The breath carries us through our sleeping and waking life without the need for our conscious control. However, while it’s an automatic process that requires nothing of us in particular. Enhancing our awareness of this innate life-giving force through a variety of mindful breathing exercises can improve our lives in countless ways. Since the breath provides the oxygen required for every cell in our body to function optimally, we might consider tuning into it more frequently with care and consideration.
A Brief History of Mindful Breathing
We all know that the breath provides our bodies with the oxygen it requires to function optimally. However, since it is a process that occurs quite naturally on its own, we often forget to offer it the appreciation and tenderness it deserves. As we enhance our awareness of the breath, we start to see how not only does it nourish the physical body. Mindful breathing soothes and heals the emotional, mental, and spiritual bodies, too.
Hindus and yogis have long understood the power of the breath. In fact, while most people consider asana practice to be the foundation of yoga, the earliest texts on yoga speak little of physical postures, instead emphasizing the power of the breath. 1 Pranayama is a foundation of yoga practice – which can be broken down into prana, meaning ‘life force’ and yama, meaning ‘control.’ And even in yoga asana practice, the breath is a strong, consistent thread. While holding and moving through poses is indeed a physical practice, mindfulness of the breath is woven into each move and each held posture.
We can also find roots of mindful breathing in other traditions and religions, such as in Buddhism. Mindfulness of breathing was noted in the ancient Buddhist text, Ānāpānasati Sutta, which also included notes on insight meditation and other meditative practices. 2 Thich Nhat Hanh described the breath as “the bridge which connects life to consciousness.” It is an accurate description of this invisible life force as the breath involves movement from the external, invisible realm of the world around us to the internal, physical reality that we experience (and vice versa).
How to Breathe Mindfully: The Basics
There are numerous different breathing exercises we can explore. Such as various pranayama techniques taught by yogis that entail controlling the breath in different manners and patterns. While there are numerous benefits of these techniques, mindful breathing can be made much simpler than this. Mindful breathing solely requires us to pay open attention to the breath – exactly as it is. To practice mindful breathing:
- 1Come to a comfortable seated or lying down position. Ensure that the back is straight and the body is as relaxed as possible.
- 2Take a moment to ground yourself into the space you are in by closing your eyes. And then, noting the presence of the room around you. What does the air feel like against your skin? What does the earth feel like beneath your feet, backside, or resting body?
- 3Then, draw your attention to the natural rhythm of your breath. Without trying to change or control it. Simply practice observing it exactly as it moves in this present moment. You might notice its pace and depth shift, allow this. Simply hold your focus on each in breath and out breath. Also, observing the brief pause in between each inward and outward movement.
We can practice mindful breathing in unconventional settings as well. In other words, it is not a practice reserved for meditation or for solitude. We can practice mindful breathing while on the bus, when waiting in line at the grocery store, while walking or running, or during those moments right before we drift to sleep. In essence, mindful breathing exercises can be explored in just about any setting, whether we have 30 seconds or 30 minutes to spare.
Benefits of Mindful Breathing
Scientifically-proven benefits of mindful breathing have started to emerge over the past few decades. Some of the benefits include the following:
When we breathe mindfully, the mind starts to slow as we harness our concentration on the life force within us. This focus helps to deepen the breath, which engages the relaxation response and reduces the production of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is well-known as the primary ‘stress hormone,’ so reducing it reduces our experience of stress.
Research has found that mindful breathing both reduces anxiety and increases positive automatic thoughts 3, both of which have the power to impact our mood. Since mindful breathing provides us with an anchor into our direct experience, the mind slows as we harness our focus. As the mind slows, we gain greater perspective over the habitual thoughts that move through us subconsciously.
Breath-centered practices help to control natural chemical messengers in the 4 brain, which helps the brain to grow neural connections between cells. This is believed to be one of the potential mechanisms that contributes to the understanding that mindful breathing leads to a steadier state of mind.
What holds many people back from falling asleep at night (or keeps them up in the middle of it) is a racing mind. Mindful breathing provides an anchor for these racing thoughts. Helping us to let go of the past and future so that we can fall more effortlessly into sleep.
The positive benefits that can be associated with mindful breathing are nearly infinite. Any stress-related condition (which is much of what we are facing today) can be improved by practicing even the simplest of mindful breathing techniques.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.
Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
6 Mindful Breathing Exercises
Mindful breathing is a simple technique that provides a solid foundation for further mindfulness practice. The breath is really a core element of all mindfulness practice, so getting to know it intimately through a variety of breath-centered exercises can strengthen any additional practices we come to explore. Here are 6 mindful breathing exercises to start with:
Mindful breathing does not require long periods of sitting; in fact, we can benefit from committing wholeheartedly to short practices that enhance our ability to concentrate on one point. In this case, that single point is the breath. This meditation can be completed in just seven minutes, making it a great starting point for beginners and those who require a mid-day reset.
This worksheet takes our mindfulness practice a step further by asking us to reflect deeply upon the presence of stress in the physical body. It helps us to clear stagnant energy and tension from the body, using the breath as a healing thread to bring about deep release. It incorporates an element of visualization, a powerful tool we can use to help heal the body and expand the mind.
Breathing into the belly is a powerful way of activating the body’s innate relaxation response. As we breathe into the belly, our ‘fight or flight’ system comes to rest and we find ourselves in a more peaceful state of being. This worksheet helps us to explore this practice so that we can come back to it anytime we find that the breath is shallow or the mind is racing.
In this audio recording, Joseph Goldstein guides us through a mindful breathing practice from the Buddha’s discourse on the foundations of mindfulness. Through this practice, we deepen our understanding of what it means to breathe mindfully and how to deepen our mindfully breathing practice. This is an introduction to the first foundation in the Satipatthana sutta.
This simple breathing meditation is guided by Tara Brach, who describes how some might experience this type of practice as a sensation that the whole body is breathing. This practice encourages us to tune into the breath, as well as the rest of the body, helping us to discover a deeper sense of connection to the present moment.
This affectionate breathing exercise by Kristin Neff weaves breath awareness with a practice of self-compassion and kindness. As we breathe, we can consciously harness feelings of love and kindness for ourselves that will help to relax both body and mind. In this practice, we are guided to expand this sense of self-affection to encompass a sense of kindness for not only ourselves but for others as well.
Mindfulness Exercises Founder
Sean Fargo, founder of Mindfulness Exercises and the Mindfulness Exercises Institute, is a highly sought-after mindfulness teacher, coach, and consultant. After spending two years as a Buddhist monk and assisting world-renowned mindfulness leaders like Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Sean went on to share his own gifts and wisdom with the world. Facilitating personal growth in everyone from individuals and aspiring mindfulness teachers to celebrities and executives at Fortune 500 companies, Sean is committed to supporting collective mindful evolution across the globe.
1 "What Is Pranayama? A Brief History And Yoga Benefits". Gaia, 2016, https://www.gaia.com/article/what-pranayama-history. Accessed 22 July 2019.
2 Komjathy, Louis. Contemplative Literature: A Comparative Sourcebook On Meditation And Contemplative Prayer. State University Of New York Press, p. 265.
3 Cho, Hyunju et al. "The Effectiveness Of Daily Mindful Breathing Practices On Test Anxiety Of Students". PLOS ONE, vol 11, no. 10, 2016, p. e0164822. Public Library Of Science (Plos), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164822. Accessed 22 July 2019.
4 Sandoiu, Ana. "Why Mindful Breathing Keeps Your Brain Healthy And Young". Medical News Today, 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321794.php. Accessed 22 July 2019.