05/05/2011 05:08 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Releasing Stress One Breath at a Time

Ancient cultures the world over have recognized that well-being springs from a life lived in balance. But with the demanding pace of modern life, it seems almost impossible to achieve a balanced lifestyle. The American Institute of Stress reports that stress-related problems account for 75 to 90 percent of adult visits to primary care physicians.1 What then is the true cost to our health of living a stress-filled life, and what can we do about it?

While stress is named as one of our top health issues, it's not actually new. Life expectancy was only 30 to 45 years of age in the early 20th century, when top stressors were how to avoid cholera or find sanitary conditions. Now with the promise of a longer life before us, we worry about juggling current work, financial and family pressures in the face of a shifting world.

If stress has always been around and always will be, wouldn't it make sense to simply accept the fact and get used to it? The Mayo Clinic warns us that the impact of stress can sneak up on us in devastating ways, and if left unchecked can contribute to a number of health problems. The immediate symptoms of stress range from chest pain, headaches, upset stomachs, insomnia, social withdrawal, angry outbursts and lack of concentration, with long-term repercussions contributing to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Whether we are being chased by a saber tooth tiger, side-stepping a small pox outbreak, or are pursued by mounting deadlines, our bodies react in much the same way. And the good news is that many ancient tools are still powerful solutions regardless of the source of stress.

Since our earliest history, virtually every culture has valued breath as an important tool in bringing balance when life gets challenging. In ancient Greece, pneuma meant "breath" as well as "life" and "spirit," and breath practice was seen as vital for both physical and emotional wellness. India developed an entire system of breath practices which is currently found in yoga and Ayurvedic medicine. Within these systems, the Sanskrit term prana refers to our physical breath, and the essence of life itself.

Ayurveda is one of the earliest medical traditions to emphasize the importance of breath on our health and well-being, with origins reaching back to the mid-second to mid-first millennium B.C. Arising from ancient India, Ayurveda is Sanskrit for "science/knowledge of longevity." Today Ayurvedic medicine is being researched by the National Institute of Health, and the World Health Organization supports the integration of its practices into modern medicine.2

Within Ayurveda,3 breath is a major factor in supporting agni, or our "digestive fire." This refers not only to absorbing the nutrients from food, but also metabolizing experiences, memories and emotions such as guilt, anger and pent-up sadness. Using the breath to support the healthy assimilation of undigested emotions moves us out of the stress response and into balanced living.

China is another culture that developed elegant breathing practices, and they exist as a branch of traditional Chinese medicine. And from Central Park in New York to the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, you can still glimpse the 4,000-year-old breath and movement forms of tai chi and chi gung being practiced in the early morning hours. And it's clear that the stress-relieving benefits run deep, as a study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience revealed that these practices reduce blood pressure and stabilize the sympathetic nervous system.

Try these ancient stress relievers for yourself:

  • Balancing breath: Breathe in while silently counting 1-2-3-4, and hold your breath in for another four counts. Then fully exhale while silently counting 1-2-3-4, and pause for four additional counts before your next breath. Find a tempo that you can evenly maintain during all four parts of this breath cycle. Complete the series five to six times, or for about a minute. Then allow your breath to return its own natural rhythm.
  • Full-body breath: We've learned from science that the oxygen we breath nourishes every cell in our body. Using a full but natural breath, imagine the vitality from your breath flowing upward, bringing clarity to your mind and ease to your emotions. Exhale, directing your breath down through your body from head to toe, releasing tension along the way. Continue for one to three minutes, relaxing your body as you clear your mind.
  • Quality breath: Continue with full-body breathing, and add a word, such as "strength" or "calm," that captures a quality you would like to feel or amplify. Silently repeat the word on each in- and out-breath. Continue for three minutes.

Because our breath travels with us wherever we go, it's easy to incorporate mini stress-reliving sessions throughout the day. And the oxygen we get from breath practices fuels our vitality as well as releases stress. So whether you're waiting in line at the market, riding the bus or finally home kicking off your shoes, they are all great times to take a breather.

1. Rosch, P.J., M.D., (1991). "Job Stress: America's Leading Adult Health Problem," USA Magazine.
2. Anderson, J.W., Trivieri, L. (2002). "Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide" (2nd Edition), New York, NY: Celestial Arts.
3. Chopra, D., M.D., (2001). "Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide," Revised and Updated Edition, New York, NY: Harmony Books.

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Leslie Davenport is the author of the classic book on self-healing "Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery." A pioneer in the health care revolution that recognizes psychospiritual dimensions as an integral part of health, she is a founding member of the Institute for Health & Healing at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, serves on the faculty of John F. Kennedy University, and is a clinical supervisor with the California Institute of Integral Studies. Visit Leslie on Red Room.