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When Deep Breathing Causes Panic

By Sarah Powers

I have trouble with my breathing when I'm asked to calm my breath or to observe it. My mind registers exactly the opposite and I start to suffocate. I suffer from panic attacks, and I understand that proper breathing is at the heart of the practice. How do I rid myself of this mental resistance?

—Denise Lague, Toronto, Canada

Sarah Powers’ reply:
Breathing is our most intimate ally. It is with us always whether we feel agitated or at ease. Yoga and meditation suggest that we focus on the breath as an anchor because it is always happening now. We cannot breathe for yesterday or anticipate how we will breathe one hour from now. It is only now that we can be with the breath. It is a doorway into being intimate with the moment as it is.

When you hear the instruction to watch the breath, you may be confusing the method of watching with the desired result, which you assume means that you must be calm. The issue here may be historical for you, centered on being told to do something, coupled with the immediate fear of doing it wrong. So, the method of watching the breath is immediately shattered with the self-assessment, “I can’t.”

We cannot transcend patterns we are not aware of and we cannot become aware of that which we are not open to. So, the first step is simply to acknowledge this pattern as it arises. Bear witness to it as it is, without wishing it were different, just the naked truth of what's happening. Next, simply hold your attention on the physical sensations that arise for you as you attempt to stay with the breath. Let go of the feeling that you need to be successful at anything; instead try to simply be aware of what the experience is in the moment, such as tightness in the chest, shallow or short breathing, unease, or anxiety. Try not to turn away from the experience, alter it, or ignore it.

Awareness has its own vitality. As we practice yoga, we learn to trust our own experience. We learn to accept what happens and to understand that we experience suffering when we think something should be other than it is. When we start to believe the inner voice that tells us that, fear and panic set in. But mindfulness can change our perspective and allow us to release negative emotional patterns by going through them, instead of fighting with or disallowing them.

If you’d like to deepen your understanding of these tools, I suggest seeing a therapist with a mindfulness background and/or going on a mindfulness retreat where they emphasize these tools.

Sarah Powers blends the insights of yoga and Buddhism in her practice and teaching. She incorporates both a Yin style of holding poses and a Vinyasa style of moving with the breath, blending essential aspects of the Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Viniyoga traditions. pPranayama and meditation are always included in her practice and classes. Sarah has been a student of Buddhism in both Asia and the U.S. and draws inspiration from teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Toni Packer, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Sarah also draws inspiration from the Self Inquiry (Atma Vichara) of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. She lives in Marin, California where she home schools her daughter and teaches classes. For more information go to

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Reader Comments

Pilar Barroso

Excellent article... Thank you Sarah!!


..'we experience suffering when we think something should be other than what it is' ...that's the nub of it - yes!
I am learning to live with this simple truth - on and off the mat!


I have the same problem but with contemplation, trial and error i'm learning that the suffocation happens with trying to control the breath or trying to fit it in a ratio.Its accompanied by a feeling like anxiety or self-consciousness like everyones looking at me.You have to do 3 things to get deep breathing right 1.forget the 4:8 ratio ,dont force it .your capacity is your capacity .forcing it is cheating it.accept yourself the way u are. 2.Ease your breath. Let the air enter your body as gently as possible. u should hardly feel it and there should be no hissing sound as the air goes in.make sure u dont tense your face or your throat. When your stomach blows out the air fills in automatically. 3.Let go all self consciousness and aware of your thoughts first, you may be imagining yourself in your head and how u look while meditating and tense up.For me i was self conscious of a slight double chin I have and tensing my neck to look less ugly. The secret however is forgeting you have a body and blanking your mind.Your real identily according to yoga is neither your body nor your mind but something higher.As i read somewhere as soon as you can disregard the image u see in the mirror u have taken the next step.Just say to heck
with what I look like I am what I am and ease out. Also notice your heart ,does this area feel heavy, are there feelings of sadness or depression? let go of the images that create and preceed these feelings and all self expectations. Deep breathing is about letting go and becomes vice versa. Hope i helped, good luck!

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