You breathe on average 20,000 times a day, but how many of those breaths do you notice? How many of those breaths do you pay mindful attention to? How many of those breaths are you in complete control of and how many are just done on autopilot?
Chances are, you pay little attention to breathing throughout the day. After all, our bodies can manage the breath without a second thought, so why would we need to put any effort into something that comes so naturally?
However, the breath is a powerful tool with studies showing just how much of an impact conscious breathing can have on our mental and physical health. In this ultimate guide, we’ll cover what conscious (or controlled) breathing actually is, the benefits of learning it, and how you can start being more mindful with your own breath.
What is Conscious Breathing?
Conscious breathing is not a new wellness trend or fad. Breathwork has been used in both meditation and yoga for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Sanskrit word, Pranayama, can be split into two parts:
Prana – ‘Life force,’ ‘energy source’ or, in more recent times, ‘breath’
Yama – ‘Control’ or ‘restraint’
Therefore, the word can literally be translated to ‘breath control.’ You’re quite simply controlling and focusing on the breath. In India, during the Vedic Period, breathing was used to access the life force (Prana). In more modern times, the focus has turned to the central nervous system.
Controlled breathing and breathwork are all other words for conscious breathing, and you may also find these elements in yoga and meditation too.
The Benefits of Conscious Breathing
There have been plenty of studies into the benefits of controlling your breathing and practising regular breathwork, and the benefits are well-documented. Here are just of the reasons why conscious breathing can be so beneficial:
Breathing and the Sympathetic Nervous System
The Sympathetic Nervous System is the part of our brain that controls our fight-or-flight response. When we experience high levels of stress or anxiety on a regular basis, we can go into Sympathetic Overdrive. This is effectively where we’re constantly on edge, ready for that fight-or-flight response. This can lead to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and a decrease in digestive and metabolism functions.
Our bodies were not designed to constantly be in this state of stress and/or anxiety, and it’s believed modern life has a big part to play in Sympathetic Overdrive. When we’re always ‘on edge’ it can wreak havoc with our Sympathetic Nervous System and even lead to chronic stress, inflammation, digestive issues, and cardiovascular disease.
Conscious breathing, however, activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System which can bring us into a more relaxed state. It functions in the opposite way of the Sympathetic Nervous System, by slowing your heart rate and increases intestinal energy (which is why it’s sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ system).
Breathing and the Mind
We already now know that conscious breathing can help reduce stress by activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System, but it goes so much further than that. If you find yourself ruminating or constantly worrying, then breathwork can really help too.
It’s believed that humans have around 6,000 thoughts per day on average – and not all of them are very helpful or supportive! This can lead to low self-esteem (if we’re constantly putting ourselves down), stress, anxiety, negative thought patterns and more. However, research has shown that conscious breathing can help us let go of ruminating thoughts, feel more grounded, bring clarity, confidence, energy and even more positivity.
Breathwork can also help us remain productive and focused, by bringing more oxygen to the brain and improving functions such as memory and concentration.
Even More Benefits
It doesn’t stop there, though! Here are just some of the many more benefits to conscious breathing:
- It can help improve the digestive system and metabolism
- It may make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep
- It can often improve the respiratory system
- Research is looking into breathwork’s ability to improve the immune system and strengthen the lymphatic system
- Conscious breathing can also activate the vagus nerve, which can have a holistic effect on the mind-body system. This can have a positive impact on processes such as heart rate and digestion as well as improving emotional well-being.
Conscious Breathing Techniques
Now that you’re aware of all the incredible benefits of conscious breathing, it’s time to put it into practice! Here are some breathwork techniques that you can try yourself:
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing (also known as Nadi Shodhana) can help reduce stress and anxiety, calm the nervous system, and improve mental clarity.
This breathing technique involves gently closing each nostril in turn as you inhale and exhale. Here’s our full guide on Alternate Nostril Breathing.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is often described as a “natural tranquillizer for the nervous system.” Once again, it can help reduce stress and anxiety, but it can also help you get to sleep and have more control over certain emotional responses (like anger).
For this technique, you’ll breathe to the pattern of 4 (inhale), holding for 7, and then breathe out through the mouth for a count of 8. Here’s our step-by-step guide on this breathwork technique.
Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) is a technique that takes some practice to master but can help you use your diaphragm properly and therefore make other breathwork techniques easier.
It’s important to do this kind of conscious breathing technique when you’re relaxed and rested, as it can be quite tiring when you first start. There are also several ways you can practice this technique, from lying down with your knees bent through to sitting up straight.
Lion’s Breath (Simhasana)
Also known as Lion’s Pose, this yoga practice combines breathwork and the body to reduce tension in your chest and face, and give you a boost of energy.
1. Sit comfortably, either sitting back on your heels or crossing your legs.
2. Spread your fingers wide and press your palms against your knees.
3. Take a deep breath in through your nose and open up your eyes wide.
4. While you breathe in, open up your mouth and stick your tongue out as if you’re trying to touch the tip of your chin.
5. Breathe out whilst making a long “ha” sound to contract the muscles at the front of your throat.
6. You may also want to try looking at the tip of your nose or the space between your eyebrows as you do this breathing exercise.
7. Repeat 2 to 3 times.
You may feel a little silly doing this, but it’s an excellent breathwork technique for a quick boost of energy.
Resonance Frequency Breathing
Resonance frequency breathing is a slow, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing of around 3 to 7 breaths per minute. There have been plenty of studies into the benefits of this breath work technique, including reducing anxiety, stress, low mood, and improved cardiovascular health.
It’s a simple version of the diaphragmatic breathing mentioned above and we have a whole guide on how to do it right here.
Learn More Breathwork and Breathing Techniques
We’re big fans of the power of breath at The Anti-Burnout Club, which is why we have our very own breathwork teacher Charlie Moult. Charlie has a range of guided conscious breathing sessions on the site, covering everything from being grounded through to improving energy levels or getting more sleep. Charlie also regularly conducts live breathwork sessions for our members.
You may also find our lessons in yoga and meditation helpful, as many of them include elements of breathwork too.