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5 Best Breathing Exercises (Pranayama) For Anxiety, According to Yoga Instructors

These pranayama breathing exercises can create mental shifts to reduce anxiety and stress.

By PS EDITORS | Reviewed by JENNA DOWELL

Last Update: September 10, 2022

Meditating on Bed

Let's start by addressing the non-yoga audience looking for breathing exercises for anxiety. The primary purpose of yoga may be spiritual growth and expansion, but it has numerous health benefits, most notably reducing stress and anxiety.

 

Anxiety and anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health issues today. According to the American Psychiatry Association [1], 30% of all adults experience a mild or severe anxiety disorder at some point in life.

 

But what causes anxiety? Among the many reasons, one is our inability to stay in the now and present. So, we also compiled our favorite spiritual books that discuss how mindfulness can be a useful tool for living without anxiety.

 

Luckily, there are other effective ways to treat or cure anxiety, and pranayama breathing exercises can be a part of an integrative approach to mental well being.

What is Pranayama?

 

Pranayama refers to breathing techniques used in yoga to control, regulate, and expand the life-energy force within us. In yoga theory, the breath is the vehicle of life energy currents (prana). Conscious breathing is imperative to living a meaningful and mindful life.

Therefore, observing, understanding, and mastering breathing is the key to managing the life force within us. Yoga novices can think of it as a set of breathing techniques to consciously become aware of the breath. 

Can Pranayama Breathing Exercises Help With Anxiety?

 

Breathing exercises are a natural, accessible, and effective way to reduce anxiety. Many people suffering from mental health issues have turned to yoga for relief, particularly meditation and pranayama.

 

Research indicates pranayama can significantly reduce anxiety [2]. Studies have also linked pranayama with focus and processing emotions. So, there is undoubtedly anecdotal and empirical evidence to support the claim.

 

In this post, we put forth five yoga breathing techniques to anchor the mind. We have chosen pranayama anyone can do and laid them out in an order of difficulty.

You can attempt the first three without any experience with yoga. The other two are more nuanced, but not inaccessible if you put in a little effort. We have detailed guides for these breathing techniques that we'll link along the way.

Here are 5 breathing exercises (pranayama) for anxiety and stress reduction.

1. Prolonged Exhalation | Rechaka Pranayama

Rechaka is the Sanskrit word for the out-breath or exhalation. In yoga, exhalation is the act of letting go and eliminating unwanted things. Not just carbon dioxide, but thoughts and emotions as well. You can read about rechaka in the parts of the breath cycle and related yoga theory.

 

In simple words, Rechaka Pranayama is a breathing exercise to lengthen exhalation gradually to lower the heart rate, which will reduce anxiety and stress. Research indicates inhaling quickly and exhaling slowly is effective for reducing arousal during anticipation confrontation [3].

How to do it?

  1. Get into a comfortable sitting posture.

  2. Inhale gently to fill up the lungs.

  3. Pause for 1 or 2 seconds after each inhalation.

  4. Exhale to empty the lungs fully, deliberately prolonging it.

  5. Pause for a second or two after each exhalation.

  6. Repeat steps 1 to 5 as long as needed.

  7. Bring awareness to the stillness.

Keep these additional tips in mind to get the most out of this practice – a) do it in a quiet, well-ventilated space in a restful sitting posture, b) link the breath to the mind to steer it away from your stresses, c) breath steadily without forcing the body beyond what feels natural.

You can do Rechaka pranayama to reduce anxiety for 5 to 15 minutes. The goal is to breathe in a 1:2 ratio while linking the mind to the breath. But, as simple as it sounds, you can't achieve this in the first attempt, especially if you are anxious.

Start by lengthening exhalation by one count. For instance, if the out-breath lasts naturally for 5 counts, draw it out to 6 counts for a few cycles (1 or 2 minutes). Then lengthen it to 7 counts for a few cycles. Gradually, you’ll reach the 1:2 ratio.

