Breathe to De-Escalate Your Stress Response

By Shannon McQuaide

Recently, at the end a 45-minute yoga session recently, the group of firefighters with which I was working sat up on their yoga mats and faced me. I was stunned to see how relaxed and youthful they appeared, appearing 10 years younger than when we first started. And, they were smiling! What is about yoga that visibly transformed this group of responders and can do the same for you?

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is comprised of two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic. These two branches are our brain’s most rudimentary survival system and responsible for regulating the stress response throughout the body. When these two systems are balanced, we are at our best, and capable of responding to life’s uncertainties and frustrations rather than reacting out of habit or impulse. When these systems are out of balance, we are more easily thrown off balance both mentally and physically.

Breathing is an effective way to bring two branches of the ANS into balance. Although breathing practice, called pranayama in yoga, has been a part of all yoga systems for thousands of years, the science of breathing has confirmed that changing the way we breathe can have a positive effect on our mood, high blood pressure, elevated stress hormone secretion, and low back pain.

Use the video below to learn a breathing technique to de-escalate the stress response. You can find many more videos like these at


Shannon McQuaide is a registered yoga instructor with Yoga Alliance and the founder of the FireFLEX YogaTM program. FireFLEX Yoga was developed through her work with the San Jose (CA) Fire Department, where she continues to lead FireFLEX Yoga classes. She is a certified functional movement trainer and has a master of arts degree in leadership and psychology.

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