Try This Yoga Breathing Technique for a Sigh of Relief

New research finds yoga breathing helps with anxiety.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

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A recent study in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that yoga breathing can help reduce anxiety. Researchers conducted a randomized clinical trial of 30 participants who were new to yoga breathing and found their anxiety levels improved after four weeks of primarily yoga breathing (pranayama) training.

Participants learned yoga breathing techniques for the first 5 days of training and then completed 4 weeks of yoga practice including guided sessions and home sessions on their own. They practiced yoga breathing overall five times a week for 30 minutes a day. Each session started with a brief 2-minute relaxation in corpse pose (savanna) and then 5 minutes of yoga postures including wind-relieving pose (pavanamuktasana), seated easy pose (sukhasana), cow face pose (gomukhasana), seated forward bend (paschimotanasana), and spinal twist seated pose (vakrasana) followed by 25 minutes of yoga breathing techniques. 

The breathing techniques consisted of 30 rounds of fast and slow breathing skills. Each round included a set of fast breathing (kapalabhati) followed by a slow inspiration through the right nostril, a comfortable breath retention done with the three yoga locks or bandhas (mula, jalandhara, and uddiyana) and a slow expiration through the left nostril (single nostril breath or Surya bedhana). The ratio of inhalation:breath retention:exhalation was varied based on comfort, varying from 1:1:2 to 1:2:2; 1:3:2, or 1:4:2. The breath retention was never more than four times the inhalation. The exhalation was always twice that of the in-breath, following the general concept that when you lengthen the exhalation, this will bring more calm.

Each fast breathing (kapalabhati) round was a series of 30 rapid self-paced exhalations generated by contracting the abdominal muscles. Kapalabhati inspirations are passive while the short, sharp exhalations are active. One-cycle of Surya bedhana is a slow inspiration through the right nostril, followed by breath retention and then a longer, comfortable expiration through the left nostril. Breath retention can be challenging for those new to yoga, so you can decrease the holding between the inhalation and exhalation while keeping the exhalation twice as long as the inspiration. 

Several other research studies on yoga breathing, including alternate nostril breathing and slow breathing, suggest that regular practice of yoga breathing reduces anxiety.

For a simple rhythmic yoga breathing, try a ratio of 1:1:2 (inhalation: hold: exhalation):

  1. Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes if it feels comfortable or lower your gaze a few feet in front of you to the floor.
  2. Breathe in through both nostrils for a count of 4 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  4. Slowly exhale through your nose for 8 seconds. 

    If 8 seconds feels too long, then try 6 seconds instead, and work up to 8 seconds over the next few weeks. Consider trying 5 seconds: 5 seconds: 10 seconds. 
  5. Another option is to use phrases instead of counting. Say to yourself in your mind: 

    I breathe in slowly and feel more grounded.
    I hold and let that grounding feeling just be.
    I exhale and let go of any stress or tension. 

For more information on over a hundred yoga postures, dozens of yoga breathing skills, and guided meditations, see Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC © 2020