Yoga Breath Practices for Anxiety and Depression

It was nine thirty on a Saturday night when I received a call from my good friend. He explained that his father may have had a heart attack and was admitted into the hospital. I rushed as fast as I could to be by his side.  Upon arrival, the doctor asked my friend and his mother if his dad was “an anxious person.”  In unison we answered a resounding, “Yes.” Among many lifestyle suggestions, the doctor on staff advised his father to practice yoga to combat his anxiety and depression.  As a yoga instructor and devout practitioner, I can definitely explain why.

Psychology Today, noted “most mood disorders present as a combination of anxiety and depression. Surveys show that 60-70% of those with depression also have anxiety. And half of those with chronic anxiety also have clinically significant symptoms of depression.”1 With increasing societal pressures and workload to maintain a basic standard of living, anxiety and depression have become more of the norm in Western culture than of those in the East.

My friend’s father is no exception to the Western mind-set. His constant worry is that he will err somewhere in his life and there will be no way out of the situation. If he were to run a red light, his worry would be that a police camera might record him and he’d be subject to fines. His anxiety unfortunately would not stop there; he would then worry about all possible outcomes that could happen if he were to get a ticket. Bam! His life is now perceived as spiraling out of control and depression and sets in, unable to be coaxed away by anyone, family or friend.

In another article, USA Today noted, “Researchers say Western culture is more individualistic and more concerned with ‘me’ while East Asian culture is more collectivistic and focused on ‘we.’”2 As Westerners, we tend to think on a more solitary level, “I accomplish alone” or “I feel this way is the better way forward”-type mentality while Easterners think more collectively and are far more aware that it takes a society to build a culture, not just one person, “We are together” or “We should compromise”-type mind set.

yoga breathingOriginating from the East, yoga is a discipline that literally translates from Sanskrit to English as “to yoke” or basically “to union.” In the tradition of yoga, the “We are together” collective mind-set of the East first applies to the body and then radiates out to shine the best aspects of the true self within the collective group. This is where connecting the mind to the body becomes so important.

As a yoga instructor I see it all the time, practitioners preparing for class as if it were a competitive race by flexing in runners’ type stretches and stances. It is a scene I equate to the Western versus Eastern mind-sets as well as my father’s bouts of being stuck in his own mind. So how do yoga instructors attempt to balance the mind to accept upcoming deeper poses? The answer is a yogic practice called centering.

Centering is a direct way to naturally combat the effects of a solitary mind set, especially in extreme cases of anxiety and depression where feeling “alone” can be detrimental to the sufferer. Centering is widely practiced among Eastern cultures.

It is the practice of connecting the body and the mind. Breath practices, a common centering technique, offer the quickest method of calming the mind through methodical bodily action. In bouts of anxiety and depression when the mind is off balance from the body, where a sufferer may literally feel trapped, breath practices offer deliverance of mind-body equilibrium.

Even breath, alternate nostril breathing and ocean breath are calming, easy to remember centering/breathing techniques to practice anywhere, anytime. They are the first breath practices I introduced to my friend’s father and the ones he maintains regularly today.

Even Breath

While in a seated position, bring focus to the breath. Notice the pace of the breath. Is it rapid or is the breath slow? Bring the breath to a comfortable, natural pace by breathing in through the nose and out of the nose.

Next, notice where the breath is lying in the chest. Is the breath shallow in the upper chest or is it deep falling below the diaphragm and lower abdomen? Bring the breath to full expression, by inhaling and sending it to the lower abdomen and by exhaling, pulling breath up through the abdomen, chest and out the nose.

Finally, with the breath at a full expression, play with the timing of the breath. Inhale for a count of three, count slowly in your mind, and hold at peak. Slowly exhale for the same count of three, again counting slowly in your mind. Increase the timing, as you feel more relaxed. As a suggestion, start by timing counts to odd numbers, so practicing for a count of three, then five and gradually counting to a count of seven.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

In a comfortable seat, hold dominant palm in front of the face. Place the middle finger above the nose bridge and in between the eyebrows. Take the thumb and place over one nostril blocking air passage. Inhale through opposite nostril and when inhale reaches its peak, block with ring finger and release the thumb to exhale through alternate nostril. Immediately inhale through same side nostril and once again block with thumb releasing ring finger on opposite nostril for the exhale. Repeat for eight to ten rounds.

Ocean Breath

While sitting, hold one palm in front of mouth. Take a deep inhale and visualize the palm as a mirror. Open the mouth as if to blow fog on the mirror’s surface and exhale. As you exhale close the mouth and continue to breathe out of the nose. The breath should sound like waves against “the ocean.” Repeat for eight to ten rounds of deep inhales and exhales.

Give it a try!

These breathing techniques are easy to do, in nearly any place, and at any time you can set aside. Give it a shot, and let me know in the comments how it goes for you!

1 Psychology Today, Anxiety and Depression together
2 USA Today, Eastern ‘collectivist’ culture may buffer against depression 
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