Calming / Stretching Exercises

Calming / Stretching Exercises: Overview

Calming exercise or motions and controlled breathing can have dramatic stress and tension-reducing effects.  Maintaining flexibility by stretching routines can enhance balance and reduce injuries.  Yoga, Tai Chi, abdominal breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) are among many techniques that have been used successfully to deal with the effects of stress and generally improve health.

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Function; Why it is Recommended

Tai Chi Chuan (Tai Chi) stimulates the central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress, and gently tones muscles without strain.  It also enhances digestion, elimination of wastes and the circulation of blood.  Moreover, tai chi's rhythmic movements massage the internal organs and improve their functionality.  Perhaps tai chi's greatest attribute, however, is the fact that it channels the flow of chi (intrinsic energy) through the body's meridians.  According to traditional Chinese medicine, as long as this flow is uninhibited, a person will remain healthy.  If the flow of chi becomes obstructed or unbalanced, illness will result.

Abdominal Breathing. Some of the benefits of abdominal breathing include increased oxygen supply to the brain and musculature and stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system.  This branch of your autonomic nervous system promotes a state of calmness and quiescence.  It works in a fashion exactly opposite to the sympathetic branch of your nervous system, which stimulates a state of emotional arousal and the very physiological reactions underlying a panic attack.  There is a greater sense of connectedness between mind and body.  While anxiety and worry tend to keep you "up in your head", a few minutes of deep abdominal breathing will help bring you down into your whole body.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Edmund Jacobson developed this technique in the 1920s-40s.  He believed that if a person could learn enough skeletal muscle control that they could promptly relax the muscle from a tense state, it would greatly reduce the ensuing stress response.  In other words, a person might be able to stop the vicious cycle of stress by intervening during the muscle-tensing stage.

Yoga is a collection of postures and breathing techniques that can be done at any age, in any state of health, and anywhere.  The many claimed physical benefits of yoga include:

  • improved flexibility and muscle joint mobility
  • strengthened, toned, and increased musculature
  • improved posture and strengthened spine
  • improved muscular/skeletal conditions such as back pain, bad knees, tight shoulders and neck, swayback and scoliosis
  • improved stamina and balance
  • stimulation of the glands of the endocrine system
  • improved digestion and elimination
  • increased circulation, and can be particularly beneficial for varicose veins.
  • improvement of heart conditions and breathing disorders
  • better immune response
  • decreased cholesterol and blood sugar levels
  • easier weight loss
  • increased body awareness
  • relief of chronic stress patterns in the body
  • relief of muscle strain which in turn refreshes the body
  • relaxation of the mind and body
  • more centered attention and sharpened concentration.


To the beginner, yoga can present a bewildering array of schools, traditions and claims.  If you are young and in great condition, power yoga might be just what you're looking for.  Hatha yoga is more for those who are interested only in the physical benefits of yoga.  When looking for a class, ask questions that reflect your level of interest and abilities.  Ask the instructor how difficult the class is and inform them of any disabilities you have.

Calming Breath Technique
Here is one training technique that people have found useful when faced with a stressful situation or when feeling threatened: it is very useful in helping one remain calm and relaxed and is presented in three easy steps.  Start with the first step, until you've mastered it, then progress to the next step.  Once you have reached the third step, you will have learned the Calming Breath Technique.  Once steps 1 and 2 are learned, step 3 is the exercise that is used daily or in times of stress.

Wear loose-fitting attire, if opportunity allows, so that you are comfortable.  Make sure that you can breathe through your nose.  If you have a cold, do not practice this exercise until you can breathe clearly.

Step One
Lie flat on your back.  Put one hand on your stomach, and the other hand on your chest.  Relax.  Inhale so that the hand on your stomach rises, while the hand on your chest is still.  Exhale so that the hand on your stomach goes down again, and the hand on your chest remains still.  Repeat for 5 breaths.

Now, when you inhale, breathe in so that the hand on your chest rises, while the hand on your stomach is still.  Exhale so that the hand on your chest goes down again, while the hand on your stomach remains still.  Repeat for 5 breaths.  Alternate between stomach and chest breathing for 5 minutes.  Make sure you've mastered this step before moving on.

