Reduce Anxiety With Yoga Breathing Exercises

by kajohu

Anxiety often results in tight, tense breathing. Easy yoga breathing exercises will help your breath become more relaxed and will ease anxiety symptoms.

Do you suffer from frequent anxiety? What do you experience when you become worried, fearful, and anxious? How does your body react? What about your mental processes? Very likely your body tenses up and your breathing is tight and shallow. As a result of this, you'll probably experience other physical and mental symptoms as well.

When we get anxious, our breathing often becomes tense and shallow, which can lead to other symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, restlessness, and a racing or pounding pulse.

We can ease feelings of anxiety by practicing a couple of easy yoga breathing techniques that include, prolonged, relaxed exhalations.

Anxiety Symptoms Include Tight, Shallow Breathing

If you suffer from anxiety, many of the following symptoms are probably familiar to you:

  • tight, shallow breathing
  • dizzyness, faintness
  • confusion and lack of concentration
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • racing or pounding pulse
  • hot flashes
  • numbness of hands, feet, or face
  • feeling of dread

Chronic physical symptoms may include:

  • ongoing stomach and digestion problems
  • diarrhea and increased urination
  • frequent headaches
  • perpetual muscle tension
  • fatigue and insomnia


Easy, Prolonged, Relaxed Exhalations Are Soothing

I've experienced many of the symptoms listed above.

But I've discovered that if I can change the first symptom, tight, shallow breathing, to an easier, more relaxed breath with longer exhalations, then my other acute anxiety symptoms are diminished, and my chronic symptoms have a chance to subside over time. The worry and concern may still be there, but I can function more effectively when my breathing returns to a more healthy pattern.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragm and lungs image by John Pierce  CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When we become worried, fearful, or anxious, we tend to grip our abdominal muscles which constricts our diaphragm resulting in a shorter, tighter breath that only moves into our upper chest rather than the full chest.  This inhibition of our breath can lead to faintness, dizziness, and many of the other symptoms that we associate with anxiety and stress.

The image to the left shows how the diaphragm (green line) works during our breathing.   On a normal healthy inhalation, the diaphragm is pulled down, allowing the lungs to easily fill with air.   On a normal exhalation, the diaphragm releases upward, with the release of air.  If we immobilize the diaphragm due to fear and anxiety, then the breath is shallower and higher in the chest, leading to more rapid breathing and greater feelings of stress and dis-ease.

Yoga Breathing Exercises to Calm You

Pranayama Exercises

Two easy yogic breathing exercises that help me are variations on:

  • Ujjayi pranayama
  • Bhramari pranayama

** Comment ** For those of you who have a more formal pranayama practice, perhaps such as taught in the Iyengar yoga method (which is also my background), keep in mind that what I'm presenting here are simplified guidelines, and accessible to everyone.   We all breathe.  We can all practice improving our breathing patterns to bolster our mental and physical health.   These are easy variations of the two pranayamas that I mention here, and you can do them anywhere.  (Maybe I should call these "Ujjayi-like breathing" and "Bhramari-like breathing" exercises!)

When I'm feeling anxious, I use these two techniques, whether I'm in a formal seated or supine yoga position, or sitting in the living room or lying in bed, or walking or driving.   The important thing here is to be mindful of the breath, and let it be relaxed, and never forced.

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Ujjayi Pranayama -- "Proud Conqueror Breath"

Variation -- focus on long, easy smooth exhalations

Basically, this is mindful deep-breathing.  It's easiest to do if you're in a quiet place, in a sitting position with good posture, or lying down with support under the head and the back to open the chest.   But I've also done this while driving or walking or cleaning the house.....

The variation that is most useful for me when I'm feeling anxious is to focus on easy, smooth, long exhalations.

To start, first take a few regular, relaxed breaths, focusing on good posture (but not a rigid, tense posture) and on allowing the diaphragm to be relaxed so that it can move with the breath.  

After the regular breaths, let your exhalations become a little slower and longer.   Your inhalations will become deeper in response to the longer exhalations, but pay more attention to the exhalations.   Try letting your air out as a slow, comfortable sigh.  

