It might be surprising to hear that as a yoga instructor, deep breathing can be one of my greatest challenges.
Like many of you, I struggle with panic and anxiety that at times feels hard to manage. When I feel overwhelmed or am just generally freaking out, my breath is always the first to go. However, our breath is the most effective tool we have to manage anxiety. And that means anxiety of any kind, like the irrational anxiety of doing chair pose (it always ends, guys) anxiety of sitting still in a quiet yoga class, of not checking your email—you get the idea.
Although we humans are a species prone to doubt, worry and futurize incessantly (thanks amygdala!) we’re also capable of healing these harmful patterns in a simple and intuitive way: our breath. The beauty and depth of this mind-body alchemy is so profound that whenever I teach it in class I’m always amazed by the shift of energy and focus in my students.
Photo via Pure Green Magazine
Even if your anxiety is a genetic condition, like mine, there’s research that shows practicing breathwork can actually alter your DNA for the better. M.D.s and pioneers of the subject, Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg, wrote about this in the Huffington Post, saying, “One such study found that over time mind-body practices that elicited a relaxation response changed the expression of more than 1,000 genes, leading to altered metabolism, reduced production of destructive free radicals, and improved response to oxidative stress”.
One of my favorite breath practices to help soothe a frayed nervous system is Alternate-Nostril Breath. It works wonders both on and off the mat and especially when you are feeling short of breath and panicked. Alternate-Nostril Breath (ANB) stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System — the part of your nervous system that helps you stay calm — shifts your mood and brings an equal flow of oxygen to both sides of the brain.
So, find a quiet moment to sit comfortably and give it a try.
Take a comfortable seat with your back against the wall
Cover your left nostril with one finger (ring finger works well) and inhale in for a count of six
Pinch both nostrils and hold for three seconds
Cover your right nostril and exhale out for six seconds
Pinch both nostrils at the bottom of your breath and hold for three seconds
Repeat this fives times and practice extending the length of your inhales, exhales and holds (inhale for eight, hold for five, exhale for eight, etc.)
When you have finished, sit with your eyes closed and take at least three full rounds of breath, breathing as you normally and notice the difference in your mind, body and breath