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by Susan Dawson-Cook

November 7, 2023

Use Yoga Pranayama to breathe your way to calm

Managing stress is challenging in today’s fast-paced world. Anxiety caused by excessive stress impairs mental focus and hinders performance, affecting all areas of your life, including your swimming.

Stressed out swimmers, however, can tap into the incredible power of yogic breathing (pranayama) to shift mood and enhance focus. Requiring only minutes of your time, focused breathing is an efficient way to transform your state of mind from anxious and scattered to focused and calm. Regular practice can have a profound impact on your ability to maintain tranquility and composure in various situations.

Lion’s Breath, Alternating Nostril Breathing, and Square Breath are my favorite pranayama activities for restoring calm and balance. You can expect a shift in your mental state within minutes, ranging from subtle to dramatic. I recommend that you pause in silence for a minute or two after you finish each breathing activity to observe these changes.

Lion’s Breath (Simha)

Roar (almost) like a lion and expel all your tension in the process. Known in Sanskrit as Simha pranayama, Lion’s Breath is a powerful, releasing breath where you stick out your tongue and release a loud “HAAA” sound whenever you exhale.


Practicing Lion’s breath is purported to increase oxygen saturation levels and lung capacity and stimulate the vocal cords and diaphragm. It also releases tension from your facial muscles, melts away stress, and may reduce social anxiety.


A minority of people experience dizziness when practicing Lion’s Breath. If this happens, try a different breath practice that’s more appropriate for you.

How to Do It

  • Sit back on your heels with the tops of the feet resting on your mat (in Thunderbolt or Vajrasana) with your spine lengthened and ears stacked over your shoulders. If sitting on your heels isn’t comfortable, place a block in a vertical position under your sacrum to reduce the pressure on your knees. Another option is to sit in a chair (shift forward so your back is self-supported) with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Take a few deep breaths to ground yourself. Place your hands on your knees with the fingertips pointing forward.
  • Inhale deeply and, as you exhale, stick out your tongue and make a loud “HAAA” sound while gazing at the tip of your nose and crossing your eyes.
  • Repeat 5 to 10 times.
  • Return to your normal breathing rhythm and check in with yourself for a few breath cycles.

Alternating Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)

The next time you’re pacing the locker room pre-race, overly nervous or controlled by chaotic thoughts, try alternating nostril breathing. This pranayama involves pinching off one nostril or the other when breathing through the nose. It soothes your nervous system and improves your ability to focus.


Alternate nostril breathing, renowned for its calming effects, helps reduce racing thoughts, releases tension, and enhances mental focus and energy.

How to Do It

  • Start seated on your mat or in a chair with a tall spine. Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.
  • Raise your right hand and close the two fingers closest to your thumb toward your palm. You will use the thumb to close off your right nostril and your ring and pinky finger to close off your left nostril. It’s easy to slump forward when placing the hand around the face. Stay aware of your posture and make sure to maintain a tall spine so your lungs fill completely and you experience a good flow of energy.
  • Close off the left nostril with the two fingers and slowly inhale through the right nostril. Close off the right nostril with your thumb and slowly exhale through the left nostril. Slowly inhale through the left nostril (pinching off right nostril). Slowly exhale through the right nostril (pinching off the left nostril).
  • Repeat for 5 to 10 breath cycles and then resume normal breathing, taking a moment to check in with your mind and body and notice any changes.


If you’re experiencing nasal congestion from allergies or a cold, try a hands-free version of Nadi Shodhana, visualizing the breath entering and exiting the nostrils on the breath cycles without physically closing off either of the nostrils. This method facilitates focus and concentration and may also be practiced following the nostril pinching version of Nadi Shodhana.

Box or Square Breathing (Sama Vritti)

Stressed out swimmers can benefit tremendously from box breathing, which many U.S. Navy SEALs practice to stay calm and focused during high-stress situations. This form of breathing is called 4 x 4, box, or square because the length of each of the four parts of this breathing technique is the same—four counts.


Square breath is easy to practice. Sometimes we most need relief from stress when we’re in a public place surrounded by people. The beauty of Sama Vritti pranayama is that you can do it anywhere without anyone noticing—whether you’re waiting in line at the grocery store or standing behind the blocks.

This 4 x 4 rhythm of breathing taps into your body’s parasympathetic nervous system. It calms your system when you’re feeling overwhelmed and may also lower blood pressure and the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

How to Do It

  • Find a comfortable seated position on your mat or in a chair, keeping the spine lengthened. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath.
  • Inhale through your nose as you count to four, noticing the air filling your belly and lungs.
  • Retain this breath for a count of four.
  • Exhale for a count of four. Allow your breath to flow out gently, releasing tension and stress.
  • Pause at the base of your breath for a count of four.
  • Repeat for 5 to 10 rounds, focusing on the rhythmic pattern of your breath and counting.
  • Take a moment to check in to notice any changes.

Anyplace, Anytime

Whenever you focus on your breathing, you tune in to your body’s parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, shifting away from the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight mode that many of us get stuck in due to the stressors of modern life.

Bringing awareness to your breath will help you to relax, feel more balanced, and be more present with the here and now. Saying a mantra to yourself during a pranayama practice, such as “I am calm” or “I am ready to race” can add to the centering experience.


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