Yoga for Anxiety, Part 2: The Breath

By: Laura Kacere, MA, LPC

Noticing our breath goes hand-in-hand with mindfulness, which I spoke about it Part 1 of this blog. In fact, intentionally changing the way we breathe is, some would say, at the core of a physical yoga practice. Breathing is also an incredibly effective strategy for managing anxiety.

When you experience anxiety, you may find that your breath moves very quickly, with short and shallow breaths, or you may find yourself holding your breath, particularly during moments of increased tension. The way we breathe, in fact, has significant effects on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Shallow, irregular breathing can increase our heart rate and raise our blood pressure, while causing our mind to speed up. When our breath is full and regulated, our blood pressure and heart rates lower, balancing the nervous system and calming the mind. Long, slow exhales, in particular, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that prepares our body for rest.  

[A quick disclaimer: when doing breathing techniques, it is important to first consult a doctor if you have any breathing issues, like asthma. Take breath practices slow, especially if you’re new to them, and if you notice yourself becoming short of breath or lightheaded at any time, or you find yourself in any kind of pain, stop immediately and return to your normal breathing pattern.]

When you feel ready to try this practice, find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably or lay on the floor. Start by gently noticing where your breath is at this moment. Bringing some mindfulness toward your breath – keep a gentle awareness on how it feels and sounds, and just be curious about the places where you may be more open, or more tight and tense. Are you taking short, shallow breathes? How relaxed or tense do you feel, and where do you feel it? Is there a tightness in your chest? Are there places where you might be holding tension that are making it difficult for you to breathe smoothly and fully? Again, just notice what it happens in your body, without judgment. Perhaps you notice your body changing as you bring your awareness to it. Often when we bring our awareness to particular parts of the body where we store tension, we begin to automatically relax those spots.  

Breathing in and out through your nose, see if you can now intentionally soften parts of the face that may be holding tension. Now relax your shoulders, your chest, and your abdomen. If you’re having a difficulty time relaxing them on cue, try this: tighten the skin on your forehead before relaxing it, squeeze your eyes shut before softening them and so on for every part of the body as you move from head to toe, intentionally tightening, and then softening every muscle. Continue to breath as you do so, in and out through the nose.

Now that your body is a bit more relaxed, start to count the length of your inhales and exhales, keeping the breath through the nose if you can. Count for a few rounds of breath, and once you have a good idea of the general length of each, see if you slow down your exhales by a count of 1 (so if you typically exhaled to a count of 4, try exhaling to a count of 5). Keep the exhales longer than the inhales, make sure to breath all the way in at the top of your exhale before slowly extending and releasing the breath out on the exhale. Continue to do this over a few more breath cycles, at whatever pace feels right for you. When you’re ready, return to your normal breathing, and see if you notice any differences in your body and your mind. Allow yourself to sit in the effects of this practice before moving to something else.

If you felt comfortable doing this, you can continue to explore other breath practices, like 2-to-1 breathing and alternate nostril breathing when you’re ready. Breath practices like this one can greatly increase your emotional balance, and can be particularly helpful in moments of anxiety and stress to slow down the mind and bring you into your body and the present moment.

To read more about breath practices for anxiety, I recommend Bo Forbes’ book, Yoga for Emotional Balance. And stay tuned for Part 3 of Yoga for Anxiety, where we’ll explore the asana, or poses, of yoga that can be most helpful for managing your anxiety.