Easy Yogic Breathwork for Anxiety
You’re feeling anxious again. There seems to be a million thoughts swirling inside your head but you can’t focus on a single one. Overwhelm strikes and you wish there was just a magic button you could push to calm down.
The good news is, there actually kind of is a magic button. By practicing yogic breathwork, you can teach your body physical ways to calm your mind during stressful situations.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is much more than just the physical postures (asana) that we think of here in the west. Yoga is a complete, holistic healthcare system of practices, techniques, and lifestyle management that lead to a state of being where action and attention are united. When we live the yoga lifestyle, we become more connected to our inner world, the world around us and the world beyond us. As we become more aware and connected, the yoga philosophy and lifestyle provides us the tools to help us recognize our divinity and ultimately become one with God or Source (or however you define the entity greater than yourself). Simply put, yoga is a beautiful way of living that helps you be fully present in each moment, feel more connected to yourself and the world around you, and helps you feel more peaceful and happier overall.
The yoga we most typically practice in the west is Hatha Yoga, which is derived from Classical or “Raja” Yoga. Classical Yoga follows the philosophy of ashtanga or 8-limbed yoga. The 8 limbs are:
1. Yamas- guidelines for how to treat others
Brahmacharya- abstinence from sensual overindulgence; management of personal energy
Aparigraha- Non-attachment; non-greed
2. Niyamas- guidelines for how to treat ourselves
Saucha- cleanliness in action and thought
Tapas- heat; practices which lead to refining the body, mind, and senses (think of burning away the old; Tejas or clarity is a by-product of Tapas)
Svadhyaya- self-knowledge; the Divine Self
3. Asana- the physical postures we do in a typical class; they are intended to prepare the body to sit in mediation
4. Pranayama- breathwork to control and/or master the life force (what we will focus on in this post!)
5. Pratyahara- withdrawal and control of the senses; going inward
6. Dharana- concentration; single pointed focus aids in deep meditation
7. Dhyana- meditation
8. Samadhi- absorption, enlightenment; able to stay in the present moment effortlessly (our ultimate goal!)
Yoga and the Vagus Nerve
As I mentioned at the beginning, there is indeed a “magic button” in our bodies that we can activate when we feel very anxious. It’s known as the vagus nerve. This is the longest cranial nerve in the body and in charge of our parasympathetic nervous system.
The vagus nerve begins in the brainstem and connects all the way down to our colon. It first splits in two at the medulla oblongata (where your brain and your spinal column connect) and travels down the left and right sides of our bodies. It branches out in the chest and connects to our heart, lungs, spleen, liver, kidneys, digestive tract, and more.
It’s an extremely important nerve system connecting the brain to the gut; it tells our brain all the stuff going on in our respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, endocrine, and reproductive systems. The vagus nerve also contains motor pathways which are responsible for stimulating the muscles in our mouth and throat, stimulating our heart, and stimulating the involuntary movements within our gut which allow food to move through.
When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system or our “rest and digest” response which has a calming effect on the body. And we can most easily stimulate our own vagus nerve by doing deep breathing exercises or pranayama (the 4th limb of the yoga system). When we breathe deeply into our low bellies, the vagus nerve tells our brains that we are safe and we can continue digesting, reproducing, and breathing normally. It also tells our endocrine system to stop making stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which are taxing on our bodies when they are present for long periods of time, like when we are in a prolonged state of stress.
Feeling stress is physical as well as emotional. When the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) is activated, our muscles tense and blood flow to the digestive and reproductive organs is restricted. Typically, we breathe with our chests and not our bellies when we are in this state. This makes it harder to rid the body of toxins, restricts oxygen to our brains making it difficult to think clearly, and can cause us to hold tension in other parts of the body.
Getting in touch with your breath during times of high anxiety will allow you to think clearly, control your emotions, and make rational decisions.
But how do we access the breath when we are freaking out?
Well, we have to practice deep belly breathing (pranayama) regularly, before stress occurs, which makes it easier to manage in the moment.
And I am going to show you how to do just that!
The Yogic Breathwork Practice:
Let’s start slow and easy. I’m a fan of taking your time to incorporate new habits into your daily life. These practices may be done with your eyes open or closed.
Start by noticing your breath right now. Just observe, don’t judge it or try to force it to be anything other than what it is. How is it? Is the breath shallow? Is it in your chest or your belly? When you notice other thoughts coming up or that inner critic saying “You aren’t breathing right,” just watch them as if they are pictures on a screen and let them pass by, gently moving your attention back to your breath. You’re breathing just fine. Creating the connection between your brain and the breath is the first step. Practice this for up to 5 minutes at a time. Don’t pressure yourself to go longer unless it feels organic to do so. You can do this when you’re taking a walk, driving, or need a quick break during work.
Next, you may naturally start to deepen your breath. Once you’ve found your breath with your mind’s eye, you can begin to take deeper breaths. As your mind focuses on your breath, you can slowly fill the lowest part of your belly with air, then the space within the rib cage, and finally, letting the air gently lift your collarbones. With control, allow the breath to leave through your nose in reverse: collarbones collapse, followed by ribs, and lastly, the low belly presses towards the spine to release the entire breath. Do this deep breathing 3x then allow your breath to go back to normal. Do you notice a difference now? Is there more space in your chest and abdomen? Are you sitting a little taller? Is your mind a bit sharper than before? What about your heart rate?
Making the low belly expand and contract massages the vagus nerve and tells your brain to calm down. Your internal organs also receive more fresh oxygen through the blood. Taking in more oxygen also energizes cells and helps keep toxins moving out. Plus, many more benefits that I couldn’t fit in a single article!
With some gentle practice, you will start to feel yourself taking control of your body’s reactions. You’ll notice how much you can accomplish with some simple, conscious breathing exercises. I like to remember what my yoga teacher, Karina Ayn Mirsky, said about the breath; “If we imagine each person is born with a certain number of breaths they are allowed to take before death, wouldn’t you want to take each one as slowly as possible?”
That question alone made me totally rethink how I was breathing in each moment. And I hope this article has you making friends with your low belly and building a simple pranayama practice for yourself.
If you would like more information about yoga or pranayama, reach out anytime. Be Your Best Self & Thrive has two Registered Yoga Teachers on the team
and we would be happy to answer your questions!