[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Nicole Newman who blogs at Yoga for the Arts.]
“The complex has its root in the simple.” ~Lao-Tzu
Anxiety. Shallow (or rapid) breathing. Muscle tension. Guarded posture. Fear. Fight-or-Flight response activated. Increased restriction of respiration. Oxygen deprivation. Exhaustion. Dysphoria. Augmented anxiety. Psychosomatic illnesses.
The most effective and accessible antidote to anxiety is to establish a grounded, centered breath with sound, referred to as ujjayi, “one who is victorious,” or ujjayi breath, “victorious breath.” Ujjayi is produced by gently narrowing the base of the throat by partially closing the epiglottis (the piece of cartilage at the top of the voicebox) and breathing exclusively through the nose. In spite of its simplicity, ujjayi requires both relaxation of effort and presence of mind, which naturally deepens the breath and calms and strengthens the nervous system.
Practice finding the ujjayi sweet spot by exhaling through the mouth, as if to fog a window. Feel the breath create friction at the base of the throat as the soft palette rises, doming upward. Use this same technique to recreate the oceanic-like sound, but this time close the mouth and inhale and exhale through the nose.
Changing the breath directly influences biochemical reactions, producing more relaxing substances, such as endorphins, while dramatically reducing the production and release of anxiety-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, including adrenaline and cortisol.
An incessant undercurrent of fear and anxiety cause physical and emotional blockages, creating a constrictive armor of tension, which hinders freedom of movement, thought and creativity. A well of untapped potential energy resides at the base of the spine, the root of our nervous system. Through mindfully cultivating an even-tempered, sibilant ujjayi, one can awaken and regulate this seat of inner strength.
When paralyzed by anxious thoughts, I find refuge in and inspiration from the Hindu deity and warrior, Durga, “the invincible,” or in Bengali referred to as “the one who can redeem in situations of utmost distress.” Her unshakable fearlessness prevails, even when embroiled in epic spiritual battles. She embodies fortitude and remains rooted and centered in the eye of the storm. Her many arms wield symbolic weapons, including a sword, representing the power derived from discriminative knowledge.
Learning how to use the breath to reign in the wandering mind brings equanimity and strength of mind and body. Senior Ashtanga teacher, David Swenson is often quoted for sharing the following yogic saying: “The mind is more difficult to control than the wind; But, if we are able to control our breath we may control our mind.”
Nicole is a conservatory-trained flutist, who developed scoliosis after practicing several hours a day over many years, without any instruction in mind-body-instrument awareness. Through yoga, Nicole was able to realign her spine and strengthen the muscles supporting her back. She now moves without pain or discomfort. Nicole dedicated herself to sharing the transformative science and art of yoga by founding Yoga for the Arts. Nicole’s mission is to help artists live happier, healthier, more artistically productive lives.