Practice of the Month: 100-Breath Mindfulness Practice to Reduce Stress

By Carly Smith, BS, MPH(c)

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This month, Stanford Lifestyle Medicine Assistant Director Douglas Noordsy, MD, recommends a breathwork practice called the 100-Breath Mindfulness Practice. Breathwork refers to the practice of controlling the pace of one’s breathing with the intention of steadying one’s mental, emotional, and physical condition. Mindfulness entails anchoring the mind in the present moment. Therefore, a mindful breathwork practice brings the mind into the present moment by focusing on the breath. 

Dr. Noordsy recognizes that mindfulness meditation might be intimidating for some, so he offers this breathing practice as a quick-and-easy mindfulness exercise that one can do anytime, anywhere. 

“The 100-breath practice is an excellent, portable technique for letting go of overthinking and reducing stress,” says Dr. Noordsy, head of Lifestyle Medicine Cognitive Enhancement and Professor of Psychiatry at the Stanford School of Medicine. 


100-Breath Mindfulness Practice

1. Get in a comfortable position and start taking long, slow, deep breaths.

  • You can do this sitting cross-legged on the floor or on a meditation cushion, sitting at your desk at the office, or even while taking a walk. If it helps you focus and it’s safe to do so, you can close your eyes during the practice.

2. Breathe in through your nose and out either your nose or mouth, whichever is more comfortable. 

3. Focus all of your attention on your breath and count them from 1 to 100.

  • Inhale, “one.” Exhale, “two.” Inhale, “three.” Exhale, “four”…
  • The counting anchors your attention on your breath and in the present moment. It also curbs distraction and enhances your ability to focus. And since you are counting to 100, you can do the practice anywhere without watching the clock.

4. When you notice a thought enter your mind, bring your focus back to the practice, and count the next breath where you left off. 

  • It’s important not to judge yourself when your mind is racing. Having a busy mind is completely natural. Be gentle with yourself when thoughts arise, simply let the thoughts come and go, and return your focus back to the breath.

5. Continue this process until you reach 100 breaths.

  • The average person takes 100 breaths in about 5 minutes. 
  • If 100 breaths is too much to start with, try 25 or 50 breaths first and gradually work your way up. Remember, this is a practice, so it’s okay to start small.

6. Celebrate your body and mind for taking a moment to slow down and practice. 

How Does Breathwork Affect the Body?

The 100-Breath Mindfulness Practice, like other breathwork exercises, works to calm both the body and mind by bringing the nervous system back into a state of peace. When the body is under stress, either physical or emotional, the sympathetic nervous system takes control, which increases heart rate, hastens respiration, and floods the body with adrenaline to either fight or flee from the source of stress. This is the body’s natural response to danger, which would be helpful if being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger but not so beneficial when feeling stressed about cooking a big holiday dinner or while parsing through work emails. 

Instead, breathing exercises like the 100-Breath Mindfulness Practice, box breathing, or cyclic sighing can help shift our nervous system from the sympathetic (stressful) to the parasympathetic (peaceful) nervous system. Different organs, like the heart, lungs, and brain, constantly send each other “biofeedback” or signals that keep them operating in harmony. By slowing down breathing and directing one’s attention inwards, the diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve, which then tells the rest of the body to relax. The breathing exercise helps to slow our heart rate down to match our relaxed breathing, leading to cardiac coherence and a tranquil state for the body and mind.