Mindful breathing sounds like a funny concept. Why would you have to pay attention to breathing when it’s one of the most natural, unconscious things our bodies do? In the context of meditation, focusing on the breath—every inhale and exhale—can be a powerful technique to help you stay present and not get distracted by the constant flow of thoughts running through your head. Remember: Meditation does not mean clearing your mind of all thoughts entirely. That’s nearly impossible. Instead, it simply asks you to change your relationship with those thoughts. By practicing mindful breathing during meditation, you can begin to create a bit of distance between the thoughts—Did I remember to turn off the oven? I blew that interview. Why is my sister still upset with me?—and the feelings (anxiety, stress, frustration, sadness) that accompany them. After becoming adept at this through meditation and mindful breathing, you may find you’re able to experience real-life situations, even the most uncomfortable ones, in a more balanced and dispassionate way.
Jack Hollingsworth/Digital Vision/Thinkstock
Use this technique during your meditation practice to develop a new relationship with your thoughts
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Published: August 16, 2012
Find a Comfortable Spot
It doesn’t matter if you are in a chair, on the couch or on the floor. Sit wherever you feel the most comfortable. Aim to keep your back as straight as possible; it’s not necessary to sit frozen like a statue, but try not to slouch either. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your neck long and straight.
Narrow Your Focus
Mindful breathing is less about altering the breath pattern and more about tuning into each inhalation and exhalation as it happens naturally. Once you’ve settled into a comfortable seated position, close your eyes and inhale. Notice how the oxygen flows into your nose, down your windpipe and into your lungs, expanding your belly. Observe the slight pause your body takes when you’ve breathed in as much air as you can. Think of this as the moment when oxygen is carried off to nourish your body. Next, focus on your exhale. Notice the warm air as it slowly leaves your lungs through your mouth, and feel your body relax and your abdomen deflate.
Allow Your Thoughts to Drift Past You
Perhaps the most difficult part of meditation is sitting still, both in the body and the mind. Distractions, an itchy pinky toe or a thought, are a normal part of the process. Even experienced meditators must strive to quiet the mind. When you feel your mind start to wander, refocus your attention on the breath. Acknowledge the distraction and then make a conscious effort to allow the thought to drift away rather than take root. It can help to visualize stray thoughts as clouds in a sunny summer sky—you can watch them slowly float by, but don’t reach out and grab them. They are simply there for you to observe.
Stick with It
When you first begin a mindfulness meditation practice, try it for short periods of time, between three to five minutes a few times a day. Once you begin to feel more comfortable with the practice, you can adjust the time and frequency to whatever feels right to you.
"Meditating mindfully can be like taking a mini vacation from a stressed-out relationship to thoughts—and anyone can do it!"
Bernstein, M.A., M.S.W.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
National Institutes of Health