Tag Archives: breath

Mindful breathing (aka conscious breathing)


My new year blog resolution is to do a new yoga blog each week. In each, I’ll introduce a different asana (pose), pranayama (breathwork), meditation or relaxation.

Because my background is in mental and emotional health and wellbeing (you can find out more here), I’ll be focusing on these benefits.

And I’m going to start with the most important (to me) element of yoga: The breath. I started going to yoga classes about 15 years ago but it was only when I started training as a yoga therapist and instructor that I finally understood the importance of conscious breathing and co-ordinating our movements with the breath.

Sun Salutations and other asanas were transformed for me when I learned to use the breath (as oppose to the pretending I’d been doing all those years).

Yet tuning into your own movement and breath can be especially hard to do in classes – the instructor’s instructions will be unlikely to match your natural speed and everyone in the class – even in my tiniest classes – will have different breath rates so practicing on your own can be especially helpful.

For anyone who’s new to yoga, being told when to inhale and exhale as well as where to put various limbs and what to look at may feel completely overwhelming and it’s completely natural to overlook the breath.

And yet mindful (sometimes called conscious) breathing has so many benefits. Today, I’m going to encourage you to notice your breath just as you sit (or if it’s more comfortable, stand or lie down).

In the weeks ahead, I’ll encourage you to continue to be aware of the breath and it will become easier. Having said that, we’re human beings. Our minds are going to wander. And this is one of the beauties of being mindful of our breath. It’s always there to come back to. We don’t need any props.

Sometimes, we’ll stay focused on it throughout our practice. Other days, we’ll have to concentrate really hard on co-ordinating our movements with the breath.

While the latter can feel frustrating, in terms of brain activity, it’s actually a good thing as we’re cultivating the mind, strengthening the prefrontal cortex and this will help with emotional regulation, decision making and concentration.

When it’s harder, we have to be that much more mindful! And it’s a great gauge for how you might be feeling on any given day. Just as with the poses, we’re more flexible / stronger / have more stamina on different days, our capacity to concentrate varies when we’re stressed or have a lot on our minds.

And, of course, spending just a few minutes coming into the present moment and using the breath as an anchor to aid mindfulness will help us better deal with all those things awaiting our attention when we step off our yoga mats and into our day ahead.

For today, once you’ve made yourself comfortable, aim to have the spine as straight as feels comfortable. Some people like to imagine a cord pulling them up through the crown of their heads. If this is an image that supports you in sitting straight and comfortably, feel free to use it.

Start by noticing where you’re breathing from at the moment. The top of the lungs? Middle of the lungs? Lower lungs?

If you’re able to breathe more deeply, as if from the lower lungs (sometimes known as diaphragmatic breathing), it will help you calm your whole system by pausing the stress response. You’ll also be better able to absorb more oxygen.

How does that feel? Some people find it easy, when breathing consciously, to shift this. Others struggle. Just notice whatever is the case for you in this moment. This isn’t about judging ourselves, just being curious and kind. Beating ourselves up won’t help us relax.

Now notice the ratio of your inhalation to exhalation. Are they balanced? Is the inhale longer? Or the exhale?

A longer inhalation can be great for energising our whole systems but, in this 24/7 world we live in, with our stress responses being triggered so often, we rarely need to do so. Instead, we can consciously calm our systems by having a deliberately longer exhalation. If you like to count, maybe in for 1 and out for 2. Or in for 2 and out for 4. Work with figures that support your natural breath.

A balanced breath balances the system and the brain but, again, it is more balancing longer term, to calm the system during our meditative / yoga practice.

How does it feel to consciously elongate your exhalation for a few moments? (You can do it for longer if you want). And it might be that even at home, alone, suddenly questioning the way you breathe might be making you stressed and anxious about something you’ve done naturally your whole life.

