“Breath is life. We should pay as much attention to it as any other aspect of beingness.” ~ Swami Nostradamus Virato
I’ve battled chronic anxiety, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) my entire life.
Due to various traumatic events and circumstances in my childhood, my little body and mind became conditioned to operate on a constant state of high alert and in a defense mode from very early on.
In many ways, this survival-driven state of being is the only way I’ve ever known. It might sound strange to some, but anxiety has been something like a “comfort zone” for me, if you will.
Bipolar disorder, addiction, and depression run in both sides of my family; mental instability has always been our “elephant in the room.”
I knew I had to take drastic action when my go-to means of coping with anxiety became destructive. I began self-medicating and relying on copious daily amounts of weed and wine, just to get through the days and nights.
When I looked in the mirror, a puffy-faced, dimmed, hungover version of myself stared back.
This was definitely not who I wanted to be, so I dragged my butt to a 200-hour yoga teacher training course one particularly cold, lonely, and unforgiving winter.
This intensive immersion into the yogic world, sparked a domino effect of pivotal moments that eventually led to my drastic inner and outer transformation.
It was in that training that I began to chip away at the hardened shell surrounding my heart and spirit.
It was also there that I discovered powerful, timeless, and transformative yogic tools that helped me spark a light from within—finally activating true and lasting inner calm.
One of the most powerful tools I used to help lift myself out of my dark hole was pranayama or yogic breath work.
As the opening quote from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the 15th century Sanskrit manual considered the most influential surviving text on Hatha Yoga, states: “When the breath wanders the mind is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still.”
Even 500 years ago, ancient yogis had a wise understanding of what it takes to truly calm an overactive and anxious mind, in order to come home to our true and powerful selves.
These yogis knew that nerves could be calmed by the simple act of conscious breathing, so they were dedicated to deepening this practice.
In today’s hyper aroused world of chronic fight or flight survival mode, it’s more important than ever to turn to proven, time-tested, and natural tools like yogic breathing for stress and anxiety relief.
I’ve found a simple yet oh-so-effective five-minute breathing meditation to help us increase inner calm naturally—without ever having to swallow a pill or reach for a bottle.
It includes a specific pranayama exercise that I found to be particularly effective and powerful at helping transform my own anxious heart and mind.
This meditation involves a technique called Ujjayi Breathing, also referred to as “Warrior Breath,” “Victorious Breath,” “Ocean’s Breath,” “Hissing Breath,” and even “Darth Vader Breath.” Those of us who’ve been to an Ashtanga yoga class will recognize this breathing pattern.
“The prefix ‘ud’ means upwards or expanding. It also conveys the sense of preeminence and power. ‘Jaya’ means conquest or success, and, from another point of view, restraint. In ujjayi the lungs are fully expanded, with the chest thrust out like that of a mighty conqueror.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar, Light On Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing
Ujjayi breathing creates a sound similar to ocean’s waves by gently constricting the back of the throat during inhales and exhales.
Various studies indicate the potential power of regular ujjayi practice in helping reduce irritability, overactivity, stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and anger.
It’s also been used as an effective coping tool with natural disaster victims.
It sounds almost too good to be true that such a simple breathing technique can be so effective, and yet when stress and anxiety strike, just a few minutes of ujjayi breathing can offer us a sense of control, and a wave of calm groundedness.
When we pair ujjayi with deep-belly breathing, we also increase our body’s relaxation and regeneration response, by activating the branch of our nervous system that helps us diffuse anxiety and recover from stress and nerve-racking situations.
Here is a calming five-minute meditation to put all of this knowledge to good practice:
1. Lie down on the floor, preferably on top of a yoga mat.
2. Place a pillow or rolled-up blanket under the neck and head for support. Another option is to place a bolster pillow long ways along the body so that one end of the bolster supports the lower back, and the other end supports the neck, shoulders, and head.
3. Close your eyes and relax the body—especially the back, neck, shoulders, face, jaw, and mouth.
4. Bring the tip of your tongue to gently rest on the roof of your mouth and keep it there.
5. Bring attention to your breath, just observing it as it is, without judging, without trying to change it in any way. If the breath is long, let it be long. If it’s short, let it be short.
6. Let’s stay here for one minute…
7. From this point on and for the duration of the meditation, we’ll be breathing through our nose only. Keeping the mouth closed, let’s exhale fully, allowing our lungs to fully empty of air.
8. Breathing in and out by constricting the back of our throat, we’ll now breathe like the ocean.
9. Inhaling deeply and audibly for eight counts, breathing into our lower belly and expanding it outwardly as our lungs fill with air.
10. Exhaling deeply and audibly for 12 counts, as the lower belly contracts inwardly toward our spine, and the lungs empty of air.
11. Keep repeating steps nine and ten for a total of 12 rounds (one round equals one full inhale, plus one full exhale, do this for a total of four minutes.)
12. We can activate inner calm even further by bringing mindful attention to the audible sound of our breath. With each inhale and exhale, imagine the waves ebbing and flowing around us as we breathe the waves through us. The more we flow with the waves, the more we dissolve stress and anxiety—activating inner calm.
Once we’ve completed the 12 rounds, we can stop practicing and continue breathing normally through the nose. Just allowing ourselves to take some time to be, keeping your eyes closed and allowing the aftereffects of this practice to integrate. Then whenever you’re ready, you can slowly open your eyes.