If you asked me to pick one tool that has changed my life, it would be the simple practice of connecting with my breath. Tune in to episode #20 of The Prana + Patchouli Podcast to find out why your breath is a miracle that can help you handle challenging emotions with grace, as well as the specific pranayama practices you can use to find balance and peace when you're experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression.
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For most people, breathing is just something that happens, whether they think about it or not. Our breath is with us our whole lives - from the moment we’re born, to the moment we transition. It’s our life force and without it, we can’t exist. When we connect with our breath, we come home to ourselves.
Yoga recognises the potency of the breath and in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes Pranayama (or breathwork) as a process by which you can break your unconscious breathing patterns with a longer, smoother and deeper breath.
Most people breathe in a way that is anything but that; they habitually hold their breath, or breathe shallowly. This way of breathing can activate the sympathetic nervous system (or the "stress response") as it can increase the heart rate and blood pressure, speed up the mind and knock the nervous system out of balance.
But certain breathing techniques, like those with a longer exhale, are soothing because they activate the parasympathetic nervous system (or the “relaxation response”) and the peaceful state of what we call in Sanskrit, Sattva. They can lower the heart rate and blood pressure, calm the mind and bring the nervous system into balance. I remember when I started practising yoga, it felt like the first time I’d really taken in or let out a full breath!
Remember that not all pranayama practices are relaxing though. Some techniques, like Kapalbhati, or the ‘skull shining’ breath, stimulate the nervous system to energise us, but the after-effect of the breath tends to be calming as we enjoy the clear, focused state we’re in.
Since the breath can be used in different ways - to calm us down or lift us up - it can help us handle strong feelings and recover from them, with grace. That’s why the breath really is a miracle.
But today, I want to talk about how we can tap into the power of the breath to manage feelings of anxiety and depression. You might be very familiar with one or both, or you may be experiencing these emotions for the first time, especially with everything going on in the world. Even if you’re in a balanced state as you’re listening to this, you can still enjoy a moment of relaxation and put these breathing practices in your toolkit for support when you need it.
From an emotional perspective, irregular breathing can make you more anxious or depressed, while regulated breathing can bring you back into balance and peace.
I always say that the mind doesn’t speak the language of the body but the breath does. It’s the golden thread that connects our body, mind and spirit. The breath guides us inwards, away from the outside world that we’re reacting to and towards the roots of our anxiety and depression.
We can turn to the breath whenever we feel challenging emotions and give them space to feel seen and heard. These emotions aren’t bad or wrong (as we’re sometimes made to feel), they’re simply messengers trying to get our attention - to protect us, keep us safe, heal us and bring us back home.
As someone who has struggled greatly with anxiety and depression, I’m going to share two of my favourite breathing techniques which I hope will serve you too.
Get comfy and if it’s safe to do so, close your eyes. If you’re driving, just listen and come back to this practice later.
The first thing we’re going to do is simply notice the breath, without any technique at all.
Let that be an invitation to ground yourself in your body and tune in to how you feel.
If your body is lethargic and your mind is slow, 1:1 breathing, or Sama Vritti, can be helpful for depression as it’s a balancing breath. To do this, begin to breathe in fully, counting the length of your inhale. As you breathe out, match the length of your exhale. You don’t need to control where the breath is going, just the length of the smooth breath in and out. Match the length of your inhale with your exhale, finding balance. If you’re feeling listless, this breathing pattern can also have an energising effect.
If your body is agitated and your mind is racing, 1:2 breathing, or the Longer Exhale can support you with anxiety as it’s a peaceful, soothing breath. To do this, start in the same way by counting the length of your inhales and matching the length of your exhales. Then, slowly extend your exhales by one count each time, until you reach double the length of your inhale. So, if you breathe in for a count of 4, you’d exhale for a maximum count of 8.
Be mindful that even an exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can have a calming effect, so there’s no need to push anything. If you do, you're likely to activate the body’s stress response and feel more anxious, instead of calm.
Choose one of these breathing techniques, depending on how you feel and continue breathing in this way for a couple of minutes, or until you feel a shift.
But what do you do when you’re experiencing mixed anxiety and depression?
The secret here is tuning in as it involves us identifying which parts of the body and/or mind are depressed and which are anxious. But yoga is all about creating embodied awareness and the more we show up for our practice, the easier this becomes.
Since yoga and the breath address the body and mind at the same time and can do so in different ways, all it takes is a simple shift to give you the medicine you need.
This is where you can combine restorative poses with breathwork to help you find emotional balance when you need it most.
For example, on days when you find that your mind is anxious and your physical energy is low, you can turn to a breathing pattern like the 1:2 breath that calms your mind and restorative heart-opening poses to build energy in your body.
Or, when you feel like your body is so full of energy that it’s hard to calm down but your mind is slow, you can use the 1:1 breath to balance your inhale and exhale and keep your mind more alert. Combine this with restorative poses like forward bends to ground you and calm the physical manifestation of anxiety in your body.
Tread gently here and take really good care of yourself. Honour your emotions and remember that your yoga mat or meditation cushion is a safe space to explore what’s stirring inside you. Practising in the presence of strong emotions will help you navigate your inner world and your breath will always bring you back home. That shift is the miracle.
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