or lay down on a yoga mat
  2. Place one hand on your stomach, just below your belly button. Place the second hand on your chest
  3. Breathe in deeply through your nostrils, letting your belly hand be pushed out by your stomach. You should find that your chest stays stationary
  4. Breathe out through your lips, pursing them as if you were about to whistle. Gently guide the hand on your stomach inwards, helping to press out the breath
  5. Slowly repeat between 5 times

You should begin to feel relaxed as soon as you have repeated the Belly Breathing exercise two or three times, but keep going for as long as you wish.  We are not really breathing into our belly, we are breathing into our lower lung lobes.  Our diaphragm, the main muscle of respiration, drops causing our lungs to take in air and our internal organs to expand out.  Then our diaphragm contracts causing our lungs to empty and our belly to drop.  Engage your abdominal muscle to exhale out as long as you can.  Then enjoy the rush of breath that comes in. Master this breathing exercise, then move onto the next one.

Rib Cage Breathing

We are now going to breath into our middle lung area or rib cage area.  Place each hand to the side of your ribs and rest your elbow on the floor if lying or out to the sides if seated. This breath allows the muscles between your ribs, the Intercostals, to get a lovely stretch.  With more flexibility, you can take deeper breaths and double your lung capacity.

  1. Inhale through the nose and feel your hands expand out as your lungs expand. Exhale and feel the ribs contract as the air is released
  2. As you continue take your attention to your side ribs 
  3. Finally take your attention to your back ribs as you inhale and exhale
  4. Slowly repeat this 5 times before trying the next one

Chest Breathing

This is the place we most often breath but it tends to be just in the front of our body.  In this exercise we will focus on the front and back body.

  1. Place your hands on your chest just below your collar bones either side of your sternum where your pectoralis muscle is
  2. Inhale into your chest and feel your hands rise
  3. Exhale and feel your hands lower
  4. Now turn your attention to your back body and try to feel the space between your shoulder blades expand as you inhale, and contract as you exhale
  5. Repeat this 5 times really focussing your mind on where you feel the breath moving

Rolling Breath – Full Yogic Breath

We will now bring the first three breathing techniques together to practise a rolling or full yogic breath. Beginners are advised to lie down, but after your first time you should find it just as easy to sit and complete this exercise. We will be dividing the breath into 3 phases as we fill our torso with air from the bottom to the top and back down again. Imagine filling a bottle with water and then pouring it out.  Apply the same logic here.

  1. Position yourself with your one hand on your stomach, and the other over your chest. Your hands should move as you inhale and exhale
  2. Take a easy breath into your belly, then take another sip of air into your ribs and finally another sip of air into your chest
  3. Exhale and feel your chest lower, then your ribs contract in around your lungs and finally your belly lowers toward your spine
  4. Repeat up to 8 times. Gently exhale through your mouth, being sure to empty your lungs as you do so. While you exhale, make a small whooshing noise. You should notice that both of your hands are moving back towards your body, as your stomach and chest fall
  5. You should practice this method for between 4 and 5 minutes. When you exhale, you should be able to feel a tangible difference in your stress levels

Morning Breathing

While the above three exercises can be completed whenever necessary, the next method is called Morning Breathing and, as the name suggests, should be practiced once you have woken for the day. It aims to relax your muscles after a good night’s sleep, and will help you to minimize tension for the remainder of the day. Remember each movement has a breath.

  1. Stand up straight and, slightly bending your knees, exhale as you begin to bend forward from the waist till your arms are hanging close to the floor, limply. Your knees remain bent to protect your lower back from any strain
  2. Take a breath in and slowly uncurl your spine to your original standing position. Your head should be the last thing to straighten
  3. Exhale, returning to the position of being bent forward by the end of your exhale. Stand up straight once you have finished, stretching your muscles as required

Do this 3-5 times and your spine will love you. If at the end you wish, place your hands on your back and lean back to extend your spine.  Now you are ready to face the day ahead with a big smile.

For more advice, please feel free to reach out or leave a comment below.

