You’ve heard it many times before – yoga makes you calm. But why does yoga have a calming effect on the mind even if you don’t feel particularly calm while you’re practicing? How does it affect the alchemy of the body?
Yoga and breathing
Your normal breathing happens automatically – it’s governed by your autonomic nervous system and you cannot decide whether you breathe or not. Of course, you can hold your breath but eventually, your nervous system makes you breathe in.
Your breathing autopilot takes care of this constant activity with somewhat shallow breathing, exchanging only about 500-750 ml of air in each breath. Yet, your lung capacity is up to six liters!
The good news is that you can control the speed and depth of your breathing. And you can also control what shape your body makes when you breathe – the air always only travels into the lungs but by using your diaphragm, abs and rib-cage muscles, you can increase the space which the lungs can fill.
When you breathe in as if into your belly first, then chest and then under the collar bones, it slows down your breathing and increases the volume of air exchanged. During your practice, you usually inhale when you raise your arms or body up, and exhale with downwards or folding moves. This breath control holds one of the keys to the calming effects of yoga.
In each yoga practice, you should consciously breathe slower and deeper, and synchronize breath with movement. By doing that, you’re sending signals to your autonomic nervous system, telling it to calm down, lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels. Essentially, you’re toning down the stressful fight-or-flight mode, and stimulating the peaceful rest-and-digest mode.
This applies even when you do faster-paced yoga – as long as you keep your breathing deep and slow. However, if you start being out of breath, that’s a signal you’re pushing yourself too hard – ease off. The effect of correct yoga breathing is both calming and stimulating – it makes you less stressed but at the same time it brings more oxygen to your brain, and makes you more alert.
Our minds are busy and fretting all the time. Sometimes, in all that business, we’re not fully aware and focused on what we’re doing. Even if we think about something pleasurable, it doesn’t make us happier than if we were simply present in the moment.
And that’s where yoga comes in with its mindfulness training. Not meditation, that’s a separate issue, but yoga makes us more mindful during the practice, and also in general.
Mindfulness means being fully present in the moment, aware of your bodily sensations, thoughts, breath, and the environment. It’s about being in the here and now, not thinking about the past or future, not running away with thoughts, simply accepting the present moment and not judging it.
It may sound simple but it’s so hard to do! It’s absolutely normal to be fully present in one moment and find yourself lost in thought five seconds later. It takes practice, and yoga cuing makes this easier, constantly reminding you to pay attention to your body and breath, bringing you back to reality.
According to numerous studies, cultivating mindfulness leads to better emotion control, higher stress and anxiety resilience, improved focus on tasks, and greater overall well-being. Through yoga mindfulness training, you’re making your brain work better, you process difficult situations in a more balanced way, and you feel calmer.
Meditation can be a part of your yoga practice or you can do it separately. However, traditionally, physical yoga practice, including the final rest – shavasana – should prepare you for mediation – it burns some of your restless energy, and calms you down, so you can then sit still.
Meditation is nothing mystical, it means sitting still with your back upright and focusing on the breath first and trying to clear your mind. The last part tends to be tricky because thoughts always pop up. Whenever that happens, label it as ‘thinking’ and send it away.
You can also use shavasana for a short meditation but lying down makes you much more likely to fall asleep. It’s best to relax in shavasana first, and then sit up for meditation.
Many people find it useful to focus on an imagined object, color, light, body area, or even a word or phrase that helps to focus their attention. The key principle of meditation is maintaining your attention and not letting your mind be dragged around by random thoughts.It’s normal to be distracted, you just have to keep bringing your attention back.
Consistent meditation practice not only makes you calm because it reduces stress, it also makes you perform better under pressure, and make smarter decisions.Research shows it remodels your brain so your reactions are less impulsive, you have a greater capacity to learn and remember, and don’t get so easily upset or angry.
