Ever wonder why you are reminded to “breathe” when you are feeling stressed? What does your breath have to do with mental stress?
To understand this, it’s important to know what is stress. According to yoga philosophy, stress is an emotional response to speed at the level of the mind.
What is this mental speed? The mind is made up of a continuous stream of thoughts. When we have many different thoughts rising up in succession with great speed, they build up as huge waves of mental pressure. Our emotional response to that mental pressure is what is called stress.
Prana—the vital life energy
When the mind is under stress, it triggers quick, short and shallow breathing. This in turn disturbs the smooth flow of energy in the body.
This energy is called Prana in Sanskrit. In Chinese medicine, it is known as Chi.
Prana is a universal energy that pervades every single thing, being and physical space in the universe. It is called ‘vital life energy’ because prana enables life to express in all living things. A body without prana very quickly dies away.
Prana rides on the air that we breathe in and vitalizes the body and mind.
The mind, breath and body are intimately connected
What exactly does the mind, breath and body relationship look like?
According to the spiritual science of Vedanta, the human personality is made up 5 layers which are called ‘sheaths’ because they appear to cover our inner spiritual essence.
All the sheaths are made up of matter from gross to very subtle. Here is a diagram of the 5 sheaths.
Each inner sheath is enclosed in and pervaded by the sheath bigger than it.
The grossest sheath is the physical body which is also called the ‘Food Sheath’ because it is made up of the food we eat.
The next sheath subtler than the physical body is the pranic sheath or the ‘Vital Air Sheath’. It is called ‘vital air’ because firstly, prana enters the body through the air we breathe and secondly, both air and prana are vitally important to sustaining life.This sheath pervades the food sheath.
Subtler than the Vital Air Sheath is the Mental Sheath. This sheath represents the emotional aspect of our personality – where feelings are experienced. Since stress is an emotional response, stress is also felt here.
The last two subtler sheaths are the Intellectual and Bliss sheaths. The Intellectual Sheath makes up the logical, rational aspect of our personality and in the Bliss Sheath lie our inherent tendencies that shape and influence our intellectual, emotional and physical aspects.
Let’s focus only on the first three sheaths.
As you can see from the diagram, the Vital Air Sheath lies between the Food Sheath and the Mental Sheath. It connects and pervades the two sheaths on either side of it. It conveys physical sensations in the body to the Mental Sheath and any emotional response (good to bad) to the body.
How stress builds up
Here’s what happens to the mind and body when under stress.
=> Stress is conveyed to the Vital Air sheath
=> Breathing becomes quick, shallow and erratic + Pranic flow is disturbed
=> Blocks or irregularity in the flow of energy in the body and mind occur
=> Body movements become jerky, quick, clumsy + Loss of mental ability to focus on the task at hand.
=> Inability to focus causes mistakes to happen.
=> Loss of efficiency and waste of time
=> Gives rise to anger, guilt, judgment and self-criticism.
=> Emotional pressure builds
=> Breathing and pranic flow further affected
=> Stress levels rise
Having understood the sheaths and their interconnection, it’s easy to understand now why the simplest way to reduce stress is to consciously take deeper breaths and thus regulate the pranic flow to the mind.
Now you’ll know why to “breathe” to calm yourself down.
Like this post? Sign up for the free fortnightly Spiritual Solutions Newsletter and receive the latest articles, news and updates in your email inbox!