(updated August 21, 2021)
Breath-based mindfulness meditation is simple, but not always easy. If you've never tried it before, you might be surprised at how challenging it is to keep focusing on nothing but your breath.
And if you've only tried one meditation class or app, you may also be surprised by the many possible types of breath-based meditation.
Here are several different ways you can focus on your breath as a way to keep bringing your attention back to the present moment.
This is intended as basic information for those of you who may be interested in beginning a personal meditation practice. Please do not use these as meditation scripts for teaching others unless you have training and experience in trauma-informed mindfulness teaching.
If focusing on your breath brings up a lot of anxiety for you, it’s OK to stop this practice at any time. Especially if you’ve experienced trauma, you might benefit from working with an appropriately-trained teacher or therapist rather starting meditation on your own.
First, Take a Deep Breath
A lot of people misunderstand the recommendation to ‘breathe deeply’ or ‘take a deep breath’ in order to calm down. The idea is to take a slow, gentle breath not a big gulp of air.
As long as you don't have a medical condition that affects your breathing, let’s try a couple of breaths so you can feel the difference.
Quickly take a big gulp of air and blow it out.
Now take a long, slow breath in, and a long slow breath out.
How did these two different breaths feel?
When I just tried this, the first breath felt panicky and the second breath felt soothing. That’s what happens for most of us. Our breath tends to be short and shallow when we feel worried, so taking long, slow breaths helps us to feel calm.
One Minute of Mindful Breathing
1. Set a timer for sixty seconds.
2. Sit in an upright but comfortable posture. Most of us spend so much time hunched over our phones and computers that it can be challenging to sit upright. Just do your best, and remember that we’re only trying this for one minute.
3. Close your eyes, if that feels comfortable to you. If you prefer, you can look at a spot on the wall or on the floor in front of you. The idea is to not get distracted by looking around the room or what’s going on outside.
4. Focus on your breathing. You don’t have to breathe in any special way, just notice the breath going in and out, in and out.
5. When your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the breath. Notice that I said ‘when your mind wanders,’ not ‘if your mind wanders.’ It’s completely normal for your mind to wander. That happens to all of us.
6. When the minute is over, open your eyes (if they were closed), and return your attention to your surroundings. How do you feel? You may feel more relaxed, but it’s OK if you don’t. This is a mindfulness exercise rather than a relaxation exercise, so the point is to be aware of your breath, not to breathe in a special way or change the way you might be feeling.
You can try this one-minute mindful breathing a few times, choosing a different sensation to focus on each time.
Your belly rising and falling.
The air blowing through your nostrils onto your upper lip. (I've heard that this can be particularly interesting if you have a mustache, but I can't vouch for that personally.)
The tiny little pause in between the in-breath and the out-breath.
Count the Ways to Count the Breath
Close your eyes if that’s comfortable for you, or focus your gaze gently downwards. Most people close their eyes when they meditate because it helps them to avoid distractions. But it’s absolutely fine to keep your eyes open if that’s better for you. Then try one of the following options:
Silently say to yourself, “Breathing in, one. Breathing out, one. Breathing in, two. Breathing out, two.” Keep counting the breaths as long as you can. When you catch your mind wandering and lose count, gently bring your attention back to the breath and start counting again. “Breathing in, one. Breathing out, one.”
As you breathe in and out, keep repeating the number to yourself. “(inhale) One, one, one. (exhale) One, one, one. (inhale) Two, two, two. (exhale) Two, two, two.”
Count a certain number of breaths over and over. Some people like to count up to five. Others like to count to ten breaths. “(inhale, exhale) One. (inhale, exhale) Two…”
After you've tried a few different options, you can decide if you'd like to continue with a daily breathing practice. If you find it a helpful practice, you can gradually lengthen your meditation time and/or take brief pauses throughout the day to center yourself.
Remember that the goal of any mindfulness practice is to focus on present-moment experience, not to push yourself to always feel happy or relaxed.
For more information about breath-based meditation, see:
Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash
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