Teachers often compare the breath to an anchor, that prevents us from getting lost in meditation. “Simply focus on the breath…” is the advice given to mindfulness meditation novices in how-to guides. But what does “focus on the breath” mean? More specifically, how do you focus on the breath?
We are told to focus on our breath in mindfulness meditation for a number of reasons: to relax our bodies, to give our wandering minds a point of focus, and because breathing is an involuntary function of our bodies that we can feel. Focusing our our breath is the definition of mindfulness. By noticing our breath, our minds are fully “in the moment.”
How to Focus on Your Breath in Meditation
Step 1: Mind your posture.
You wouldn’t want to go sailing with a flimsy anchor, would you? The breath is ‘the anchor’ of your meditation practice and your posture is gives the anchor its weight. Good posture in meditation can help you concentrate. Your mind and your body are connected and influence each other. Sitting upright and engaging your core will keep you alert during your session. You must keep your back straight, your shoulders back, and your chin slightly raised. This will open your chest and allow you breathe deeply and fully into your belly.
Step 2: Focus on the sensation of breathing.
We do not notice the involuntary function of breathing. When you take the time to focus completely on your breath, you will notice that you can feel it. You can feel the air enter through your nostrils, hit the back of your throat, and travel down into your body, expanding your lungs, pushing your ribcage outward, expanding your belly, and stretching your abdomen — a slight pressure on your lower back. Focus on the sensation of breathing. Determine where in this process you feel the breath most, and focus on that point.
Step 3: Count each breath.
Once you have determined where you feel your breath most, begin counting your breaths. When you count, count one inhale, one exhale, two inhale, two exhale. Counting is an activity that requires concentration and awareness. This technique will keep your mind from drifting during your practice (another term for this is ‘monkey mind’). If you lose count, do not become frustrated with yourself. Start from one and begin again.
…or Step 3: Repeat a mantra.
‘Mantra’ is a Sanskrit word derived from two roots: man (mind) and trai (tool). Mantras are “tools of the mind” and one of the most common practices in meditation. Mantras have many uses and one is to slow the breath. Over 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders — roughly 18% of the nation’s population. If you are prone to anxiety, sitting in silence can kick your mind into overdrive, quickening your breath. Use a mantra to slow the breath, bringing you a sense of calm.
Similar to counting, mantras give your mind something to ‘hold on to’ while you focus on your breath. Mantras consist of two short encouraging phrases. The first phrase is said on the inhale and the second phrase is said on the exhale.
This is an example of a matra you can use in your daily meditation practice. The mantra is from Thich Nhat Hanh, renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, zen master, and peace activist:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
It is important to be patient with yourself. Focusing on your breath will become second nature as long as you remain consistent with your meditation practice. For more meditation advice and to learn about AVS Mindfulness and the release of our instructional mindfulness meditation app, visit us at avsmindfulness.com.