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Yoga for stress relief

9 ways yoga can help you with stress and anxiety

How much can you expect from yoga in periods of high stress and anxiety?

Yoga is often recommended as a stress relief strategy, but how much can you expect from it and how does it actually work? Let’s explore the benefits yoga can bring to help with stress and anxiety.

Feel Calmer

What is stress?

Stress is often an umbrella term for situations that are challenging. Of course not every challenge is bad and I bet that in some areas of your life these stressful situations may even bring euphoria as opposed to negative emotions.

Let’s look at the following examples:

  • An athlete striving to improve performance and is under stress to exceed previous achievements.
  • A businessman trying to grow the company and is facing new challenges to help the company grow.

The examples above can be referred to as eustress and the opposite of which is distress, often referred to as stress. One of the best definitions of distress/stress I have come across is the inability to adapt to a situation.

There are a few things that can help us deal with this type of scenario:

  • Understand what the issue is.
  • Understand how the stressful situation is affecting us (in a negative & positive way).
  • Receive support/help from our environment in our effort to deal with it.
  • Build the resilience necessary to endure its consequences.

Can yoga help with any of the above? Can yoga help reduce stress?

 

How can yoga help you manage stress and anxiety?

 

🪞 Yoga as a reflective practice

Yoga through all its components: meditation, asana and pranayama improves our awareness of ourselves and this can be beneficial in managing stress and stressful situations in two ways:

  1. Understanding ourselves will help us understand others (situations/people).

    If every time I’m tired and practice yoga asanas (physical postures), I have less patience to hold the posture long enough. This may help me understand why a colleague has short temper later in the day after series of demanding meetings.

  2. Understanding ourselves will help us see ourselves in others.

    If that happens, the stressful individual/situation – can now be seen as part of us as opposed to something foreign.

I might be patient during working hours but, like my colleague, short-tempered with my partner when I’m tired. Whatever we face which triggers us are parts of ourselves that manifest in some area of our lives.

This aspect of yoga is critical when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. In the process of knowing ourselves, we will come to own all of our parts: some of which are often labelled positives or negatives.

Once I see my colleague’s reaction in me; getting stressed by her response will be the equivalent of getting stressed by myself. This happens all the time with aspects of ourselves we don’t own (we don’t acknowledge as ours). Once we own this quality, like in the example of lack of patience, the situation will no longer be as stressful.

 

🧠 🔗 🫀 Yoga: helping link mind & body – a reality check

Yoga has been credited with helping practitioners merge their minds and body. Though in reality, the mind and the body are inseparable. Here are two examples to help convince you (if you have any doubt)

  • When you’re in a jolly mood how different is the quality of your skin & hair?
  • How much is your cycle affected by your emotions?

The problem is that very often the mind & body are disconnected. Partly due to sociological pressure, partly due to the programming we have undergone (both during upbringing & later in life) we often feel obliged to conform to a behaviour that might not necessarily serve us. Many people ignore the body’s signals of how to deal with this situation and end up disconnected.

How easy is it to deal with a stressor if you are not in tune with your body? In the most extreme cases – and I have been there myself – we may not even register the stress. I’ve had cases of clients who were convinced they were not affected by stress until they saw a messy 24h saliva cortisol test report.

When the mind & body are in synch we can easily pick up on the symptoms and act accordingly. Someone with a sensitive digestive system may want to adapt their diet accordingly when faced with stress. While someone dopamine-driven may want to schedule constructive activities during stressful periods and avoid the abuse of toxins. Of course a mind-body connection is achievable through yoga, just not guaranteed.

I have observed practitioners focusing completely on their body (and how to perform a posture) and others obsessed about their emotions. Neither approach will achieve a mind-body connection.

Here are a few tips on how to improve your mind-body connection with yoga to reduce stress:

  1. Every time you start your yoga practice perform each exercise as if you are doing it for the first time.
  2. Try to remember what you do during the class: postures, alignment adjustments, breathing exercises, etc. At the end of the class, it’s worth reviewing what you went through.
  3. Maintain an inquisitive mind, questioning what effect each exercise has on you.
  4. Question if your current practice is serving you at this moment.

