What is a breathing meditation?
It is a type of meditation where the meditation object is your breath.
What is a meditation object?
Meditation object is the object to which you pay attention during meditation.
Why pay attention?
Meditation is cultivating attention skills by practicing paying attention.
Why pay attention to an object?
Can you pay attention to anything other than objects? You cannot pay attention to nothing. May be possible but hard.
Is breathing meditation same as sitting meditation?
Yes, breathing meditation is also called sitting meditation. As it is usually done sitting down. But it doesn’t have to be.
The primary objective of breathing meditation is to pay attention to the breath.
How to pay attention to the breath?
You pay attention to the breath using one of the following methods.
- You can count your breath.
- You can label or note your breath.
- You can actually feel your breath.
Counting the breath
In this method, you associate breathing with counting. Counting is something you are more familiar with hence it is easier for you to focus on or relate to counting.
You may argue that if you are focusing on counting, how is it focusing on the breath. You are right.
With the counting method, you are not directly focusing on the breath. You are directly focusing on counting.
But as counting is synchronized with the breathing, your focus is still on the breathing process, indirectly.
Your main focus can be either the count or the breath. But not both at the same time.
You can focus on the count during the actual breathing in or the breathing out. And you also pay attention to the transitions in the breathing process. E.g. starting of the breathing in, ending of the breathing in and the same for the breathing out.
In all breath counting methods, you never count indefinitely, because when you do that, your attention tends to lapse easily.
It is boring to keep on counting. You reset counting after a while.
There are several variations of breath counting. To name a few:
- Counting the passage of time during breathing in and breathing out.
- Only count individual inhalations and exhalations.
- Pseudo count inhalations and exhalations.
Continue the passage of time during the breath
In this method, you begin counting up at the start of the breathing in and you end count at the end of the breathing in.
For shorter inhalations you will end up with a smaller count and for longer inhalations you will end up with a larger count.
You repeat the same counting for the out breath.
Typically the count ranges from 2 to 10.
The following are the steps for this method
- Start with the normal and natural breath. You do not have to breathe shallow, deep or any other way that is not normal.
- As you start breathing in start counting 1,2,3…..You stop counting at the end of breathing in.
- You may stop at 1 or 2 or a higher number you end up with depending upon the natural length of your breath.
- As you start breathing out you restart counting from 1. You stop counting at the end of breathing out.
- You may stop at 1 or 2 or a higher number you end up with depending upon the natural length of your breath.
- Repeat steps 1 to 5 as long as you can.
As you can see, you fit count within the inhalation and exhalation. You don’t manipulate the length of the breathing to fit in a certain count.
Also counting resets at the beginning of each inhalation and each exhalation.
Only count individual inhalations and exhalations
With this method, the whole inhalation is counted just once. Same for the whole exhalation.
You don’t count inhalations and exhalations separately. There is just one counter, not two separate ones.
Steps for counting individual inhalations and exhalations.
- Start with the normal and natural breath. You don’t need to breathe shallow, deep or any other way that is not normal.
- As you start breathing in you start counting at 1. The whole inhalation is counted just once.
- As you start breathing out you increment the count by 1, so it will be 2 now. The whole exhalation is counted just once.
- As you continue to breathe, your count increases.
- The recommendation is to reset the count at 10.
- Repeat steps 1 to 6 as long as you want.
You do not actually count, but you pick a digit and you keep repeating that digit.
There is a little story behind this method.
When Herbert Benson noticed the benefits of mediation at Harvard, he set up a scientific experiment to observe some of the metabolic markers of meditators.
He normally used breath counting. During the experiment, he instructed participants to do the normal counting. E.g. Count in breaths and out breaths up to 10 and reset.
But when participants followed counting as per the instructions, the measuring instruments didn’t register any benefits in that experiment that were observed otherwise.
It is not exactly known, why that would happen.
But when he changed instructions and asked participants (Harvard students) to just keep repeating the count ‘1’ throughout the experiment, the expected improvements were registered!!
A joke went around that Harvard students didn’t know how to count.
Steps for pseudo counting the breath.
- Pick your favorite digit or a number.
- Start with normal breathing.
- You don’t need to breathe shallow, deep or any other way that is not normal.
- As you start breathing in using your mental voice say the digit/number you picked in step 1.
- As you start breathing out using your mental voice say the digit/number you picked in step 1.
- Repeat from step 4 to 5 as long as you want.
Labeling or Noting the Breath
This process is very similar to the pseudo counting.
With this method, you label in breathing as ‘IN’ and out breathing as ‘OUT’.
The label doesn’t have to be ‘IN’ and ‘OUT’, it can be something else. For example, some people use ‘PEACE’ while breathing in and ‘RELAX’ while breathing out.
Similar to breath counting, the idea is to use the label as a crutch to help support paying attention to the process of breathing.
You can attempt to focus on the noting during the actual in breath or the out breath and pay attention to the transitions of the in and out breaths.
While breathing in, using your mental voice, you silently say ‘IN’ and while breathing out, using your mental voice, you silently say ‘OUT’.
Steps for labeling the breath.
- Pick your favorite label for inhalation, which is a short and simple word. Similarly, pick your label for exhalation as well.
- Start with normal breathing.
- As you start breathing in using your mental voice, silently say the inhalation label.
- As you start breathing out using your mental voice, silently say the exhalation label.
- Repeat from step 3 to 4 as long as you want.
As you can see, you can come up with your own fancy counting scheme. It is not about the counting. It is about using different means to help you pay attention to the breath.
Feeling the Breath
What do you mean by feeling the breath?
It means to pay attention to the felt sensations of the breath and not think or visualize the breath.
How to pay attention to the felt sensations of the breath?
There are several ways to pay attention the felt sensations of the breath.
