Have you ever suffered from anxiety or panic attacks? Perhaps before a race of competition, teaching a class, giving a presentation, taking an exam, or maybe even meeting a new person? We all have times in our life when we may feel some anxiety or nervousness. This can often feel uncomfortable and even frustrating because we lose our sense of self and find it challenging to function normally when our anxiety begins to arise.
As many kids do, I suffered from some social anxiety as a child and during my early teenage years. The anxiety manifested itself in different ways even into my 20s and early 30s. I had panic attacks where I couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to pass out, and my whole body ached. I had no idea at the time these were panic attacks, but looking back I later realized I was living with such a deep sense of inner anxiety and this was causing my physical symptoms. I ended up in the Emergency room multiple times not knowing what was happening to me!
Even after I realized that anxiety was the underlying cause, I was convinced that my panic attacks and anxious moments were outside of my control. They certainly felt that way. I was told to ‘take 10 deep breaths’, but that didn’t help, because it was already too late and my anxiety had taken over my whole being by that time.
In 2010 during my yoga teacher training, I learned and practiced various yoga breathing techniques called Pranayama. Some of them felt a little strange at first, but after practicing these for a few days, I began to notice incredible shifts in my levels of general nervousness and anxiety, and in my emotions as a whole. My anxiety was finally beginning to reduce and I felt lighter in my whole body and mind. I realized then that I truly was in control of my anxiety, and practicing these breathing techniques as a daily practice before the anxiety or panic attack came on was key. So I starting to integrate these Pranayama techniques into my daily practice each morning.
I’m sharing with you here 3 of my favorite Pranayama techniques that helped me to reduce my anxiety and allowed my panic attacks to finally disappear. I also teach these techniques during my monthly Body Flows yoga retreats in California wine country.
1) Dirgha Pranayama (3 Part Yogic Breath)
Dirgha Pranayama is a deeply calming breath, that slows down the breathing process. It actually increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream so that the body learns to function more efficiently by using less oxygen. This breath uses the full capacity of the lungs, removing stale air and toxins and keeps the chest and lungs flexible and relaxed. We often find our energy levels increase after practicing Dirgha Pranayama. This happens because it’s renewing the entire system, improving digestion and elimination as well.
Lie down on your back. Take a deep inhale slowly and let the air travel all the way into the belly and into the bottom of the lungs. You can place one hand on your belly to feel the belly really expand. Then continue inhaling as you feel an expansion of the rib cage upwards and out to the sides. Continue inhaling and let the air travel up under the shoulders as it fills the lungs completely, even feeling the chest and upper back expand. You can place the other hand on your chest to feel this area expand under your hand. Then exhale slowly from the top to the bottom, letting the air release first from the chest then the rib cage then the belly last. Finally draw the belly back towards the spine gently as you engage the abdominal muscles at the end of the exhalation to squeeze out all of the residual air. Start by doing 3 full rounds, then take a break and come back to normal breath. If you feel good, do a few more rounds, and work your way up to doing 8-10 full rounds of inhale/exhale. Then rest.
2) Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
The Nadis are pathways or channels of life force energy or prana through the body. They are similar to the veins and arteries in the physical body that are used for blood flow. The Nadis are part of the subtle energy body. Shodhana means ‘to purify or cleanse’. So Nadi Shodhaha Pranayama means to cleanse and purify the subtle energy pathways so the prana or life force energy can flow more easily through the body.
Sit in a comfortable seated position with the spine straight. Use your right thumb and right ring finger for Nadi Shodhana. Close the right nostril with the thumb and exhale through the left nostril for a count of 6. Inhale through the left for a count of 6. Close using the ring finger and hold the breath for a count of 6. Remove the thumb and exhale through the right for 6. Inhale through the right for 6, close for 6, exhale through the left for 6. Continue like this with smooth, deep breathing through alternating nostrils. Begin with 3 rounds on each side, then take a break. Work your way up to doing 8-10 rounds on each side. If you experience any dizziness or nausea during this practice then return to normal breath and take a break.
Nadi Shodhana stimulates and balances the right and left sides of the brain. If you notice that one nostril is more blocked than the other, you may have a tendency to using one side of your brain more than the others, the right side being the creative and intuitive brain, and the left brain being the logical and rational thinking brain. This pranayama also strengthens, calms, and regulates the nadis, enhances the elimination of waste and increases our energy levels.
3) Ujjayi Pranayama (Ocean Sounding Breath)
Ujjayi Pranayama is a deeply relaxing and soothing breath. The breath is lengthened and the air is drawn to the bottom of the lungs. As the mind focuses on the sound of this breath, a deep sense of presence and meditation occurs more easily. The Ujjayi breath can also heighten our self awareness and enhance creativity within. Ujjayi means ‘victorious’ so it’s also a great breath practice to help us feel empowered and victorious!
Restrict the airflow slightly at the back of the throat, and say “haaaa” as if you were fogging a mirror, but with your mouth closed. Keep the sound smooth and even. Your breath may even sound like the waves at the ocean, long, deep, hollowed sounds of the waves. Ujjayi is an audible breath and is the breath used most commonly during a yoga asana class. Continue in this way with long deep breaths. You can practice this during your yoga asana class, a seated meditation, or even when running! I often find it helps me to relax more when I run and as a result I begin to feel lighter and even run faster!
I’d love to hear how you get on or if you have any questions or comments, feel free to share them in the comments below.