Using Mindful Breathing to Center Yourself and Reduce Stress
How mindful breathing can nourish your inner being.
Posted April 17, 2020
Based on the assumption that the average respiratory rate of a healthy adult is approximately 15 breaths per minute, we breathe in and out approximately 21,600 times every day. Each one of these breaths, without exception, is 100 percent unique and will never happen again. But be honest and ask yourself how many, if any, of your 21,600 daily breaths are you fully aware of? How often do you stop and think, “I am alive, and I am breathing in and out”?
Because breathing happens automatically, many of us take it for granted. This is a shame because breath awareness is an evidence-based means of slowing the mind down in order to “anchor” ourselves in the present moment. The reason we want to try to remain aware of the present moment is that this is the only place where we can fully experience life.
The future will never materialize, and so worrying about it is not a productive use of our time. The future never materializes because it is always the present. We can never be in the future, and we can never predict with 100 percent accuracy how it will unfold. Likewise, the past is history and no longer exists. It is only a memory, and so holding onto the past is equally unfruitful.
By gently resting our awareness on our breathing, we give the mind a reference point so that it becomes difficult for us to be distracted or carried away by thoughts and feelings. The breath becomes a place where the mind can return to each time it wanders off or becomes anxious.
Breathing in and out is something that we are (hopefully) always doing, and so bringing our attention to the breath should not inconvenience us or require a large time commitment. Also, practicing mindful breathing doesn’t require us to force or modify our breathing in any way. In other words, the breath should be allowed to follow its natural course and to calm and deepen of its own accord.
A metaphor that might help explain this notion is that of a garden fish pond. Every time the garden pond is stirred or interfered with, the water becomes muddy and disturbed. However, if a person sits quietly next to the pond and simply observes it, the water becomes still and clear again. In other words, we don’t have to interfere with either the breath or the mind in order for them to become calm and clear. All we have to do is sit in stillness and observe them.
When we rest our attention on the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath, we should do so by using a broad and generous (rather than a narrow) form of attention. Mindful breathing requires us to be aware of each and every part of each and every breath, but in a way that enables us to be completely open to and aware of everything else that we encounter. This is why the breath is referred to as an “anchor.” Its purpose is to provide stability so that we can embrace and engage with the present moment, not escape from it.
Each in-breath and out-breath could be thought of as an entirely new phase of our lives. We breathe in and are fully aware of all parts of our in-breath. We are aware of its texture, its weight, its flavor, and its temperature. We feel the in-breath as it enters the lungs and causes them to expand. Likewise, we experience each part of the out-breath as it flows out of the body and is carried away by the wind.
The more we practice breath awareness, the more we become attuned to all that happens in a single breath cycle. It is almost as though time begins to expand, and the present moment starts to last for longer. Each breath in and out becomes a meaningful and enjoyable part of our life. This is a generous way to live and breathe, and it allows us to continuously shed any stress that we may have accumulated.
At first, the practice of observing the breath requires deliberate effort, and it is easy to lose awareness. Don’t worry or chastise yourself if you do. Upon losing awareness, all we have to do is recognize that our attention has gone astray and then gently return our awareness back to the cycle of breathing. In fact, each time we notice that we have lost concentration and drifted into mindlessness, we should quietly congratulate ourselves for having recognized that the mind has wandered off again. Becoming aware of the mind’s tendency to be distracted is one of the first signs that we are making progress and that our practice is moving in the right direction.
Although mindful breathing requires deliberate effort and can be a change from the way we normally live our lives, with sustained practice, remaining aware of the breath becomes a natural thing to do. After we have tasted the benefits of breath awareness, we begin to see just how exposed we were to stress, anxiety, and exhaustion before we adopted the practice of mindful living.
When we are attending to our breathing correctly, the whole body becomes light and energized—as though we are carried by a calming wind that sustains us wherever we go. This is consistent with scientific investigations, where it has been shown that conscious breathing facilitates relaxation and leads to a slowing down of the heart rate, respiratory rate, perspiration rate, and other bodily functions controlled by the involuntary nervous system.
Paying attention to our breathing enables us to relax into the present moment. Whatever we experience, we observe it, taste it, and enjoy it. But we also let go of it. We breathe in noticing and experiencing our external environment, and we breathe out noticing and experiencing our internal, psychological environment. Sounds come and go, sights come and go, smells come and go, sensations come and go, and thoughts and feelings come and go.
Whatever happens, we remain with our breathing and let the present moment unfold around us. We observe the present moment, and we also participate in it. So long as we are consciously breathing, the present moment becomes our home, and we are never lost.
Note: This post reflects an updated, adapted, and extended version of an article that I originally wrote for the University of Derby.
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