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Yoga and Menopause

Posted 07 Oct 2015


Elaine Kelly

Yoga and Menopause

Yoga and Menopause

Aging gracefully isn't always easy, especially when the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause set in. Between nightly hot flashes, heightened anxiety and moodiness, menopause can be a nearly universal source of stress for women from their early 40s well into their late 50s. I know this all too well as I have been enduring hot flashes for two years since I turned 48. As a yoga teacher, I wanted to find out more and see how yoga could help me. This article is a summary of my findings. In summary yoga can help with some but not all the symptoms. How we react to what happens in our lives has a huge impact on our health and if we approach this time of life with respect, take it as a physical call to slow down and pay closer attention, it can be a time of deep reflection and a chance to really consider how we wish to spend the remaining years of our lives. 

What is Menopause?

Menopause is defined as the final menstrual period (FMP) signaling the loss of ovarian follicular function. The hormones estrogen and progesterone regulate menstruation. When the ovaries start producing less of these two hormones, the peri-menopause period begins . One year after your last period is the time when you are officially in Menopause.

What Causes Menopause?

  • Natural decline of reproductive hormones.
  • Hysterectomy. The removal of your uterus but not your ovaries (partial hysterectomy) usually doesn't cause immediate menopause. Although you no longer have periods, your ovaries still release eggs and produce estrogen and progesterone.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These cancer therapies can induce menopause, causing symptoms such as hot flashes during or shortly after the course of treatment. The halt to menstruation (and fertility) is not always permanent following chemotherapy
  • Primary ovarian insufficiency. About 1 percent of women experience menopause before age 40 (premature menopause). Menopause may result from primary ovarian insufficiency stemming from genetic factors or autoimmune disease.

How is Menopause diagnosed?

Generally menopause is diagnosed simply through observation of physical factors by the patient. Under certain circumstances, a doctor may order a blood test to determine the level of FSH in your blood. This will indicate if you are peri or menopausal.

Main Symptoms

Hot Flashes

75 percent of the women experience hot flashes of some kind as they approach menopause and for the first year or two after their periods stop. Between 20-50% of women continue to have them for many more years. Most women have mild to moderate hot flashes, but about 10-15% of women experience such severe hot flashes that they seek medical attention. As time goes on, the intensity usually decreases.

As your estrogen level falls, this has a direct effect on the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for controlling your appetite, sleep cycles, sex hormones, and body temperature. It appears that the drop in estrogen confuses the hypothalamus — which is sometimes referred to as the body’s “thermostat”— and makes it read “too hot.”

The brain responds by broadcasting an all-out alert to the heart, blood vessels, and nervous system: “Get rid of the heat!” The message is transmitted by the nervous system's chemical messenger, epinephrine and your heart pumps faster, the blood vessels in your skin dilate to circulate more blood to radiate off the heat, and your sweat glands release sweat to cool you off even more. Your body works to cool itself down when it shouldn’t, and you are miserable: soaking wet in the middle of a work meeting or in the middle of a good night’s sleep.

Dealing with hot flashes

  • Identify the triggers, and keep note of when they happen and for how long.
  • Dress in layers, so you can peel off one layer after another as you get warmer.
  • Don't wear wool, don't wear synthetics, and be wary of silk. • Where possible, lower the thermostat.
  • Wear cotton pajamas or a nightgown to bed.
  • Use cotton sheets only, not synthetics.
  • Take a cool shower before bed.


Of all the symptoms women complain about during the perimenopause stage, fatigue is second only to hot flashes. Plunging progesterone could be the culprit, especially if the fatigue is coupled with depression and lethargy; if a woman feels inexplicably weary for days or weeks on end, depleted adrenal glands could be part of the problem.

Vaginal Dryness/ Atrophy

With the significant drop in estrogen after menopause, the tissues inside the vagina often become thinner, drier, and less elastic. As a result, you may experience vaginal dryness and irritation; tightening or shortening of the vagina; and/or more frequent infections in the area, such as yeast infections and urinary tract infections.

Anxiety, Irritability, and Insomnia

During perimenopause, estrogen spikes (or progesterone plummets), causing anxiety, nervousness, and irritability. Adrenal glands that are exhausted and overtaxed can also produce bouts of anxiety and intense irritability. When a person is under stress, the sympathetic nervous system responds by accelerating the heart rate, slowing down the muscles of the digestive tract, and increasing blood circulation to the brain to fight the stressor.

When the body is under continual stress, the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenals-which manufacture stress—fighting hormones along with the male hormones that get converted into estrogen—can get stuck in overdrive.

