Simple Yoga Tips & Breathing Techniques for Reducing Stress and Anxiety
If you missed my workshop on Yoga for Stress, Fatigue and Burnout last month, then here are a few simple yoga techniques that you can practice at home to help reduce stress and anxiety. These practices are also very beneficial for lowering high blood pressure.
When we are experiencing high levels of stress or are in a state of continuous stress we often find ourselves disconnected from our body and living in our head; ‘tired, but wired’ and dominated by anxiety and even fear. Our immediate response to stress can often be to keep going, to push harder, to become even busier. In fact what we really need is to give ourselves time to slow down and space to simply “be”.
In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“Most of us need to be given permission to switch from the doing to the being mode, mostly because we have been conditioned since we were little to value doing over being.”
We need yoga practices that can help us to come back to our body, to feel more centred and grounded and to soothe our nervous system. Practices that allow us to come back from the busyness and racing thoughts of our mind and to feel the ground beneath us in a very real way.
We want to shift the overall focus to being, not doing and to deep relaxation – it is only when the body is in a relaxed, resting state that it can recalibrate and healing can occur.
In addition, when practising yoga techniques for stress and anxiety we always want to encourage an attitude of ahimsa – kindness, compassion, self-acceptance and non-judgement. And, most importantly, we want to stay attuned to our body and if something feels too much, then let it go for now and come back to the practice another time.
Yoga practices that are extremely helpful in reducing the effects of stress and anxiety on our mind, body and nervous system, and which help to bring us back to a more harmonious state, include slow, mindful and somatic movement; longer held restorative poses to allow the mind and body to release deeply held tensions; and yoga nidra, the practice of deep “yoga sleep”. And in addition to these practices, one of the most powerful yoga tools for reducing and managing stress and anxiety is the breath.
People experiencing stress and anxiety often have entrenched breathing patterns which exacerbate their experience and keep them locked into a stress response. Shallow, fast, upper chest breathing is very common, as is mouth breathing, a focus on the inhalation and over breathing or hyper-ventilation. With stress the diaphragm can get very tight and stuck, and often we are only using 10-15% of our diaphragm’s capacity to breathe. We need to learn to slowly and gently begin to change these patterns by bringing awareness to our breath, but never forcing it, and to begin to find a smooth, even, easeful breath. Below I explore a number of different breathing practices that help us to really connect to our breath and to gently elongate the exhalations, and explore the benefits of each of these practices.
Setting up for safe and comfortable yoga breath work
When working with our breath, you want it to feel smooth, easeful, steady and well-paced. As you experiment with yoga breathing, stop and rest if it feels strained or uncomfortable. You can reset your breathing rhythm if you restart slowly and take your time as you work your way up toward being more consistent or having longer practices.
Being comfortable and at ease is essential to developing a good, sustainable breathing practice. You can choose a seated position on a meditation cushion or a chair, or a restorative posture where you are supported by a bolster and folded blankets.
You can even do it lying down in Savasana or Corpse Pose if that feels right to you.
Make sure that you feel stable, supported and comfortable above all. Lying down often allows us to relax more fully than when we are sitting so you might want to choose a supine position at least to begin with for these practices.
As you settle into your chosen position, take a little time to arrive fully in your body, feeling the support of the ground beneath you and allowing the face, the jaw, the whole body to relax and release any tension or holding.
Once you are comfortable begin to simply notice and feel your breath moving in and out of the body. If you haven’t really done this before, it can seem strange at first. Begin to purposefully pay attention to your breath, without trying to change it. Take note of how it feels as the air travels in and out of your lungs over the course of several inhales and exhales.
The simple act of noticing your breath brings you out of your head and your emotional experience and into your body at this moment. The act of breathing is the most basic evidence that life moves through you. As soon as you bring awareness to your breath, a shift occurs. If you notice it is short, shallow or choppy, you have the ability to slow, lengthen and calm it.
Whenever you practice any of the following step-by-step techniques, always begin by noticing your breath and how you feel.
- Centering Breath
How to do it
1. Become aware of your breath. Take a few normal rounds of breath in and out through your nose.
2. Inhale — take a long, deep and steady breath in through your nose. Allow the belly, rib cage and heart to open and expand with this inhalation, as though you are filling your whole torso with breath.
3. Exhale — gently press the air out of your body with a steady, slow and deep rhythm. Your heart, ribcage and belly will soften and gently contract inwards.
4. Now take a few regular breath cycles — just your normal breathing.
5. Repeat this back and forth process about 5-10 times: regular breath, long breath cycle, regular breath.
Remember: never strain or force the breath. Go slowly and gently and be present with the process.
6. Before moving on from your practice, give yourself time to normalise your breathing, notice how you feel, and acknowledge the centering effects of this practice.
