Yoga breathing to beat anxiety


Today's post on breathing away anxiety comes to you courtesy of Beth Wallis, who's just joined TeaMM...Yoga! as a yoga teacher & all round awesome business manager. 

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In this modern, fast paced world we all at some point or another have felt anxious or some degree of anxiety over a life event. If you haven’t, you luckypants,  this blog post probably won't interest you much!

 *Please note that if you experience anxiety on a regular basis and if it is interfering with your daily life then it is best to seek professional help.*

Now that we have the disclaimer out of the way I can say that the practice of pranayama – or breath control – can have profound effects on your mood.

The next time you are feeling stressed, agitated or anxious stop and notice your breathing pattern.

I bet you’ll find it’s either, short, shallow, fast or in your chest. These breath patterns can activate your sympathetic nervous system, which is commonly known as your ‘fight or flight’ response, which basically means you can get your self out of danger if needed. But as you can see this is not a very relaxing mood, you’re pretty much on high alert.

So, if you are constantly feeling stressed, agitated or anxious then your sympathetic nervous system is constantly switched on and this may lead to other health problems (while is a whole other blog post!). There is science to back up the claims now that by regulating your breathing you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system (our ‘calming’ nervous system, also known as rest and digest) and reduce stress and anxiety. So even though the yogis have been saying it for centuries the scientists have finally caught up!

It is important to go at your own pace and not force any of the practices.

In time yoga and all its many aspects, including asana (physical postures), pranayama (breath control) or meditation, can help us see our thoughts as transient and impermanent allowing us the realisation that our thoughts will just pass by if we let them and we do not need to react to each and every one that enters our head. Our minds like to stay busy and like to repeat our ‘stories’ over and over again. It is usually this repetition of stories that may cause anxiety. In extreme cases this anxiety can be felt as a physical response in the form of an anxiety attack (or panic attack). In times like these it is helpful to remember our thoughts will just pass if we let them and by focusing on something more tangible like our body or breath we can start to slowly feel calmer again.

In particular Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) has a calming effect on the nervous system and may help you move out of your sympathetic nervous system and activate your parasympathetic nervous system promoting a calming feeling. For a full and detailed instruction on how to perform Nadi Shodhana please click on the link to this video. You can even practice it while watching it!

Nadi Shodhana is a great breath practice to start with but if it makes you feel more anxious, or like you can't breathe, or you have a blocked nose or hay fever, there's the lovely & simple abdominal breathing. This chap reckons breathing right is the single best thing you can do for your health:

If this feels comfortable for you, you can add in a lengthened exhalation. Start by inhaling as usual, counting the breath to a number that is comfortable i.e. the inhalation is 3 or 4 counts long. Then on the exhalation add an extra 2 counts on to start. In time you may be able to double the length of your exhalation so it becomes a 1:2 breath count ratio (inhalation to exhalation). By lengthening out your exhalation you begin to move into diaphragmatic breathing which again stimulates your parasympathetic nervous to create a relaxation response. Be sure to notice that your breath is smooth, quiet and not forced in any way.

Even 2 minutes of a pranayama practice will noticeably change the way you feel. So next time you are feeling slightly anxious give one of these a go for just 2 minutes, you never know, you might just notice a difference and want to increase the following practice to 5 minutes, then to 10!

If you want to explore even more yoga breathing techniques, pop over and read this article.


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About the author: Beth Wallis is a yoga teacher partway to her qualification as a yoga therapist, mumma of two gorgeous girls under five, television producer, and co-owner of a first aid training business. She knows a bit about feeling anxious & overwhelmed. Luckily, she also knows about yoga.