 

🛏 Yoga as a nurturing practice to reduce stress

This is by far the most common reason why people start yoga in the western world (alongside improving flexibility). Yoga offers numerous poses, that can calm the mind & the body. It’s hard to focus and make good decisions when overwhelmed, overthinking, or overworked.

Calming the nervous system with restorative yoga postures can help get more centered and ultimately deal with the task at hand.

While the nervous system can also calm down in passive ways, such as a Jacuzzi or massage, the fact that yoga requires active participation makes it even more beneficial. What’s interesting is that those that need restorative practice the most, are often the last ones to attend such a class. The more yang someone is the more need they have for yin. Usually, this individual will seek more yang practices to fight fire with fire.

 

😤 Breath as the backdoor to our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

Our body has been engineered to adapt to our environment. If it was not for our ancestors’ ability to adapt we would not be where we are now. Our body’s adaptation system is called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and it orchestrates the function of numerous organs so that we will improve our chances for surviving and procreating.

The ANS controls the endocrine system (hormones), heart rate, and breathing. The different parts of the ANS are linked with each other, somewhat through a very famous nerve called the vagus nerve. Of all the components of the ANS, the breath is the one we have easier control over, and thus by changing our breath we can manipulate the state of the entire ANS.

In a state of distress, we feel that we have no control over the situation. While this may hold true, we do have control of our response to it, and there is no more apt way to prove that than by altering the state of our nervous system through breathing.

It is worth pointing out that breathing can be used to activate both the sympathetic (fight or flight) or parasympathetic (rest & digest) parts of our ANS. This can be useful in periods of stress, as a stressful situation may also demand us to be in a state of alertness at times. The video below is from my 5 videos series #freebreathing mini-course showing participants how they can gain control of the nervous system through their breath.

Don’t forget that you can sign up for free now by clicking here: #freebreathing mini-course

 

The breath as a metronome

When holding yoga poses for long periods (ie. more than 10 seconds) lactic acid builds up in the muscles we recruit, which we often experience as muscular fatigue. In the process of holding these postures, we learn how to breathe accordingly to endure the “pain”. Sequentially we learn how to use our breath in other states of discomfort such as situations of distress. One key aspect of breath which allows us to endure these situations is rhythm. Establishing a slow, rhythmic pattern not only can help us maintain an optimal supply of oxygen to our organs but also stay centered.

The easiest way to establish a rhythm is to count each of the four stages of the breathing cycle. Inhalation, pause, exhalation, and pause for a set period of time. Some individuals are not able to pause while breathing, due to low tolerance & poor chemo-sensitivity to CO2, in which case it is best to set a breathing pattern involving inhalations & exhalations only.

This is a simple introductory exercise to help you establish a rhythm.

 

🌞 🔗 🌙 Yoga a circadian rhythm regulator

When we are in distress for prolonged periods our body will be adjusting to the new situation. The adaptation process will involve altering hormone production, metabolism and excretion which will sequentially affect our appetite, sleep, and sex hormones. Do you eat better, sleep better or have the same sex drive when you’re stressed or relaxed?

Physical exercise as well as breathwork, especially when performed at the same time of the day can help us regain control of our hormonal cycle and sequential our circadian rhythm, our body’s biological clock. By restoring our circadian rhythm we’re able to reverse the vicious cycle of stress stimulus; feeling distressed, being oversensitive to stress stimulus and feeling more distressed.

Rhythm is one of the five qualities of good breathing. My course “Breathe Right” has been developed specifically to help reprogram our everyday breathing pattern. The video below is from my Breathe Right 2-week course and covers an exercise to help establish a breathing rhythm.

 

 

🏋🏽‍♀️ Breathwork: a workout for your respiratory system

The demands on the breath during a yoga asana class can be high as the biomechanics of the respiratory system can be challenged. No wonder free divers perform numerous stretches to improve their respiratory capacity.

Aside from the physical postures, yoga offers a plethora of breathing techniques that will help improve respiratory capacity. Altering the levels of blood gases, like nitric oxide (the molecule behind viagra), oxygen, and carbon dioxide can help achieve this. The 2 pillars of breathwork are hypercapnia (increased levels of CO2) & hypoxia (low levels of Oxygen).

