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Breathwork 101 - Anxiety Edition

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

As yogis have known for a long-time, and as science is beginning to “confirm” for the rest of us, the breath has incredibly restorative powers. There is an increasing amount of research supporting the idea that by controlling the breath (or “pranayama” as yogis say), you have the ability to shift the mind state. When we practice pranayama, we are engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which is a biological mechanism that can calm or soothe us.

Recently, I have been asked by many people that I am working with how to use the breath to reduce anxiety and/or stress. Below, I am listing just a few of my favorites to try if you have been wondering the same.

1 . Square Breathing:

What: Also known as “equal parts breathing” or “box breath”.

How: To begin, find a comfortable seat or space to lie down. Allow your breath to start at its natural rhythm and pace. After a few rounds, you will begin shifting into this practice:

*Inhale for a count of 4

*Hold for a count of 4

*Exhale for a count of 4

*Hold for a count of 4

*Begin again

Some considerations:

*Although I have offered a 4-count breath, you can choose a number that feels sustainable for your body. This could be higher or lower than 4.

*There is no set number of rounds you need to practice. The longer you practice, the more benefits you will receive, although it can be helpful to start small and increase your practice as you feel more comfortable with this work. You might choose 5 rounds to start and see how you feel, increasing as necessary and appropriate.

*Give yourself permission to pause or end the practice at any time.

Why: This style of breathing can invite groundedness into your body, which may help to alleviate or build tolerance to any stress/anxiety you are feeling.

2. Three-Part Yogic Breath

What: Yogis often refer to this as “dirgha” pranayama. The term dirgha means “long” in Sanskrit. This practice involves filling the lungs as much as possible with an emphasis placed on breathing into three parts of your body in a directed and mindful manner. .

How: Choose a comfortable position for your body where your spine can be long.

*Place a hand over your naval and take a slow deep inhale into this area of your body. Feel your belly inflate like a balloon on the inhale, and deflate on the exhale.

*Move your hand 2-3in above your naval (by your ribcage) and breathe now into this area of the body. Feel your ribcage fill and expand on an inhale, and contract on the exhale

*Move your hand to the center of your chest. On an inhale you feel your chest rising and expanding into your hand. As you exhale, the chest lowers.

*Now you combine the three parts. As you breathe in, you feel the breath first fill your naval, then your ribcage, and last your chest. Arriving at the top, sip in a little bit more air to be sure you have filled your lungs completely. As you exhale, you feel breath first leave the chest, then the ribcage, and lastly the naval. At the bottom, contract your abdominal muscles to be sure and remove all air.

*Continue for several rounds until this feels complete.

Why: This practice is said to relax the nervous system, reduce stress and anxiety, increase focus and concentration, help with insomnia, and more.

3. Alternate Nostril Breathing

What: Yogis call this practice, Nadi Shodhana. Nadi is a sanskrit word for “channel”, “stream” or “flow”. Shodhana is a sanskrit term for “clearing” or “purification”. Therefore, this practice is aimed at clearing and purifying the subtle channels of the mind-body (sometimes referred to as “nerve purifying breath”).

How: Choose a comfortable position for your body (any shape that will allow you to have a long spine). Begin by taking deep slow inhales and exhales into the pelvis. Allow these inhales and exhales to fill the lower abdomen, middle torso and chest (dirgha pranayama). After several rounds of breathing in this manner you may shift into Alternate Nostril Breathing, by following steps below:

*Begin by taking a deep inhale.

*After completion of the inhale, use one of your fingers to block off your right nostril and exhale through the left nostril only.

*Leave your finger where it is and take an inhale through your left nostril.

*Upon reaching the top of your inhale, switch so that a finger is now covering your left nostril and release an exhale out of your right nostril.

*Take an inhale through your right nostril and at the top of the inhale, again switch nostril coverage to the right nostril as you exhale out of your left nostril.

*Continue this breathing pattern (inhaling and exhaling through one nostril and switching) for several rounds or until you begin feeling mental clarity.

*Once you release this breath practice, return breathing to full inhales and exhales again before releasing back into your natural rhythmic breath.

Why: This practice is said to infuse your body with oxygen and reduce any built up toxins. This may help to reduces stress and anxiety, as it is calming and rejuvenating to the nervous system. It is also said to help balance hormones and support balanced respiratory channels and to bring balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, helping to foster mental clarity, alertness and concentration.

Certain pranayama practices may be contraindicated during pregnancy or due to other medical conditions. Please seek medical guidance and support if you are pregnant or managing a medical condition at this time. Although, breathwork practices alone are often not enough to manage chronic anxiety, stress, etc., it is a helpful tool to use in conjunction with other methods or support you may be receiving.


MANY THANKS, and more to come on this topic.