Mindfulness, Yoga and Breathing—The Power of Counting Your Breath

A new study shows that practicing mindfulness, and gaining the stress reducing benefits associated with the practice, can be as simple as breathing in and breathing out. In this, mindfulness techniques echo ancient yogic breathing practices from simple to more advanced types of pranayama.

According to a recent study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and published collectively this month in Frontiers in Psychology, a simple way to develop and practice mindfulness is to simply count your breath.

The practice of mindfulness has recently gained popularity in the U.S. Mindfulness involves a focus on the here and now through awareness of the present moment. It is parallel to yogic practices in that it offers an approach to develop the ability to stay present with what is and learning to accept and embrace, rather than react to or run away from difficult situations or emotions.

Studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce stress, improve student academic performance, and more. But researchers have lacked a scientifically rigorous way to measure it, sometimes hindering its credibility. In this, the field of mindfulness research has a similar problem as yoga research: If it’s being practiced in many different ways, it has to be measured in a scientifically conclusive way.

A new study at the University of Wisconsin seeks to address this issue by standardizing the way mindfulness is being measured and develop a behavioral measure of mindfulness.

The researchers focused on breath counting, a practice that dates back 1,500 years as a tool to train mindfulness, according to Daniel Levinson, lead author of the study and a graduate student at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior.

The researchers hope their findings will help continue to push mindfulness into the mainstream. It has long been seen as the domain of monks and mystics, but Levinson would like to see it become as common as yoga and running are today. He wants to see more physicians and others using it as a tool to promote well-being and to engage in common conversation around mindfulness. He is hopeful this measure can help.

"It's easy to answer self-report questionnaires in ways that are consistent with what a person thinks mindfulness to represent, the expectations about how a person highly mindful will behave," says co-author Richard Davidson, a UW-Madison professor of psychology and psychiatry, and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW's Waisman Center. “But when it comes to keeping track of breaths, people can't 'fake good.'"

Key to Mindfulness: Developing Awareness of the Breath

To examine the practice as a tool for measuring mindfulness, participants in the study were asked to keep track of nine breaths in sequence by striking one computer key at each breath and a different key on the ninth breath in each sequence. To do so accurately, a person must be aware of each breath as it happens.

"Counting isn't the main focus; it's the experiential awareness of breath," Levinson says. Breath counting is not mindfulness; rather, it's a tool for measuring it, much like a thermometer is a tool for assessing the season.

Of the more than 400 people studied, all completed breath-counting tasks. Some were asked to provide their mood prior to doing so. Other participants were trained for four weeks in breath counting and then compared to people trained in a memory task or not trained at all.

Yet others - including novice and long-term meditators - were trained in a distraction task where they were paid to correctly identify a colored object on a screen of objects, followed by testing where they were asked to identify a different colored object. During the testing, the subjects were no longer paid for their efforts, but they were "distracted" with the presence of the original colored object.

The findings showed that mindfulness as measured through breath counting is associated with more self-awareness, less mind wandering, better mood and less distraction caused by the "want" of financial gain.

And while it may seem easy, Levinson says that when people are off-count, they're unaware of it roughly two-thirds of the time. "The cool thing is we always are breathing, so we can do this anytime, anywhere," Davidson says.

Levinson sums it up a bit more succinctly: "Everyone has a breath."