Just breathe.

Have you ever been in such a beautiful place in such beautiful weather, maybe reclining on a beach with a cool breeze passing over your skin, that you were compelled to just close your eyes, breathe deeply and soak in all in, down to your very bones? No thoughts or worries, just the feeling of ocean air filling your nostrils and sunshine warming your body. In those few moments, you were practicing mindful breathing.

Woman enjoying the sunshine on the beach. Photo by Amandine Lerbscher on Unsplash.
When did you last find all of your awareness focused on your breath and body sensations? Photo by Amandine Lerbscher on Unsplash.

Try it now.

For the next 5 minutes stop reading, find a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes, begin to relax your body and focus 100% of your attention on your breath. Breathe normally, but perhaps pausing intentionally at the very end of each inhale and exhale, before you begin again. Welcome each breath as a brand new experience…

Start to notice: Where can you feel your breath? Is most of the air filling your upper chest? Your belly? Are your shoulders moving? How warm or cooling does this breath feel? Breathe again – what about this one? Is the air dry or humid? How quick is this breath? Breathe again – what about this one? What can you smell? Are your lips and jaw relaxed right now, or tight? Are you aware of how many breaths you’ve taken now? What is coming up for you right now, with this new breath? If your mind has wandered to some to-do item, thought or emotion, can you gently, as if your mind were a puppy, guide your mind back to this next breath? 

Mindful breathing is a calming form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is ultimately the practice of being present in the moment. It involves moment to moment awareness, without judgement, according to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at UMASS. Another way to think about mindfulness is that it involves “paying attention to your present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is,” a definition used by Diana Winston at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Another definition used by mindfulness researchers Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson is “the clear and single-minded awareness of what happens” in our experience during successive moments.

Because most of us don’t live on a beach in 70 degree weather all year round, mindfulness might unfortunately be something that we naturally experience only rarely. Instead, we have to practice mindfulness even as daily life seems to demand our full attention 24/7. 

In this blog post, you will learn about the science of mindfulness and why and how you should practice it. Keep reading – this could earn you years of healthier life!

What’s the Big Deal about Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is pretty trendy these days. You might see promoted social media posts, magazines at your local grocery store and popular apps calling for you to pause, breathe and practice mindfulness to de-stress your life. What these messages probably don’t tell you is that there are now over 6,000 published research studies on mindfulness, many detailing how mindfulness practices can improve subjective and objective physical well-being, regulation of emotions, concentration, memory, activity in the amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for “freeze, fight or flight” responses) in response to stressors, anxiety, pain and feelings of disability, asthma symptoms, levels of stress hormones, inflammation, immune function and other health metrics. Mindfulness training can even change brain structure to better connect the “CEO” executive control center with the Default Mode Network area of the brain responsible for what is often stress-producing mind-wandering. The executive control center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, quiets the Default Mode Network in meditators

Impressively, other relaxing activities that don’t involve placing full awareness on the present moment without judgement don’t have these same benefits. 

“Consider that chronic stress affects the brain much as running too many applications simultaneously impacts your computer’s performance. After all, the brain is a computer of sorts. And both suffer when overloaded.” – Deborah Schoeberlein David, Author, ‘Living Mindfully”

More Reading: This is Your Brain on Stress

Mind-wandering can lead to both creativity and unhappiness. Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash.
Mind-wandering can lead to both creativity and unhappiness. Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash.

A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind

Walking the dog. Commuting to work. Drinking water. Eating Dinner.

These are activities that we can easily zoom past, lost in thought or in gazing into our phones. Our thoughts can wander so much that we can’t even recall exactly what the weather was like or even who we saw while walking, how we got to work, where we parked our car or how much water we drank today, if someone were to ask. 

Mind-wandering, also called self-generated thought, is getting lost in thought that doesn’t pertain to the present moment and your experience of it. Mind-wandering in the right contexts can foster creativity – like when you have an epiphany while doing the dishes or brushing your teeth. But like chronic stress, “chronic” mind-wandering leads to less enjoyment of life’s everyday moments. Mind-wandering during moments that should be filled with joy and awareness (walking in nature, talking to a loved one) robs these moments. And our minds tend to wander more when our mood is negative.  

