Dealing With Anxiety? Try These Breathing Exercises

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The breath is truly a miracle: It sustains us day to day, moment to moment, it brings us life and energy, and most of the time, we don't even notice it. Our bodies are constantly working to bring in fresh oxygen and dispel carbon dioxide, without us having to think of it or remember to perform this sacred action.

While we don't have to focus on our breathing to stay alive, watching our breathing as we meditate or simply sit in silence can remind us of the miracle of life and that despite all our many worries and struggles, the breath will always be there, sustaining us and keeping us moving. It can be so enlightening to sit in solitude and observe our breathing, counting the inhales and exhales as we marvel at the intelligence of our bodies.

Beyond this, we can use our breathing as a gateway to an expanded consciousness, a new perspective, or even just a change in mood. Ancient pranayama techniques are endlessly helpful in regaining control over our thoughts and emotions and calming our nervous systems when they go haywire. Here are three breathing techniques to try next time you're feeling anxious, whether you're on the subway, in bed, or in the shower:

1. Ujjayi breath

The ujjayi breath is a beautiful way to get grounded and centered before you begin your yoga practice or before you go to sleep. The even inhale and exhale to the count of four creates a steady, grounded feeling in the body, while the slight restriction in the back of the throat creates a beautiful and calming ocean-like noise. If you don't hear a sound yet, don't worry: Just focus on making your inhales and exhales slow, steady, and even, and feel the calm, relaxed feeling flowing in. Continue breathing this way throughout your yoga practice to stay grounded and mindful during each pose. When you stop hearing the wave-like noise, you'll know you've allowed your mind to wander. Gently bring your attention back to the breath, guiding your inhales and exhales steadily.

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2. Alternate nostril breathing

This breathing technique can be super helpful for those nights when you're hopped up with nervous energy and can't seem to get to sleep. We can usually breathe through one nostril more clearly than the other, and if it's the left, it means you're calm and aligned with the feminine yin energy of the moon, while if it's the right, it usually means you're more aligned with yang energy, which is a more masculine, strong energy.

If you'd like to tap into your yin energy to signal to the body that it's time to wind down and get into sleep mode, you could try placing the index and middle finger on your third eye, covering the right nostril with your thumb and breathing in and out through the left nostril to cue the parasympathetic nervous system and calm the body.

Similarly, if you're trying to signal to the body that it's time to get active and energetic, you could cover the left nostril and breathe through the right. If you're simply looking to create balance in the body and gear down for the night, cover your right nostril with your thumb and exhale slowly and deeply through the left nostril, then inhale again through the left. Then, with your index finger and middle finger resting on your third eye, cover your left nostril and exhale through the right. Inhale again through the right, then exhale through the left as you cover the right. Then, start the cycle all over again, repeating it about nine times or until you feel calm and centered.

Alternate nostril breathing, or Nadi Shodhan pranayama, helps to clear your airways of any blockages (physical or energetic) and purify the breath, making it a great exercise to do before your meditation or first thing in the morning. As you focus on inhaling and exhaling through the correct nostril, you'll feel your thoughts begin to soften and your mind begin to slow down. Try not to force it—simply allow the breath to flow in and out steadily without effort.

3. Breath retention

Holding your breath can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to create a calm, relaxed feeling in the body. There are many ways to play with breath holds, but as a start, try this exercise. Breathe in slowly and deeply to the count of four, then exhale a quarter of your air, hold for a count, exhale a bit more so your lungs are half full, hold, exhale to three-quarters empty, hold, then exhale all your air out.

You could try varying the counts depending on how you feel, but try not to hold your breath so long that you're gasping for air. If you feel like it's manageable, you could try inhaling to a count of eight and holding for two counts each time you let go of a little air. I find this exercise helps with feelings of anxiety or repetitive thought patterns as it really makes you focus on your breath instead of whatever is going on inside your mind. If holding your breath makes you anxious or you are pregnant, I would advise against this technique.

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