The breath is unique in that it can change how you feel, regulate the balance between the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous systems (PNS), and make you feel stressed or relaxed. It is all within your control. Many other autonomic functions central to survival such as heart rate, function of the internal organs, and blood pressure are not within conscious control, but breathing is. Maybe that is why so many traditions have emphasized breathing and connected the breath to the soul, spirit, life force, and vitality. In general, one can say that by slowing the breath, the PNS has a dampening effect on the SNS. You become less stressed, heart rate goes down, and food is absorbed more efficiently. You enter a state in which healing can take place.
On the other hand, if you breathe faster, the SNS comes roaring back and you are back into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. When you are anxious, you also tend to breathe more shallowly and at a faster rate. Do you know how your breath changes when you are stressed? Does the breath change before you realize that you are stressed? The breathing for stress and relaxation exercise helps you wake up your whole torso—that is abdomen, chest, and clavicles—during the breath.
Depending on how you perform this breath, it can have a relaxing PNS response or energizing SNS response. It depends on how you perform the exercise and how your mind interprets what you are doing. Even though most of us need more PNS activation, we have to be aware that depending on the state we are in and how we perform the exploration, it can have an energizing or calming effect on us.
For the next breath exploration, you will first observe your normal breath, introduce new options to your breathing, and then go back to observing the breath to assess how the new information is being integrated. The breathing for stress and relaxation exercise also gives you a chance to get to know which breathing pattern makes you feel more relaxed or stressed.
Pay attention to how you feel both physically and emotionally during breath explorations. While explorations during asana practice can evoke emotions, exploring the breath without attaching movement to it can be even more emotional for some people. It is important that you notice what happens when you explore or play with the breath and notice what your reactions are to breath or asana explorations. When working with the breath, not everyone reacts the same.
There is no universal response to breathing practices. Pay attention to how you feel physically, emotionally, and mentally during breath explorations. Because breath is central to who we are at our deepest core (literally and metaphysically), it is normal and healthy to experience a variety of reactions when playing with your breathing patterns.
Many outgrowths associated with a breathing practice will be pleasant, but it is also possible that mucking around with your breathing habits will be slightly unpleasant. Playing with the breath might shine a light of awareness on aspects of yourself that were previously hidden or suppressed. Both comfortable and uncomfortable outcomes are normal; you may even experience some of both.
I (Staffa) once spoke to a friend who was trying to meditate, who told me that every time she tried to meditate she became more anxious. She could not figure out why it was happening because she believed that meditation was supposed to calm her down. After dialogue and observation, we realized that her breathing patterns were making her anxious.