I was recently asked what to do when breathing cues cause anxiety during asana practice. The yoga teacher who asked was feeling at a loss as to how to help her student use her breath in asana practice without triggering her.
Let me start by saying, this is tricky.
It requires knowledge, patience and experience. But mostly it requires trust – from you as well as your student. As a teacher, trust your training and your knowledge base and know that there are resources that can help you navigate a situation like this. Your student also needs to trust you – that you prioritize her health and wellbeing and that you will not ask her to do something that will trigger feelings of panic or anxiety.
Why is breathing so scary?
The breath is the primary survival process. It is also patterned, meaning we breathe in different ways when we do different things. These patterns are largely controlled by the Autonomic part of the nervous system – so we don’t have to think about breathing. Fortunately, the breath keeps us alive even when we are sleeping or otherwise not paying attention to it.
But breathing patterns are not always optimal – and this may be because, essentially, your biography is in your breath.
Scary things happen to human beings – even life-threatening things. And, in some cases, the respiratory pattern adjusts in order to ensure survival. And for some people, the breath stays in a survival pattern, even after the trauma has passed.
Years after a traumatic event, even when there is no threat present, the body and/or the breath may still be living in the past.
In this case, asking your student to change her breath is like asking her to let go of her life raft. Subconsciously, instructing with breathing cues can feel like you are threatening her survival. It’s not surprising that breathing cues can send some people into panic.
How do you help?
Because I’ve worked with many people with trauma challenges, I realized I had to develop a plan – a step-wise protocol if you like to help my clients/students find their breath safely. I call these progressive steps “orientations,” and I teach this theory in greater detail in my 300 hour advanced training and also in my trainings for mental health professionals.
I will go over it briefly here, in the context of working one-on-one rather than in a class setting. Of course, much of this can be adapted to a yoga class or group therapy session as well.
The first priority is to help your student feel safe. The room should feel safe and inviting. Invite your student to set up her mat wherever she likes in the room. Soft lighting and soft music may be appealing to some, but allowing your student to choose the lighting, the sounds, and where she wants to be is a better idea. It’s about agency – feeling like she is in control of her body and environment.
Additionally, allowing her to set the tone and talk about what kind of postures she’d like to do can also be helpful. Use invitational language. She is invited to explore movement, sensations, feelings and cognitions, rather than required or expected to submit to your demands on her – particularly demanding she do something, anything, with her breath. Rather than promoting or demanding that she participates in a pre-set sequence, encourage co-participation, co-creation. You are walking the path with her, not bulldozing your way through the jungle for her.
2. Movement orientation:
Once your student is ready and settled, offer a few options. I find shaking, bouncing and swinging, for some people, can help to “jump the jiggles out” if they feel anxious, particularly if they are anxious about doing yoga with you for the first time or feeling like they are under a microscope in a one-on-one session.
Slow, conscious movement, such as simple joint rotations, simple chair yoga postures, or simple standing poses are often a good next step. Allow time and encourage moving smoothly and slowly – exploring gentle range of movement and spending lots of time noticing how the body moves in space.
This is a great place to bring in feelings of gratitude, competency, curiosity, and even wonder about all the amazing things the body can do. Please note that this movement orientation step may take a few weeks, months, or even longer. When someone is struggling with anxiety or trauma patterns, it is important to let go of the breath until she is ready and interested in exploring further.
3. Sensation orientation:
When the student is ready you can practice what I like to call “Dipping Your Toes” into sensations in the body. It may be as simple as noticing tingling feelings in your fingers, face, or toes. After a while, you can start to explore other parts of the body – perhaps the legs, arms, belly or back.
There are numerous reasons for “dipping your toes” into sensations, but the primary ones, in this context, are learning to tolerate these sensations and beginning to befriend your body.
When your student is ready, you may suggest noticing sensations in the chest. Gentle, flowing, moving, or even rhythmic sensations. This process can be a gateway to the next orientation.
4. Breath orientation:
Getting to the breath, slowly, carefully, and with heaps of patience, empathy and compassion, may be the most transformative step that your student can take with her practice. This is because the breath is the primary autonomic function that can be brought under conscious control. If we can tolerate the experience, breath work can begin to transform the nervous system by rebuilding the dysfunctional patterns which have kept it in survival mode (and all the havoc this kind of breathing wreaks on health).
But start by “Dipping Your Toes” into breath awareness. For example,
“Allow your arms to float up over your head, what does your breath want to do as you lower your hands back down?”
“How does it feel to exhale when you fold forward and touch your shins?”
“Can you allow your lungs to let go of the air as you twist here.”
At this orientation stage, start with awareness of the exhale (in most cases) and offer inquiries rather than instructions. Start with just a few, occasional breathing cues – maybe for several sessions. Focus initially on complete, simple, easeful exhales. Gradually work up to more and more cues that are specifically about breathing.
Go slow, take your time, and let go of expectations.
5. Spiritual orientation:
Does your student have a spiritual belief system or orientation that is nurturing, supportive, life-affirming and comforting for her? If so, leverage it. If she can start to utilize her spiritual orientation for bringing feelings of peace, calming, centering, safety, and comfort into her practice and, via practice, into her nervous system. If she can experience her practice as a way to reify and strengthen her beliefs, then this orientation can be particularly useful in her recovery process.
I suggest that this stage runs throughout all the others for some people. For others, it may only become apparent as they begin to understand their breath as “inspirational.” Conscious breathing practices can bring awareness to the interconnectedness and interdependency of all living beings, and that realization, in and of itself, may be profoundly healing.
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