The 9 things to know about best yoga breathing exercises (even if you have anxiety)

Pranayama is the Sanskrit word for Yoga Breathing.  

 And a whole branch of yoga focuses on the breath.

There are eight branches or limbs of yoga according to the ancient texts from India. 

And Breathing or Pranayama is one of those eight limbs.

Not surprising those ancient yogis saw it as essential to learn about breathing.   Remember the rule of three for life?   A human can survive three weeks without food, three days without water and three minutes without air. 

The aspect of yoga most of us in the west are familiar with is the third limb of yoga, the Asanas (postures).   The other limbs of yoga include meditation, concentration, morals, ethics and values and breathing. Pranayama (yoga breathing) is often taught within an asana or posture class. 

However just like we have changed Asanas into a physical workout and think of yoga as a fitness routine, equating it to the gym, a lot of us approach yoga breathing or pranayama like we can give our lungs a breathing workout.

It is good to remember that any yoga breathing, any yoga asana are all about leading the mind and body towards emotional coherence, conscious living and love.

Here are some helpful things to remember when you approach pranayama and learn about yoga breathing

1. Breathing is automatic

 Mostly you are letting your autonomic nervous system do the breath for you.  The breath by itself is natural and good.  Just imagine the effort if you had to keep reminding yourself “BREATHE!”  so thankfully you don’t have to keep reminding yourself to breathe as you go about your day. So remember the breath is automatic.

2. Understand  the breath and its' link to emotions and thoughts

 If your autonomic nervous system is controlling the breath, then as you go about your day and you are feeling stressed, nervous, anxious, worried, angry or any other emotional state that is not you at peace or ease, your breath will automatically react to that emotion. To be able to do yoga breathing you have to know how you feel. You have to be aware of what images are in your mind.   Feeling worried and your nervous system will be on alert.  The breath will become shallow and quiet (hiding from the tiger), or rapid and shallow (ready to run from the tiger).  But of course today there are no tigers.  The threat or worry is about a credit card bill. An argument with your spouse.  A sick child or any other calamity that life can bring.   You are perfectly safe but because you are telling stories and feeling emotions of fear and worry,  the body (with its fight or flight responses) doesn’t know that.  The autonomic nervous system is inherited from our ancestors so when it switches on – when you signal to the body it’s time to be worried - your body feels that threat and jumps into a defence mode. Your breath changes.   

3. Experience a Yawn

A natural reset for the system is a yawn.  It’s a signal that the brain is switching gear, flooding the brain with oxygen, and getting ready to relax.  Some forms of yoga breathing sort of mimic this breath. You can have fun just thinking about yawning can bring one on.  See a yawn not as being tired (it’s often experienced at the end of the day because the body is getting ready to rest) but rather a re-set.  From one mode of activity to another more calm, quiet and relaxed mode.   When you think about your credit card bill, your sick child, your argument with your spouse.  Instead of indulging in worry and fear, try a yawn instead.

       4. Watch the Breath

 Doing strong and forced breathing exercises when you are starting our with the intention to be more aware of the breath probably creates more stress within you.  Instead just stay steady in watching and noticing your breath whenever you can.  Set reminders on your phone, or leave notes for yourself. I  had a sign above my computer for years from spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that said “Breathe, You are Online.”  If you jump into trying to learn all sorts of breathing techniques, it becomes something to be busy and agitated about. If you learn to be aware of the breath then over time you see what affects it, what changes it, what naturally calms it, deepens it.   The best breath is the slow, unhurried, long one, but rather than trying to manufacture the breath, keep your awareness on the breath so that you notice when that kind of restorative breath comes from deep within you without any conscious effort.

5. Concentrate the focus

Concentrate on getting your state of mind, your emotions to a calm and peaceful state. Practice your yoga in a way that does not activate the flight or fight response.  If you are pushing, jumping, running, holding, then your breath will adjust to that activity.  You want to have activities, and ways of approaching life that will signal to your body that it’s time to breathe deeply, slowly and powerfully.  This is how you can concentrate your focus.  Yoga breathing will match your inner state.  So be focused on what your inner state is, how you are feeling, what are you thinking.  Then notice how the breath shifts when you stop thinking that negative thought and turn your attention inside.   When you go for a walk in nature, when you lie quietly on your yoga mat it becomes very clear how yoga breathing self regulates.

6. Allow the breath

 Forcing the breath (many pranayama technics are taught here in the west in a way that forces the breath) does not allow you to witness and experience the power of the breath. And unless you are super supple and very relaxed, your rib cage and shoulder girdle around the lungs is probably too tight right now to gain any benefit from forcing air into them. In fact if you think about it, forced air is used to put pressure on things. You don’t want any pressure on your system, you want the opposite.  So do not use yoga breathing to create pressure.  Relax and allow the breath to arise naturally.  

7. Breathwork

There are many things the breath can do, including getting into altered states, and the ancient yogis had powerful experiences from their breathwork.    The unfortunate problem with these breathwork exercises and techniques is that they are advanced.  They require a long study and practice.  If you are a new student of yoga and you starts messing with the breath in a complicated and controlled way without understanding the fundamentals.  You will miss how to have the action of a calm and quiet breath every day, every hour, every minute, every breath.  And for that to happen you need an open and relaxed body.  Imagine  learning the alphabet and ending up with only six letters ABC  and XYZ.  You need to really understand and make friends with your breath first. Without doing anything at all to change it.  Just notice and become aware of it.  Then as you learn more about when and how your breath moves,  then over time, some yoga breathing exercises maybe emerge.

8. Breathing for anxiety, panic attacks and stress

If you suffer from a panic attack or are feeling anxiety. Many people might say to you “BREATHE”  and yet you still feel anxious because you will continue to breath the way that you were breathing when you started to feel anxiety.  Then you might panic and say “How am I meant to breathe?” and forget.  So remember there are no special techniques.  Your body knows how to breathe.  You simply need to watch it happen. Become super curious about your breath.

9. The Best Yoga Breathing Exercise (even if you have anxiety)

Notice the breath.

Notice  how it moves into your nostrils, maybe it feels a little cooler as you inhale. A little warmer as you exhale.

 Then as you breathe out, notice if you take a pause (or not) between breaths.

  See if you can feel when and how the inhale changes to the exhale. 

And remember this is all about noticing.

 Don’t do anything special or different with the breath.   Just be open and curious.

 Notice if you are breathing in the upper chest.  Middle belly.  Where inside of your lungs can you feel the breath move?

 Experience the breath as precious.

See the beauty of the act of breathing.

 Be grateful for all the trees, the greenery, the kelp forests that produce oxygen for our breath. 

Notice if you hold the breath, and where in the breathing cycle do you tend to hold it.  And relax.

Relax your chest, your ribs, your shoulders, your belly, your throat. 

Put your attention into your heart and allow each breath to enter your heart centre.

If your mind becomes busy, bring your attention to the breath. 

Be curious and awake to your breath. 

It may seem like a lot of instructions, but actually they are all inviting you to is an increased awareness of  your breath.

A Simple flow.

In and out.  

Natural.       Easy.       Simple.       This is yoga breathing

This is yoga

This is all the yoga breathing exercises you need to do. 


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