ACA Blog

Deb Del Vecchio-Scully
May 14, 2012

Yoga as therapy: follow the breath

In a recent blog , I shared my view regarding the overlap between traditional counseling theory and yoga philosophy. Today, I will share how breathwork is a key element to yoga and to counseling. From a yogic perspective, the breath (pranayama) is the core element in yoga practice, more important than the postures themselves (asanas). I often remind my yoga students and my counseling clients, “remember to breathe”.

When under stress, most of us tend to hold our breath or breathe shallowly which intensifies anxiety and physical tension; this is a part of what occurs during a panic attack. Taking a single deep breath sends a signal to the sympathetic nervous system to turn off the stress reaction. Focusing on deep breaths for a few moments can trigger the Relaxation Response. The Relaxation Response was defined in 1974 by one of my mentors, Herbert Benson, M.D., founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Benson found that when individuals focused on their breathing and used a mental focus such as a mantra, neuro-chemical changes in the brain occurred; the opposite state of the stress reaction. The parasympathetic nervous system became “turned on” releasing dopamine, serotonin and endorphins – the body’s feel good chemicals. Unlike the stress reaction which is automatic, the Relaxation Response can be evoked at will through the practice of simple techniques including yoga and basic breathing technique instruction. In yoga, we refer to the basic breath which is a deep full breath into the belly, also known as diaphragmatic breathing and belly breathing.

Basic Breathing Instructions:
1.Invite your client to assume a comfortable position with their feet on the floor.
2.Ask them to place their hands on their lower belly, above the diaphragm, below the belly button.
3.Ask them to take as full a breath in through their nose as they comfortably can, and release it with a sigh. This is a great way of releasing emotional and physical tension.
4.Repeat, repeat, repeat.

At times, someone new to this technique may express lightheadness; if this occurs, coach them to reduce the depth of their inhale and this will quickly dissipate. Invite them to notice the difference in how they are feeling. The most common response elicited is more relaxed, calmer. I then use ego strengthening in my response to affirm their ability to manage their stress, anxiety and much more.

The technique can be expanded to add a mental focus. One of my favorites is to silently repeat “I am” on my in-breath and “at peace” on the out-breath. Counting down from 10-1 is another way. Some people relate more to numbers than words – having options is helpful.

It’s useful to have clients set reminders to take a moment to pause to breathe between sessions which can be created on cell phones, computers or by posting sticky notes in unexpected places. Breathing mindfully is a powerful therapeutic tool – we are breathing anyway, adding an intention to calm and soothe is simple. Namaste.

Deb Del Vecchio-Scully is a counselor and writer who focuses on healing the mind, body and spirit. She specializes in PTSD, Chronic pain and mood disorders. For more information:

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