Centering The Storm: Fifty-To-Zen Breath Countdown Meditation

Explore a simple breathing meditation technique that automatically calms down your breath and mind to eventually reach a nurturing state of zen.
Joseph R. Roberson is a yoga and meditation teacher.
zen breath
Joseph R. Roberson is a yoga and meditation teacher.

The biggest obstacle to meditation is thinking. How to stop the incessant flow of thoughts? Pay attention to your breath as it is occurring, that’s how!

This is a transcription of Joseph’s talk uploaded to Insight Timer. Listen to it here:

  1. Centering The Storm (50-To-Zen Breath Countdown) Joseph R. Roberson 6:44

In the yoga tradition, this exercise is not considered meditation, much as Kapalabhati is not considered a pranayama technique. Both are considered preliminary practices. Just as the physical practices of hatha yoga, the asanas, prepare one for breath work, or pranayama, the breathing practices prepare one for a concentration or a dharana. In turn, concentration practices prepare you for meditation, dhyana. The body, breath, mind sequence is explicitly laid out, and what you may have heard called the eight limbs of yoga. Those eight limbs are:

  • Yamas and niyamas, which are ethics and morals
  • Asana, physical exercises and postures
  • Pranayama or breathing practices
  • Pratyahara, which means sensory withdrawal or deep inquiry with sensory isolation
  • Dharana concentrative techniques
  • Dhyana meditation techniques
  • Samadhi, realization or insight or enlightenment

50-to-Zen is a dharana technique for strengthening focus and concentration. Only after zero does dharana transition to dhyana or meditation. And by the way, the word zen is simply Japanese for dharana.

Read more: Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Andrea Wachter explores how to deal with rising thoughts during meditation and stay present.

The Fifty-To-Zen Breath Meditation

“Stillness is like a perfectly centered top, spinning so fast it appears motionless. It appears this way not because it isn’t moving, but because it’s spinning at full speed. Stillness is not the absence or negation of energy, life, or movement. Stillness is dynamic. It is un-conflicted movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action. It can be experienced whenever there is total, uninhibited, unconflicted participation in the moment you are in — when you are wholeheartedly present with whatever you are doing.” – Erich Schiffman. Moving into Stillness: The Spirit & Practice of Yoga, page 3 

This technique comes from Erich Schiffman’s book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. Erich calls it simply Counting Backwards. The counting focuses your attention. Keeping up with the count forces you to pay attention, to not wander off. It gives your mind just enough of a challenge to keep it occupied. In meditation circles, this is known as “throwing the dog a bone.”

Benefits Of Breathing Counting Backwards

  • The countdown gently concentrates your total awareness on the present moment, providing a way to de-stress simply by shifting your attention away from thoughts, worries, anxieties, and concerns. 
  • Cultivates mindfulness 
  • Creates internal attunement and intrapersonal coherence 
  • Strengthens concentration, the ability to shift from multi-tasking to uni-tasking at will

The One-Half Breath

According to Daniel N. Stern, M.D., author of The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life, what we call ‘the present moment’ lasts a mere three to five seconds. Breathing slowly, at a rate of six times per minute, means each inhale and each exhale lasts approximately five seconds. Thus, one half-breath equals one moment of now.

I would argue that there is no present moment at all, no now, any time you breathe faster than eight or 10 breaths per minute. You’re alive, obviously. You may be productive and efficient. But you are not present in it. In short, your only access to optimum focus, productivity, vitality, power, intimacy, and presence lies within this half- breath, and this half-breath alone.

Creating Harmony With Breath Awareness

Dr. Dan Siegel, co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA and a leader in the field of contemplative neuroscience, explains how breath awareness works:

We pay attention, focusing awareness on a very specific mental process: our own intentional state. This focus of awareness, when created in a process of clarity, then creates a dual-matching system in which we have a neural map of intentions (a product in part of our mirror neurons and superior temporal cortex) and we have the sensory map of the carried out action in our focus. Whether that sensory map is moving, as in our awareness of breathing, or stationary, as with an image, we create a match between sensory map and intentional map. 

Further, we actually have a recursive map of ourselves maintaining a focus of attention, intentionally, on our intentions. Breathing in, breathing out, we have a match of ourselves as the focus of attention, and the map of ourselves with the intention to attend, and the anticipated next step in the sequence: During the out-breath, we are readied for the in-breath, and then it arrives, and the mapping matches. With the in-breath, the same anticipatory priming occurs, the match takes place, and with continued intentional attention, the sequence repeats. That matching set of maps creates integration and a deep feeling of wholeness, of harmony.

This may be why something as “simple” as breath awareness has been found in so many cultures as a basic approach toward well-being. – Siegel, Dan, 2013. Creating Harmony With Breath Awareness.

Prepare For Practice

Time, Set And Setting

Takes less than five minutes. Eliminate all environmental distractions so you will not be disturbed or distracted during the exercise.


Any posture will work as long as your spine is in anatomical neutral—so long as the spine is not bent, twisted, etc. I started to say so long as your spine is straight, but you might take the word literally. Unless specifically instructed otherwise, a straight spine means maintaining its four natural curves.

What To Watch For

You are not to control your breathing. It will slow down automatically. Simply focus on each half-breath as you count 50 to zero. This sequence sets the stage for the effortless meditation that follows. 

It’s expected that you’ll get distracted at some point. Many times, more likely. Don’t fret. Don’t beat yourself up about it; to do so would heap more turbulence on top of what’s already in your system! So, what should you do? Simply observe it, say something inwardly like, Oh, my mind has wandered off. How interesting! and, without further ado, patiently and gently bring your attention back to your right here, right now half-breath.

Practice Sequence

Quick Scan (Breath Inquiry)

Assess your overall state. Take note of current conditions: thoughts, feelings, energy level, body sensations. Notice how your breathing reflects the overall situation both inside and outside your body. Notice everything.

Gradually narrow your attention onto just your breathing. Before you start counting, take a few deep, slow breaths.

Take one more and begin on the next exhale…

Count Backward From 50 To 20

As you exhale, mentally and silently name it “fifty”.

As you inhale, mentally and silently name it “forty-nine”.

Exhale, “forty-eight”. Inhale “forty-seven”. Exhale “forty-six”.

Continue like this until you reach 20.

Count Only Your Exhales From 20 To 0

Exhale “twenty” .

Inhale: listen to the sound and feel it but do not count it. Exhale “nineteen”.

Inhale, but do not count it. Exhale “eighteen”.

Inhale but do not count it. Exhale “seventeen”Exhale “two”. Inhale. Exhale “one”. Inhale. Exhale “zero”.

Be Th Eye Of The Storm

It was profound for me. Not only during it, but afterwards. I just sat there for another 10 minutes.” – Yolanda 

Picture yourself inside the eye of the storm or a hurricane lantern: there is no wind to disturb your mind. The candle of attention does not flicker. Feel breathing, hear breathing. Bathe in the silence of thoughtlessness. You have arrived at zen! Linger here for at least a few breaths—better yet a few minutes. Enjoy the effects!


Notice the benefits of this short and simple exercise. You will likely feel refreshed, ready to emerge and return to activity feeling relaxed, able to focus, and ready to go about the rest of your day with renewed vigor.

This is an excerpt from Joseph R. Roberson’s book One Half-Breath At A Time: Discover how to turn stress and anxiety into calm ease, productive power, and joy with Breath-Centered Practices

Meditation. Free.