“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
In moments of mental and emotional disruption, it can often be challenging to relax.
While we search for external factors to distract us, we often overlook the most important tool that exists within us: our breath.
It’s almost unbelievable that a few conscious deep breaths can have the ability to calm us down, but breathing is a tool that helps keep our minds clear.
If it’s a matter of distraction, why can’t we use another part of us for help? Why can’t we, for instance, hold our thumb right in front of us and move it left to right and right to left while we gaze at it…why the breath?
Because, we can feel it—and it is essentially connected to our whole body.
You see, respiration is an integral part of being alive, which we often dismiss or underestimate. We can survive without food and water for a few days, but we can’t go without air for even a few minutes. At the moment of birth, the first thing we do is breathe. At the moment of death, the breath is the very last thing we take in.
Beautifully enough, our breath connects us to everything else in life. When we were in the womb, our mothers passed oxygen to us. When we’re born and throughout our life, trees give us the oxygen we need, and in return, they absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale.
The Buddha recognized the benefits of working with the breath thousands of years ago, and he taught techniques to help others attain enlightenment. Same for the yogis who have discerned throughout history that the breath delivers powerful benefits for the body and the mind.
Our breath is the quickest, most beneficial way to mindfulness. We can access it wherever we are and any time of the day. It is especially helpful in moments of aggression, dejection, or confusion.
There are many breathing techniques that work. In the meditation courses I’ve taken over the years, I’ve learned a few simple techniques that are accessible to everyone:
1. Abdominal breathing.
We can practice this technique while sitting or lying down. It’s also useful for people who have trouble sleeping. The purpose is to breathe from the stomach, not from the chest. Chest breathing is when our chest expands with every breath, while abdominal breathing focuses on the expansion of our abdomen. Abdominal breathing is known for being beneficial since we use the entire lung capacity, hence delivering a large amount of oxygen to our bloodstream. This activity is essential to our physical health.
Close your eyes, place your hands on your abdomen, and breathe. Your chest should slightly expand, whereas your abdomen should inflate. You can place your hands on your chest every once in a while to check if you’re doing it right. Shift your focus to your breath as it enters your nostrils, fills your lungs, and inflates your stomach. Repeat again, the opposite way, from your stomach up to your nostrils.
2. Anapana technique.
Anapanasati is the meditation breathing technique which was taught by the Buddha. He used it to develop mindfulness and concentration. I learned it in two of my Vipassana retreats over the past two years.
Sit somewhere comfortable, and close your eyes. The idea is to shift our attention onto the sensations produced in our bodies while we breathe. Focus on the sensations in your nostrils, chest, and belly. Then, you can slowly narrow down the area of focus until you’re attentive only to the sensations of the nostrils and the nose area. This helps our minds easily concentrate and become grounded in the present moment.
3. Visualized breathing.
This technique is especially helpful during moments of fear or pain, since it reduces the level of tension in our bodies. It consists of visualizing the process of breathing using our own imaginations. Guided imagery can help us relax and stay focused.
Close your eyes, and breathe normally. As you inhale, imagine you are breathing in white smoke. Visualize it traveling through your body, providing you the bliss and comfort you seek. As you exhale, imagine you are getting rid of black smoke which contains your worries, fears, or anger. Another way to do it is to imagine you are inhaling happiness while throwing out dejection.
Practice the technique that works best for you. You needn’t make time for breathing—you’re already doing it. You only need to be conscious of it.
Author: Elyane Youssef
Image: Flickr/Jem Yoshioka
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Travis May