It was recently suggested by Jennifer Oliver that I write something about breathing exercises and I thought it was such a good idea. One of the quickest and most effective ways I know of to either calm down or perk up is through breathing technique.
First, here's my favorite stress-release breath that I learned from reading Dr. Andrew Weil's work. It's perfect for times when you've been pushing through a deadline and you've stopped for a break. Standing, sitting, or lying down, gently straighten your back so that your entire breathing system, from your nose to the bottom of your belly, has plenty of room. Now inhale through your nose to a count of 4, hold your breath without tightening your throat (this is important!) for a count of 7, then softly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Wait a second or two and repeat 3 times. The length of time that passes for each count isn't important, it's the ratio of 4:7:8 that makes this breath work.
When you're doing the breath-holding part, be sure you're not creating a lot of tension or increasing your blood pressure too much by holding in too much air or by clamping your throat shut.
This is good when you're stuck in traffic or waiting in a line somewhere that's trying your patience.
Next, a calming/balancing breath that employs a cool visualization. Again, from whatever position you're in, gently straighten your back, then inhale through your nose. Imagine that the breath slowly floats down a line that goes from your heart to the bottom of your pelvis (called Sushumna). Imagine that the base of your pelvis is a trampoline that, on the exhale,slowly sends the breath back up the same line it came down to "fan" your heart from the bottom up.
Do this for at least 5 or 10 breaths. If you have time, you can do this for as long as you like. It's a good breath to use while you're doing stretching exercises that you hold for longer times because it relaxes your body into the stretch in a very natural way. I love using this breath. I'm convinced that it's one of the fastest ways to get a nice dose of happy chemicals from your brain whenever you want it.
The perking-up breath is sort of like a dog panting, except it's just in and out of your nose. But the idea is to breath in and out very quickly with short little breaths. You'll be using your stomach muscles to accomplish this. It can take a little time to get those muscles to be coordinated enough to do this smoothly for more than a few breaths. So start with just a few of these panting breaths and end with a deep exhale. Build up slowly to do 10, 20, or 30 of these quick panting breaths before the deep exhale.
Thanks for the inspiration, Jennifer!