Individuals with low tolerance to CO2 are more susceptible to anxiety & panic attacks. Knowing this allows us, to improve our resilience to stress and response to it, by training our respiratory capacity.

If you are interested in finding out what your tolerance to CO2 is, you can perform the test described in the video below.

 

💨 Better oxygenation of our brain

Do you ever hold your breath unconsciously when you’re stressed? While this is less worrying than most people think, it is still an indication of being in an uncentered state. A yoga and breathing practice can help train our respiratory system to maintain regular/slow inhalations and exhalations and thus provide a continuous supply of oxygen to our lungs and peripheral organs (including the brain).

Optimal levels of oxygen, nitric oxide, and carbon dioxide are essential in order to secure the oxygen delivery to the organs. All organs are necessary for dealing with stressful situations (including adrenals, brain, kidneys) and they need to operate optimally.

 

🔬 Concentration = Mental strength

Our ability to perform physical tasks depends, to a large extent, on our ability to recruit our muscles. Similarly, our ability to think depends on our ability to recruit our brain. Being mentally sharp 24/7 is not possible and neither necessary. When faced with challenging situations maintaining a clear mind is critical in making the best decisions.

Unquestionably all the exercises we covered until now can support brain health. Meditation however is the most direct way to train our brain. Meditation, a component of yoga, helps us gain control of our brain by teaching us how to stop thinking which can reduce stress. Once we learn how to do that, we can then direct our thoughts at will. Wouldn’t that be beneficial when faced with a stressful situation and not have emotions run our brain?

 

Conclusion

Challenges are part of life, if not synonymous with it. We refer to challenges as eustress when it’s related to things that we enjoy and inspire us. We refer to challenges as distress when we see no value in them.

Yoga & breathwork can help us in stressful situations so that we:

  • Understand the challenge at hand.
  • See the impact it has on us.
  • Find the resources we need.
  • Become more resilient.

All the above though are likely to take time. Do not expect the benefits after one class. By practising the techniques over time, yoga helps with stress and anxiety. Be confident that thousands of practitioners have experienced these benefits before you. If you’d like my help with private tuition, either in person or online:

Schedule a call with me here

 

Pain Free Headstand

Can a headstand be pain-free?

A headstand (also known as Shirshasana) is an inversion where the practitioner is balancing on their head. A common question to those new to the idea is: Is that supposed to hurt? No, a headstand can be pain-free!

Why would a pose practiced over a millennia, by people of different body types and biological age meant to hurt? Unless the technique is compromised of course! In this article, I will cover all the mistakes I’ve seen during a headstand practice that can cause pain and offer some advice on what to do to stay pain-free.

Disclaimer 1: While I consider the analysis below to be valid for everyone, reading the information doesn’t guarantee that you will be making the suggested corrections when practicing on your own. To that extent, it is highly advisable to get the feedback from an external eye, preferably someone that understands the biomechanics and ideally an instructor. Also, those with a neck injury may benefit from some prior strengthening work in their trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and deltoids.

 

5 areas a headstand can cause pain

Pain in the neck

Neck pain is by far the most common complaint among those starting out with headstanding. The root causes of the problem is the shoulder joint set up

The position of the shoulders determines how much pressure will be on the neck. If I was to elevate my scapula I would increase the pressure on my neck even while standing. In all versions of the headstand, the scapula should be depressed.

Scapula depression keeps the neck pain-free

Scapula elevation can cause neck painYou can find a brief review of all scapula movements here.

While headstands should be performed with scapula depressed the scapula should be elevated in forearmstands and handstands. If you are interested in learning how to forearmstand you can read this article on Triyoga’s Blog.

 

How to deal with neck pain in headstand?

If you are experiencing neck pain I suggest you pay close attention to your scapula (shoulder blades) maintaining them always depressed. You can think of it as the shoulders away from the ears.

 

You should always maintain scapula depression for neck pain-free headstandScapula elevation in headstand can cause neck pain

In your effort to keep your scapula depressed it will help to pay close attention to the position of the hands.  One of the easiest ways of learning to headstand in a tripod is by keeping your hands shoulder-distance. However, those with weak shoulders or tight traps may find that hand position, unstable or suffocating. If that’s the case for you I suggest you widen the distance between your hands while maintaining the elbows as close as possible towards each other. You can also use a yoga strap to help you achieve that.

