We breathe all day, every day without thinking about it—but something truly transformative can happen when the breath becomes something we do think about.

By Maggie Seaver
Updated October 01, 2020
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Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Attention to the breath—and intention of the breath—is a fundamental facet of mindfulness, the practice of cultivating non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Mindful breathing techniques can be used to moor you to the present, to influence your thoughts and emotions, and to promote calm (mentally and physiologically), says Jamie Price, the founder of MyLife, an award-winning meditation app. Different types of breathing techniques have been linked to numerous health benefits, from reducing oxidative stress levels (free radical imbalance) and regulating negative emotions, to easing anxiety symptoms and improving cardiovascular function.

“The breath is such a great anchor [to the present] because it’s with you and happening naturally all the time,” Price explains. “If you get in the habit of using your breath as an anchor, and become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, you can stop them before they gain momentum in a way that contributes to stress or anxiety.”

Breathing exercises are an accessible entry point into mindfulness. You already know how to inhale and exhale. Now, learn how to observe your breath, to sense it, return to it, and eventually gain better control over it to unlock its remarkable power. Start with these five mindfulness breathing techniques from the pros at MyLife.

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“A very common foundational practice [that] every mindfulness training program has is mindfulness of breathing: taking an observational stance to the ongoing occurrence of your breath,” says Amishi Jha, PhD, a neuroscientist and associate professor in the department of psychology and the director of contemplative neuroscience for the UMindfulness initiative at the University of Miami.

This type of exercise doesn't involve breath manipulation—it's just about placing awareness on its natural occurrence. Sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to do. Begin by breathing normally and becoming a focused observer of your breath. It's helpful to hone in on a physical cue, like the rise and fall of your belly or the sensation of air in your nostrils (cool air coming in, warmer air going out). When your mind naturally wanders (and it will—that’s inevitable), make a note of it, then simply return to the occurrence of each inhale and exhale.

Breathing in this way, even for a minute or two, helps eliminate distraction, release negative thoughts, improve self awareness, and quiet a racing mind. The more you do it, the easier it will get—and the more you’ll start to notice the benefits in your daily life.

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Here's a similar mindful breathing technique that incorporates another mental cue to help you concentrate: counting each breath. You’ll notice that it’s surprisingly hard to follow your breath—one good trick for staying on task is to count it.

“For people who have really busy minds, adding the component of counting is very helpful,” Price says. “Techniques like counting help take us out of thought loops that feed stress, anxiety, or negative emotions.”

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Here, you can start to practice changing your breath—deepening it—for a desired outcome. Deep breathing, also called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, is exactly what it sounds like and can help reduce stress and promote a sense of calm. Breathing very fully into the belly, then exhaling completely, works to deactivate the stress response and activate the “rest and digest” state.

Stressed? Overwhelmed? Panicked? Spend a few intentional minutes taking calm, deep (but gentle) breaths, which will signal to your brain that everything is OK.

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This type of breath work involves extending the exhale so it’s longer than the inhale. Emphasizing the exhale is meant to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the calming counterpart to our stress-induced sympathetic nervous system (SNS). While the SNS accelerates heartbeat, breathing, and blood flow, the PNS slows breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. When your stress response is in overdrive (and whose isn’t?), promote serious relaxation with a 2-4 breathing exercise: inhale for two counts and immediately exhale for four counts.

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You can harness the breath to perk yourself up, too. “When you’re feeling sluggish, invigorate your mind and boost energy and alertness with this breathing technique, based on a Kundalini yoga technique called segmented breathing,” Price says. Inhale in four equal, but distinct segments to fill the lungs, then exhale in one, long, smooth segment to empty the lungs completely (repeat three or four times).

Love these exercises? You can download the MyLife app for free to explore these and tons more activities.