The benefits: this breathing technique draws you back to your centre. It draws more oxygen into your lungs, invites calm in the body and mind and also lowers blood pressure.
2. Lengthened Exhalation
How to do it
1. Again, begin with noticing your breath as it is in this moment. Take a few rounds of gentle and regular breath to start.
2. Inhale — fill your belly, lungs and heart, noticing how many counts it takes to fully, and comfortably inhale. Is it 3? 4? 5?
3. Exhale — allow your heart, lungs and belly to soften. Make your exhale the same length as your inhale — Inhale to a count of 3 (or 4 or 5 — whatever your comfortable count is) , exhale to the same count of 3, 4 or 5, etc. Practice this level, even breathing for a few rounds.
4. Now begin to lengthen your exhales by two extra counts. So, if your inhalations were 3 counts, your exhales will now be 5 counts, or 4:6… and so on.
5. If you need to you can always take a few regular breaths between these longer exhales without counting or lengthening. Keep it simple and easeful. Remember, never strain.
6. After 10 or so rounds, let go of the longer breaths and come back to a natural breath pattern.
7. When complete, don’t jump up and rush off. Acknowledge your efforts, notice the effects of the practice on your body, mind and mood and then move slowly, taking the calmness you just cultivated with you as you move away from your practice.
The benefits: lengthening the exhalation activates the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress, anxiety and lowering blood pressure, and bringing the body and mind into a state of peace.
3. Bhramari Breath (Bee Breath)
You may want to try this one is a comfortable and upright seated position rather than lying down.
How to do it
1. Breathe in and out at your regular pace, paying attention to your current state of mind, body and breath.
2. Close your eyes. Cover your ears with your hands to block outside sounds. Or gently place your index fingers or thumbs on the cartilage of the inner ear (see images above.) But please don’t stick your fingers inside your ears!
3. Breathe in slowly and deeply.
4. As you breathe out, make a humming sound that should last the entire length of the exhalation. It will sound like a honey bee vibrating inside your body. Experiment with the pitch of your “hum”— high, medium, low. See what works best for you.
5. Practice about 6 to 8 rounds of breath this way. Then release your hands and sit as the resonance of the sound and vibration within your body disperses.
6. Take a few moments of gentle respiration before moving on from your practice.
The benefits: Bee breath drowns out the noise of both external and internal distractions — distractions that can fan the fires of stress and anxiety. When these distractions are quelled, even for a few moments, we can feel clear and calm. It can also have a positive effect on our mood.
4. Lengthening the exhalation with sound
How to do it
1. Move into a comfortable Constructive Resting Pose
2. Placing your hands on the belly, take 3 rounds of breath whilst making an Aaaah sound on the exhale. Rest for a few breaths, noticing any sensations and the silence after the sound.
3. Move your hands to your chest, feeling the breath moving in this area. Then take 3 rounds of breath whilst making an Ooooh sound on the exhale. Again, rest for a few breaths, noticing any sensations and the silence after the sound.
4. Move your hands to the face, take 3 rounds of breath whilst making an Mmmmm sound on the exhale. Again, rest for a few breaths, noticing any sensations and the silence after the sound.
5. Finally bring the hands back to the belly, and combining the sounds, take 3 rounds of breath whilst sounding Aum (Ommm) on the exhale.
6. Rest in silence for a minute or more, feeling the effects of this practice, and the breath gently moving in the body.
The benefits: using sound in this way helps to focus on and gently lengthen the exhale. Sound can also be very soothing for the nervous system. The practice of placing the hands on the body also has a calming and reassuring affect on our body and nervous system.
You might like to choose one of the above and practice it every day for a week so you can really feel the effects of it. And then perhaps move on to another one for a week. Once you have found what works best for you then aim to practice it regularly.
And remember, you can take your breath work practice anywhere. You don’t have to be in a yoga studio to embrace these beneficial practices. In those moments throughout the day when you feel stressed, heated, anxious or rushed, simply pause and breath consciously for a minute or more, perhaps placing both hands on your belly as you do.
With your breath, you have the power to centre yourself anywhere — at work, waiting in line, at a red light, before a difficult conversation, as you prepare for bed. The more you are able to incorporate these practices into your daily life, the more you will feel the beneficial effects.
In the words of T.K.V. Desikchar:
“Think of the breath as your friend”.
It is always there for us, even in the most difficult of times.
Sarah has been teaching yoga for over 12 years, and is registered as a Senior Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance. In more recent years she has become more interested in the therapeutic benefits of yoga and has undertaken a number of specialist trainings in this area.
She will be teaching another workshop on yoga for stress, fatigue and burnout later in the year. She is also available to teach anyone struggling with these issues on a 1-2-1 basis.
© Sarah Burgess 2019