Simple Breath Work to Ease Anxious Energy: A How-To

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Meditation isn’t about stopping thoughts from coming; it’s about acknowledging them, and letting them go. I had a yoga instructor describe it as letting your thoughts float away like little pink clouds, but during 2020 it’s been difficult not to yeet everything, thoughts included, out the window. So instead of expecting them to float away, it can serve you to acknowledge your thoughts, validate them as real, and use breath work take the edge off.

Breathing taps into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system — or more simply put, one’s fight or flight response or a calming response. When shallow breaths are taken, or when we hold our breath, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and it can increase feelings of anxiety and allow racing thoughts to take over. An immediately accessible way to soothe anxious energy is to allow calming and balancing breath work to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Simple breath work for de-escalating a fight or flight response is called Ujjayi breathing (aka, victorious breath). Here’s how to do it:  

  1. Take a full inhalation through the nose and a complete exhalation through an open mouth.
  2. Hold your hand approximately six to eight inches away from your mouth and again inhale through your nose. As you exhale through your mouth, imagine you are fogging up a piece of glass or a window. It’s an audible “ha” sound. Do this a of couple times. Now, lower your hand and you’re ready to practice Ujjayi breathing.
  3. Close the lips. If you’re clenching your jaw, press your tongue to your soft palette. Feel your jaw unclench and relax your tongue back, letting it come back to its natural position in your mouth.
  4. With lips closed, slightly constrict the throat and take a full and long inhalation through the nose. Your inhalation should be audible and it should sound a bit like Darth Vader.
  5. With lips still closed, exhale slowly with the throat still slightly constricted. If you continue to sound like Vader, or, more serenely, the ocean, you’re doing it correctly.
  6. Repeat steps four and five for as long as you have time for or would like to. When you end, finish on an exhalation.

If you struggle with racing thoughts throughout this practice (or at any time), it helps to say, “Hey, I see you,” to those thoughts and on the next cycle of breath replace the thoughts with the words “let go.” Inhale “let”; exhale “go.” Pro tip: Ujjayi breath is a great practice to use at night before bed or once you’re already in bed. It puts me to sleep, not always very quickly, but it helps with nighttime anxiety.

If meditation is a practice that interests you and you’d like more guidance, there are apps available.

  • Calm is the most well-known of all of the meditation apps. It is free for the first 30 days of a subscription.
  • Insight Timer is my favorite and it’s free. It has hundreds of guided meditations to choose from and you also have the option of setting a timer if you’d like to ride solo and sit for as many minutes as you choose. Pro tip: If you do have trouble sleeping, Jennifer Piercy’s “Yoga Nidra for Sleep” will do the trick.

Gen de Botton is the American Booksellers Association’s ABC Children’s Group Manager and a 200-Hour Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor.