For many, mindfulness starts with the breath. When we think of meditation and mindfulness practice, the image may come to mind of sitting still and focusing on the breath. Althouth there are many forms of mindfulness practice, mindful breathing is a wonderful place to start.
Working with the breath is one of the best technique for beginners, but it can be useful for people with any amount of experience. The breath is always with us, and provides a powerful object of awareness to cultivate clarity, insight, and wisdom.
What is Mindfulness of the Breath
Mindful breathing is the practice of tuning in completely to the experience of the breath in our body. Mindfulness is not just about being present, but truly recognizing our experience and seeing it clearly. To learn more about what mindfulness is (and what it is not), I recommend reading our post What is Mindfulness?
Generally speaking, mindfulness of the breath means establishing awareness and recognition of the physical sensations related to breathing. With each inhale and exhale, we bring our attention to the present-time experience in the body.
Perhaps the most well-known place in which the Buddha taught of the breath is in the Anapanasati Sutta. This sutta, or discourse, covers the practice of working with the breath. It is extensive, and offers sixteen steps to establishing mindfulness of the breath.
Mindfulness of breathing is also included in the first foundation of mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta. As one of many ways to establish awareness in the body, the instructions in the Satipatthana Sutta are fairly similar to a portion of the Anapanasati Sutta.
Mindful Breathing Benefits
There are many benefits of meditation practice in general, as outlined in our post 29 Scientific Benefits of Meditation: What the Research Tells Us. Mindfulness of breath is one technique used in many of these studies, as it is foundational, accessible, and incredibly useful.
We’re not going to turn this into a whole post about research and benefits, but want to list some research-backed claims. Here are a few benefits of meditating with the breath:
- Boost the immune system (source)
- Reduce stress (source)
- Improve memory (source)
- Cultivate compassion (source)
- Work with obesity (source)
In addition to the scientific research supporting this meditation technique, it is a fundamental part of the Buddhist path. We can establish mindfulness any time in the body breathing, feeling the rise and fall throughout our meditation or days. It acts as a powerful standalone practice, and an important aspect of vipassana meditation, loving-kindness practice, tonglen, and more.
Guided Breath Meditations
There are many ways to actually practice. Here we have a few guided meditations you can try to begin working with the breath. These are three great guided breath meditations for beginners.
Breathing in Daily Life
We can of course practice in formal sitting meditation, but we can also benefit from returning to the present moment via the breath in daily life. I wrote about this practice multiple times in my book Practicing Mindfulness, and it is a great way to develop daily mindfulness.
One practice I love and write about frequently is the practice of awareness triggers. The idea is relatively simple. Pick one activity or event that happens to you regularly during your day. It may be the sound of a phone ringing, the act of changing posture (moving from sitting to standing, or standing to sitting), reading an email, or drinking water.
When your trigger comes up in your life, pause and take a few deep breaths. You can simply inhale and exhale deeply, use the Finger Breathing practice from my book, or find your own way to be present with the physical experience of breathing. In this way, you can return over and over to the here and now.