True concentration is an unbroken thread of awareness.
– B.K.S. Iyengar, author of “Light on Life”
Whether you’re struggling with Mom Brain, pregnant brain, or wanting to boost your productivity at work, you probably could use a little burst of focus, right?
Mindful, deep breathing is a simple yet effective tool that can help reduce brain fog, cultivate clear thinking, and improve memory.
Things like hormonal changes, excessive screen time, information overload, multi-tasking, poor sleep habits, chronic gut issues, nutritional deficiencies, anxiety, and depression can all affect your ability to focus and think clearly.
Breathwork, done correctly, might help you counteract some of these factors.
How does breathing impact focus?
Believe it or not, the way you breathe directly influences your brain’s chemistry and your thinking.
According to a recent study published by Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, there’s a physical link between breathing patterns and the brain’s focus network. (1)
How does this work?
It appears that breathing rhythms affect noradrenaline (aka norepinephrine) levels in the body.
Noradrenaline is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter known to play a key role in attention and thinking.
It helps us boost focus, sustain concentration, and maintain alertness and motivation.
This brain chemical is released when we’re engaged in the present, curious, or emotionally aroused.
Low levels of it have been associated with ADHD, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even fibromyalgia. (2) (3)
Symptoms of noradrenaline imbalance can include: (3)
- Loss of alertness
- Memory problems
- Lack of arousal and interest
At optimal levels, noradrenaline acts like brain fertilizer because it helps the brain grow new connections thereby improving brain health: (4)
“Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain.
When we’re stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus.
When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus.
There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking, and memory are much clearer,” says Michael Melnychuk, Ph.D. candidate and the study’s lead author.
He then goes onto say that:
“Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind…
This study has shown that… our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration.
It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized.”
How does breathing impact memory?
One way breathing impacts memory is via the relaxation response.
Slow, deep, and conscious belly breathing helps to lower your heart rate and blood pressure while sending safety signals to the calming branch of your nervous system.
This relaxed state has been linked to increased working memory, which enables you to form new memories, and then process and store these memories. (5)
A study comprised of forty 7th grade students determined that just 12 relaxation training sessions were enough to significantly increase working memory while improving academic performance. (5)
It also turns out that breathing through your nose can help you retain and remember information better.
Alternatively, breathing through your mouth seems to have the opposite effect.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet of Sweden found that participants who breathed through the nose rather than the mouth were able to learn a set of smells and remember them better. (6)
This shows that nose breathing may be key to consolidating memories more effectively.
Breathing rhythms create electrical activity in the brain and inhaling, in particular, seems to reinforce memory retention.
Another study published in The Journal of Neuroscience reported that subjects were more likely to remember objects flashing on a screen if they encountered them while inhaling rather than on the exhale. (7)
How chronic stress & shallow breathing shrinks your brain:
Stress literally kills brain cells.
One single stressful situation has the power to kill neurons in the brain’s hippocampus region (an area that impacts memory and emotion.) (8)
Chronic stress shrinks the brain, which makes it difficult to sustain focus.
Specifically, stress shrinks the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with attentional control, decision making, complex thinking, working memory, moderating social behavior. (9)
What’s worse, a chronically stressed-out brain becomes wired and predisposed to being in constant stress/ fear mode and so creates a very vicious cycle.
Stress not only shrinks the part of your brain associated with higher thinking but has also been shown to increase the size of the amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for experiencing emotions (fear in particular) and processing emotional memories. (10)
Your amygdala is like the brain’s alarm system, sending distress signals whenever threats are perceived.
This in turn also impacts your breathing which becomes erratic, short, and shallow.
How Yoga Breathing (Pranayama) & Mind Training Can Help Increased Focus:
Conscious breath control is a useful tool for achieving a relaxed, clear state of mind.
– Dr. Andrew Weil, Harvard-trained physician & author
Luckily, we can counter stress’s harmful effects on the brain by adopting certain breathing practices and meditation techniques known to strengthen the mind.
Dharana is a form of yogic mental training and is known as one of the eight major limbs or pillars of yoga.
An unbroken thread of awareness
It’s the practice of lengthening attention span and one-pointed focus by using a focal point such as the breath or a mantra.
By cultivating daily breath awareness, your breath becomes your Dharana practice.
Pranayama is the practice of controlled, conscious breathing.
Pranayama exercises help keep your vital energy (prana) balanced and fully flowing throughout your body’s different channels and centers.
A daily breathwork practice, even if it’s only five minutes a day, can help you think more clearly.
Physically, pranayama exercises like Ocean Breathing can help calm an overloaded nervous system by activating the body’s own innate relaxation response.
3 Effective Breathing Exercises to start using right now:
1. Sama Vritti (Box Breathing):
This is a simple breathing technique using an equal breathing pattern.
It’s a super simple (and very effective) breathing exercise for an immediate focus boost.
Don’t let its simplicity fool you into thinking that because it’s so easy it’s not really that effective.
In fact, it’s so effective it’s even used by Navy SEALS to manage high-stress situations in order to perform optimally and maintain a clear head and concentration.
Full step-by-step guide here.
2. Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing):
This is apparently the same breathing exercise that Hilary Clinton used to help her navigate the stresses of the campaign trail and elections. (11)
The finger placement and timing takes some getting used to at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll likely feel the shift and be hooked!
This exercise helps to balance both sides of the brain by alternating breaths between the right nostril and the left nostril.
Full step-by-step guide here.
3. Anapana Breathing Meditation:
This ancient Buddhist mindfulness meditation helps to cultivate present moment awareness by observing our own breath.
This is apparently how Buddha instructed his monks to train mentally.
When we can become present with our breath and sustain it for ever-increasing lengths we also cultivate dharana.
Full step-by-step guide here.
Remember mama, you only need to dedicate five minutes a day to your breath and that’s enough for right now.
You can always turn to your brain for a little mental reset.