Years ago, before yoga was invented, I worked in a high-pressure design studio (design studios are not JUST about free espresso and kooky eyewear; the pressure to produce under unrealistic deadlines set by burned-out, warped-ego bosses is overwhelming and far surpasses what design school might have prepared you for). An intern would often sit at her computer and sigh loudly before starting a task she had been given. Affronted, I asked her once if there was a problem; she smiled and said no, sighing helped her relax. I read her sigh as exasperation, and plus, why relax at a time like this?! I wanted to dump my espresso on her head and break her kooky glasses. This was in Quebec, and I had just witnessed "Le Sigh". I was angry, and sighed right back AT her. Then my gaze softened. My shoulders dropped. Oh, realized, it works. She's right. Oops.
Your breathing is connected to your sense of time. I once had the insight while driving in a panic through heavy traffic to get to a new client meeting to say 'fuck it. This is out of my control.' and I let out a deep sigh of resignation. Ten minutes later I arrived at the meeting on time. I'm not preaching magical thinking here; I would have arrived at the same time whether I was relaxed or not, but relaxing slowed my perception of the passage of time, and burned less energy worrying, and my attitude going into the meeting was that of post walk-in-a-breezy-meadow.
Panic, stress, and deadlines exist on the yoga mat too. The difference is that on the mat they're all self-imposed phenomena; sure, there's an instructor SUGGESTING pushing yourself beyond your limits, but you're the one making a big deal out of it. As a kind of preparatory inoculation, I start all practice with a reminder of the importance of, specifically, the exhale. Le sigh. We tend to think of exhaling as a an obstacle in the way of us getting back to the inhale, especially when we're struggling. As a child I wondered if it was possible to inhale slowly enough for my body to absorb the air it needed and achieve continuous inhalation, eliminating the need to exhale, since I would no longer need to make extra room in my vacuum-bag lungs. I did not know that exhalation was, among many other physio- and psychological necessities a way to remove waste, and that the air I was breathing out was not the air I had just breathed in. (I still wonder if it's possible to create a siphon effect with drinking: swallow slowly and continuously enough that you also urinate continuously…I just haven't had the time to test this possibility. Surely a yogi somewhere has tried this. Physiologists: comments?)
So now I channel my former co-worker and use a good, long, nasal sigh to regain my composure. Running, doing yoga, sitting at my computer: there is no benefit to rapid, shallow inhales and exhales. Think of a long inhale and exhale as re-arranging the short ones together with their buddies. When we've had a chance to focus on our breathing, we can play around with it and start to use it to our advantage in a yoga practice. For example: I try to think of exhale not as something at the end, but as something at the beginning. It's challenging to exhale while lifting into a headstand; it seems counter-productive, but if you can accomplish it, you'll find that the posture in many ways takes care of itself, partly because by thinking 'fuck it' through your breath you can remove fear, engage unfamiliar parts of your body, and work on actually changing your brain.
You can even make it into a true sigh by rolling your eyes (in both directions! This is yoga! Balance!) You'll see that it breaks your gaze from the lint on the floor you've been trying to laser-beam and gives your eyeball muscles (yes) a nice stretch.
If you're going to try this at work, please do it privately. An instructor welcomes Le Sigh; co-workers might not welcome an eye-roll hiss quite so warmly.