Yoga has always been a source of strength and conditioning for me. Even as a child I was naturally flexible and athletic. The active, bendy part was easy, but the part of yoga that requires being still, breathing deeply, and quieting of my mind was nearly impossible for me and definitely not enjoyable. It’s a little bit ironic that part later became absolutely necessary to achieve the type of peace I was seeking.
With anxiety that manifested as almost paralyzing self-consciousness, my mind was constantly analyzing every situation and circumstance, spending overwhelming amounts of time ruminating on words I had chosen in any given social context. I spent so much time inside my own head and it was absolutely exhausting.
I worked through therapy and medication to get my anxiety into a manageable place. Once there, I still needed something to help me manage the day-to-day stresses that would sometimes trigger mild panic or send me into a stormy tailspin. It should be noted that for severe or chronic forms of anxiety and depression, more intensive tools may be needed, before the effects of breath work can be successfully utilized.
Still using yoga for general exercise, I turned to the part of the practice that was most challenging for me, but what I knew held the type of benefit I needed. What resonated with me most about using yoga to control anxiety, was the power found in an action we do everyday, that we always have access to, and that we usually take for granted: breathing.
Breathing is an automated process and as such, we generally go about our business with shallow breath or sometimes, when we are tense, even holding our breath entirely without realizing it. Bringing your conscious awareness to deliberate breathing — deep, slow, controlled, and purposeful — fills your body with life giving oxygen and slows down your processes, creating internal space to simply just “be.”
In yoga, we call this conscious awareness of breath Pranayama: the life force that both energizes and relaxes the body. The term is derived from the Sanskrit, prana, meaning “life force,” and ayama, meaning “extension.”
Now that you are attuned to the breath within you, the effects are immediate! If you focus your awareness to inhale and exhale that deeply and purposefully just one time, you will immediately feel at least one small tick of increased relaxation within your body, and that is the first step.
During the closure of yoga sessions, Savasana, you lie totally relaxed in a passive pose, commonly corpse pose, which requires as much energy and flexibility as its name denotes. My yoga teacher used to ask us during this time to imagine taking in each breath and sending it to specific parts of the body, parts of the body that need our attention. As she walked us through the visualization, she would remind us of spaces I had really given no actual thought to, such as the folds of my ears, the crevice of my elbow, the back of my knees. It may sound silly, but the minute inspection of these calls attention to the places where your tension hides, unnoticed, but still contributes to resistance in your true presence and authenticity.
I used to imagine my breath soaring around the inside of my body, seeking out tensions and anxieties that it could bind up, wrapping medicinally around the internal wound, melting away any resistance and then whisking the whole package of suffering out of the body with each long, wonderful exhale.
This work, breath work, I began to utilize at all times of stress and anxiety, whether I was on my yoga mat or not. When I could feel my body having that familiar reaction to some worry or fear, I would make myself stop and focus on my breath. Just before I had to make a big presentation at work or when I couldn’t sleep at night for fear of how I fared in parenting my newborn child, my self medication included pausing and taking an action I would have to take anyway to stay alive, but with a more full presence and purpose that stabilized me.
It was the breath, in the beginning, that helped me rebuild my life after being bound by my crushing anxiety for so long. This continued, regular awareness grounds me and gives me courage to pause and move forward thoughtfully, instead of from a place of reactiveness when life gets stormy.
But it all begins with just one breath.