Let me show you some of the common ways.
- Paying attention to the felt sensations of breath in the belly.
- Paying attention to the felt sensations of breath in the chest.
- Paying attention to the felt sensations of breath at the tip of the nostrils.
- Paying attention to the felt sensations of breath at the back of the throat.
- Paying attention to the felt sensations of full breath as it travels from the nose all the way up to the belly.
Let’s talk about each of these in detail.
Feeling the Breath in the Belly
This is same as paying attention to the felt sensations of breath in the belly.
If you are used to deep breathing or the belly breathing, as you inhale the lungs fill up and they press down against the diaphragm and it expands the belly.
The belly balloons out as you inhale.
Similarly, as you exhale the lungs collapse and the diaphragms are retracted and the belly contracts.
The belly shrinks back to normal.
The belly movement is prominent only with the deep breathing. If you are used to shallow breathing, the above-described belly movement may be very subtle.
The idea of this method is to feel the belly movement caused by breathing.
Remember the internal sense, interoception that I talked about earlier? It is because of this internal sense, even with your eyes closed you can actually feel your belly movement.
It is not thinking about or visualizing the belly movement. It is actually a sensation of movement that you can feel.
Of course, if you keep your eyes open and look down, you can see belly rising and falling with inhalation and exhalation.
But the recommendation is not to visually see that movement. But to actually feel the movement.
Interoception is nothing magical. As I said earlier, even with your eyes closed, if you breathe a little deep, you can feel the belly movement.
That is, feeling the breath in the belly.
Feeling the Breath in the Chest
As you inhale the lungs fill up and expand and as you exhale lungs empty and contract.
The expansion and contraction of the lungs are reflected in the form of chest expanding and contracting, or rising and falling.
With this method, instead of paying attention to the belly movement, you pay attention to the chest movement.
More of us are likely to shallow breath. With shallow breathing, the chest movement is more prominent and the belly movement is subtle.
With shallow breathing, it may be easier to feel the chest movement.
Feeling the Breath at the Tip of the Nostrils
As you breathe in, relatively cool air enters the tip of the nostrils. And as you breathe out, relatively warm air exits the tip of the nostrils.
You can feel the temperature of the air at the tip of the nostrils. Especially in the area between the nose and the upper lip.
With this method, you pay attention to the feeling of the slight coolness or the slight warmth of the air. You feel the temperature of the air.
Feeling the Breath at the Back of the Throat
As you breathe the air passes through the back of the throat. And the air rubs against the back of the throat.
You can either directly feel the friction of the air against the back of the throat surface. Or you can feel the sound of the air friction in the throat area.
You pay attention to the air friction or the sound of the air in the throat area when you use this method of breathing meditation.
Feeling the Whole Breath
This method is a combination of all of the above mentioned methods.
Basically, as you inhale the air starts at the nose, then passes through the throat and fills up the lungs and displaces the diaphragm and the belly in this process.
You can follow the breath all along from the tip of the nostril, through the back of the throat, through the chest and all the way to the belly.
You follow the full breath both with inhalation and exhalation.
Steps of breathing meditation.
- You pick a time and a place of your choice. You select the time and the place such that it reduces the distractions.
- Set a timer for the amount of time you want to spend meditating.
- Affirm the intention for the practice. Why do you want to meditate? Perhaps you want to reduce stress or you want to improve focus or something else.
- You select the posture of your choice. You can either sit on a chair, on a cushion, lie down on a bed, lie down on a mat or stand up. The recommendation is to sit, but it is not mandatory to sit. You can adjust the posture for your needs.
- Keeping the back upright is always helpful. Upright back that is neither too stiff, nor too relaxed.
- Take a couple of intentional deep breaths to help you settle down.
- Then go back to normal breathing.
- Scan through the body to relax the body as best as you can. The relaxed body helps stabilize the mind.
- Bring your attention to the stomach. Relax the stomach as best as you can. If you are unable to relax, see if you just let the tension be there!
- Shift your attention to the chest, relax the chest as best as you can.
- Shift the attention to the shoulders. Relax the shoulders as best as you can.
- Check out your jaw. Relax the jaw as best as you can.
- Relax the facial muscles as best as you can.
- Relax the whole body, again, as best as you can. There is no imposition. If you can’t relax any part of the body, see if you can let the tension just be there without fighting with it.
- Now you will start with paying attention to the breath.
- Chose your favorite method to pay attention to the breath.
- You can start directly with feeling the breath, or you can chose to use one of the counting or labeling methods.
- If you are choosing to feel the breath, experiment with different parts of the body as described earlier. E.g. The belly, the chest, the tip of the nose etc.
- See where it is the breath feels most prominent and obvious.
- If more than one area feels similar, just randomly pick up.
- Start feeling the breath or start paying attention through counting.
- If you are feeling the breath, while breathing in you know you are breathing in. And while breathing out you know, you are breathing out.
- Feel or finish counting one complete breath and move on to the next breath.
- Very soon you will notice that the mind will wander away into thinking.
- There is nothing wrong with that. Mind wandering is completely normal. That is the nature of the mind to wander.
- At some point in time, you will realize that you are not paying attention to the breath. You are not feeling or counting or labeling the breath.
- At this moment, you acknowledge the wandering thought.
- You let the wandering thought or thoughts to just be. Without trying to stop them or push them away or embrace them.
- Then you gently but firmly bring yourself back to the next in breath or the next out breath.
- Even if you have to repeatedly bring your mind back to the breath so many times that is completely okay, there is nothing wrong with that.
- You repeat the steps 15 through 30.
You can pay attention to the breath as a form of meditation.
You can either count, label, note or feel your breath.
There are several different ways of counting, labeling and feeling the breath.