Pranayama for anxiety and depression

*This is the last part of Rachel Stagnaro’s series. Don’t forget to follow her on Instagram! A huge shout out and thank you to her for spending time on writing these articles. I hope you enjoyed!*

As yogis have known for centuries the breath has amazing recuperative powers. By controlling the breath (a practice called Pranayama), the yogis found, they could alter their state of mind. Slowing and regularizing the breath engages what scientists call the parasympathetic nervous system, a complex biological mechanism that calms and soothes us.

How does slower breathing help? In stressful times, we typically breathe too rapidly. This leads to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream and a corresponding decrease in the relative amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn upsets the ideal acid-alkaline balance—the pH level—of the blood. This condition, known as respiratory alkalosis, can result in muscle twitching, nausea, irritability, lightheadedness, confusion, and anxiety.

Pranayama for Anxiety

You can work with anxiety by focusing on your exhalations and lengthening them, deliberately and gradually. For example, if your everyday exhalation lasts six counts, draw each one out to seven for a few breathing cycles, then to eight for a few cycles, and so on, until you find a length that suits you. Once you’ve comfortably increased the length of your exhalations by a few counts, turn part of your attention to the subtle sound of them. You’ll notice that each one makes a soft “ha,” like a gentle sigh. Try to make this sound—and your exhalations—as soft and even as possible from beginning to end. Pause briefly at the end of each exhalation, resting peacefully in the stillness. Continuing like this, watch your breath as steadily as you can for 10 to 15 minutes.

Pranayama for Depression

Working with depression can be more difficult than working with either anxiety or fatigue. For that reason, be cautious about how you apply the breathing remedy when you’re feeling blue. Forcing the breath can quickly exacerbate your lousy mood. As with any breathwork, start by settling into a comfortable position and allowing your everyday breath to slow down and smooth out. Then count the length of your next inhalation. When you release your exhalation, match its length to that of the inhalation. Continue in this fashion for a minute or so, balancing the length of the inhalations and exhalations. Then gradually—just once out of every three or four cycles—add another count to each inhalation and each exhalation until you reach a number that suits you. The yogis call this equal ratio breathing. For depression, the effect of the breath on your mood is the best indicator of how long you should continue the exercise. Start out with a particular time goal in mind—say, 10 minutes—but be ready to shorten that by a few minutes if you feel your depression lifting. On the other hand, you can continue on past your goal for a few minutes if you feel you need to.

Of the many types of pranayama, here are two specific techniques that are particularly useful in treating depression and anxiety:

Alternate Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)

Alternate breathing is a type of pranayama that is excellent for neurological and respiratory cleansing and detoxification and a great compliment to yoga for depression and anxiety.

How To Do It:

Sit straight, preferably cross-legged or you can sit on a chair. Start with complete exhalation with both nostrils. Put the thumb of your right hand on your right nostril to close it. Now breathe deeply, steadily and gently through your left. Hold the breath for a few seconds (start with no more than a 5 second count). Put the middle finger of your right hand on the left nostril and lift your thumb to open the right nostril. Exhale completely, steadily and gently. Ideally, your exhalation should be so soft that you should not even hear yourself breathing out.

Bumble Bee Breathing (Bhramari)

As the name says, in this breathing style you make the humming sound of a bumble bee. It has a near instant calming effect on the mind and is a good pairing to do alongside yoga for depression and anxiety.

How To Do It:

Sit straight, preferably cross-legged or you can sit on a chair. Take a few deep breaths to become aware of your breathing and to normalize it. Spread your hands and bring them to your ears. Now, block your left ear with left thumb and right ear with right thumb. Gently place your index and middle fingers of the right hand on your closed right eye.  Do the same on your left eye with your left index and middle fingers. Don’t press your eyes. Rest your ring fingers just below your eyes. Your mouth should be closed and cover your lips with the little fingers. Now, inhale with both nostrils as deeply and comfortably as you can. Once inhalation is done, gently exhale from your both nostrils, producing a humming sound like that of a bee. You can do it this breath up to twenty times in one session and you can do two sessions a day. This pranayama has an extraordinary filtration effect on the body and mind, making it good yoga for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.

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