“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” – Killingsworth and Gilbert

Mind-wandering in the form of rumination or replaying negative thoughts, scenarios and memories in your mind can amplify your stress. This can lead to increased risk of anxiety, depression, inflammation and chronic disease. 

Mindful awareness aims to pause mind-wandering and its negative impacts on your mental and physical health. Mindfulness practice can help you quiet down your wandering mind when it isn’t serving you. Meditation can actually improve your brain’s ability to recover from stressful triggers, quiet down automatic responses such as the fight or flight response, and even moderate automatic reward system responses in your brain that can lead to addiction.

“You may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s okay. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.” – Diana Winston, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center

Mindfulness Isn’t Positive Thinking

Mindfulness is a gentle call to your mind and body to stop replaying experiences, encounters or stressful events from your past, and to pause any planning for the future. 

Gentle or “without judgement” is a key component of mindful awareness. In between the busy moments of your life your mind will inevitably wander, probably to the past or to the future. It is important not to judge your mind for doing this. Don’t down on yourself for not being fully present during meditation or another activity. Even on the beach, you could get caught up in the stress of planning your next day. Rather, acknowledge and even “name” thoughts and emotions as they come up (this is fear, this is anger, this is regret, this is fatigue) and then let them pass or flitter away without trying to hold on to them, work through them, make any decisions based on them or otherwise grapple with them just because they happened to come up in any given moment. As easily as they came, mindfulness calls for just letting them go. 

Mindfulness doesn’t mean forcing new “positive” thoughts or emotions into the place of negative or stressful ones. Instead, it involves acknowledging and letting go of all passing thoughts and emotions, “good” or “bad”. This is a skill that you can train through mindful breathing or meditation. In this training, you will focus on your breath and your body sensations, notice your mind wandering, and then gently re-focus again

We put a lot of emphasis on our thoughts and emotions. We often act impulsively on them, instantly share them or label them as “bad”. But our minds are mass factories of thoughts, some important and some insignificant. Our thoughts and emotions don’t define us – we just have to practice being aware of them but not placing so much weight on them that they become our sense of self.

Mindfulness or mindful awareness on your present experience is best cultivated through concentrated practice. Through mindful breathing, meditation and mindful yoga, you can begin to bring mindfulness to your everyday experiences. Feel every nuance of the taste of your coffee in the morning, feel the sensation of the steering wheel as you commute to work, notice how your feet feel in your shoes as you take an evening walk, enjoy how the breeze feels on your skin. 

“The moment you woke up today, were you breathing in or out?” – Sayadaw U Pandita

Mindful breathing is one of the most accessible ways to practice mindfulness. 

Natural environments often trigger more mindful breathing. Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash.
Natural environments often trigger more mindful breathing. Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash.

Do I Really Need To Sit Half-Lotus?

You can practice mindful breathing anywhere and at any time – commuting to work, standing in line at the pharmacy. But for beginners it’s best trained in the form of a still mindful breathing meditation, eyes closed, sitting or lying down. If you are a yogi or good at balancing, you can also practice while standing, perhaps on your yoga mat, tuning into your breath and feeling the fine adjustments in your feet and ankles as they work to keep you standing still and upright. 

You might wonder if practicing mindful breathing as a sitting meditation is really necessary. You could just as easily practice it on the go. But imagine wanting to be able to perform a handstand, for a photo-op or to impress a friend, no matter where you were. You could try this skill for the first time on the go and in public, but it probably wouldn’t go so well! You would need to spend hours practicing and mastering the skill first before performing it flawlessly on-demand. Free standing on your hands requires months of training against a wall or with a coach at the gym. 

Mindful breathing meditation in a still, eyes-closed position for many minutes at a time is like practicing your handstand against a wall or lifting weights at the gym to build your arm strength before you even try the handstand. It’s the training that builds up the mindfulness “muscles” in your brain. These “muscles” include greater connections between the executive centers of your brain, like the prefrontal cortex, and “emotional brain” and Default Mode Network areas including the posterior cingulate cortex, amygdala and insula. These regions are responsible for automatic responses to stressors, mind-wandering and connecting thoughts with emotions. 

