Breath awareness is a superpower. Humans have an exceptionally subtle ability to control and think about our own breathing. This goes alongside our highly developed speech skills[i]. By focusing on our breath, we can directly control our nervous system, body and mind.
When I have trouble getting off to sleep, I count my own breaths. Nine times out of ten (the tenth is usually when I have massively overdosed on caffeine) this sends me off to the land of dreams long before I reach one hundred. It is simple and effective. Breath awareness works.
One of the Most Ancient Forms of Meditation
Breath awareness is one of the most ancient forms of meditation. People have been practising meditation for much longer than they have been writing about it, but using the breath as a focus for focusing and settling the mind is referred to in scriptures from Buddhist, Vedic, Sufi, Jainist and other ancient traditions[ii]. Nowadays many people use breath awareness as part of Mindfulness practice. It is widely prescribed as therapy for anxiety, chronic pain and many other health conditions[iii].
The Breath is Always With Us
One of the great things about breath is that is is always here. You don’t have to go looking for your meditation beads or find a book. You are always breathing, so you can choose to focus on it at any time and in any place. When I used to commute to work, I often closed my eyes on the train and rested my mind on my breath for a few minutes. It is a reliable way to feel better.
Unlocking Control of the Nervous System
We breath all the time without thinking about it. Your brainstem keeps you breathing so you can stay alive even when you are asleep. But you can choose to notice your breath whenever you wish. You can also change the way you breathe at will.
I have talked in previous blogs about the way the autonomic nervous system can speed up or slow down your breathing in response to changes in your environment[iv]. This happens so your body can adapt and survive in a changing world. But you can also access the calm and alert states by deliberately changing the way you breathe.
If something gives you a fright – a door slamming, perhaps, or a firework exploding – your heart rate will speed up all by itself. This happens in case you need to take quick action to deal with danger. But once you realise there is nothing to worry about, you will probably take some long, deep breaths to calm yourself down. Then your heart will stop racing and that horrible shaky feeling will go away. Those slow breaths have helped you calm your nervous system. This is part of what we do when we meditate on the breath.
How to Meditate on the Breath
There are lots of ways to meditate on the breath. Different people prefer different approaches, so it is worth experimenting to see what works for you. You may find your preferences change as you become more experienced.
I used to find breath counting really boring, but it is powerful. In a way boredom is part of the experience, because we are trying to settle down a busy mind.
Meditation is sometimes described as giving the monkey a pole to climb up and down. Your over-stimulated mind is a bit like a fun-loving monkey, leaping and jumping all over the place. Sometimes the monkey needs to calm down and have a rest. Counting your breaths gives the monkey mind something to do. To begin with it resists. It wants to play and swing from the trees. But if you keep gently reminding the monkey to sit quietly and count, it will gradually relax and benefit from slowing down.
How to Count Your Breaths
To count your breaths, first sit or lie down and close your eyes. Take a few minutes simply to become aware of your breathing. When you are ready, begin to count. You can count ‘one’ on the in-breath and ‘two’ on the out-breath, and so on. Alternatively you can count an entire in-breath and out-breath as ‘one, and the next complete breath as ‘two’. Just be consistent and keep counting until you get to ‘ten’. Then begin again at ‘one’.
Coming back to ‘one’ after each count of ten is a good way to make sure you are still focusing on the breath. It is very easy to just keep on counting on and on automatically without realising what you are doing. Trust me – I’ve done this plenty of times!
Almost certainly you will lose count. Either you will get to ‘thirty-eight’ with absolutely no idea how you arrived here, or you will find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, or Auntie Jean’s birthday next Tuesday. This is completely normal. Just begin again at ‘one’ and then ’two’ and so on.
Feeling the Breath
Another approach is to focus on what it feels like to breathe. You can become very curious about your breath. Try to notice everything about it. Where do you feel the breath most easily? Is it in your chest, your throat or at your nostrils? How warm is the air at the nostrils? Is it warmer when you breathe out? Does it tickle a little? Does your breath feel tighter or easier today? Can you feel your breastbone or your ribs moving? Can your hear the sound of your own breath?
When your mind wanders off on its monkey meanderings to another subject, just gently bring it back to the experience of breathing. Don’t get annoyed with yourself. Your brain is made for thinking about lots of stuff. Focusing on one thing as simple as the breath is a skill learned from practice.
Simple Breath Awareness
Some people are able simply stay aware of their breath without needing to count or consciously experience sensations. This can be quite difficult. For most people, a practice like counting helps them stay focused, at least to begin with. But you may enjoy simply noticing your own breath, coming in and going out like waves on the seashore. Try it and see.
Don’t Try to Change Anything
Breath awareness is just that: being aware of the breath as it is. Another day I will look at practices where we deliberately change our breath patterns. But there is huge value in simply paying attention to our natural breath.
So don’t worry about how fast or slow, easy or tight your breathing seems to be. Just accept it however it is. Most likely your breathing will slow down as you relax in to the meditation, but your focus is simply to stay aware of the breath. This will calm your mind and body all by itself.
Be Kind to Yourself
Most people find breath awareness difficult to begin with. And it often continues to be challenging even after quite a bit of practice. So when your mind wanders away from the breath for the twentieth time, be kind to yourself. Don’t feel bad or beat yourself up. It is normal and natural for the mind to want to be busy. You are training it to slow down and rest. This is a journey.
Today’s Calming Practice – Breath Counting Meditation
Today, see if you can rest for five to ten minutes, focusing your mind on your breath. I strongly recommend the breath counting approach, unless you are already experienced at meditating on the breath. If you set a timer when you begin, you can relax better as you won’t have to worry about whenthe to finish. Notice how you feel afterwards.
Thanks for reading this blog post. I am writing a series of 31 blogs every day this August. I plan to publish them later in the year as a book entitled, ‘Finding Your Calm Space – 31 Ways to Find Calm in a Crazy World’.
I’m Karen. I am a Yoga teacher, Reflexologist and busy mum of seven. I live with my family in Billericay, Essex, UK. In the past I have worked as a Midwife, Health Visitor, Baby Signing teacher and Tax Inspector. I love getting outdoors, swimming in the sea, walking and writing. Helping people relax is one of the things I do best.
You can learn more about my Yoga classes and Reflexology at my website www.thecalmspace.co.uk