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Ask the Teacher: Deep Breathing Makes Me Panic. What Can I Do?

The answer starts with awareness. Sarah Powers explains how.

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Ask the Teacher is an advice column that connects Yoga Journal members directly with our team of expert yoga teachers. Every other week, we’ll answer a question from our readers. Submit your questions here, or drop us a line at asktheteacher@yogajournal.com.


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

—Denise L., Toronto

Breathing is our most intimate ally. It is always with us, 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; we can’t anticipate how we will breathe an hour from now. It is only now that we can be with the breath. As such, breath is a doorway into being intimate with each moment as it is.

Get to the Root of the Issue

The issue may be rooted in your own history—in some self-assessment or self-belief. We can’t transcend patterns we aren’t 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. When you hear the instruction to watch the breath, you may be confusing the method of watching with the result of watching, which you may assume means that you will be calm. Instead, bear witness to it as it is, without wishing it were different. Accept the naked truth of what’s happening.

Next, place 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—even breathing.  Instead try to be aware of what the experience is in the moment, such as tightness in the chest, shallow or short breathing, unease, or anxiety. Don’t try to turn away from the experience, alter it, or ignore it.

Learn to Trust Yourself

Awareness has its own vitality. As we practice yoga, we learn to trust our own experience. We learn to accept whatever 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 challenging emotional patterns by going through them, instead of fighting with or disallowing them.

If you’d like to deepen your understanding of your experience, I suggest seeing a therapist with a mindfulness background.

This article has been updated. It originally appeared on August 28, 2007. 


About Our Contributor

Sarah Powers is the co-founder of the Insight Yoga Institute as well as the author of Insight Yoga and Lit from Within, which interweaves yoga, Buddhism, Taoism, and transpersonal psychology. Sarah yoga teaching style blends Yin sequencing with an alignment-based slow flow. She has completed all levels of the Internal Family Systems Therapy training as well as training in the Vipashyana, Tantric, and Dzogchen practices of Buddhism. For more information go to www.sarahpowers.com.


Got a question about alignment in a certain yoga pose? Want to better understand an aspect of yoga philosophy? Need advice on how to approach a challenging situation in your class? Submit your questions here or email us at asktheteacher@yogajournal.com, and we may answer it in an upcoming column.