As you read this article, you are breathing. Without a thought, you are expanding your rib cage, letting in a full breath of air, filtering the air and delivering oxygen to your cells. Incredible, isn’t it? And yet most of us almost never think about our breath, even though it is an integral part of being human.
In fact, taking time to carefully think and contemplate things is a dying art. With constant demands on our time – kids, work, social life – it can seem impossible to just sit down and do ‘nothing’ but think. Any free moment afforded to us is all too often surrendered to a leisure activity, such as watching TV, reading a book, or hanging out with friends. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s just that your mind needs some leisure time too. The mind needs a chance to unwind and untangle the barrage of thoughts, emotions, and memories that echo through its cells every second.
One way to give your mind a break is to simply become aware of it and observe your thoughts from a neutral and peaceful place. This practice is called mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation can be practiced with a wide array of techniques. One of the most popular and ancient techniques is that of mindful breathing. Mindful breathing combines the goal of mindfulness with your breath. By doing so, mindful breathing focuses our attention on the present, using all of your concentration on that single, unchanging object that is your breath. Even if everything is going crazy in your life, your breath is always there and steady, which makes it an ideal tool for the practice of mindfulness meditation.
In short, mindful breathing means placing all your attention on your breath. It may sound easy, but achieving full concentration on your breath takes practice. To help you along the way, Spire has created this detailed, instructive guide to help you learn and apply mindful breathing in your life.
Why Mindful Breathing?
Mindful breathing has been shown in several studies to assist in stress reduction and help people cope with clinical and non-clinical issues alike. This is one reason behind its surge in popularity in recent years. Mindful breathing can be an especially powerful technique when trying to calm yourself in a stressful situation. Consistently practicing mindful breathing can help reduce a slew of negative emotions, from sadness to envy. Mindful breathing can help “mellow” you out and prepare you to better take on the ups and downs of life.
Mindful breathing teaches practitioners how to set aside negative thoughts and pressures, allowing us to concentrate on our breathing. From this vantage point, it is easier to put our problems into perspective and remain calm in the face of calamity.
First starting out with mindful breathing can be a frustrating experience. You may try to follow the steps above but find pesky thoughts interrupting your concentration every second. Thoughts like “I think I got it! I’m focused on my breath!” and other random musings can go through your mind and interrupt your delicate concentration. Beginners may find that even one minute’s worth of mindful breathing is impossible. That’s ok. Your ability to focus will improve. After a couple of months of practice, many find themselves focusing for 20, 30, 60 or more minutes in one sitting. Seasoned Buddhist monks meditate for hours at a time.
To get started with mindful breathing, it’s helpful to block out a time during the day that you will reserve for your practice. For many, this is the first thing they do in the morning. One good routine is waking up, going to the washroom, grabbing a cup of water, and finishing your mindful breathing session before launching into your daily activities. Another option is a session right before going to bed, enhancing your sense of peace and stillness before going to sleep. It’s helpful to set whatever time you want in advance to ensure that you stick to your practice and get the most out of mindful breathing.
Here are the steps to getting started with mindful breathing.
Get Started with Mindful Breathing in 7 Easy Steps
1. Set up a gentle timer. An alarm set to a chime sound or soft vibration is a good option. For your first practice of mindful breathing, 10-15 minutes is a good target.
2. Get into a comfortable, relaxed position. Don’t feel like you need to adopt the standard seated lotus position you see on the posters in yoga studios. Any comfortable position will do. This could be sitting on a chair, a bed, or the ground. It is best to avoid lying down positions as there is a chance that the relaxation of mindful breathing may cause you to fall asleep. If possible, try to have contact between the ground and your body, such as having your feet on the floor. Whatever you choose, make sure that you are comfortable, your back is upright but not tight, and that you feel able to hold this position for the duration of your meditative practice.
3. Start by focusing your attention on your body. Start your mindful breathing session with what’s called a “body scan.” This is a great way to help calm your thoughts and make way for focusing on your breath. Starting with your head, focus in and notice how all the parts of your body are feeling. As you go through your body parts – head, neck, shoulders, left arm, right arm, torso, etc. – try to make note of how each part of your body is feeling. Does it feel well? A bit of soreness? Fatigue? If you can change your position to make yourself more comfortable, then take the opportunity to do so. Otherwise, try see and feel your body parts without judgement. Notice the sensations going through your body parts as well, such as a light breeze against your face or the connection of your back with your chair. Focus in on these sensations and look at them carefully and objectively. Breathe normally.
4. Tune into your breath. Keep your mouth closed, resting your tongue gently against the roof of your mouth. After going through your body, slowly bring your attention to your breath. Notice the natural rhythm and movement your body cycles through as it brings air in and out of your body. Let yourself be awed by the flawless way your mind opens your chest, lets in fresh air, and then compresses again to remove impurities from your body. Narrow your focus to a single component of your breath. For example, you might choose to pay attention to the sensation of cold air brushing the inside of your nostrils. You might want to gently place your hand on your belly and feel your torso expand and compress along with your breath. At first, you may feel that your focus is causing you to try to control your breath. This can be a very frustrating experience. Only by practicing concentrating on the sensations of your breath can you learn to observe your breath as a neutral observer and relinquish control.
5. Rein in your wandering mind. As you go through this exercise, you will undoubtedly find that thoughts of all shapes and sizes interrupt your concentration. You’ll start remembering where you left your keys or calls you need to return. These thoughts will disrupt your efforts to quiet your mind. Don’t feel bad about that – this is normal. Don’t reject these thoughts. Let them flow into your consciousness, give them a mental nod without getting involved with their content. Then, as all thoughts do, watch them disappear from your mind. Acknowledge that your mind has wandered, and kindly lead your mind back to focusing on your breath. You may need to do this every moment of your meditation when you first start mindful breathing, but as you practice, you’ll find that fewer and fewer thoughts break your focus.
6. Take big breaths to help bring you through the meditation. If you find yourself getting tangled into your stresses and worries, take a big, exaggerated breath to bring you back into focus whenever you need. Breath in over 2 counts, hold your breath for 3 counts and exhale until your lungs are emptied of air. Then, let your breathing return to normal and focus once more.
7. Take a note on your session. Once your meditation is finished, stay still for a few more seconds before getting up. Take a mental note or write in a journal about how the meditation went. Don’t use judgmental words like “bad” or “good” – simply note how the experience went. How did you feel? Was your mind going wild, or was it tame? Remember, mindful breathing is not a competition, not even against yourself. Your aim is to exercise your mind, not to meet any standards.
Mindful breathing can be a powerful tool in situations when you feel stressed. Instead of going through each of these steps when you are in a stressful situation, jump to step 4 and focus on the sensations of your breath for a few moments. This should help reduce your immediate stress and help you regain control over your emotions. Spire can also help you track these moments of stress so that you know when it’s time to take a breath and engage in some mindful breathing. By measuring the bodily rhythms of your breath, the device alerts you that your body is undergoing stress. With this technique and the awareness of your stress that Spire brings, you’ll find that your days are more peaceful.