With time and training, mindfulness can become “muscle memory”. This is thanks to neuroplasticity or the ability of your brain to reshape based on your experiences (and practice!)

Practice your mindful breathing in a position and location that is comfortable but also helps you feel alive and awake. You can sit cross-legged or with your legs under you while sitting on a cushion or a yoga block.
Practice your mindful breathing in a position and location that is comfortable but also helps you feel alive and awake. You can sit cross-legged or with your legs under you while sitting on a cushion or a yoga block.

How to Practice Mindful Breathing

To practice mindful breathing, set aside at least 10 minutes in a quiet location to bring your awareness to your breath. Find a comfortable position that allows you to breathe easily. For example, you can sit upright in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. 

Close your eyes and allow yourself to settle into your body. Feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Scan your body slowly to tune into how you are feeling and where there is tension you could let go of. 

Then, with gentle intention, tune into your breath, each inhale and exhale, noticing each as a brand new experience. Each inhale is one you’ve never taken before. Notice every nuance of how this new inhale feels and what it is bringing you. Does this inhale bring a sensation of light or fresh air with it? Does it have a cooling sensation? Do the same with each exhale. Are you breathing out tension? Hot air from your lungs? As your thoughts begin to wander, you can even imagine exhaling them out of your body and mind as you guide yourself back to your breath once you’ve noticed the wandering.

If you find yourself very stressed or in pain, you can also practice mindful breathing while lying on the floor. For example, the relaxed savasana or “corpse” pose (back to the ground), common at the end of a yoga practice, allows for easy mindful breathing. However, many people find that mindful breathing in a reclined, horizontal position, particularly at the end of the day, can lead to sleepiness. 

It is just fine to practice mindful breathing to fall asleep – people with insomnia often find this to be helpful! But in order to practice insight-producing mindful breathing, the kind that trains mindfulness-related circuits in your brain and improves your concentration, memory, emotion regulation, stress resilience and physical health, you want to find an alert ease or that alert state of relaxation that exists between “too much” alertness (a level that it is stressful or uncomfortable) and your drowsy “comfort zone”. 

Sometimes we can find this alert ease while lying down with our eyes closed, but other times we might need to sit or stand up, or even open our eyes, to come back to this state while meditating on our breath. As you advance in your practice of mindful breathing and improve your awareness of your breath, body sensations and wandering mind, you might even find yourself naturally “modulating” your state of alertness within a single practice. You might start lying down, but feel yourself getting drowsy, and thus sit up or even open your eyes with a soft gaze on an object in front of you in order to maintain an intentional focus on your breath. Or you might start a mindful breathing practice while standing or sitting but find yourself feeling pain or getting frustrated, and so resolve to find a more relaxed position and comfortable state of mind in order to come back to your breath. 

Mindful breathing practice is meant to slightly challenge your attention and your mind’s automatic processes. It is not meant to be painful, uncomfortable or stressful! Take care of yourself first – this is your practice.

Child's pose is another yoga position that can foster mindful breathing and relaxation. Photo by Katee Lue on Unsplash.
Child’s pose is another yoga position that can foster mindful breathing and relaxation. Photo by Katee Lue on Unsplash.

Thank You For Being Here Now!

Congratulations! You’ve just taken an important step on what can be a life-changing journey toward a greater presence in all of the moments of your life. 

Even just five minutes of mindful breathing can improve your mental state and sense of well-being. However, to glean all of the benefits of mindfulness including a sustained reduction in your brain’s reactivity to stressors and propensity for mind-wandering, it is best to practice mindfulness for 20-30 minutes every day.

By combining mindful breathing meditation time with daily “pauses”, mindful yoga, mindful walking and even mindful eating during one of your daily snacks or meals, you’ll easily rack up these health-promoting mindfulness minutes!

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