When you’re sad, you breathe a certain way. When you’re angry, anxious, or fearful, you breathe a certain way. And when you’re surprised, joyful, happy—there’s a corresponding breath for each of those, too. Whatever emotion you’re experiencing, your breath reveals it and mirrors it. Your breath informs it and reflects it. There is a relationship between the two: what you feel and how you breathe.
(And just to bring it home, pause here and try it. How do you breathe when you’re happy? Okay, how about when you’re angry? What about when you’re worried? Take a moment to tap into the breath you automatically go to for each emotion.)
Once we realize that our breath and our emotional state have a connection, we can start to shift our emotions by noticing (and changing) our breathing. Truthfully, you already know to do that: consider that when you encounter a friend who is upset, you instinctively offer support to your friend by saying “just breathe” or “take a breath.” You know attending to the breath can help someone regain a sense of groundedness when their emotional state feels out of control.
In yoga, breath practices are called “pranayama,” which translates to “breath control.” There are many types of breathing offered by yogic philosophy: breathing through one nostril to calm (left nostril) or energize (right nostril); breathing equally through each nostril to balance (called nadi shodhana or anuloma viloma); taking short rapid breaths to feel more awake and encourage core awareness, big exhalations through the mouth to cool and calm (simhasana, or lion’s breath, accomplishes that.) These are just a few types of pranayama. There are many more.
There are many breaths to learn about and study, if that interests you. It’s fascinating!
But in my own practice, I find that simply deepening and slowing my breathing can have big results.
Deep and slow breathing changes things physiologically: we bring more oxygen into our lungs, our parasympathetic nervous system turns on, and as a result we feel calmer and more in control. We have more spaciousness in our emotional landscape. We relax a little more. Our emotions shift.
Yoga poses and meditation are super important practices, but breathwork can be done regardless of circumstances: it’s ninja-like. You can do it anywhere and no one knows. You can change your breath mid-meeting, mid-argument, mid-presentation—you don’t need special props or a yoga mat.
The next time you’re flooded with emotions, go to your breath and see what’s happening there. Slow it down. Deepen it. Then watch the power, magic, and beauty of just breathing.