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Q&A: Deep Breathing Makes Me Panic. What Can I Do?

Sarah Powers offers advice on how to overcome a resistance to deep breathing.

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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. Pranayama 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