Breathing mindfully like this for three minutes or longer, can help activate the Relaxation Response, the body’s natural antidote to the more frequently triggered Fight/Flight Response (both identified in the same Harvard lab, decades apart, the Relaxation Response by Dr Herbert Benson and Flight / Flight by Walter Cannon).

We’re alive and this is wonderful. It’s also a great reminder, for those times when our inner critics tell us we’re doing whatever (in this case breathing) ‘wrong’, that we’re still alive so it’s all good.

It’s just worth remembering that when we choose to breathe more consciously, we’re calming and potentially even retraining the autonomic nervous system (ANS), supporting our heart health, immune function, easing stress and anxiety and allowing the body’s natural healing capacities to kick in.

I encourage you to build up. You may want to time a minute and count your complete breaths (an inhalation and exhalation equalling one complete breath) so you can fit a minute of conscious breathing / mindful breathing in throughout your day whenever it feels good (without having to set timers or complicate things).

And, of course, building up will bring you additional benefits.

What did you notice about your breath today?

Were you breathing more from the lower lungs, middle of the lungs or top of the lungs?

How did it feel when you chose (if you chose – you may have been perfectly comfortable breathing from the top of your lungs and chose to continue!) to breathe more deeply?

Did it help relax you?

How about your inhalation and exhalation?

Were they equal?

Was the inhale longer?

Or the exhale?

If you chose to consciously calm your system through your breath, did the longer exhalation help you today?

Did counting help or did you prefer a more intuitive approach?

Feel free to comment below.

And you can find out more about my classes here and my work with individuals here.


Eve x



‘Mindfulness meditation significantly reduces pain’ – more research on the benefits

Image courtesy of Alan Cunningham 2015
Image courtesy of Alan Cunningham 2015

Thanks to robust research over the years (click here to read a feature I wrote for Healthy last year on the benefits of mindfulness), mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword.

Recent research by Zeidan et al (November 2015), published in the Journal of Neuroscience and American Mindfulness Research Monthly show how ‘mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief activated higher-order brain regions’ meaning it has unique mechanisms for not just accepting pain but reducing it.

Zeidan et al write: ‘Recent findings have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation significantly reduces pain. Given that the “gold standard” for evaluating the efficacy of behavioral interventions is based on appropriate placebo comparisons, it is imperative that we establish whether there is an effect supporting meditation-related pain relief above and beyond the effects of placebo. Here, we provide novel evidence demonstrating that mindfulness meditation produces greater pain relief and employs distinct neural mechanisms than placebo cream and sham mindfulness meditation. Specifically, mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief activated higher-order brain regions, including the orbitofrontal and cingulate cortices. In contrast, placebo analgesia was associated with decreased pain-related brain activation. These findings demonstrate that mindfulness meditation reduces pain through unique mechanisms and may foster greater acceptance of meditation as an adjunct pain therapy.’

You can read more about the study here.

Would you like to reap some of these benefits yourself?

  • Make yourself as comfortable as possible – if you are able to sit with both feet planted comfortably on the floor and your back as straight as feels good, great. If this isn’t comfortable for you, experiment with standing, lying down or sitting in a different way. Be kind to yourself
  • Bring your awareness to your breath – You may already be familiar with yogic pranayama techniques (breathwork) which can be used for different effects but even if you’ve never given your breath any conscious thought at all, you can start noticing each inhalation and exhalation. You may want to notice which part of the lungs you’re breathing from (top, middle, lower) and if your inhalation is longer or shorter than your exhalation or if they’re even. You may notice that it changes as you bring more and more of your awareness to your breath, relaxing into it.
  • Notice each breath with compassion and kindness – You’re not ‘Doing it wrong’. You’ve been breathing perfectly your whole life – you’re still alive. So do your best to notice each breath in a neutral and compassionate, non-judgmental way rather than stressing yourself out with imaginings about how you ‘should’ be breathing
  • Your mind will wander – you’re a human being. Simply noticing when this happens and choosing (if you want to) to bring your awareness and attention back to each breath, each inhalation and exhalation, will help you cultivate your mind. It’s a practice. Some days it’s easier than others. When we’re in pain, it’s naturally more challenging to stay focused on anything but the pain and yet, as above, the benefits make it worth experimenting with, if you want to

