Mind & Body

Mindful Breathing Could Help Save Your Life

Mindfulness expert Dr. Danny Penman on his latest book 'The Art of Breathing' and the science behind calming down
TIMEJanuary 15, 2017


Breathing. We do it all the time, but how often do we stop to notice it?

What if we spent a few minutes every day focusing on our breathing in a conscious way? What difference would it make? If we learned to breathe correctly, emotions like stress, anxiety, pain, and anger could become more manageable and even melt away, according to Dr. Danny Penman, leading U.K. expert on mindfulness and author of “The Art of Breathing.”

Penman’s theory is that once you know how powerful mindful breathing can be, the technique will pop into your mind when you need it most. Penman credits this with saving his life—literally—following a terrible paragliding accident.

Realising that your mind has wandered is the meditation.
— Dr Danny Penman

In 2006, he was paragliding over the Cotswald hills in Southern England when he crashed, shattering his right leg. The impact was so strong, the lower half of his leg was driven up through the knee and into his thigh.

To avoid slipping into unconsciousness, Penman forced himself to focus hard on his breathing and remaining calm. By the time paramedics arrived 30 minutes later, he felt in control of the incredible pain and somehow separate from it. He also credits mindfulness for his speedy recovery–his leg healed in six months, rather than the predicted 18.

The Art of Breathing by Dr Danny Penman. (Courtesy of Dr Danny Penman)
The Art of Breathing by Dr Danny Penman. (Courtesy of Dr Danny Penman)

In “The Art of Breathing,” Penman has distilled his key messages of mindfulness into the simplest form, make it accessible for a broad range of readers, from beginners to mindfulness aficionados.

By focusing on the breath, the effect can be profound and fast, says Penman. In a matter of a few mindful breaths, he guarantees that anyone can become significantly calmer and more in control of their emotional state.

Sounds too easy? “The hardest bit is remembering it,” said Penman, “and that’s why it’s important to practice.”

The Lost Art

So, why have people lost the art of conscious breathing?

Going back 100 years, most people around the world worked with their hands–in fields or to make crafts—and were in contact with the physicality of the world. People felt more often the connection between their bodies and the earth.

Later, as work became more dependent on technology—in factories and in offices—people became more separate from their bodies and from their breathing.

Yet, humans think with their bodies as much as their brains, says Penman.

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In this fast-paced world, we end up living in our minds and chasing our tails as a consequence. Not paying attention to the breath is one outcome of that, he says, which can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression.

Spending most of our lives sitting down leads to poor breathing, and it’s as bad for the health as smoking, according to Penman.

When we stand up and focus on the breath, instantly the muscles in the neck, shoulders, and chest can relax and return to their optimal position. We then start to breathe more naturally, says Penman.

The Science Bit

How does mindful breathing work?

First, it’s helpful to look consider the mechanisms of the brain and how it constantly adapts to its environment.

“If you’re in a stressful environment, the brain will paradoxically rewire itself to make you feel stress more effectively: ‘This is what you want, so I’ll help you do it!'” Penman explains. The same happens with physical pain.

Mindfulness reverses that process, and this is why it is so important, says Penman. With repeated practice, 10 to 20 minutes a day, five times a week, the brain reverses itself to become calmer, more in control, more clear-sighted, and less anxious and stressed. Repeated this over days and months, we’ll eventually spend most of our time in control and feeling happier.

A wealth of scientific research increasingly backs up the benefits of living mindfully. In some studies, mindfulness has proven to be as effective as drugs or counseling for treating severe depression. The Medical Research Council and National Institute for Clinical Excellence in the U.K. now recommend mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, for treating clinical depression.

Breath of Fresh Air

Penman’s previous international bestseller, “Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Hectic World,” was aimed at people suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression.

“The Art of Breathing” is for a different group of people—those who would never normally consider practicing meditation. Simple exercises combined with succinct observations about the mind–body connection are portrayed with creative use of space and beautiful graphics, inviting the reader to approach life with compassion, acceptance, and a sense of curiosity and fun.

Working less with your hands and more with your mind gets you out of touch with your breathing. (pixabay)
Working less with your hands and more with your mind gets you out of touch with your breathing. (pixabay)

10-Minute Breathing Meditation

  • Sit upright and about one to two inches from the back of a straight-backed chair.
  • Place hands loosely in your lap.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Pay attention to the sounds around you, without trying to change anything.
  • Pay attention to the feelings in your body. Feel the chair supporting your weight, the floor under your feet, your clothes. Tune into the sensations.
  • Move your attention to the breath, then to wherever the sensations of breathing are the strongest. Bring a sense of curiosity to whatever you find, not trying to change anything, just following its natural rhythm.
  • Notice your chest muscles and shoulders stretch and relax on the in-breath and the out-breath. Be aware of tightness or achiness and how these change with the rhythm of the breath.
  • Become aware of the qualities of your breath: fast or slow, cool or warm, smooth or shallow, etc. Notice the moment you breathe in and the brief pause before you breathe out again.
  • Follow the breath all the way in and out.
  • When you notice your mind has wandered, pay attention to the thoughts or feelings, acknowledging them without criticizing or engaging with them, then allow them to go. Be understanding to your thoughts. Realizing that your mind has wandered is the meditation.
  • Bring your attention back to the breath.
  • When you feel ready, bring this meditation to a close, becoming aware of sounds and the space around you.
  • Gently open your eyes.
  • Move and stretch.
  • Pay attention to how you feel.

This is an abridged version of a meditation available on Dr. Penman’s website