 

In a headstand you should try to keep your elbows in.

When starting out with headstands you should avoid keeping the elbows out.

Initially for some practitioners maintaining continuous scapula depression is not possible partly due to weakness in the rotator cuff and latissimus dorsi and partly due to lack of adequate neuroconnections with this part of the body. For that reason, in the 5 step process I follow when teaching headstands, is initially to involve one or both legs on the floor. Also, I encourage students to come out as soon as they feel pain as it is a sign they have lost their shoulder joint set up.

 

Pain on top of the head

The shape of skull varies between individuals. Some have a flat top, while others have a peak at the top. It is quite common at the beginning for practitioners to feel some discomfort, especially if they belong to the latter category.

If you are feeling pain on top of your head in a tripod headstand it is probably due to how sensitive your skin is in this area and/or the shape of your head. In a supported headstand the pressure on the head is often minimized as the forearm can take a lot of the body’s weight, provided they are pushing down.

How to deal with pain on the top of the head?

You can limit the pain on your head in a headstand by folding the mat.Chances are that you will be accustomed to the pressure after 3-5 sessions but in the meantime, you can double the mat or put an extra blanket underneath the head.

 

Please keep in mind that in a headstand ideally all (or nearly all) of the weight should be on the top of the head. In an effort to avoid the minor initial discomfort, some practitioners may:

• transfer most of the body’s weight to their hands. This is often accompanied by a planching line.

• place their forehead on the floor (instead of the top of the head).

• position their hands underneath their head.

This alignment often becomes a habit and might be a limiting factor later on when working towards intermediate headstand lines or transitions in & out of headstand. Instead of making any of the above adjustments place some cushion underneath your head.

In a headstand the top of the head should be in contact with the floor, not the forehead. In a headstand the hands should not be underneath the head. In a headstand the hands should bear little weight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headache

Approximately 10% of those headstanding will experience headaches at some point during their practice. Usually, headaches occur in the learning phase and are due to either irregular breathing or excessive (and unnecessary) tension in the upper back muscles.

How to deal with headaches in a headstand?

It is very common to breathe irregularly during the first few attempts of headstanding, so don’t beat yourself up. The extra load in the upper back muscles and diaphragm is likely to challenge your breath. I suggest you try to establish a slow breathing pattern, either by taking sips of air or through ujjayi breath.

The ideal breathing in a headstand, as well as a forearm stand and handstand, is diaphragmatic lateral breathing but that comes by default usually to those with a long-lasting pilates practice or after a regular practice is established – but not in the initial stages of learning.

If the headaches are because of tension in the trapezius muscles, you can depress your scapula. This will allow for a temporary release of the trapezius.

Lower back pain

An arch in headstand can cause lower back pain.Lower back pain in a headstand is due to poor posture in the lower part of the spine or weak lower back muscles. The use of a wall sometimes promotes poor posture which is why I will briefly mention one thing practitioners should keep an eye on.

When we are upside down the pressure on the joints of the upper body increases, as they need to carry the weight of the lower body. Depending on your weight distribution, the increased pressure can be small (if your hips and legs are light) or significant (if your hips and legs are heavy). For this reason, those with a tendency to maintain an exaggerated lordosis in the lumbar spine and those with weak quadratus lumborum are more likely to experience lower back pain. 

How to deal with lower back pain in a headstand?

Correcting one’s posture upside down is not easy when starting out, as the proprioception is often limited. For this reason, when I’m teaching a headstand for the first time, I suggest that my students become familiar with the tuck. Three main reasons behind that are:

• in a tuck keeping the naval in is easier. The naval in is necessary for the inner unit of the abdominals to stay active.

• there is less weight in the lower back

• the center of mass is low and at least for that reason, the balance is easier.

Tuck headstand is one of the 3 key headstand lines.Those unable to hold a tuck can practice a stag leg version.

However, even practitioners with no excess lordosis may experience lower back pain. In both scenarios I suggest one performs:

• drills that improve awareness and

• conditioning sequences for quadratus lumborum, glutes, abdominals and obliques.

