“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Why Mindful Breathing?
Mind-body practices almost always begin with the breath. The breath is always with us, but how often are we aware of it? Day in and day out, we are carried along on the gentle rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. When we need a moment of calm, we can return to the breath.
The breath brings us directly into the present moment. We cannot breathe in the past or in the future. We can only breathe NOW, in this present moment.
In many traditions, the breath is linked to the soul or life energy. The word “respiration” clearly links breath and spirit. Whether you attach a sacred meaning to the breath or not, it is a powerful tool for connecting with your body and calming your mind.
I particularly like that in the medical literature, the in-breath is “inspiration” and the out-breath is “expiration.” I like to imagine that with the in-breath, I am taking in new energy, and on the out-breath, I am releasing that which I no longer need.
The breath plays an important role in mindfulness practice because it is one of the only life-maintenance activities over which we have a significant amount of control. We may not be able to consciously control our heart rate or digestion, but without any formal training you’ve probably been able to change your own breathing patterns many times during your life.
You’ve probably noticed that different emotional states have different breathing patterns. When we are relaxed, our breathing slows, and tends to be “deeper” — from the belly or diaphragm. When we are tense or scared, our breathing rate increases, and it tends to be more shallow and concentrated in the lungs and upper body.
In a particularly fascinating study, researchers taught participants different patterns of breathing — one associated with states of happiness, and one associated with states of sadness. But they didn’t tell the participants what “style” of breathing they were learning; they just thought they were learning a “technique.” Sure enough, people who were taught “sad” breathing ending up feeling sad; those taught “happy” breathing felt happier! Simply breathing “happily” makes you happy.
This brings us to an important theme in mind-body practice: our body is constantly sending information to the brain about how we feel. We can alter our mind state through our body and breath!
This is particularly helpful because mind-based, cognitive strategies don’t often work when we are stressed out (but in our thought-heavy, “I think, therefore I am” culture, we often turn to those strategies first). We probably KNOW we don’t need to worry…. or that our concerns are unfounded…. but we still get anxious. When these top-down cognitive strategies don’t work, we can turn to the “bottom-up” strategies of the body.
Which means we return to the breath.
You can bring your attention to the breath in several ways:
- Bringing awareness to your body state, your breathing, your senses, or your thoughts at various times during the day (perhaps choose a common activity during your day, such as turning on a light switch, checking your phone, turning on your computer, getting into your car, etc., as your signal to do a quick check-in)
- Setting aside time for formal practice (I recommend starting with just five minutes a day — set a timer and practice paying attention to your breath, or use the guided practice below.)
Guided Mindful Breathing Meditation (8 minutes)
Each time you practice, each time you deliberately focus your attention on the breath and the body, you are strengthening the neural pathways in your body for focus, concentration, and relaxation! You are using your MIND to change your BRAIN — pretty cool!
Click the link to download the meditation above to your device: Introduction to Mindfulness of Breathing.
**This post is a lesson from my four-week course on stress reduction through mind-body practices called Reduce Stress with Body and Breath. You can learn more about the course here.
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