When healing your relationship with food or your body, creating a self-care toolbox can be extremely helpful.
I'm not talking about all those ideas from women's magazines like take a bath or read a book. While those can be helpful too, often moments of anxiety or stress happen at times that you aren't able to stop and take a 20 minute bubble bath.
Instead, building tools that you can use anytime, anywhere is the key.
Pranayama - or yogic breathwork - is one of these. Luckily, your breath is keeping you alive 24/7, so you can use it anytime you need a break.
Yes, I know 'take a deep breath' is an overused phrase, but it's honestly my go-to tool for overwhelm, anxiety, or pure pleasure. It brings me into the present moment to pause and let go of fear, even just for a moment.
It works because your breath is the connection between mind and body.
When you're feeling anxious or stressed, it's affecting your body. Your body enters the sympathetic nervous system - aka your fight or flight stress mode. You may feel your heartrate increase, tightness in your body like chest or belly, or notice yourself taking shallow breaths.
When you bring your focus back into your breath, your body has the chance to enter into the parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest state). It eases the body tension, deepens your breath, brings back clarity of thinking, and eases you into the present moment.
Let's take an example.
Say you're feeling anxious, and your go-to response is to turn to food. You've realized in the past that eating helps you feel better temporarily, and feeling stuffed is easier than dealing with the anxiety. Afterwards, you feel ashamed, disappointed, and frustrated, though, so you decide to skip your next meal to help you feel better.
In the moment, you could practice pranayama breathing when you first notice the anxiety. It will give you a pause to check in with how you're feeling and what you need in the moment.
You could check in and find a pause during or after the binge - again to pause and explore what you're feeling in your mind and body. You may find it hard at first to understand what you need, but the pause is the first step.
You can also check in afterwards on how you're feeling and what you need. Over time, you could pause and realize that practicing acts of self-compassion is what you need rather than falling into feelings of shame.
While breathing is not the 'cure' to disordered eating, it's a pause in between feeling anxious (or ashamed, overwhelmed, whatever you're feeling) and checking in with what you need in that moment. Instead of automatically turning towards restricting your food, binging, overexercising, or shaming yourself, you can find a moment to breathe. With time, you'll be able to listen to that inner voice to practice self-care, self-compassion, and honor what you need.
Please remember throughout this the eating is not the problem, and it's not something to be ashamed of. It's not a failure or you're not a failure - if you practice self-care and still struggle with your relationship with food. Recovery takes time.
Staying Present with your Breath + Feelings
The breath can also be your chance to stay present with what you're feeling.
If you're used to disconnecting yourself from your body, then noticing sensations or feelings in your body can be hard! Using the breath gives you an anchor for these feelings by reminding you to inhale and exhale through moments of discomfort.
Staying with an uncomfortable feeling for one breath can turn into ten breaths or a few minutes, and you can practice getting comfortable with feeling your feelings. You may notice that emotions come and go in intensity, and when you breathe through them, they do dissipate with time.
A metaphor I like to use is thinking about the breath as waves.
If you tune in closely to your body, you can even hear the waves as you breathe in and out. It can be a soothing rhythm, just as watching the ocean is. Similarly, feelings are like waves - they come in, peak, and pass. You can't run away from the wave, but you can stay present with it throughout, as it peaks and passes.
Now, on to the how-to!
Sama Vritti (equal breath)
- Find a comfortable seat on the floor or in a chair. If you're seated, be sure you're comfortable by sitting cross-legged or seated on a pillow/bolster to support your hips. If you're in a chair, place your feet on the ground.
- Let your eyes gently close.
- Take a few natural breaths to notice your body, breath, and mind.
- Start to inhale for the count of four, pause, and exhale for a count of four.
- Continue this breath for as many rounds as you'd like, for 1-5+ minutes.
- You can increase the count with time - increasing to inhale for a count of 10 and exhale for a count of ten.
The inhales and exhales should be the same count, which makes it the equal breath, and try to inhale and exhale completely.
The counting on your breaths also gives your mind an anchor to focus on, so it doesn't wander off into random thoughts as much. Of course, it may, but just bring yourself back to the counting when you notice it wandering.
You may want to do a quick check-in by noticing how you feel before the pranayama and after. This is great to do during moments of anxiety but also as a regular practice, such as first thing in the morning, before bed, or during a yoga practice. When you make it a regular part of your day, you'll notice the benefits seap into the rest of your day.
Try out this self-care tool for feelings of anxiety or overwhelm.
I'd love to answer any questions you have about it, or hear your thoughts in the comments below (especially if you give it a try).
You can even pause right now for a minute and try it out :)
For more on self-care: