How to Improve Focus with this Simple Breathing Technique

by | Jun 9, 2023 | Yoga to Empower | 0 comments

Have you read the children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff? It’s basically a circular story about what will happen if you share a cookie with a hungry mouse (he’ll need some milk, then he’ll need a mirror to check for a milk mustache, and eventually he’ll want to take a nap). I had a similar experience the other day.

I was making a grocery list and checked to see if I needed lemons. When I opened the crisper drawer, I noticed that the bin was full of crumbs. So, I emptied the apples, limes, and one lonely lemon (I guess I did need lemons!), and began cleaning the drawer.

As I was washing the drawer, I started thinking about my yoga class for tonight. We haven’t done bird-of-paradise in a while, I thought. Maybe building toward that balancing pose would be interesting? I began to reverse engineer the class in my head, thinking about which prep poses I’d need to include and what props might be helpful.

After I finished washing the bin, I sat down to plan my class . Suddenly, I remembered that my plants needed to be watered. I got up to water them and saw my grocery list on the counter.

My thoughts were jumping around like crickets. I was frustrated with myself that I was having trouble focusing on one thing at a time, so I decided to do a few minutes of breath retention.

If you can relate to this scenario, keep reading. I’ve got a quick fix for you!

Pay attention to your breathing

If you’ve read any of my blogs, you know that I like to share simple strategies that can help us to be present. Whether it’s unitasking, slowing down, or practicing mindfulness, there are a variety of ways to work on staying present in the moment. Noticing your breathing sounds like a great solution… you are breathing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether you pay attention or not. I don’t know about you, but after two or three rounds of noticing my breathing, my mind is looking for something a bit more exciting to focus on. 

That’s where breath retention can help! By inserting a small pause at the top of the inhale and/or the bottom of the exhale, paying attention to the breathing becomes a bit more stimulating.

Kumbhaka Pranayama

Breath retention, or Kumbhaka (kuhm-BAH-kah) Pranayama in Sanskrit, means inhaling, deliberately holding the air in the body, then exhaling, and holding the space for a specific amount of time. Breath retention can improve lung capacity, oxygenate the blood, and enhance focus. This study showed that, when practiced consistently, breath retention can help control your attention and your response to distractions (feeling like you’re jumping from thought to thought or task to task). I’ve had students tell me that they could concentrate more easily after practicing this pranayama technique.

Although it would be beneficial to practice Kumbhaka Pranayama for 15 minutes each morning, this breathing technique can be used “on the fly,” as well. Knowing how to do this breathing practice can help you get focused in just a few minutes.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Here’s how to practice Kumbhaka Pranayama:

  1. Find a comfortable seat and soften or close your eyes.
  2. Without trying to change anything, take a breath in and exhale it out.
  3. On the next round of breath, inhale and then take a moment to pause. Exhale and pause again.
  4. Repeat for 10 rounds.

A few things to consider:

  • Some people like to set a timer so they don’t have to count the breaths. Whatever works best for you is great!
  • How long you pause at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale is up to you. However, the retention should feel effortless. If you are straining or gasping for air, the pause is too long.
  • Once you’ve been practicing kumbhaka pranayama for a while, you might want to explore box or square breathing (Sama Vritti in Sanskrit). This simply means you inhale for a count of 4, pause for 4 counts, exhale for a count of 4, and then pause for 4 counts. Each part of the breathing technique is the same length. If 4 counts is too short for you, find a length that feels helpful.

Skip breath retention if…

This style of breathing is not appropriate for people who are pregnant. It is also contraindicated for those with heart, eye, or lung conditions, as well as people with high blood pressure.

If you feel lightheaded or dizzy, stop the retention and return to a normal breathing pattern.

Want to learn more?

If being present, focused, and empowered sounds good to you, join me for a yoga class. I teach two weekly live virtual classes, as well as private 1:1 sessions in your home or my studio. Email me to set up a private session. 

The next time you notice your thoughts jumping around or you feel scattered, take a moment to observe your breath, then insert a pause. 


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