Yoga breathing can help you manage the symptoms of both anxiety and depression. After years of meditating, and learning to observe my anxiety-based depression, I actually recovered from a condition that literally almost killed me. I regained and continue to maintain my optimum mental health with a yoga breathing practice, which I will teach you below.
Let’s begin with how we breathe. The actual process of respiration takes place within the cells of the body. Not only are your nose, trachea (windpipe) and lungs involved, but the process of transporting oxygen from the air and modifying it so that it’s available to your cells also involves your circulatory system and the muscles in your chest. Mechanically, there are two ways in which we draw oxygen into the lungs. We can extend the diaphragm down, which feels like a deep breath into the belly. This is diaphragmatic breathing, and it is the most efficient means of exposing the blood in the capillaries to air. It also circulates oxygenated blood to the lower, gravity-dependent parts of the lungs. This is the way a newborn breathes and it is most suited for efficient breathing in our normal, daily activities.
Unfortunately, most of us have forgotten how to breathe this way. Instead we use thoracic breathing for most of our activities. When we are breathing into the upper chest, we are using thoracic breathing. This breath expands the ribcage, using the intercostals, the muscles located between the ribs. Chest breathing is not as efficient as diaphragmatic breathing, because the lower portions of the lungs are not exposed to air. In order to get the same amount of oxygen to the cells, chest breathing requires a lot more work than does diaphragmatic breathing, and it is ultimately more work for the heart.
But you can train yourself to breathe more deeply. The best practice I know for deepening your breath is Yogic Three-Part Breath (Dirga pranayama), which is taught in many regular yoga classes, and all LifeForce Yoga Workshops and Classes.
Here’s how to do it:
Yogic Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama)
This breath creates a state of mental alertness, even as it activates the parasympathetic nervous system so that the body-mind is calm. An even inhalation and exhalation is best when your mood is depressed. When you lengthen your exhalation you will enhance the calming effect, which helps if you suffer from anxiety or an anxiety-based depression like I did. The ideal ratio for calming and cooling is 1:2, although to learn it, start with a 1:1 ratio, or equal inhalation and exhalation.
There are two methods of practicing Yogic Three-Part Breath. In the traditional method, taught in most lineages, the inhalation is directed to the bottom of the lungs, the midsection, and then the top. The exhalation moves from top to bottom. In some yoga traditions, the breath is drawn in and then exhaled in exactly the opposite direction. From a psychophysical perspective both methods have the same effect. I practice and teach the more traditional method. However, if you have been taught and practice the method that favors inhaling from top to bottom of the lungs, please feel free to continue to practice Yogic Three-Part Breath that way. Remember that both the inhalation and the exhalation are done through the nose.
- Begin in a comfortable seated position with the spine erect. Inhale the breath through the nose into the bottom of the lungs so the belly expands. It can help to place the right hand on the abdomen so the extension can be easily felt. Practice this first part at least three times or until the breath is smooth and you can see your client’s abdomen rising with the inhalation and falling with the exhalation.
- Inhale the first third of the breath into the bottom of the lungs as above, and then inhale the second third into the midsection of the lungs so that the ribcage expands. Practice this three times or until there is a sense of ease with the breath.
- Place the left hand on your upper chest, and inhale as above with the final third of the breath moving up into the top of the lungs, and feel your upper chest lift.
- Slowly release the breath and feel the upper chest lowering first. As you complete the exhale, draw your abdomen up and back toward your spine, completely emptying the bottom of your lungs.
- To begin, practice Yogic Three-Part Breath for 3 to 5 minutes.
If the breath is constricted and you have trouble breathing deeply, you can lie down. It is easier to breathe into the bottom of the lung and extend the abdomen while lying in a supine position. You can further open up the chest, increasing lung capacity, by using a prop like a low bolster or folded blanket, as shown in the image to the left.
You can learn this practice and many others on the CD Breathe to Beat the Blues.
This article was adapted from Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management by Amy Weintraub (W.W. Norton, 2012).