Most of the time, we breathe without thinking about it. Our bodies have the amazing ability to keep us breathing involuntarily without much effort. Ordinarily, we only spend time consciously thinking about our breaths if we have health problems (like COPD, sleep apnea, or bronchitis) or are super active (perhaps running a 5K, getting immersed in hot yoga, or summiting our favorite mountain).
But not all animals have the luxury of subconscious breath control. For example, dolphins and whales are mandatory conscious breathers. Dolphins use their mouths for capturing and eating prey, and their ingenious blowhole for breathing, typically four or five times per minute, when on the water's surface. Unlike humans, dolphins must think about inhalations and exhalations. Dolphins never fall completely asleep, and part of their brain remains alert at all times for regulation (and to keep one eye open for predators).
So what happens if we get our metaphorical dolphin on and consciously look at our breathing? A lot.
Healthwise, research shows that slow, focused breaths can lower stress and anxiety, improve coping skills, help people deal with substance abuse, improve our general sense of well-being, and boost our self-esteem. Spiritually, conscious breathing can help slow the mind and get us in touch with a more expansive consciousness. In fact, there's a long lineage of this spiritual practice—mainly out of the Buddhist, Taoist, and Vedic traditions—to connect us to our vital life force, also known as Qi (pronounced chee), or prana.
The following exercise is based on a Zen counting meditation. It's pleasantly—and positively—addictive.
- Silence your phone, computer, or anything around you that might ring, ding, or vibrate.
- Sit so that your back is straight, allowing for natural movement of the breath within your body. No, you don't need to invest in a fancy meditation cushion. A chair works just fine.
- Make your eyes comfortable. This practice can be done with your eyes closed, or with your gaze softly resting on a spot on the floor, a live plant, or a shimmering candle. It's important to keep your eyes resting rather than staring sharply, looking around, or otherwise bringing distractions to your mind.
- Pay attention to your breath. Notice your belly rising and falling, the movements in your chest, and the passing of thoughts as they come and go, like clouds across the sky.
- Count each breath silently in your mind. At the end of the inhale, count one. At the end of the exhale, count two. Continue until you get to five. If you hit six, notice that your mind has wandered, then gently pull it back to one. If you find yourself wondering what is for dinner, gently pull yourself back to one. If you feel irritated at the noise coming from the room next to you, start again at one. Avoid judging the wandering. It's totally normal. Our minds are made to think, and they will think—around 50,000 thoughts a day! Just direct yourself to counting one, two, three, four, five.
- Feel your awareness sharpen. After you've been counting for a while, you may hear sounds around you more distinctly, you may feel the temperature (or weather) more precisely. Stay with the breath.
- Return to your day slowly. When you are done, avoid jumping up quickly to check your texts or social feed. Move as if your body is on half speed, easing into activity slowly and deliberately.
- Repeat throughout the day. How often? Whenever you need a little peace. Breathing addictions are healthy addictions.
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