Learn to use the powerful anti-anxiety tool that's with you in every moment.
Yesterday a yoga student I hadn't spent any 1:1 time with shyly asked me: Can breathing exercises help anxiety?
They can down-regulate the part of the nervous system that is partly responsible for keeping us in a state of heightened alertness unnecessarily and for too long. And they can up-regulate the part of the nervous system responsible for governing functions related to resting and digesting.
The more science uncovers about the way we humans work, the more our contemporary views of health and well-being align with that of ancient systems.
For example: from the yogic point of view, anxiety is an overabundance of rajas (excitement) in the body. We can stop feeling the fire and slow things down through practicing physical poses, breathing exercises, chanting, and meditation.
If you know where to look, there is an abundance of information on how to help address anxiety with self-led breathing methods. These practices will complement whatever treatment strategies your doctor may suggest.
People wonder, which breathing exercise works best? That depends on a person’s constitution, what conditions are present in the body, their energy level, what time of day it is, and more.
Breaking down the parts of the breath, the inhale promotes alertness and the exhale promotes calmness. Therefore, focusing on and lengthening our exhales as opposed to inhales — or any breathing exercise that involves that relationship of exhale to inhale — is a tool available immediately, at any time, for anyone experiencing anxiety.
I’ve been asked why a deep breath calms you down. Well, I would not say a deep breath calms you down. I never suggest breathing deeply to students and clients. Ask someone to breathe deeply and they might gulp air quickly. Instead, I suggest a slow and full breath through the nose.
Yoga teachers and other wellness professionals are coming to understand the wisdom of this — as I did through the work of various researchers and teachers, and most notably through James Nestor. A science journalist who has spent time studying contemporary research on breathing, Nestor recently published an entire book on the topic, called simply Breath. Since its successful publication, he can be heard on many science, health, and wellness podcasts debunking decades of thinking and teaching about respiration.
If you haven’t yet heard about taping your mouth shut at night in order to ensure you breathe through your nose, you might soon. Thank James Nestor for popularizing this idea. And if you happen to try it, be sure to use a small patch of surgical tape, not duct tape!
Practically speaking, remember the lengthened exhale. Next time you feel restless or even anxious, see if it’s possible to note how your breathing is, and then to elongate the exhale. You might count to 4 as you inhale through the nose, and gently stretch the exhale out for 8.
To those living with anxiety, which includes nearly all of us to some degree: may you get the support you need from the professionals you see, and may you also be empowered by tools to promote your own well-being.
is a mindfulness educator, Insight Yoga mentor, and end-of-life doula who cares about individual and collective well-being at every stage of life.