Ujjai breathing: A Useful Tool for Combatting Stress


What is the parasympathetic system and vagus nerve?

This is a diagram shows the amazing vagus nerve that runs from the brain and innervates multiple organs in the body including the heart, bladder, lungs, stomach, liver and eyes. The vagus nerve that helps regulate the balance between the parasympathetic system and sympathetic systems. It is literally a mind-body connection. The parasympathetic system is the housekeeping system of the body. It helps regulate involuntary duties like digestion, sleep, metabolism, sexual arousal and even breathing. It complements the sympathetic system, or the fight or flight system. The vagus nerve originates in the cranial plexus of nerves in the brain. It receives messages from the brain & directs the info down nerves to regulate bodily functions. These nerves also return info back to the brain about the current state of the body. The vagus originates from the brain & extends all the way down, into the abdomen and diaphragm, spreading fibers to the tongue, pharynx, esophagus, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines & glands that produce anti-stress enzymes & hormones (like Oxytocin, Acetylcholine, Prolactin, Vasopressin). These hormones influence digestion, metabolism and of course relaxation-which means slower breathing, lower heart rate and a calm mind.

What does this mean?

This means that when your sympathetic system overrides your parasympathetic system, you feel anxious, stressed or in a state of “fight for survival.” Whether the situation is life or death or not, your body views it this way. Your breathing escalates, your heart rate increases and stress hormones like epinephrine, cause a heightened state which is unhealthy chronically and leads to stress, heart disease, palpitations and adrenal fatigue. This means running on adrenaline all day is stressful not only on the emotional state, but over time, it can also spell disaster for physical health. Our mental, emotional and physical health are intimately connected. 

Ujjayi breathing is a great asset during trying, modern times. It can help stimulate the parasympatheric system and bring instant relaxation.  How is it done? Easily!

1) This is the breath that occurs if you close off the back of your throat, or glottis. The inhales & exhales are reminiscent of the ocean & sound like a hhhhhhhh sound.

2) Extend the breath fully and fill the stomach, using diaphragmatic breathing. Slow deep breaths are key. Exhale through smiling, accepting eyes. 

3) Perform Ujjai breathing seven times a day for up to one minute each time. This will bring what the Indians call-sattva, or purity and stillness of the mind. This is quite imperative for the guru, yogi or indigo child.

The vagus nerve is the master mediator between the brain and your body, meaning the pharynx as well as your thyroid, lungs and heart, plus more! By using Ujjayi breath, you are indirectly stimulating this master nerve and are able to heal these innervated organs. You can automatically lower your respiratory and heart rate with this technique. It can even release tension in your throat chakra. It has shown promise in thyroid recovery which is crucial. Thyroid disease is rampant in western countries. Because the vagus nerve connects to the thyroid and then directly down to the heart musculature, mindful Ujjai breathing is the equivalent of singing love songs to your heart. Although Ujjai breathing is encouraged in yoga, it should also be used in daily life to achieve the goal of a disciplined, intuitive mind.