Fitness Magazine

Breath Practices: If They're Not Working For You, They're Not Working for You

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina 

Breath Practices: If They're Not Working For You, They're Not Working for You

Spring Clouds Study by John Constable

You mentioned that for some people, focusing on the breath can increase anxiety. Though not always the case, this has frequently been true for me in the past and in fact, has caused some confusion since most of what one reads states that breathing and meditating actually calms anxiety. It is only recently that I have come across any mention of the opposite. Can you perhaps, write a blog entry about this very situation, which seems so contradictory to the practice of yoga and breath work? It would be great to read something about this and to find some additional recommendations for a yoga practice that includes some options for those whose anxiety is heightened rather than soothed by meditation.—LW 
This is part of a comment that was left on my post Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First from last week. I promised that I would respond, so here goes! 
It happens that I’ve discussed this issue with my beloved long-time teacher Donald Moyer. Although he was personally trained by B.K.S. Iyengar, he told me that the type of classic pranayama that Iyengar taught made him—not sure I can remember the exact word—nervous or anxious or something like that. That’s why Donald came up with his own way of practicing and teaching pranayama that involved bringing awareness to certain parts of your body and focusing on breathing into those areas. And many of his students loved the way he taught pranayama. 
But I didn’t. I found—and trust me I gave his type of pranayama many tries over the years—that while his style of breath work didn’t make me anxious, it made me feel “bad,” not calm and relaxed. How to describe it? Sort of heavy and mildly depressed. So I talked with him about it. He told me about his experiences with Iyengar. I told him about both my positive and negative experiences, both with classic Iyengar style pranayama and his way of teaching. And Donald’s advice to me was that I should either do a different breath practice (such as extending my exhalation—which works well for me) or none at all. So that even in his classes, I should just go ahead and do whatever worked for me. And that’s what I did. (Thank you, Donald.) 
So really the bottom line for pranayama is if it’s not working for you, it’s not working for you. And that means no matter what the official story is about a practice—especially if something makes you anxious—you shouldn’t do it. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Some of us are just more sensitive than others to working with the breath. When Baxter and I were choosing breath practices for our book, he included some stimulating ones (lengthening the inhalation, Skull Shining Breath, etc.). I said, “Why would we want to include those? They just make you crazy! I never practice stimulating breath practices.” And he replied that he regularly practiced them when he needed a bit of energizing, and he thought other people might want to as well. So we included them. (I’d say that I’m much more sensitive than Baxter is to pranayama.) 
The second reason is that breathing is such an essential function for staying alive that for some people, when you’re anxious, even just watching your breath can make you more anxious (like my student Richard). You start worrying about how you’re breathing and what if you can’t breathe, and so on. So I think that’s why even simple breath awareness or so-called “calming” breath practices can make anxious people more anxious. So if you’ve learned that about yourself, you should not do these practices. Or, at least not during this phase of your life. Because they’re not working for you!
Also please read Pranayama: A Powerful Key to Your Nervous System. Because not all breath practices are calming! Some are actually stimulating. So it may be you’re not choosing the right practices for your current state, and that with the right practice, you will find the results you are looking for. 
But if working with your breath in any way isn’t working for you, the solution is to do other things instead for now. For meditating, try a mantra or an image you hold in your mind rather than a physical sensation in your body. And if any type of meditating makes you anxious, again, don’t do that. I have written a post 10 Ways to Soothe Anxiety with Yoga on many different things you can also do when you’re anxious (like certain asanas). That post contains links to other articles that go into more details. I’ve also written a post When Relaxing Isn't Relaxing that describes what you can do when things that are supposedly relaxing (breath practices, restorative poses, etc.) are not working for you. 
I’ll conclude by saying that the same rule of thumb applies when you’re depressed. If something that supposedly helps depression isn’t working for you, it’s not working for you. And if something helps your depression that tradition says shouldn’t be helping, well, if you feel less depressed, it is working!
And the wonderful thing about yoga is that it is such a rich and varied tradition, with so many different options and possibilities, that there’s a good chance that by exploring and experimenting you will find something that works for you.
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