You may barely think about it, but it’s ever-present. Arguably, it’s one of the most important biological processes: It’s your breath.
These breaths are unconscious for many, but it’s possible to harness your breath to become more aware of your body, your state of mind, and the present moment.
Read on to learn more about the benefits and origins of conscious breathing, plus discover a few techniques for trying it yourself.
Conscious breathing generally describes the act of developing a soft awareness of your breath as it moves in and out of your body. This practice can help you achieve a state of calm and presence so you can engage more deeply with life.
In yoga philosophy, the breath serves as both the vehicle and the measuring stick for the practice of awareness. It can guide you to a deeper connection with your body, mind, and the world around you.
Traditional yogic wisdom holds that it’s physiologically impossible to be in a state of distress when the breath is smooth, calm, and regulated.
The benefits of conscious breathing may sound pretty good, but what does science have to say?
Your breath directly affects your nervous system. Slow, deliberate breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the rest and digest function, as opposed to the fight-flight-freeze response.
As the breath moves, so does the mind, and mind ceases to move as the breath is stopped.
— Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Research suggests that conscious breathing, often referred to as yogic breathing or pranayama, offers a number of benefits. These include improvements in:
- blood pressure
- respiratory function
- metabolism and digestion
- concentration and focus
- nervous system regulation
- biochemistry, including the reduction of free radicals and blood urea (waste)
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A 2019 review noted that yogic breathing exercises had a positive effect on:
- brain activity
- nervous system and lung function
- body chemistry
The same review found evidence to suggest yogic breathing may offer a number of benefits for preexisting health conditions, including:
- improved cardiovascular health in people with high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat
- reduced symptoms and improved lung function in people with bronchial asthma
- improvements in body weight and reduced symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis
- enhanced mood for people quitting cigarette smoking
- reduced reaction time for children with intellectual disabilities
- better management of stress and anxiety for students
- reduced pain and improved quality of life for people with diabetes
- reduced cancer-related symptoms and increased antioxidants in people receiving radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments
A small 2019 study looked at people participating in a 5-week yoga and mindfulness intervention program. Participants experienced more improvements in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and sleep problems than those in the control group.
The study also found that pausing to take deep, calm breaths while experiencing stress seemed to have an immediate calming effect on the mind and body. These calming breaths may lead to a more mindful outlook about the stressor itself and how you might handle it.
The authors of these studies emphasize the need for more high quality studies to determine best practices and uses of yogic breathing. Still, the results are promising.
The most basic type of conscious breathing is the simple act of becoming aware of your breath and returning to that awareness over and over.
While you don’t need to undergo specialized training or learn an esoteric technique to begin practicing conscious breathing, you can eventually learn to practice a number of different types.
Many of these more complex and targeted conscious breathing practices find their origins in yoga or were inspired by it. Thus, many of their names come from Sanskrit, a classical South Asian language.
- Bhastrika, or Bellows Breath
- Anulom Vilom
- Kapalabhati, or Breath of Fire
- Sukha Purvaka
- diaphragmatic breathing
- box breathing
- Wim Hof breathing
- Buteyko breathing
- holotropic breathwork
Conscious breathing for kids
Children can benefit from conscious breathing, too. Some breathing techniques are designed to be used with children.
- STAR breathing can teach children how to self-regulate and deal with stress and difficult emotions. Occupational therapists often use this technique with young children or children with disabilities.
- Balloon breathing involves imagining a balloon in the belly and filling it up with air on the inhale, then letting it “deflate” on the exhale. Some children may also find it helpful to practice by blowing up a real balloon.
- Pretzel breathing involves inhaling and crossing the arms over the chest, then exhaling and extending the arms away from the chest.
The simplest, most effective way to begin conscious breathing is to simply become aware of your breath.
Pay attention to your breath as it moves in and out of your body. From there, you may want to practice elongating your breath, or holding it briefly at the top of the inhale and exhale. You can practice for 1 minute to start, then build up to 5 minutes, or even longer.