Variation:

 

Once familiar with the basics, you can add modify this pranayama for anxiety with the ‘HUM-SA’ sounds. Utter the word “HUM” in your mind as you inhale and ‘SA’ as you exhale. You don't have to make the sound; only imagine it in your mind.

Related: The 5 Best Books to Learn Pranayama

2. Box Breathing | Sama Vritti Pranayama

The Sanskrit word Sama means 'equal,' and Vritti means conduct. Without getting into the theory, Sama Vritti means breathing with equal ratios for every part of the breath cycle. It's one of the most effective pranayama for anxiety you can do without learning yoga.

 

In English, this breathing technique is also called Equal, Square, or Box Breathing. The names refer to the parts of the breath – inhalation, retention, exhalation, and suspension – done in equal measure, explained by drawing a box (square).  

 

Yogis use this breathing technique to create mind-body harmony before deep meditation. But it is equally effective to reduce anxiety and managing stress. Plus, you can do this breathing exercise anytime, anywhere. It is a part of many stress management programs around the world.

How to do it:

  1. Inhale and count to four slowly.

  2. Retain the breath for four counts or as long as comfortable.

  3. Exhale as your count to four counts slowly.

  4. Suspend the breath outside the body for four counts.

  5. Repeat this for 10 to 12 rounds or as per your capacity.

  6. Gradually increase the counts as you get better at it.

 

While it won’t happen on the first attempt, this pranayama can reduce anxiety once you learn to build a steady rhythm. Simply put, the duration and speed of inhalation, retention, exhalation, and suspension should be Sama – equal.

 

Keep the following in mind as you proceed – a) the count of all four parts of the breath should be equal, b) it should be done on an empty stomach while sitting cross-legged or in a chair and c) breathe gently, steadily, and rhythmically – rhythm is the main component of this pranayama.

Variation:

Keep one hand on your chest and another on the navel. Feel the chest expand as you inhale and the stomach cave in as you exhale. Link your mind to the breath or bring awareness to the eyebrow center. 

 

Read about this pranayama for anxiety in our in-depth guide to Box Breathing.

3. Three-Part Breathing | Dirgha Pranayama

Dirgha Pranayama is yet another easy-to-do pranayama for anxiety. You don't need to know yoga to enjoy its benefits. It is called the '3-part breath' or Dirgha breathing in English, but the literal translation is ‘elongated’ or ‘complete’ breath.

 

We'll refer to it as three-part breathing as the Sanskrit name is rather challenging to pronounce. So, why is called three-part breathing? Well, it's not because there are three parts or steps to this technique.

 

It's called that because we use three body parts during this pranayama - the abdomen, diaphragm, and upper chest. As we inhale, we fill up the abdomen, chest, and clavicular region and empty them in reverse order during exhalation.

 

How to do it:

  1. Get in a seated or supine yoga pose like Sukhasana.

  2. Place your right hand on the navel and the right hand over your heart.

  3. Breathe normally as you bring your awareness to your belly, ribs, and chest

  4. Start to slow down and deepen your breathing.

  5. Notice the in-breath filling your abdomen, lungs, and upper chest.

  6. Notice the out-breath leaving the upper chest, lungs, and abdomen (top-down).

  7. Your right hand will rise on every inhale and sink on every exhale.

  8. Try 10 to 12 rounds of this mindful breathing exercise to reduce anxiety.

 

This pranayama for anxiety works by boosting oxygen and lowering the heart rate, which helps reduce stress and anxiety. In yoga, Dirgha breathing is used to center the mind before poses or to calm down after poses to start meditation.

 

Keep the following in mind – a) try to build a body-breath-mind connection, b) exhale to your full capacity and use your hands to experience the movement of the breath in the body, and c) try it in Corpse’s Pose to reduce anxiety and lower stress.

 

Learn the three-part breath with our beginner’s guide to Dirgha Pranayama.

4. Ocean Breathing | Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi is another effective Pranayama for anxiety that anchors the mind and improves awareness. This breathing technique stimulates our energy pathways (nadis) and lowers resting heart rate and blood pressure. It also increases energy flow and balances the energy centers in our body.

