Our breath is always with us. It’s automatic. Although we breathe more than twenty thousand times a day, we pay no attention. But when we notice our breath it can tell us much about the current state of our health and well-being. When we are anxious, stressed, or in pain, we breathe more rapidly and shallowly from the shoulders. When we are relaxed we breathe more easily, gently, and slowly from the diaphragm or belly.
Take a moment right now as you read this to notice your breath. How does it feel? Is it tight? Or relaxed? Shallow? Or deep? Rapid? Or slow? Hard? Or gentle?
If it feels tight, hard, shallow, or rapid I invite you to try this practice.
Sit on a chair with your feet on the floor or on a pillow on the floor with your legs crossed so that your shins are parallel to your body, your back upright (not sloughing over or leaning back). Place your hands on your thighs or fold your hands in your lap. Set a timer for five minutes.
Close your eyes.
Take a few deep breaths to relax.
Now pay attention to the physical sensation of your breath. That’s all, nothing more. As you breathe in, say to yourself, “Breathing in.” As you breathe out, say to yourself, “Breathing out.”
When thoughts rise up, don’t worry. They will. Notice how they draw your attention away from your breath. Don’t make any judgements; thoughts rising up and falling away are a natural thing. When distracted by thoughts, simply acknowledge them by saying, “Thoughts,” and return your attention to the breath by saying to yourself, “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.
When an ache or pain arises in some part of your body distracting you from your breath, acknowledge it gently by saying to yourself, “Sensation,” and return your focus to the breath by saying to yourself, “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.
If this is not enough to rest your focus on the breath instead of the ache or pain, try this. Breathe into the place of pain as you focus on the breath. Doing this diminishes the pain and then you’ll realize that it is not there any more. Continue to focus on your breath by saying to yourself, “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.
Keep your focus on the breath in this way until the timer sounds. Now open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Do you feel different? How? This is a calming practice that will greatly enhance your sense of well-being. Now breathe.
Do this every day.
Once you feel comfortable watching your breath in this way for five minutes, increase the time. Don’t worry about how much you increase it. Maybe you’ll watch your breath for just a minute more, for six minutes, or maybe you’ll watch it for ten minutes. When you can comfortably sit for the new period of time increase the length of time again until you reach twenty-four or more minutes.
Remember, it is the doing, not the duration that is the gift of this practice.