Depression and Mood Swings

Long periods of fatigue, coupled with a melancholy attitude or a sense that the life they once knew is now over, can trigger bouts of depression. Too much progesterone (or a drastic drop in estrogen) can also contribute to everything from a bad case of the blues to severe clinical depression.

Memory Loss

At times during menopause, some women suddenly lose their train of thought or find themselves unable to organize their thoughts. This “fuzzy” thinking often happens at moments of great hormonal fluctuation.

Treatment Options

Hormone Replacement Therapy - HRT

Hormone replacement therapy was first popularized in 1966 by physician Robert Wilson. His best-selling book, Feminine Forever, suggested that estrogen supplements could help control the hot flashes, fatigue, irritability, and other symptoms related to declining estrogen levels during perimenopause. Many women and their physicians eagerly sought the new drug treatment.

In the 1970s, though, the first black cloud appeared. Two major studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that estrogen supplements could increase the risk of cancer in the lining of the uterus. Pharmaceutical companies responded by offering new formulas that combined estrogen with another hormone, progesterone, which had been shown in numerous studies to counter the increased risk of uterine cancer from taking estrogen alone.

By the 1980s, research showed that estrogen-related drugs could increase the risk of breast cancer. In 1993, scientists recruited more than 16,000 postmenopausal women and randomly assigned them to take either the most widely prescribed hormone combination (Prempro) or sugar pills. The eight-and-a-half-year trial was dubbed the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). In the middle of the trial, Researchers discovered that Prempro was actually increasing—not decreasing—the risk of heart disease, blood clots, and stroke. In July 2002, WHI officials halted the trial three years early and advised the postmenopausal study participants to quit taking HRT.

Diet and Nutrition

Changing your diet can help boost your energy, manage your weight, and control your hot flashes. Usually this means sticking to small, light, regular meals with fewer calories, minimal fat, and more vegetables and fruit. Avoid sauces and spices that have a bite to them, and eating foods that are served cold, at room temperature or warm, but not hot. Think of it being more like bird food than bear food.

It is thought that adding soy proteins to the diet could be helpful against hot flashes, since soy is a form of plant estrogen. Examples of soy-containing foods include tofu, tempeh, soybeans, and roasted soy nuts. You may have heard about other plant estrogens such as ginseng, evening primrose oil, licorice root, red raspberry leaves, sarsaparilla, spearmint, damiana, motherwort, chasteberry, and black cohosh. Unfortunately, their safety and effectiveness have not been confirmed in research studies to date.

Yoga – Inversions, Forward folds, backbends and restorative poses

Yoga has been shown to provide relief from insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, memory loss and depression. I created the following routine after researching several books on menopause and yoga. I recommend Sitali pranayama, which I find helps me focus when the hot flash arrives and keeps me focused till it is over.

Forward bends, such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)—in both cases with the head resting on a bolster or blankets—can help reduce irritability and mental tension, because bending forward and shutting out external distractions and stimuli can soothe the mind and reduce the effects of stress. The nervous system then receives the signal that all is well, and the adrenals and sympathetic nervous system stop working so hard.

Chest expanding poses like Supta Badha Konasana, create a mental state that positively affects the mind, supports the heart and lungs to take in more oxygen improving respiration and circulation, and thus counter feelings of depression as well as feelings of safety and nourishment.

Inversions can help with insomnia, because they ground the body’s energy and burn off excess anxiety. When followed by restorative postures, they encourage a deep state of rest. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand) sends blood to the brain and encourage deep, focused breathing, which can improve mental alertness.

Cooling and restorative poses help relax the body. Supported reclining poses can also help promote complete relaxation. Supta Virasana allows the abdomen to soften and any tightness in the chest and belly to release; Ardha Halasana (Half Plow Pose) with the legs resting on a chair calms jittery nerves. Savasana (Corpse Pose) soothes the nerves, calms the mind, and puts the body into a state of repose.


Your feedback and comments would be appreciated. Please login or take 2 minutes to register for free below, and share your experiences, which may help others to solve their problems.

Suggested Books

A Woman’s Best Medicine for Menopause Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf

Yoga and the Wisdom of Men-o-pause, Suza Francina, 2003

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