Breathing is an essential part of yoga. So essential that Pranayama — a specific yogic breathing exercise — is one of the practice’s key pillars. While we know that the physical practice of yoga can do wonders to calm our minds, it’s often the breathing that accompanies it that really seals the deal.
To relieve anxiety and stress, here are some basic breathing exercises that have been around for thousands of years. With that kind of history, it can’t hurt to see if one of them works for you, right?
3 Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress
Different stressors call for different measures. Try a breathing exercise below depending on your current flavor of stress.
Breathing exercise No. 1: Alternate-nostril breathing
Best for: Anxiety
This technique is one of the most commonly used (and ancient) yogic breathing exercises. It has been used to calm the sympathetic nervous system and to lower the heart rate, which makes it a wonderful technique to use if you’re feeling frantic and/or anxious. It’s also a great one to do in the spring because it can help clear out any congestion from seasonal allergies.
How to do it: Start by finding a comfortable place to sit and breathe naturally through your nose. Then take your left hand to your face and place your index and middle finger between your eyebrows. Let your thumb rest on your left nostril and very gently close it off. Breathe in through the right nostril and hold for a moment while your lungs are full of air. Release the left nostril and close the right. Exhale.
Repeat this process for as long as you like, alternating between nostrils. Remember to keep your shoulders relaxed and your breathing light and even. If you have trouble breathing through one nostril at first, stick with it; a few cycles of this exercise should clear that up in no time.
Alternate-nostril breathing is all about creating balance between the right and left sides of your body. In yoga, the right side corresponds with the autonomic nervous system and is responsible for regulating essential body functions as well as giving you energy, creativity, and stamina. The left side of the body is considered calmer and more passive. It’s traditional to start alternate-nostril breathing on the left side to encourage a more peaceful mind-set at the start of the practice.
Breathing exercise No. 2: Bee breath
Best for: Anger, frustration
This is one you’ll want to practice in a private place, but it’s very effective in releasing anger, frustration, and anxiety. If you’re feeling a lot of tightness and tension in your chest, neck, and shoulders, definitely give this one a go.
How to do it: To begin, sit comfortably, and breathe evenly in and out through your nose. Close your eyes and take your index fingers and gently plug your ears (you might want to use that little flap of cartilage at the front of ear to do so).
This is where it gets a little weird. With the ears plugged, inhale and start humming strongly during your exhale. Keep humming until you need to inhale again and then repeat. When you’re finished, take a few breaths to breathe evenly and comfortably just as you are.
You might feel silly doing this, but see if you can focus your attention on the sensation inside your body. Do you notice any tingling or vibration in your head and throat? Pay attention to the length of each exhale. You might find that they start to get longer and longer as you practice, and that your stress, anger, and anxiety are melting away.
Breathing exercise No. 3: Need a Moment? Just Sit and Breathe
Best for: General calm
Nothing fancy here. Sometimes all you need is a minute to sit where you are, close your eyes, and notice your breath to bring mindfulness into the present moment. Try setting alarms for yourself throughout the day to remind yourself to set aside the time to do this. This breathing technique is so simple that you can do it at your desk, but it might be a good chance to step outside and get a change of scenery.