Emotions are a natural part of life, but because they can be problematic and even detrimental to our well-being, the desire to regulate them is innate. And yet this inclination is often misinterpreted by therapists as an inability to tolerate distress, which isn’t the case at all. Not all people have issues regulating their emotions or dealing with them, and many assume they do when they don’t. But it’s safe to say that anyone who has studied emotions closely will agree that everyone—regardless of how intelligent, introspective, or deeply spiritual he/she may be—will experience overwhelming emotion at some point in his/her life.
The reality is that emotions do not revolve around us: we exist within them; our lives are shaped by them; and however we behave within those environments is ultimately up to us. Emotions can shift depending on factors such as the situation one finds oneself in (e.g., current stressors), one’s coping mechanisms (e.g., seeking out social isolation), or even the physiological state of our bodies (such as being hungry).
In ancient times, Indian yogis developed a practice called pranayama (literally “breathing control”), which involves using controlled breathing to influence and influence positive physiological changes in the body via specific methods of breathing: long deep breaths for relaxation and inspiration; gentle punctuated breaths for enhanced focus; alternate-nostril breathing for good digestion; exhaling through eyes while inhaling through nose while exhaling through nose while inhaling through nose while exhaling through nose while inhaling through mouth for increased attentional abilities; etc.. This system was adapted centuries later by yogis belonging to the lineage of Swami Sivananda Saraswati when he taught it to his students in order for them to benefit from it more efficiently during meditation practices such as kirtan (chanting mantras)
What are Pranayamas?
Pranayama is a term we use to describe the practice of breath control techniques in the yogic tradition. It’s often used by yogis as a means to slow down their mental processes, but it can also be a way of controlling one’s emotions.
The key here is that breathing itself has an effect on our emotional state; it’s one of the things we do when we’re feeling relaxed that tells our body and mind to relax. So you might say that Pranayama, or “controlled breathing,” is an exercise for improving emotion regulation skills. After all, thinking about your emotions and how to manage them can be overwhelming in and of itself—it may seem easier to simply breathe and calm down instead of consciously making all those decisions yourself.
It doesn’t matter where you are or what your circumstances are—there are resources out there for anybody who wants to learn more about Pranayama, whether it’s online classes or books with instructions on specific pranayamas.
Why does it work?
Pranayamas, an important part of yoga, are techniques that promote the ability to regulate your emotions. Though they may sound complicated and intimidating at first, they’re actually pretty simple. The two main techniques associated with pranayamas are called ujjayi and nadi shodhana. Ujjayi involves deep breathing from the diaphragm, as well as contracting the back of your throat so you make a “ha” sound (like Darth Vader). Nadi shodhana also involves deep breathing from your stomach—in this one, you breathe in through one nostril and out through another. This practice is effective because it brings awareness to the breath, which then affects physiological changes in the body and mind that can help regulate emotions.
Our emotions affect our bodies and our breath; likewise, changes in our breath affect our bodies and emotions. For example, anger or frustration might manifest physically by speeding up heart rate or constricting blood flow to certain organs; meanwhile these physiological changes will also produce more rapid or shallow breathing patterns. If we can recognize these physical manifestations of emotion when they arise within us (such as faster heartbeat), then we can use the relationship between emotion and breath to interrupt those negative thoughts and feelings before they spiral into a full-blown meltdown.
Pranayamas for Emotion Regulation.
Pranayama is helpful because it can lower the heart rate and increase blood flow to the brain, making the body feel calmer.
There are many different breathing exercises, but most involve breathing through your nose in a slow and steady way. For example, one technique might be inhaling for four seconds, holding for six seconds, and exhaling for eight seconds. There are plenty of free resources on YouTube that you can use to learn about pranayamas. (Here’s a good one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DN0X9Oo4a7Y)
You can incorporate these techniques into your life by setting aside time at night or when you wake up before work to practice them. I personally like doing them when I first wake up because it helps me feel more settled before my day begins.
Pranayama is one tool to add to your regulation toolbox.
Pranayamas, or breathing exercises, are a useful tool for emotion regulation. They can be done anytime, anywhere, and they’re inexpensive. In addition to decreasing anxiety, depression and PTSD symptoms in multiple studies, breathing exercises help you focus your attention on your breath and become more mindful. Many pranayamas are easy to learn and use.
Keep in mind that there’s no one solution for emotion regulation. Pranayama is just one tool to add to your toolbox. It can be used with other strategies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), journaling or grounding techniques.