By: Summer Mengarelli

“Let’s breathe.” My boyfriend’s voice came through the speakerphone, garbled but reassuring. I sat on the edge of the bed in my hotel in Budapest and tried to focus on my breathing as he counted to four from halfway across the world. Gradually, as I breathed deeply and in sync with his counting, whatever had caused me to become so anxious faded into triviality. This scene has not been uncommon to my college career; as the stresses of work and academics have exacerbated anxiety, I’ve found that practicing breathing, meditation, and yoga have made a colossal impact on my mental health.

The practice of yoga is connected to dozens of health benefits: improved flexibility, muscular strength, enhanced posture and balance, cardiorespiratory health, increased blood flow, decreased blood pressure, boosted immune system, more regular sleep patterns — the list goes on. Beyond these physical manifestations, yoga can also lead to an increase in serotonin, one of the happiness hormones, and encourage relaxation. According to a 2007 Yoga Journal article by Timothy McCall, M.D., yoga’s focus on slow and steady breathing encourages the body to shift from the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight-or-flight response, to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming and restorative.

So much of yoga focuses on listening to what your body communicates to you: if a pose hurts, you can re-adjust until the stretch feels therapeutic. If holding a position is challenging, you can focus on your breath and allow it to calm your mind and body. This attentive listening leads to peace of mind and awareness of body, which continue off the mat. As I have practiced yoga for the past couple of years, I have developed a sincere appreciation for my body, and I’ve found that my desire to change it has switched from wanting to lose weight to wanting to be strong and healthy. My current yoga instructor, Sharon Schmitz, recounted her own experiences: “Since I started practicing yoga, I have noticed a marked change in my demeanor, and others have noticed as well. I feel much more in touch with my faith and spiritual life than I ever have. I feel more in tune with my body and what it needs.”

Yoga can be daunting to approach, and attempting poses that require flexibility can be incredibly frustrating. However, regularly practicing will bring you closer to executing those poses, and half the fun is finding a challenging pose and working to perfect it. Morgan Rich, a junior special education major, has been practicing yoga regularly for two and a half years. She described her experience with challenging poses: “I started out thinking yoga was just fancy stretching, but it’s so much more than that. Hand and arm balances are what I’m really passionate about. The energy and strength it takes to hold up your own body weight is a lot more than people realize, and it’s been really fun to learn new balances and then perfect them. It’s incredibly empowering because you have to completely rely on yourself to hold yourself up in these crazy positions, but then when you finally hit it you feel like a total warrior.”

As mentioned above, yoga is not only a challenge to your physical health, but also a wonderful way to strengthen mental health. Rebecca Munshaw, a 2017 Greenville alumna and the current Coordinator of Resident Education (CRE) of Tenney and Kinney halls, has practiced yoga nearly every morning since she began watching “Yoga with Adriene” YouTube videos. She said, “It is something that makes your mind, soul, and body feel good. Honestly, it refreshes me and prepares me for the day. Yoga allows you to take a moment to breathe and realign yourself for the day. I use it as a time to be still with God.”

Morgan, who also utilizes “Yoga with Adriene,” explained how yoga has helped in her journey with mental health: “I began just putting a towel on my bedroom floor and just intentionally stretching and slowing my breath. When I heard about the YouTube channel “Yoga with Adriene,” I immediately started using her videos to help me better understand how to practice yoga and to gain the vocabulary that I needed to understand people when they talked about it. For me, yoga has been a key part in overcoming my anxiety. Taking that time out of my day to love myself and slow my thoughts has allowed me to process stress better and feel productive.”

The breathing technique that I have found most helpful in calming anxiety is called square breathing, or four-square breathing. The technique slows breath by regulating it in a series of counts to four: inhale for four, hold for four. Exhale for four, hold for four. Repeat. This simple pattern is subtle enough that it can be practiced in class, at work, or whenever you begin to feel stressed. Another breathing technique is nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing. This technique uses the fingers to close off one nostril at a time and alternate inhaling and exhaling through alternate nostrils; Morgan, who practices it regularly, suggests a “Yoga with Adriene” video on alternate nostril breathing as a resource for beginner instructions.

Morgan explained, “I have pretty severe episodes of anxiety and mania due to bipolar disorder, and using nadi shodhana has really helped me to control my racing thoughts, elevated heart rate, and panic. It’s a super simple practice, but it requires me to fully concentrate on breathing slowly and gives me a physical stimulus to focus on instead of whatever is throwing me into a panic. I’m able to do it wherever I am, even driving or in class, so it’s really been a great coping mechanism for me. I’d recommend it to anyone, even if they don’t have a mental illness diagnosis.”

Equally helpful is the practice of meditation, which often goes hand-in-hand with breathing techniques. Meditation and yoga both have a long and ancient history resting in the traditions of the Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and Jain religions, and as such, both practices are inherently spiritual. There is certainly room in the practice of meditation for a deepening of faith, but whether or not you are religious, meditation brings clarity, mindfulness, and peace. Sharon wrote, “Meditation does not have to be a long, drawn-out affair. Meditation is about stopping and being present; it’s about giving yourself permission to just be.” Meditation can be as short as three or five minutes, or as long as you like; it can be guided, focusing on a specific thought — maybe prayer, or a concept like forgiveness — or it can be simply sitting still and focusing on breathing.

I encourage you to give yoga, breathing techniques, and meditation a try; and I would suggest to anyone who wants to begin one or more of these practices to take some time to research their history and spiritual significance, in order to practice them with respect to the meaning they carry. Whether you desire the physical benefits, like improved posture or greater flexibility, or the mental benefits, such as balance and mindfulness, I feel confident that these practices will positively affect your life. At the end of our yoga sessions, Sharon instructs us to bow slightly to ourselves and thank ourselves for caring for our bodies. In many ways, this is the nature of yoga, regulated breathing, and meditation: a loving care of and attention to the body.

The good in me honors the good in you. Namaste.

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