Pranayama. It’s the biggest word that all children (and adults) need to learn right now. So what is pranayama anyway? Simply put, it’s focused breathing. Each breathing practice has its own rhythm and sequence, but they all help our bodies calm down… even when facing significant stressors! It sounds very new-age and it reeks of boutique yoga, but the truth is, pranayama is an ancient practice that has a profound effect on our nervous system. It has the ability to reduce stress, improve moods, improve lung function, and reduce generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Not bad for something as simple as a breathing exercise!
Yet to understand how pranayama can accomplish this myriad of beneficial effects, we must first understand the divisions of our nervous system and how each division responds to stress. The nervous system can be divided into two parts, the somatic nervous system (the part under voluntary control) and the autonomic nervous system (the part we cannot consciously control). The autonomic nervous system can also be divided into two parts, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The SNS is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. When we perceive danger, our SNS immediately diverts blood away from our digestive system and to our muscle tissue, preparing us to run or to defend ourselves… and leaving us with a characteristic sick stomach that accompanies fear and anxiety. Our pupils dilate so we can better see our surroundings, our heart begins to pound, our mouth goes dry, and our breathing becomes rapid and shallow so that our muscle tissue can have the necessary oxygen available to fuel our escape. The SNS is ancient though, and it has a hard time differentiating between a physical threat like a bear and a psychological threat like a quiz or a test. This is why so many students do poorly on assessments if they have test anxiety. Their bodies are prepping them for battle– not cognitive gymnastics.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
The PNS is responsible for our “rest and digest” response. Think of it as a calming voice telling you everything is just fine and it’s okay to kick back and take it easy! This part of your nervous system responds when there is no threat, physical or psychological. It shunts blood from the muscle tissue back to the digestive system, constricts the pupils, allows saliva to adequately collect in our mouth, slows our heart rate, and, of course, allows our breathing to become slower and deeper.
Taking Control of the Nervous System
As it turns out, it’s actually very easy to “trick” the nervous system into calming down and letting the PNS take the wheel– even when we’re in full-blown panic mode. This is especially important for children (who often feel out of control, overwhelmed and panicked) and those of all ages who suffer from anxiety.
The first step is to realize that the breath has been scientifically shown to be the link between the physical body and the psychological state of the person. When we are panicked, our breathing is rapid and shallow, but when we are relaxed, our breathing is deeper and slower. This is key to understanding our innate ability to control anxiety and stress through the simple act of breathing. So how does this work? Interestingly, it all has to do with one big cranial nerve that runs all the way from the base of the brain to our colon. This nerve is called the vagus nerve and is often referred to as the “wandering nerve” because of how far it travels through the body. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it promotes a sense of calm by promoting digestion and slowing the heart rate. Fortunately, we can stimulate this nerve just by adjusting the rhythm and depth of our breathing! By forcing ourselves to breathe slow and deep, we stimulate the vagus nerve and “trick” the body into thinking we are calm. The vagus nerve sends out those calms vibes (nerve impulses) and quiets the SNS. Suddenly our brain and gut get messages from the PSN and we calm right down. Viola! Just by breathing we can subdue our own anxiety. Again, this may sound too good to be true, but it has been supported by rigorous scientific experimentation and it is even used by the Navy Seals!
How to Help Children Understand Pranayama
The first step in teaching children about pranayama is helping them to connect the name, to the action, to the effect on their body. This can all be accomplished with a simple chant.
Pranayama calms my drama/Breathe in slow then let it go/Pranayama calms your drama/Tell your dad and tell your mamma!
Bunny breath and breath of joy/Great for girls and great for boys/Bumblebee and ocean breath/Calms our fears and helps us rest!
It might seem silly at first, but it is memorable and children will enjoy repeating it just before they begin to practice their new skills!
Pranayama Techniques: 5 Breathing Techniques for Children or Adults
Measured Breathing (Sama Vritti)
Breath in four 4 seconds
Hold the breath for 2 seconds (optional)
Exhale for 4-6 seconds
Hold for 2 seconds (optional)
Repeated 10-20 times
Ocean Sounding Breath (Ujjayi Breath)
Inhale for 4-6 seconds through your nose
Exhale for 6-8 seconds through your mouth. As you exhale, make a sound deep in your throat. It is the same sound you make when fogging a window. You can practice this sound by lifting your hand to your mouth and pretending it’s a window. Exhale and pretend to fog the window!)
Repeat 10-20 times.
Three-Part Breath (Dirgha Breath)
Inhale using your belly (diaphragm muscles). The belly should look like a balloon.
When your belly is as big as you can comfortably manage, expand the ribs using the intercostal muscles.
Finally, inhale until the clavicles rise too.
Exhale in reverse: clavicles release, ribs deflate, abdominal muscles contract.
Repeat 5-10 times.
Start in a standing position (star pose is best).
Inhale and lift your arms up like a conductor.
Inhale and spread your arms wide.
Inhale and lift your arms up like a conductor again.
Exhale as you spread your arms wide and fold forward, arms slightly bent. Make a loud sound (like a groan of relief) as you fold. Repeat 4-10 times.
On the last repetition, close your eyes and stand still, feeling the “joy” of a slightly over-oxygenated brain.
Bumblebee Breath (Bhramari Breath)
Cover your eyes with your four fingers.
Press your ears closed with each thumb.
Inhale through the nose.
Hum deep in your throat until your breath is gone.
Repeat 5-10 times.
Breath in rapidly 5-6 times through the nose.
Exhale slowly through the mouth.
Try an app! If you are having trouble getting started with breathing techniques on your own, there are lots of great apps out there that can guide you. One of my favorites is Calm.
Remember, when teaching pranayama, it is important to discuss both the physical techniques and the physiological response it elicits in the body. After all, pranayama is a powerful and ancient practice that is most beneficial when fully understood. When students internalize how and why these breathing methods are so helpful, they are more likely to take them out of the classroom and into their lives.