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Everyone’s patterns are different so I provide each of my students with a different sequence. If you would like one to start with, I suggest you give this one a go. 

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Disclaimer 2: While our body’s anatomy plays a role on how easily we will learn to headstand it is only one of many parameters. To no extent should it be a reason to give up on learning. One of the benefits of inversions is that they give us the opportunity to discover our body. Whatever patterns we have are amplified when upside down. Use that opportunity to develop your practice and relationship with your body.

When does practicing against the call cause lower back pain?

When one or both feet touch the wall, the base of support becomes bigger.

The base in a headstand is determined by the points in contact with the floor

The base in a headstand increases with one foot on the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The balance will be maintained (comfortably) as long as the centre of mass is above our base of support. When the headstand is performed against the wall, instead of being over the head, the centre of mass will end up behind, without us losing balance. This is likely to cause an excess arch (lordosis) in the lower back and sequentially develop a pattern even when the wall is no longer needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For this reason, I am only happy to advise the use of the wall in homeopathic dosages.

Pain in the wrists

If you are experiencing wrist pain, you should assess your wrist’s dorsiflexion ability

How to deal with wrist pain in a headstand?

If you currently don’t have a 90-degree wrist dorsiflexion pain-free, I suggest you perform daily stretches for the forearms. Ideally, you will be also strengthening the hand and forearms.

While in a tripod headstand make sure your hands are not too far from your head as this will increase the degrees of dorsiflexion & thus the pain. To reduce the pressure you can also turn your fingers out.

 

 

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What to do when experiencing pain in a headstand?

Stop and assess what is causing the problem. In the process of doing that, it’s worth recording yourself too. What we are doing and what we think we are doing while upside down is often two different realities. Once you identify the problem try to fix it by following the suggestions above. Working with an experienced teacher can save you time and the risk of injury and I am dedicated to help all my students interested in inversions develop their practice.

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breathing in yoga

How to breathe during yoga

The way you breathe during a yoga class is affected by many parameters including :

• our level of experience

• the style of yoga

• our familiarity with the sequence

• how tense you are on the day

• the phase of the menstrual cycle

 

If you have been practicing yoga for a while you may have noticed how your breathing changed with time. You may have also noticed that beginners and more advanced practitioners will be performing the same poses (even with the same technique/form) but following a completely different breathing pattern.

In this article, I will analyze how the level of experience, style of yoga and phase of the menstrual cycle affect how you breathe during yoga. Let’s start with those starting out.

 

Breathing based on experience

Novice

When one starts practicing yoga (especially in a group class), she/he has many challenges to face. I remember having to :

• perform poses on the limit of my flexibility, if not poses completely inaccessible to me

• hold poses for longer than my lactic acid tolerance allowed me

• learn the name of poses

• remember the alignment my teacher indicated

• breathe in and out based on my teacher’s queues

 

While the whole experience at the end can leave the novice student with a sense of relaxation, there is a lot to take in. For that reason I suggest the following 3 rules for those starting out:

✔️ Remind yourself to breathe every so often & establish a slow breathing pattern.

✔️ Observe your breath. Usually, the moment we observe our breathing it is slowed down. Refrain from trying to alter it – just observe it.

✔️ Maintain nasal breathing at all times. The best way to achieve that is to refrain from mouth breathing at all costs. This may not be accessible to you in the beginning due to chronic poor respiratory habits, but it is the foundation of any breathwork, so do not give up.

 

Intermediate

By the time you consider yourself to be an intermediate practitioner, you should be switching to ujjayi breath throughout your yoga (asana) practice.

Ujjayi breath in my opinion is: SILENT • SLOW • INTENTIONAL

This description is in line with that of Timothy McCall (author of the book “Yoga as Medicine”) :

“When you first learn Ujjayi, you will breathe with an audible noise. But as you progress, the sound may become so subtle that someone sitting next to you would not hear it.” Ref 1

 

If you maintain ujjayi breath at all times you will be able to :

✔️ stay focused

✔️ maintain good energy levels throughout the practice

✔️ oxygenate your muscles and brain adequately

 

Advanced

As an advanced practitioner, you can work towards gaining control of your breathing, independent of the asana or vinyasa performed. Breathing can support your concentration and help perform the yoga poses but it can also challenge them. Advanced practitioners can challenge their asana practice through breathing.

