May 282011

I feel like I could be a poster child for yoga’s magical ability to reduce stress.  Since the age of 12, I’ve suffered from panic attacks.  I still remember where I was sitting in my 7th grade classroom when the first one hit.  I thought I was dying, literally.  My voice was shaking, I couldn’t get air into my lungs, it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, my palms were dripping, and then there was the tunnel vision.  This was the beginning of 25+ years of struggling and suffering with a force I didn’t understand.  I would spend the rest of my school years–and tailor my career choices–to avoid situations where a panic attack would occur.  Years went by where I would experiment with counseling, biofeedback, and medication (often abusing it) to try hope against hope to make these attacks go away.  But not only did they NOT go away, they got worse.  They came more often.  I saw my future as one of those people who would be a prisoner in their own house, growing old by myself, no one to love me.  How sad, even as I write this, to think that this how I saw my future.  Treatments and years both came and went, and nothing seemed to help.

Now if you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I started my yoga practice in the hopes that it would make me physically fit.  What I couldn’t realize at first–and wouldn’t discover for another year–was that my panic attacks would disappear.  I would be in a situation that would normally bring on an attack, but it didn’t come.  The anxiety had become so familiar to me that being able to draw a full breath into my body felt unfamiliar.  Each class would begin with a wide-legged Balasana (child’s pose), and the teacher would tell us to breath deeply into our side and back body as we extended our arms forward on the mat.  I couldn’t.  Nothing would go in.  My breath went as far as my top ribs (so it seemed) and stopped.  But over time and with much practice, it got better.  And went deeper.  After a year of doing this and practicing other techniques such as Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breath), the panic attacks were gone!  Oh, and let me also mention that I grew 1.25 inches in height–really!

I mention Nadi Shodhana because I feel it’s a particularly effective technique for stress and anxiety.  I’d use it every time I had to go to court during my contentious divorce a few years back.  I also teach it to my clients who have anxiety.  Nadi refers to the energy channels throughout the body, Shodhana refers to the cleansing process.  I’ll forego further explanation about the energy channels because I want to give you a sample of it.

Sit in a comfortable position–on the floor or in a chair–and be sure you can sit straight to allow the chest to open.  With your eyes closed, relax your left hand in your lap and hold the right hand up with your palm facing up (like you’re holding something in the palm of your hand).  Fold down the index and middle fingers toward the palm but keep the thumb, ring, and pinky fingers extended.  Take a deep breath in and then gently place the thumb against the side of your nose, closing off the right nostril.  Exhale, then inhale, through the left nostril.  Release the thumb and place your ring finger against the side of your nose, closing off the left nostril.  Exhale, then inhale, through the right nostril.  Repeat this, exhaling and inhaling deeply, for several breaths.  (I sometimes go for 10 minutes if I’m really stressed).  Here it is again:


(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side
(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side
(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side

It will feel awkward in the beginning, but give it a chance.  It’s powerful stuff and I swear by it!  As soon as I get video up and running, I’ll demonstrate it again.  In the meantime, breath deep and enjoy how your body feels!



  7 Responses to “The Magic of Breathing To Take Away Stress”

  1. hi suzzane,
    in the nadi shodhana pranayama you mentioned should we also hold breath in between two breaths as some sources say so.please advise.

    • I actually suggested not holding between breaths unless you are an experienced practitioner and know how to do this without building internal pressure. I’m cautious to advise kumbhaka for this reason, especially if you are already in sympathetic activity (“fight or flight”). Some sources do teach this and it’s ok for many people. If you want to activate parasympathetic response, then simply exhaling longer than inhaling can be effective.

  2. heavyheadshaking Nervous Stress Anxiety last 20yearstakensomanybutnotcurekindlysuggestion Sir. Thakingyou withregards.

    • It sounds like you are still experiencing extreme anxiety. I strongly advise you to first consult your physician about the possible cause, what triggers your symptoms, and if he/she can refer to you a mental health professional. It would be valuable to get a medical work-up first to rule out any physiological causes. You also may benefit from seeing a yoga therapist or another mind-body practitioner who works with people who suffer from anxiety and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. You may be able to find someone through the International Association of Yoga Therapists,
      Having said that, I’ll add that slow, even breathing will help to activate the relaxation response in your body. Try inhaling and exhaling for equal counts; in other words, if you inhale to the count of 3, 4, or 5, try to exhale to the count of 3, 4, or 5. This is called coherent breathing and can be very effective for calming an anxious state.
      I hope this helps. Good luck to you, and wishing you peace and calmness in the days ahead.

  3. heavyheadshaking Nervous Stress Anxiety last 20yearstakensomanybutnotcurekindlysuggestion Sir. Thakingwithbestregards.

  4. hi i like you post. i suffer from panic attack usually once in week.., it has all started 6 month before. feeling of dizziness or fear or pain near heart remains always. there is some darkness in eyes, fear from some sounds in weak it get worsen with high bp, dizziness, and shaking in the body. Will you please tell me how long to hold breath in and how long to hold breath out in the pranayam you have mentioned above nadi sodhan?.. also can you provide with the approx time for inhalation and exhalation in the pranayam nadi sodhan ? In how much time it will heal the body.. usually hyperventilation pranayams like bastrika and kappal bhaati worsen my situation/does not suits me.

    • Nadi shodhana is a wonderful and powerful technique, but I usually do not teach Kumbhaka (breath retention) to people who are new to the experience. For now, I would suggest you focus on watching your inhale/exhale, slowing down the exhale to make it a little longer relative to the inhale. Also–as you’ve discovered–Bastrika and Kapalabhati will raise stress levels, because they can activate the sympathetic nervous system, exacerbating your anxiety symptoms if they are already present. The best techniques for panic attacks are Nadi shodhana, Ujjayi, Dirga (3-part) breath, and Bee breath.

      You can do Nadi shodhana by inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right nostril (this is called Chandra Bheda), which can also work very well.

      This may sound strange, but singing loudly can help. I recently had to be in a situation where I knew my anxiety would go through the roof, so on the drive there, I put in my favorite Indigo Girls CD and sang to it all the way there. It really helped! Above all, I would recommend that you find a qualified yoga therapist in your area who can work with you to develop breathing skills and a yoga practice that will help.

      Peace to you!


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