I am not an anxious person in general. But I often catch myself hacking my train of thoughts at night. I drift for a second and then I am caught up in a whole laundry list of tasks, questions, ideas…I try to unattach from this mental roaster, but the moment I sweep one thought away, another one replaces it. Suddenly, I can feel my pulse racing in my throat. My heart rate hikes up and my breathing becomes shallow and constricted. I start to worry about everything – work, family, friends, the world at large… The more I realize, the more I end up in the grip of anxiety. And I am a devoted yogi, who has not abandoned the practice for the past 20 years. And I know, that I shouldn’t get wrapped up in external paraphernalia that I myself cannot fix. But I still do. I guess it’s just human nature to worry about things all the time. And with all my yoga practice and spiritual knowledge under the belt I make no exception.
I believe that the root cause for all anxiety is stress. We live in a demanding world where everything needs to happen now; where we chase deadlines all the time, where we try to conform to societal norms; where we judge everything based on false illusions of failure and success. We don’t lend ourselves the chance to enjoy things as they come. We are tied up to a long to-do-list that we must fulfill. And when for some reason things don’t go by the plan we preoccupy. Our brain secretes cortisol; our body switches to fight or flight. Our breathing becomes shallow and we are panic stricken
Shallow breathing is an automatic physical response to anxiety, and shallow breathing can also cause anxiety – it’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing, a loop where it’s hard to find which comes first. Learning to change our breathing to loosen the grip of anxiety and calm the nervous system is key. It sounds very simple, but it takes regular practice to cultivate. Physiologically, the “mastery of breath, or in yogic terms the mastery of “prana” or life force is directly linked to the nervous system. To understand why the breath is such a powerful tool to both prevent and relieve anxiety and stress, we need to understand a little about our nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system impacts our digestive system and regulates our heart rate, immune function and respiratory system. This system then branches out in to our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It is our sympathetic nervous system that creates our instinctive reactions. “Fight or flight” is actually an important function of the organism. It is invaluable in shaping our ability to energize, mobilize and complete tasks, but when sent into overdrive, the continued elevation of blood pressure can cause multiple problems, including anxiety and stress.
Most of us breathe unconsciously. We never optimize the full capacity of the lungs. The breath never gets to the lower abdomen to stimulate the vital organs. The breathing gets tense, shallow and erratic and it translates as chaotic thoughts and unjustified decisions in life. Also, shallow breathing through the chest means we are disrupting the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide necessary to be in a relaxed state. This type of breathing will perpetuate the symptoms of anxiety. The state of constant worry throws us off balance and we let fear creep in. When we are afraid or hear bad news, we often gasp—inhaling and then holding the breath. This stifled breath sends a signal to the adrenal glands and puts us on defense mode. Shallow breathing through the chest means you are disrupting the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide necessary to be in a relaxed state. This type of breathing will perpetuate the symptoms of anxiety.
But, when we change our breath, we change our mind and we open space for our consciousness to grow. The entire autonomic nervous system and through it our internal organs and glands is largely driven by our breathing patterns. By changing our breathing we can influence millions of biochemical reactions in our body, producing more relaxing substances such as endorphins and fewer anxiety-producing ones like adrenaline and higher blood acidity. That is why mindfulness of the breath is common to all meditative traditions.
When we practice pranayama – the art of cultivating life, we are actually extending the inner force by relearning the diaphragm to expand and contract. It is essential to focus on extending the exhalations, which in turn elicit the relaxation response in the body, calm the mind and sooth the nervous system – allowing it to perform its “lulling” duties. The technique acts as a natural tranquillizer because you are actually nourishing the brain to produce pacifying hormones and put the body to rest.
One of the primary reasons that pranayama techniques that foster a long, smooth exhale are so beneficial is because, when practiced correctly, they can support the parasympathetic nervous system and activate what is commonly known as the “relaxation response,” reducing stress and its effects on your body and mind. As a result, our resilience in the face of challenge or adversity increases, and our mind becomes more focused and still.
My favorite pranayama practice consists of four techniques that encompass different wisdom traditions. The first one incorporates Egyptian mudra (wings of Isis) into a smooth diaphragmatic breathing to expand the lung capacity and nourish the brain with oxygen. It is so much fun as you are following the breath and growing the wings of your heart.
The second one is performed from a “pharaoh’s seal” mudra which from the chest travels over the fontanel to crisscross and dust off any mental chatter of worry and preoccupation. The gentle crossing of the meridians fosters right and left brain optimization and nurtures a sense of centeredness and ease.
The third technique involves a symbolical pulling of the umbilical cord while contracting and an elevation of the arms to the sky in a gesture of receiving Grace. The idea is to squeeze out all the subconscious patterns that lead to tension and anxiety.
The last technique, is of course, a modification of the iconic “alternate nostril” breathing with the arms crossed to facilitate the flow of “prana” or life force through the main nerve channels “Ida” (feminine) and “Pingala”. The meridian crossing coupled with switching of breath from right to left and left to right elicit the parasympathetic nervous system response to relax the body, calm the mind and bring about a state of more focused attention.
As you continue to practice these techniques over time, they will become second nature and you will catch yourself when you are breathing shallowly and fix it on the spot. You will also notice have the pattern of your breath affects your moods and states of mind. You will become more stable in the face of challenge and make positive changes in your life. And when the grip of anxiety takes hold, you will know how to “breathe it away”.
Anti-anxiety Yogea Breathing: Breathe Away
This series of breathing practices encompasses different wisdom traditions and are geared to mitigate anxiety attacks and elicit a state of balance and inner peace. Diaphragmatic breathing oxygenates the brain and amplifies life force through the lower abdomen. Egyptian KA activating mudras couple with meridian crossings to activate the pineal and pituitary glands and boost the secretion of melatonin, while fostering the parasympathetic nervous system. Lower pelvic breathing pulls out emotional debris, helping the brain eradicate negative subconscious patterns and beliefs. Finally, “alternate nostril” breathing is paired with meridian crossing to bring balance to mind and body, and help elicit the relaxation system response. All of these valuable breathing techniques reduce stress and anxiety; promote restful sleep; ease pain; increase attention and focus; and, on a more subtle level, help us all connect to a calm, serene place within so that they experience greater clarity and well-being on every level.