How to enhance the calming effect of your yoga practice
While all the above sounds good, we sometimes forget to breathe right or focus during the practice, and not even the instructor’s cuing can bring us back. There are a few tricks you can do to set yourself up for a truly mindful practice that will make you calm in the end.
Before you start your yoga practice, sit cross-legged or on your heels, close your eyes, and breathe normally. Even just a couple of minutes of simple breathing is enough to bring your mind to the present moment and allows you to ‘arrive’. Don’t try to change the breathing, just stay with it, and be present.
This simple step interrupts your monkey mind jumping from the past to planning for the future, to remembering a random thing from yesterday. It serves as a transition from your daily life to your yoga practice when you should set the time just for yourself, and not be distracted. It calms and focuses the mind.
Do a physical check-in
The next step is to do a quick physical check-in – where do you feel tense? Can you relax that muscle or body part? Is there any pain? Maybe you need to be mindful of that during your yoga practice. Do you feel good, tired, or frustrated? Appreciate and accept it!
A check-in with your own body is not just useful for physical feedback, it’s also a mindfulness trick. By focusing on your body sensations, your mind stops fretting. And that, in turn, makes you feel calmer.
Don’t judge your performance
Throughout your practice, breathe deeply and perform all the movements as well as you can, but avoid judging your performance. Don’t allow negative self-talk and avoid getting too pleased with yourself. It’s because either of these takes your focus away from what you’re doing.
Often, when you start judging yourself, you lose focus, your breathing stops being synchronized with movement, and it affects your next moves. It’s hard to simply accept your performance as it is, but with practice, it gets easier. No-judgment yoga training can work wonders for your mind, and makes you feel good and calm in the end.
Breathing techniques to try
There are many yogic breathing techniques – called pranayama – but you don’t need to do all of them. Try these three, before or after your yoga practice or at any time during the day. They help to relieve stress and calm your mind, and so are a great toolbox to use in any situation that may be hard to handle.
For all these the set-up is the same – sit cross-legged, on your heels, or on a chair. Make sure your back is straight, shoulders relaxed and your neck is in one line with the spine.
Rest your hands on your knees, and close your eyes. Inhale for the count of four, hold your breath for the count of four, exhale for the count of four, and hold your breath for the count of four. Your breathing should be smooth and deep without explosive release of breath on the exhale. As you get more comfortable in the rhythm, increase the count to five or six. Perform this for a few minutes and see how you feel afterwards.
Alternate nostril breathing
Close your eyes, rest your left hand on your left knee, and prepare your right hand – bend the forefinger and the middle finger towards the base of the thumb, so that your thumb, ring finger and little finger remain free – that’s the traditional way but you can also use your thumb and forefinger. Inhale and exhale fully a few times, then close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left, close the left nostril with your ring finger, free the right nostril and exhale through it. Inhale through the right nostril, close it with your thumb, release the left nostril and exhale through it. That’s one cycle. Repeat 6-10 times. You can play with the counts – inhale and exhale for the same count, make your exhales longer (that has a more relaxing effect), or hold your breath for a few seconds after each inhalation or exhalation.
Bhramari – humming bee breath
Close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths first. Then, lift your hands and place your thumbs on the little cartilage at the entrance to your ear canal (‘shutting your ears’), and rest the other fingers over your eyebrows, eyes and cheekbones. Alternatively, just use your index fingers to shut your ears. This will help block out any sound or light disturbances. Take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out, make a loud humming sound – like a bee – in your throat while keeping your lips sealed. Breathe in again, and repeat five or seven times.
To learn more about breathwork, see our breathing techniques blog explaining all about them.
Any yoga can be calming
Whether you do a fast-paced, strength-building practice or slow and easy recovery yoga, both can be calming if you breathe right, and stay focused. At the same time, both can be invigorating because they give your mind a break and refresh it.
Next time you step on the mat, start by just breathing to fully arrive in the moment, do a physical check-in, and stay present throughout your practice. If you have time, sit in short meditation or do some breathwork afterwards – or both. Expect to feel great!