Don't overdo, don't force.  That will just exacerbate your feelings of anxiety!  If you start to feel breathless or more agitated, go back to a more normal, relaxed breath until your mind calms down and your body relaxes again.   Then re-try the prolonged exhalations.  

Bhramari Pranayama -- "Bumble Bee Breath"

Sounds like the buzzing of a large bee!

As the name implies, Bhramari (BRAM-a-ree) pranayama sounds like the buzzing of a large bee.  

Similar to the Ujjayi-like breath in the previous section, the emphasis is on the exhalations, but here the exhalations are done with an audible "buzzing" or humming sound. 

In my experience, this is a very effective breathing technique that calms me very quickly.   The Ujjayi breath works well, but Bhramari works even better for me. 

Paraphrased from the video below, "The practice of Bhramari calms the mind and reduces stress and anxiety.  It  alleviates insomnia, and lowers high blood pressure.   It has a calming effect on the entire nervous system. " 

To practice Bhramari breathing, start as instructed in the Ujjayi breath section, above.   Sit well, with a good posture, or perhaps lie down with a blanket or two under the chest and head to naturally create more space in the lungs.   Remember to relax the diaphragm area so the diaphragm isn't tensed!  This is very important!

After a few normal relaxed breaths, during an exhalation, start a humming or buzzing sound.   Let it be slow and steady, at a comfortably low-pitched sound (like a large bee!).   This humming breath will help you to lengthen your exhalations, which in turn will help your body relax and your mind become calm.   You might repeat this 2 - 4 times to start, and increase to 10 times after you're more experienced.  Always stop and go back to a regular relaxed breath if you start to feel breathless or tense.  It means you've overdone the breath, and need to back off for a bit.

As I also mentioned above with the Ujjayi-type breath, I've done Bhramari-like breathing when I've been out walking or driving, or just around the house.   It works very quickly for me!

In the first video, above, the first couple minutes include good information on how Bhramari pranayama can help heal the body and the mind, including helping to reduce anxiety.    She also gives some general tips for practice.  Then she shows one method to do this breath in a supported supine position.   (I use a bolster or blankets to support the trunk and the head.) 

The second video gives a good indication of how the buzzing should sound.   She also uses a hand position to close off the senses of hearing and sight, to draw the awareness even more deeply inward.   This adds an extra soothing quality to the practice of this very helpful breath.

Why Did I Write About Anxiety and the Breath?

I've Been There!

I have a tendency toward anxiety and worry during stressful times in my life, and if I don't get the anxiety under control, I'm not of much help to anyone.

Shortly before I wrote this, there had been two very stressful events in my family -- my mother, who's always been a very active, vibrant woman, became very ill.  She is slowly recovering, but she will most likely not be able to resume her "usual" independent life, which is heart-breaking.  

The second event, which happened at the same time is that my first grandchild was born.....over six weeks prematurely.  He was fine, just small but still....

Talk about stress and anxiety!   How could I best help my mother?   What kind of support could I give to my son and daughter-in-law?   What if something goes really wrong with either?  And I can only be in one place at a time (they live in different parts of the country).    During this time, I felt panicky whenever I needed to drive somewhere, especially to unfamiliar places.  I felt dizzy and spacey.  I couldn't eat.   I couldn't think straight.  I certainly can't be useful under those circumstances!

From my strong yoga practice, including pranayama (yogic breathing exercises), I do know what helps me during difficult times in my life.   During this particular time, a couple of easy breathing exercises are what put me back on track again.    The worry doesn't necessarily go away, but the symptoms I was experiencing were greatly reduced, and I could function well again.

Image: nuttakit /

More Good Information On Breathing Techniques to Help Calm You

Breathe Using Your Diaphragm
Diaphragmatic breathing is the healthiest way of breathing and is a first step in normalising your breathing in order to manage anxiety or panic symptoms.

Take a Deep Breath
The diaphragm plays a primary role in expanding the breathing space during inhalation and helping control the shrinkage during exhalation.

Buzz Away the Buzzing Mind
Try this pranayama technique Bhramari, sometimes called Bee Breath, to soothe anxiety.

Updated: 01/25/2015, kajohu
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Holistic_Health on 10/19/2011

Very informative and love the images.

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