Step Two
This step combines stomach and chest breathing into one breath.  This is the Calming Breath.  Lie flat on your back.  Put one hand on your stomach, and the other hand on your chest.  Relax.

Begin by stomach breathing.  When you feel you can't inhale any more in this manner, switch to chest breathing, until the upper part of your lungs are filled.  Then exhale by chest breathing first, progressing to stomach breathing so that you empty the lungs fully.  Repeat for 5 minutes.

Breathe slowly.  If you feel dizzy, slow down, you are breathing too fast.  If you are out of breath, you are breathing too slowly.  Listen to your own body's messages.  If you are having difficulty distinguishing chest breathing from stomach breathing, go back to Step One.

Step Three
Stand or sit with your back straight.  Use the Calming Breath and follow this pattern.  You will have to count the rhythm in your head.  Count to 4 while inhaling, hold your breath and count to 4, then count to 4 while exhaling.  Once you've mastered this you may use a 4-4-4-4 rhythm if you prefer.  It adds and extra step of holding your breath after exhaling and counting to 4. Take care not to hold your breath too long.  Again, listen to your body.  Repeat for 5 minutes, or until you are calm.

Practice so that the Calming Breath Technique becomes effortless, and inaudible.  This technique can be used in almost any setting.

PMR is accomplished by intentional tension/relaxation routines.  Tense specific muscles/muscle groups, then specifically relax them.  Move on to the next muscle/group.  This can initiate the relaxation response, induce sleep and reduce muscle pain.

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Calming / Stretching Exercises:

Calming / Stretching Exercises can help with the following:



Mind/body techniques, such as yoga, meditation, relaxation, and biofeedback show promise in increasing cardiovascular health.

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

The relaxation and exercise components of yoga have a major role to play in the treatment and prevention of high blood pressure.  A combination of biofeedback and yogic breathing and relaxation techniques has been found to lower blood pressure and reduce the need for high blood pressure medication.

Out of 20 patients with high blood pressure who practiced biofeedback and yoga techniques, 5 were able to stop their blood pressure medication completely, 5 were able to reduce significantly the amount of medication they were taking, and another 4 experienced lower blood pressure at the end of a 3 month study.



Chronic Fatigue / Fibromyalgia Syndrome

Studies from Texas Tech University found that the yoga postures helped increase circulation to the limbs and decreased physically related anxietyFMS sufferers frequently complain about decreased energy, but the Tech subjects reported that the yoga exercises actually increased energy levels.



A few studies have looked at the effects of yoga breathing exercises – practiced daily for several weeks – on depression.  One study showed that breathing exercises produced faster improvement than no treatment.  Another study found that breathing exercises were as effective as an antidepressant drug for patients who were severely depressed, but less effective than electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).


Many people who practice yoga say they experience a "freeing of the mind from mental disturbances", a "calming of the spirit", or a "steadying of the mind" with associated reduction of nervousness, irritability and confusion, depression and mental fatigue.


Muscle Pains (Myalgia)

Yoga is believed to reduce pain by helping the brain's pain center regulate the gate-controlling mechanism located in the spinal cord and the secretion of natural painkillers in the body.  Breathing exercises used in yoga can also reduce pain.  Because muscles tend to relax when you exhale, lengthening the time of exhalation can help produce relaxation and reduce tension.  Awareness of breathing helps to achieve calmer, slower respiration and aid in relaxation and pain management.  Part of the effectiveness of yoga in reducing pain is due to its focus on self-awareness.  This self-awareness can have a protective effect and allow for early preventive action.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

According to a 1994 study published in the British Journal of Rheumatology, 20 patients with rheumatoid arthritis participated in a yoga program.  Left hand grip strength improved significantly and all patients who completed the course expressed the desire to continue after the study.