I often encourage students and clients to count their breaths for 30 seconds then double it to notice your ‘mindful minute’ number. You may want to time a minute of your naturally relaxed breathing (counting one inhalation and exhalation as a complete breath) so you know how many breaths is about a minute for you and so you can fit the odd minute of mindfulness meditation throughout the day.

You may want to build up to 20 minute blocks or a minute at a time (or 3 or 5 or whatever) may be enough for you right now.

You know yourself best. Anything (especially when you may be finding it challenging to remain embodied due to chronic pain) is better than nothing. Again, be kind to yourself.

Did you try this?

What helped you?

What did you struggle with?

How did you find it?

What might you do differently next time?

Feel free to comment below.


Eve x



Trouble sleeping?

Gwyneth Paltrow in Country Strong

Gwyneth Paltrow told this week’s ES Magazine that while she’s pretty chilled during the day, ‘When I get to bed, my heart starts beating [faster] and I stress out.’

Anyone struggling to sleep will know this feeling well. All the things you haven’t done and all you still hope to cram into an already busy life can feel overwhelming. Who has time to sleep? But our systems need downtime to rest and recharge.

I battled insomnia from primary school until my late 20s. I overslept for my Drama GCSE exam having been wide awake until 7am (friends had tried phoning, ringing the doorbell and even throwing rocks up at my window and in the end, some teachers drove over to get me up). At my worst, I’d go to bed at 1am and still be wide awake at 9am on a regular basis.

At 22, my heart was racing so fast I was convinced I was having nightly heart attacks (my GP prescribed beta blockers but I remained clueless about dealing with the anxiety that kept me awake for many more years).

Now, while my sleeping patterns are a gazillion (no exaggeration) times better, there are occassional nights when sleep is more of a challenge. As well as having a regular routine to help my whole system wind down, ready to relax enough to sleep, I’ve learned that the best way to deal with it is to immediately tell myself that being awake is OK.

Even as a small child, I’d beat myself up for being awake, telling myself horror stories about just how exhausted I’d be the following day. Funnily enough, this didn’t help me sleep. Instead, it would have activated my sympathetic branch (the ‘fight/flight’ branch) of my autonomic nervous system when, to sleep, I’d have needed the parasympathetic system’s ‘rest and digest’ qualities.

Now I tell myself that even if I only get an hour’s sleep, it will all be fine. As a result, I usually get a great night’s sleep. If talking kindly to myself about my (fortunately now occasional) insomnia doesn’t work, I become mindful of my breath, slowing it down and supporting parasympathetic activation by making my exhalation longer than my inhalation (if counting helps you, experiment with breathing in for 2 and out for 4).

Sometimes, a Body Scan helps. You can get all sorts of audio support to help you with this or simply lie still as you mentally name each part of your body, beginning with your left big toe and moving up.

Other times, I need to burn off those stress hormones so I might go for a walk (if that feels like a sensible enough thing to do), do some Sun Salutations (without beating myself up for not having done enough dynamic yoga when the sun was out to stave OFF said insomnia) or simply enjoy Chair pose and some sleep inducing Forward Bends.

Thinking about what aspect/s of my life are keeping me awake can also help. Sometimes, sleepless nights have served as impossible to ignore alarm bells and I’ve made dramatic changes to my life which, ultimately, have been a Very Good Thing.

Is it possible that your sleeplessness is trying to help you wake up to something that needs changing in your own life?

If you have trouble sleeping, I hope you’ll find ways to talk gently to yourself instead of further agitating yourself and making sleep even less likely. I hope some of these tips help you.

Sleep well.

Metta xx