The Anxiety-Inducing Effect of Ujjayi Breathing: Health Benefits of Yoga (part 2)

From a medical perspective, Uddiyana Bandha (the abdominal lock) combined with Ujjayi breath (the breath we use in Ashtanga yoga) should in theory increase anxiety.

The Ujjayi and uddiyana bandha practices are the virtually the opposite of what anxious patients are taught in order to reduce their mental anxiety. From the perspective of western medicine, the therapeutic mechanism of Ujjayi breathing and uddiyana bandha may be through a kind of behavioral conditioning… beginning Ashtanga yoga practitioners are frequently exposed to anxiety-inducing moments of chest-breathing and oxygen-hunger, wondering “how can I get enough air … I’m going to explode!” This repetitive exposure to a stressful situation conditions the practitioner to other physiologically stressful situations.

While much of the research and anecdote indicates that yoga does have a calming, focusing effect, I have seen little that explains how such stress inducing breath could lead to such benefits.

Richard Peterson, a psychiatrist and Ashtangi, in his thorough article called The Healing Psychology of Ashtanga Yoga developed a compelling theory.

Yoga practitioners who are breathing smoothly and shallowly though their noses, while simultaneously experiencing a racing heart and air-hunger, are training their bodies and minds to react smoothly and calmly when they are in a similar physiologic state in another context. For example, a non-yogi who is terrified of public speaking, and who has no practice with controlling racing thoughts and shortness of breath before a speech, is likely to perform poorly when compared to a similarly terrified speaker who is a yogi. The yogi has successful experience working through these same feelings in yoga practice.


Rich enjoys one of the therapeutic
effects of visiting Mysore

In this article, Richard uses his extensive medical education to theorize about possible psychological effects of Ashtanga. He also cites 36 sources; 28 of these are from scientific studies or medical journals. Because of his educational background, because he cites his sources and because of his scientific approach, I have confidence in Richard’s conclusions and think his article is a great resource.

Plus, Richard has written this article out of his love of and curiousity about Ashtanga and psychiatry; he’s not earning money from yoga therapy or anything like that. To top it all, how many medical articles end with “Practice, and all is coming”?


Rich Peterson, Mysore 2004

About Rich Peterson: I’m currently practicing with John Berlinsky and Lea Watkins at YogaStudio Mill Valley (California). I go about 2 times per week currently, down from 4x/week following the birth of our baby girl 5 months ago. My wife and I trade baby sitting duties. I learned Ashtanga in Mysore in 2004 at AYRI. Our blog from that trip is here and the Mysore section is here.

8 thoughts on “The Anxiety-Inducing Effect of Ujjayi Breathing: Health Benefits of Yoga (part 2)

  1. Lauren

    Sorry – I don’t get the title…Anxety INDUCING??? Or do you mean REDUCING? When I saw INDUCING, I thought it was going to be a reprint of the article about yoga in prison….

  2. philippe

    Lauren, what Richard was trying to do was explain this apparent paradox: how can ujjayi breath have a calming effect when in fact it should be adding stress (from a medical point view)?

    When doctors are trying to make patients relax, they instruct them to do almost the opposite of ujjayi. Richard is trying to explain why ujjayi can in fact have a calming effect despite appearances to the contrary. Hence the title of our post.

    Hopefully this makes sense.

  3. Rach

    Thanks for this. I am not sure if this is what happened to be but I did a few Ujjayi breathing exercises today. First I got quite hot then all day I have been very anxious. I thought it might have been because of the hip opening I did yesterday but could it be this?

    If so, I will not be doing it again. I have never felt this anxious and crazy in my life. I am good at controlling my nerves and anxiety with breath and to your example am good in public speaking scenarios.

    If I want to relax, I don’t want to feel nervous as a way to learn to combat nerves. I am most confused by this.

  4. bradd

    I think the point here is that combining ujjai with uddi may force chest breathing — a kind of breathing which in fact does create heat, increase the heart rate and elicit a rajasic response. It is possible to do uddi and still breathe into the lower back, thus mitigating the problem. If they combine a soft ujjai with chest breathing and slow movement, they create antagonistic effects that may help to balance each other out. If the ujjai is strong and harsh, the uddi strong, mula applied as well, and the breathing restricted to the chest, you can expect to burn out in a fairly short period of time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>