Taking five to 20 minutes per day (ideally to start and/or your day) to consciously focus on your breath reduces stress in your mind and body and helps enhance your focus. You’ll also feel more energized, have more vitality and better health.

Fifteen years ago, I was experiencing some health issues – digestive issues, anxiety, burnout symptoms — that sent me to see a naturopath. For the first several sessions, we focused on breath work. I thought I was breathing! I did yoga a couple times a week, so of course I was breathing. I noticed my symptoms were reduced right after a yoga class, but then the next day they were all back. I was back to not breathing fully.

When I mention conscious breathing, I often hear people sarcastically say, “I’m breathing, or I’d be dead.” I’d suggest when you’re not fully breathing you’re not bringing in optimal amounts of oxygen and lifeforce (you may have heard it called prana, ki or chi), so your brain, cells and organs may not function at their best. Your immune system can also become weakened.

By fully breathing, you’re increasing the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream and feeding all your cells and organs to keep them healthy – to keep all of YOU healthy.

By not breathing fully you may be keeping your body in fight, flight or freeze mode. Your body is on high alert and your brain becomes hypervigilant, and the stress, worry, anxiety you feel goes up. Maybe it becomes chronic stress because your sympathetic nervous system is always on. When your fight-or-flight system is switched to on, your rest and digest system shuts off – your body can’t do both. You may feel agitated, anxious and, well, ON, all the time. This why sleep and digestive issues arise when you’re always stressed.

Focused breathing calms your body and mind. After a yoga class, have you noticed how much more focused and calm you feel? Imagine that feeling throughout your day.

How to consciously breathe

Have you ever watched a baby breathe? They breathe with their whole body, which is our innate, natural state. Somewhere along the way stress in our minds and bodies interrupted this.

Here is a simple technique for focusing on your breath.

  • Sit with a long spine (without slouching), or lay down. Get comfortable.
  • Place one hand on your chest, and the other on your belly.
  • Observe your breath entering your body; notice if your hands move while breathing.
  • Bring your awareness to your belly. Inhale. Begin to expand your belly, notice your hand moving out, and continue to expand through your chest, feeling that hand move as you inhale.
  • Exhale by gently pulling your belly button in.
  • With this awareness, inhale and exhale through your nose.
  • Begin to lengthen and control your inhale and exhale.
  • Inhale as your count to four. Pause. Exhale as your count to four.
  • Continue with this rhythm of your breath until you begin to feel calm and relaxed (five to twenty minutes or more).

Remind yourself to just breathe

Throughout your day find ways of reminding yourself to become aware of your breathing and to take a few conscious breaths. Here are some ideas to help you:

  • Set a timer
  • Use an app like Breethe, Calm, Insight Timer or Headspace, or find a YouTube channel
  • Whenever you glance at your phone
  • Place a photo on your desk (of your kids, a calming landscape) that makes you smile and breathe
  • Add a sticky note to your computer monitor or on the dashboard of your car

Yogis have been practicing breathing (called pranayama) for thousands of years. Science is just starting to catch up. If you’re interested in learning about how science meets yoga, here’s an article about the science of breathing.

Incorporate a daily breath practice into your routine, and notice subtle yet significant differences in your health and wellbeing.