Yoga for Mental Health

A Simple Breathing Exercise To Calm Anxiety

Changing the way we feel all starts with changing how we breathe. The breath and the mind are intimately connected. How we breathe expresses how we feel. We can see this in automatic mechanisms like sighing which have a regulating power. A sigh releases inner tension and helps us to let go. Another example is taking a deep breath. It is an act of opening ourselves to the flow of life. It creates expansion and exhilaration after a moment of tension or contraction.

Next time when you feel uneasy, observe the quality of your breath. You may notice that when you feel stressed or anxious, your breath tends to be fast or tense. When you feel depressed, the breath may appear weak and shallow. The body, breath, and mind reflect each other beautifully. This connection allows us to change our emotions by learning how to work with our breath.

Many world traditions share the view that the breath is a bridge between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The breath owes this special status to the fact that it is both within our conscious and subconscious control. We have bodily functions that can be controlled consciously. For example, moving the muscles of our arms and legs takes a conscious decision and effort. Other functions of the body function without a conscious effort on our part. Examples are the peristalsis of our digestion and the heart which continues to beat effortlessly while we’re asleep. Imagine having to think about making your heart beat. There wouldn’t be much space to focus on anything else. This is why the subconscious takes care of these vital functions.

“The breath has a special status within this. When we are asleep, the breath continues on its own accord.”

Often, the breath will even harmonize when we’re asleep. If our breathing was tense because of stress or anxiety, it may relax and deepen as the conscious mind gives way into sleep. What makes the breath different than, for example, our heartbeat is that we can also control it. This is what we do with breathing exercises. So, the breath is both within our conscious and subconscious control. In other words, the breathing process has aspects that correspond to both the conscious and the subconscious mind.

This implies that the breath has a bridging function. It offers a gateway to our subconscious world. The breath helps us to notice what we are unaware of. We often go about our day not realizing how much tension we are carrying in our body and mind. If we’d pay attention to our breath, we’d soon realize that it’s time to slow down, breathe, and soften.

Breathing exercises either:

  • emphasize inhalation or exhalation
  • play with the length and ratio of the breathing phases
  • change how we inhale and exhale, for example through the mouth, nose, one nostril, guide the breath through the lips, teeth, tongue, or vocal cords
The actions of inhalation and exhalation activate the nervous system in different ways. The inhaling breath activates the sympathetic. It feeds the body with oxygen and has an invigorating and energizing effect. Positive emotions related to the sympathetic nervous system are excitement, enthusiasm, wakefulness, and activity. Too much sympathetic activation leads to stress, agitation, and anxiety.
The exhalation is releasing and calming. It activates a parasympathetic response. Positive emotions linked to the parasympathetic nervous system are relaxation, peacefulness, contentment, and ease. That is why we benefit from focusing on our exhalation when we feel stressed or anxious. A healthy nervous system effortlessly moves between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation as a response to its environment. Only an unbalanced nervous system gets stuck on ‘on’ or ‘off’. A nervous system that has frozen into ‘off’ mode results in fatigue, sluggishness, apathy, and other tamasic symptoms. This is the case for the typical type of depression. More invigorating breathing exercises, and exercises that emphasize inhalation, can help to reduce lethargy and increase feelings of aliveness.
When we work with the breath therapeutically, we always go through three stages:
  • Establish a healthy normal breathing pattern (learn to breathe correctly)
  • Determine the nervous system imbalance (over- or under-stimulation)
  • Choose breathing techniques to balance the nervous system

Breathing Exercise: Belly Grounding

Belly Grounding is a practice from my book Messages from the Deep. It’s a restorative and nurturing breathing exercise that will leave you feeling calm, grounded, and centered. It helps you tune-in with yourself—which makes it the perfect exercise to start or finish almost any yoga practice. Because of its relaxing effect, Belly Grounding helps combat stress, reduces anxiety, and meets depression with a loving presence. Its wide applicability makes it a therapeutically valuable technique. It can be practiced on and off the mat. For example, you can do the exercise first thing in the morning when you’re still in bed. This can help to dispel ruminating thoughts and manage the morning-dread. Belly Grounding can also be practiced throughout your day, for example during a toilet break or if you’re stuck in traffic. It is a great go-to exercise when you feel the need to re-center.

Exercise Step-by-Step


Find a comfortable position with the spine straight. This can be lying down on your back, sitting on your yoga mat, or in a chair. Relax for a few moments and breathe naturally. Start to tune in with your breath and how it feels in your body. You can rest your hands on your belly if this feels soothing.


Begin to deepen your breath. As you inhale, imagine that you are directing your breath all the way down into the lower parts of your abdomen. You should feel the belly expanding and bulging as you breathe in. As you exhale, allow the whole body to soften and relax. Breathe deeply like this for a few minutes, then move on to step three.


Imagine that your body is filled with light. Allow a gentle smile to appear on your face. If you find it hard to visualize light, imagine a warm sunlight caressing your face.  Do this for a few minutes, then move on to step four.


Introduce the affirmation: “I trust in the process of life. I am safe.” As you inhale, repeat internally to yourself “I trust in the process of life”. As you exhale, say in your mind “I am safe.” Do this until you feel calmer, more centered and connected to your heart.

Deniz Aydoslu, MA, is an advanced certified yoga and meditation teacher and expert in the therapeutic application of yoga and somatics for mental health. She helps women heal emotionally and restore their connection to Spirit by integrating the body, heart, inner child, and soul into a meaningful whole. She offers deeply transformative work as well as simple tools to improve well-being, creativity, and productivity through fun, easy, and nourishing self-care tools.

As an experienced yoga and meditation teacher, somatic educator, and shamanic psychotherapy practitioner, she infuses her work with the healing power of love and the value of nature as medicine.