Neck / Spine

Neck Pain

Yoga exercises may provide the activity needed to achieve greater flexibility, postural balance, and tension relief that will reduce the incidence of neck pain.  "Yoga is one of the best methods someone can use to help decrease their back and neck pain", says Dr. Mary Pulig Schatz, author of A Doctor's Gentle Yoga Guide to Back and Neck Pain Release.

Low Back Pain

Yoga has consistently been used to cure and prevent back pain by enhancing strength and flexibility.  Both acute and long-term stress can lead to muscle tension and exacerbate back problems.  A number of components of yoga help to ease back pain.  Yoga postures provide gentle stretching as well as movements that increase flexibility and help correct bad posture.  Breathing exercises can affect the spine in various ways, such as movement of the ribs and changes in pressure within the chest and abdomen.  Exhaling can help relax muscles; relaxation provides a physiologic antidote to stress.


COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

For those who have trouble breathing, exercise of any form might not sound like a good idea.  However, exercise does help the body to use oxygen more efficiently; the key is not to overdo it.  Several studies have confirmed the benefits of yoga for COPD patients.  Lung function, inflammation, quality of life, and breathing all showed significant improvement.

In an experiment conducted in Western Australia, 22 male patients aged 52 to 65 were selected for severe breathing problems such as chronic bronchitis (emphysema) that made normal breathing impossible.

Half of the men underwent standard treatment for 9 months: physiotherapy that included relaxation techniques, breathing exercises and general workouts to improve stamina.  The other 11 men were given a yoga teacher instead of a physiotherapist.  He taught them techniques of yoga breathing, which encouraged the use of all chest and abdominal muscles as well as ten yoga postures.

The difference between the two groups was striking.  The men who had practiced yoga showed a significant improvement in their ability to exercise, but the physiotherapy group did not.  Eight or more out of the 11 patients who underwent yoga declared that they had definitely increased tolerance for exertion and that they recovered more quickly after exertion.  The physiotherapy group reported no similar improvement.  A significantly greater number of patients reported that "with the help of yogic breathing exercises, they could control an attack of severe shortness of breath without having to seek medical help", according to the study.

Doctors analyzing the results from the study postulate that, after the training, the breathing pattern of the patients in the yoga group changed to a slower and deeper cycle, allowing them to tolerate higher work loads.  Patients in the physiotherapy group continued in their shallow rapid breathing pattern.


Studies conducted at yoga institutions in India have reported impressive success in improving asthma.  For example, one study of 255 asthma patients found that yoga resulted in improvement or cure in 74% of cases.  Another study of 114 patients treated over one year by yoga found a 76% rate of improvement or cure and that asthma attacks could usually be prevented by yoga methods without resorting to drugs.

Another Indian study of 15 people with asthma claimed a 93% improvement rate over a 9-year period.  That study found improvement was linked with improved concentration, and the addition of a meditative procedure made the treatment more effective than simple postures and breathing exercises.  Yoga practice also resulted in greater reduction in anxiety scores than drug therapy.  Its authors believe that yoga practice helps patients through enabling them to gain access to their own internal experience and increased self-awareness.

A study of 46 adolescents with asthma found that yoga practice resulted in a significant increase in pulmonary function and exercise capacity and led to fewer symptoms and medications.  Patients were given daily training in yoga for 90 minutes in the morning and one hour in the evening for 40 days.  Practice included yogic cleansing procedures (kriyas), maintenance of yogic body postures (asanas), and yogic breathing practices (pranayama).



It is claimed that the practice of yoga will benefit your sleep in three ways:

  1. The quality of your sleep will improve because of yoga's beneficial effect on the nervous system, in particular the brain.  This results from certain yoga postures increasing the blood supply to the sleep center in the brain.
  2. You will need less sleep because of the improved quality of your sleep, and because yoga increases the elimination of toxins from the body.  On average, for every minute you put into yoga you will need one minute less sleep.
  3. You will fall asleep in a shorter time.  This is because your body and mind are more relaxed.
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Calming / Stretching Exercises can help prevent the following:


Varicose Veins

Yoga' s stretching and relaxation techniques can be particularly beneficial against varicose veins.

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