 

In English, Ujjayi Pranayama is called Ocean Breathing, Victorious Breathing, or the Conqueror’s Breath. We’ll stick to Ocean Breathing because there is a distinct rhythmic sound during this pranayama that resembles the sound of ocean waves.

 

How to do it:

  1. Sit in a cross-legged meditation posture with a neutral spine.

  2. You have to constrict the back of your throat and maintain it till the end.

  3. Inhale through the nose with this constriction producing a ‘hee’ sound.

  4. Exhale through the nose and there should be a ‘haa’ sound.

  5. The sound is similar to fogging a mirror with your mouth, but softer.

  6. This is Ujjayi pranayama.

  7. Try this 8 to 10 rounds of this breathing exercise for anxiety. 

 

Now, anyone can practice the first three breathing exercises without any experience in yoga. However, Ujjayi breathing has a learning curve. You need to learn how to constrict the back of your throat as you breathe. But it only takes a few attempts to get the hang of it.

 

Read our guide to Ujjayi to know the steps and benefits of Ocean Breathing.

5. Alternate Nostril Breathing | Nadi Shodhana

Alternate Nostril Breathing is a community favorite for a good reason. It energizes the left and right-brain hemispheres and balances the nervous system. A few rounds of this pranayama can have lasting effects on stress and anxiety.

 

But it is undoubtedly more complicated than the previous breathing exercises we covered. You have to use a hand gesture (yoga mudra) and breathe in a specific way. Moreover, you can only do it in a cross-legged posture on an empty stomach. 

 

We urge you to take the time to get it down because Alternate Nostril Breathing is one of the best pranayama to reduce anxiety and stress.

How to do it:

  1. Sit in a meditation posture or sit tall on a chair with a hard surface.

  2. Use Vishnu mudra with your right hand and place the left hand on your thigh.

  3. Block your left nostril with the thumb. Inhale through the left nostril.

  4. Release the thumb, block the right nostril with your ring finger. Exhale through the left nostril.

  5. Repeat in reverse. Inhale through the left and exhale through the right.

  6. This is one round of Alternate Nostril Breathing.

  7. Start with 10 full rounds or for as long as it feels comfortable.

 

See Also: 10 Best Yoga Eye Pillows for Yoga, Sleep, Migraines, and More

FAQ: Related Questions

Can breathing exercises cure anxiety?

 

Breathing exercises can treat mild anxiety by signaling the body to calm down. They are an important part of integrative medicine, backed by a growing pile of clinical research. There are many breathing techniques you can try, but studies indicate deep, slow, and rhythmic breathing is the most effective to reduce anxiety.

Which pranayama is good for anxiety?

 

Rechaka Pranayama (Prolonged Exhalation), Dirgha Pranayama (Three-part Breathing), and Bhramari Pranayama (Bee Breathing) are good for reducing anxiety. These yoga breathing exercises lower blood pressure and resting heart rate. Alternate Nostril Breathing and Ocean Breathing are other pranayam techniques that may help with anxiety.

In Conclusion

 

You can benefit from pranayama for anxiety, regardless of your experience with yoga. We’ve also recently compiled a list of twelve books on breath work. Many feature breathing exercises for anxiety, improving focus, and reducing stress.  

Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and join our mailing list for updates on yoga gear, pranayama guides, and other self-care practices for your daily routine.

 

View Sources:

  1. Muskin, Philip R. What are Anxiety Disorders?, American Psychiatry Association

  2. Sengupta, Pallav. "Health impacts of yoga and pranayama: A state-of-the-art review." International Journal of Preventive Medicine.

  3. Jerath, Ravinder, et al. “Self-Regulation of Breathing as a Primary Treatment for Anxiety.” Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback

  4. BM Cappo, et al. “The utility of prolonged respiratory exhalation for reducing physiological and psychological arousal in non-threatening and threatening situations. Journal of Psychosomatic Research.