 

✔️ The 2 pillars of breathwork are: hypoxia and hypercapnia and they can both be practiced during any yoga class. in the section

 

Breathing in different yoga styles

Ashtanga, Bikram, …

In sequences that are standardized such as Ashtanga and Bikram, practitioners are asked to follow a set breathing pattern. The breathing pattern usually requires:

• inhalation during spine extension (ie. upward dog)

• exhalation during spine flexion (ie. uttanasana)

• no breathing holding at the end of the inhalation or exhalation

Three things to keep in mind:

✔️ During a vigorous physical practice, CO2 levels will increase, challenging the respiratory system. If one maintains nasal soft breathing she/he can maintain good cellular oxygenation. if instead there is a shift to hyperventilation the muscle tissue will be deprived of oxygen (due to the Bohr effect) and thus promote fatigue.

✔️ Abdominal integrity may be challenged in poses (asanas) and transitions (vinyasas) that involve both spine extension & flexion. During exhalation abdominal tension is reduced as the diaphragm moves towards the stomach. Over time as abdominal strength increases, it will become easier for the breath and the movement to be synched.

✔️ In studios where yoga classes take place, the temperature is often elevated causing a shift of the Oxyhemoglobin Dissociation Curve (ODC) to the right promoting the release of oxygen to tissue. This should make breathing easier.

Iyengar inspired styles

In styles of yoga where postures are held for long the biomechanics & biochemistry differs from vinyasa style classes. The way we should breathe during poses depends on how comfortable we are with the pose. Breath becomes primarily important when we are learning a pose or when we are holding a pose for periods close to our limit.

✔️ When learning a pose that requires stability in the lower back (lumbar) we should brace our abdominals, as opposed to hollowing.

Bracing our abdominals is achieved by holding our breath aiming for an isometric co-contraction of all abdominal muscles (as if we were about to receive a punch in the stomach). Hollow belly, often cued as belly or naval in achieves the activation of the transverse abdominis (TVA). When the 2 techniques were compared: bracing was shown to achieve higher lumbar stability compared to hollowing [ref 2].

Once someone is comfortable with a pose, hollowing the abdomen and maintaining lateral breathing is good idea as this will maintain a calmer Nervous System and the ability to hold the pose longer.

Certain asanas (such as backbends & side flexions) will require specific breathing patterns to help us access the pose. The progression above is valid for the majority of introductory poses.

 

Inversions

When learning a new inversion, in most instances I suggest one tries to find balance while holding his/her breath (on the inhalation or exhalation depending on the transition/ pose). By holding your breath you will:
✔️ increase of abdominal pressure
✔️ maintaining of the chest & abdominal area unchanged
✔️ increase concentration
 
It also allows the practitioner to establish a pattern through which he approaches the pose. Too often every attempt is completely different which can slow down the learning process.
Once balance is established regular or even better ujjayi breath can be maintained.
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Breathing in different stages of the menstrual cycle

In the 2nd half of the menstrual cycle (luteal phase) the sensitivity to CO2 levels increases [ Ref 3 ] due to an increase in progesterone levels. Women during this phase are expected to breathe heavier or faster [ Ref 4 ]. However this will very much depends on their CO2 tolerance (in plain English their respiratory capacity). The better their respiratory capacity breathing can be maintained regular throughout the entire month.

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How good is your breathing?

Your ability to breathe right during a yoga class is determined not only by your experience in yoga but also by your respiratory capacity. If you want to find out what is your respiratory capacity at the moment do the following 2 tests:

Controlled Pause

Breathlessness Test

References

1. McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine: the yogic prescription for health & healing: a yoga journal book. Bantam.

2. Grenier, S. G., & McGill, S. M. (2007). Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation88(1), 54-62.

3. Dutton, K., Blanksby, B. A., & Morton, A. R. (1989). CO2 sensitivity changes during the menstrual cycle. Journal of Applied Physiology67(2), 517-522.

4. Saaresranta, T., & Polo, O. (2002). Hormones and breathing. Chest122(6), 2165-2182.