You can also seek out a qualified teacher to learn more about the practice of conscious breathing.
Try starting with:
- your local yoga studio
- a physical therapist
- specialized trainings, like those offered by Wim Hof
- YouTube videos from reputable practitioners
Plenty of resources can also offer more information about the theory of conscious breathing and guidance on practicing it yourself.
Conscious breathing resources
The Conscious Breathing Podcast is a good place to start if you want to learn more about conscious breathing and how it relates to health.
The Breatheology Method was developed by free diving world champion Stig Severinsen. It involves several types of conscious breathing, including pranayama and holotropic breathwork.
Anders Olsson founded ConsciousBreathing.com and the 28-Day Conscious Breathing Retraining Program. This technique was developed based on Olsson’s experience with yoga, qigong, and the Buteyko method.
Alchemy of Breath offers free virtual breathwork sessions hosted by Anthony Abbagnano. They also offer 400-hour facilitator certification trainings and live BreathCamp retreats.
While conscious breathing is generally considered safe for most, it may not work for everyone.
If you live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for example, it’s possible that attempts to regulate or control your breathing could become another type of compulsion or ritual. This doesn’t mean you can’t practice conscious breathing, but it may help to give it a try with support from your therapist.
Simple awareness of your natural breath is typically safe. But if you have a heart condition, you may want to avoid vigorous breathing exercises like Bhastrika, Breath of Fire, or Wim Hof breathing without first discussing the practices with your doctor or care team.
These vigorous breathing exercises may also result in dizziness, faintness, or shortness of breath if you have low blood pressure or general sensitivities.
In the 2019 review mentioned above, researchers found three cases of adverse effects due to yogic breathing:
- One person experienced spontaneous pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung, after practicing the yoga breathing technique known as Kapalabhati.
- Two people who practiced unspecified pranayama had adverse experiences. One experienced abdominal pain due to bleeding of the rectus sheath. The other experienced mediastinal emphysema, or the presence of air in the center of the chest.
Still, these occurrences are not only very rare, they’re very unlikely to happen when you have guidance from a qualified teacher.
Always check with a healthcare professional before you begin a new breathing practice. It’s best to start with short sessions to check how your body responds. You can slowly work your way up to longer practices if you don’t experience any unwanted side effects.
Want to learn more? Get the FAQs below.
How do you stop conscious breathing?
When you complete your practice, you can simply go about your day. You may want to sit quietly and sense how you feel, compared to the beginning of your practice.
If you have trouble stopping your conscious breathing practice, there may be something else going on.
Difficulty letting go of the need to pay attention to your breath could be a sign of anxiety or OCD, especially if it causes distress. If this happens, it’s worth talking with a mental health professional before continuing your conscious breathing practice.
What happens if you do conscious breathing all the time?
By practicing conscious breathing throughout your day, you’ll generally find you develop a greater awareness of the present moment.
You could potentially notice enhanced sensory perception, such as more vivid perception of color and smell, and a greater sense of mental clarity.
However, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to practice conscious breathing all the time. This is totally natural — you can simply pick the practice back up when you feel ready.
Can conscious breathing help with anxiety?
Yes, conscious breathing can help with anxiety. Focusing your awareness on the smooth, repetitive rhythm of your breath can help soothe your mind and nervous system.
Does conscious breathing make you high?
While conscious breathing may help you feel more alert, present, relaxed, and engaged in life, it won’t make you “high.”
However, rapid breathing, known as hyperventilation, can lead to lightheadedness, tingling in the fingers, and even loss of consciousness in extreme cases. This happens due to a rapid reduction in carbon dioxide in the body.
Certain forms of advanced breathing practices may involve controlled hyperventilation. Never practice these techniques without qualified instruction and approval from a medical professional.
Conscious breathing is a simple yet profound practice for getting in touch with your breath, body, and mind. It could help ease symptoms of anxiety, stress, and a number of mental and physical health concerns.
But beyond those benefits, the regular practice of conscious breathing can help you experience a deeper sense of presence and connection to life.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.