What if you had a built-in “mood ring” in your body, an observable physical symptom that could accurately assess your current emotional state? (And no, a sudden desire for sea salt caramel ice cream doesn’t count.) It may be as easy as just watching the exact way that your chest rises and falls with your breath.
“Every thought and every emotion has a corresponding reaction in the breath,” says Mona Shah Joshi, a personal development expert at the Art of Living Retreat Center in North Carolina.
“For example, when you’re angry, you breathe faster; when you’re sad, your exhalations are longer than your inhalations,” she explains. What to do when you’ve assessed what’s up, emotion-wise, by watching your breath? The answer is in the question, according to Shah Joshi. “What this means is that you can change how you feel, simply by changing the pattern of your breath.”
The Art of Living Retreat Center—pretty much the leader in this whole field of “breathing for happiness” (though the real OGs are yogis from way back when)—has put together a specific set of breathing techniques referred to as Sudarshan Kriya (or SKY). The idea behind SKY is that through a targeted set of breathing exercises you can relieve stress at its deepest levels and increase your feelings of happiness.
“When you’re angry, you breathe faster and when you’re sad, your exhalations are longer than your inhalations.”
But you don’t have to just take their word for it. More than 60 independent scientific studies offer evidence of the benefits of SKY, showing that it can reduce the effects of stress and PTSD, increase focus, improve sleep quality, enhance immunity, and boost cardiovascular and respiratory function (among other things).
As it turns out, Shah Joshi first learned about the power of breath at an Art of Living Retreat Center Happiness Program herself. A college student at the time, she says that after only a few days of practicing the breathing techniques she learned at the retreat, she began to feel happier, more energetic, and more focused. “My sister even asked why I was smiling so much,” she recalls. “I’ve now been practicing these breathing techniques for close to two decades, and have continued to see benefits over time in every aspect of my life—mind, body, and spirit.”
And though you need to take the Art of Living’s “happiness program” to learn the full technique, there are a few exercises (which seasoned yoga practitioners might recognize) that you can do on your own to jump-start those blissed-out vibes.
Here, Shah Joshi shares her two favorite techniques for a daily dose of happy.
Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is said to calm the mind in just a few minutes. It is an excellent practice to do before meditating or to calm intense emotions. It is safe to do anytime, for as long as you like, Shah Joshi says.
1. Sit comfortably, with your spine straight and close your eyes.
2. Use your right thumb and ring finger to alternately block one nostril so you can only breath through the other nostril. Start by exhaling out the left nostril, then breathe in through the same nostril.
3. Switch sides after each inhalation. Breathe normally at your own relaxed pace, giving some attention to completing the exhalation, without forcing it.
Bellows breath, or bhastrika, is an energizing technique that also quiets the mind, while making you more alert, Shah Joshi says.
1. Sit up straight (either on the floor with your legs folded under you or on the edge of a chair with legs).
2. Bring your arms up to your sides, arms bent, with hands in loose fists next to your shoulders. Take a deep breath in, then out.
3. Raise your arms straight up all the way and open your hands as you take in a quick full breath through your nose. Immediately breathe out (also through your nose) with some force as your arms fall back to the original position by your sides, hands closing.
Continue at a steady pace—only breathing through your nose—taking about 15 breaths. Then relax.
Repeat the whole sequence three times, but don’t do more than that, Shah Joshi says. If you feel light-headed, reduce the number of breaths. And if you’re pregnant, it’s best to avoid it altogether.
Another route to happiness? Getting those greens in. Or try this one-minute gratitude break with Gabrielle Bernstein.