A Breathing Exercise for Anxiety

Thanks to my friend Holly Whitaker, I’ve recently gotten turned on to Kundalini yoga. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost 20 years and although my first love is still the Adamantine® / Hatha / Vinyasa world of yoga, discovering Kundalini has been like…well, have you ever wanted a chance to experience again, but for the first time, like backwards déjà vu, something you really enjoy? Finding out about Kundalini yoga has been like falling in love with yoga for the first time…again. Anyway, this isn’t a post about my affair with Kundalini. But it was looking like that there for a second, huh?


This *is* a post about how one of the breathing techniques that I’ve used for years is not only an official thing, it’s an official Kundalini thing. And it is called Long Deep Breathing. Which is perfectly apt and maybe a little anticlimactic, methinks.


Early on, I noticed that one of the telltale signs of anxiety was shortness of breath, bordering on (or fully becoming) hyperventilation. Although I wasn’t at all conscious in my thinking around it at the time, one of the things I was pulled towards telling myself in those moments was to slow my breathing down. “Slow deep inhale, slow deep exhale” became a mantra of mine. Controlling my breathing felt like a touchstone, a home base in the franticness of an anxiety attack. Slow deep inhale, slow deep exhale. Slow deep inhale, slow deep exhale.


Because of my many years in yoga classes, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy paying attention to my breathing. Both on and off my mat. There’s a fairly significant difference between how we breathe when we’re not bringing awareness to our breath, and how we breathe when we saturate our attention with each inhale and exhale. It gets even better when we consciously slow our breathing down, because each breath naturally gets deeper. 


When we aren’t mindful, most of us tend to breathe shallow breaths into the very top part of our lungs. Long Deep Breathing (the organized version of “slow deep inhale, slow deep exhale) is a 3-part breath that starts in your belly, then goes to your ribcage, and ends under your collar bones, in the uppermost part of your lungs before you slowly and softly exhale all the air out through your nose.


Wanna hear the true magic of Long Deep Breathing (other than “it feels good”)? It changes your blood chemistry. For the dramatically better. When you feel anxious, your body is in fight-or-flight mode. Breath-wise, this means that your body is acting from the sympathetic nervous system (your body’s stress responder) and is purposefully taking shorter, shallower breaths in order to match the instinct of preparing to fight or flee. The result is an influx of oxygen into your body when you don’t need it…because you’re likely sitting in your car or at a business meeting rather than running for dear life.


Slowing your breathing down and taking controlled, deep breaths turns off the sympathetic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). The PSNS controls your body’s “rest-and-digest” (vs. fight-or-flight) response for returning to balance and stability. Deep breaths are a signal to your body that you’re ready to rest and digest…which is why Long Deep Breathing is so important.


Try this out. And when I say try this out I don’t mean waiting until you’re in the midst of a panic attack to give it a go. Like all of your other self-care practices, it may be valuable in the heat of the moment, sure, but giving yourself a sound foundation with a steady practice is just mo’ better. Practice 5 or 10 minutes of Long Deep Breathing every day. And guys, this counts as meditation! This is meditation. So you don’t have to carve out yet another 5 or 10 minutes for this.


And now, the step-by-step instructions for practicing Long Deep Breathing (audio here or transcript below):

First things first, get comfy. You can sit on the floor in Easy Pose, for you yogis, or Criss Cross Applesauce, for you parents, or in a chair or on your bed or however you are most comfortable. Take your awareness to your posture. To get situated, slowly roll your shoulders forward and then up to your ears, and then back and open as your shoulder blades settle down your back. Notice the openness across your chest. Pull the crown of your head towards the sky and tuck your chin just slightly, so you create a little more length in your neck. Let go of the tension in your jaw. Get rooted through your sit bones and relax any tightness in your body.


Rest your hands either in your lap or on your knees. You can turn your palms up for a more receptive position, or turn your palms down for a more grounding position.


Close your eyes.


Take a few normal breaths. Let your body get still and quiet here.


Take your right hand to your belly. On your next inhale, try and expand your belly wide and deep as you breathe in through your nose. Slowly exhale through your nose. Try it again; hand on your belly, inhale slowly and deeply and feel your belly expand. Then slowly release the breath. One more time…inhale, and exhale. <— This is abdominal breathing and this comes first on each inhale.

Next is your side ribs. Place your hands on either side of your rib cage. Keeping your eyes closed, begin your inhale in your belly as you did before and then start drawing the breath up into your rib cage and try to expand your rib cage out into your hands. Exhale slowly through your nose. As you inhale again, start in your belly and then bring the air into your side ribs, feeling your body expand outward. Exhale again. One last time here…inhale, and exhale. <— This is abdominal breathing + chest breathing, parts 1 and 2 of Long Deep Breathing.

Lastly, bring your fingertips to the very top of your chest just under your collar bones. Closing your eyes again, start by drawing an inhale slowly in to your belly letting it expand with the air, then taking your breath up into your side ribs and allowing them to swell outwards. Now, bring the very last part of your inhale up into the very top of your lungs and feel even your collar bones lift just a little bit as you imagine the last few sips of air coming into your body on this inhale. Slowly exhale through your nose. Try this again keeping your fingertips where they are; breathe into your belly, then into your side ribs, then up into your chest and under your collar bones. One more time…inhale, and exhale. <— There ya go, the 3 parts of Long Deep Breathing!

When you first start practicing thing, use your hands to guide your attention. Make sure that you start with your belly breath, then go into your side ribs, then up to your collar bones…and then a long slow exhale, making sure you get rid of all the air in that breath so you’re ready for the next full, deep breath. As you keep practicing, work towards making the 3 parts 1 fluid inhale. Close your eyes when you practice, closing out the external world and opening to your internal world by rolling your gaze up to the third eye point, which is in the middle of your forehead just above your eyebrows, but on the inside. Be gentle when your mind wanders, and just bring your awareness back to the 3 parts of the practice.


To read more:

From NPR: Just Breathe: Body Has a Built-In Stress Reliever
From Harvard Health Publications: Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response
From Psychology Today: The Science of Slow Deep Breathing