“Twenty years after the Buddha attained enlightenment, a senior monk by the name of Ananda became his personal attendant. One day he asked the Buddha, ‘Venerable sir, if people ask me whether you are still practicing meditation, what should I tell them?’
The Buddha replied that, yes, he was still meditating.
‘What kind of meditation do you practice, venerable sir?’ Ananda asked.
‘Mindfulness of breathing,’ the Buddha answered.”
- Bhante Gunaratana, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English
Breathing is the cornerstone of many mindfulness practices. It’s something that’s always there, that we can always return to. Even 20 years after reaching enlightenment, the Buddha still found the breath worthy of his attention.
And good things happen when we focus on our breath. We trigger the “relaxation response,” which can lower heart rate, increase concentration, and make us feel calm, leading to better overall health and wellness.
In this post, we’ll look at some of the basics of mindful breathing and the relaxation response and provide 3 easy practices you can start today.
What is Mindfulness? A Simple Description from a Harvard Professor
Ellen Langer, Ph.D., the first woman to be tenured in psychology at Harvard, has studied mindfulness for over 30 years. She describes it succinctly as "the simple process of actively drawing distinctions. It is finding something new in what we may think we already know. It doesn't matter what we notice—whether it's smart or silly. Simply noticing is what's important."
And what better place to find something new than in something as dull and automatic as our breath? After all, we take over 20,000 breaths per day (most of which go unnoticed), giving us many opportunities to practice mindfulness.
What Is Mindful Breathing, and Is It as Unexciting as It Sounds?
As dull as this may seem, mindful breathing is the simple act of noticing the breath. Importantly, it’s not a “breathing exercise.” It’s simply observing your breath in a nonjudgmental way.
With that said, we may find that our breath naturally changes when we focus on it. In general, our breath usually becomes calmer, making our mind feel calm, too. As Buddhist monk and American scholar, Bhante Gunaratana states, “Mindfulness itself makes the breath relax. Any force is counterproductive.”
The Benefits of Mindful Breathing Framed through the Relaxation Response
Mindful breathing is a form of meditation, which you likely know has many benefits, such as improving attention, lowering stress, and reducing inflammation (among others).
Although many complex neurophysiological changes are occurring, we can frame these benefits through the lens of the “relaxation response.”
The relaxation response was coined by the late Harvard professor Herbert Benson, MD, to explain the various benefits associated with meditation. Here’s how he describes it: “Briefly stated, the relaxation response is defined as the response that is the opposite of the “fight-or-flight” or stress response. It is characterized by the following: decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing; a decrease or “calming” in brain activity; an increase in attention and decision-making functions of the brain; and changes in gene activity that are the opposite of those associated with stress.”
Those benefits sound exceptional for something as simple as paying attention to our breath.
So, let’s look at how to do it.
How to Practice Mindful Breathing: 3 Easy Techniques You Can Start Using Now
You can use these three simple mindful breathing techniques anytime and anyplace for one breath or one hour. For the best results, Dr. Benson suggests at least 10-20 minutes twice daily.
1. Breath Counting
This is one of the simplest places to start. In this approach, you count each breath you take, saying the number in your head as you exhale. Count up to ten, then return to zero. If you lose count, it’s no big deal; just start over at one.
2. Mantra Repetition
Pick a word or phrase that is simple and meaningful to you. If you are religious, you can pick a prayer. Some common terms people use are “peace,” “love,” or “happy.” Although cliché, I use the phrase “be the change” because it’s meaningful to me. No one ever has to know, so just ensure it’s something that makes you feel good.
Once you have one picked, breathe in naturally and silently say it as you exhale. If your mind starts wandering, Dr. Benson suggests saying “oh well,” and returning to your phrase. Once you finish, give yourself a few minutes of rest and allow your thoughts to return.
3. Breath Awareness
Let’s finish where we started: with the Buddha. His Ānāpānasati (“mindfulness of breathing”) Sutta gives deceptively simple instructions for mindful breathing.
Find a quiet and peaceful place where you can sit comfortably. As you inhale, notice you are inhaling. As you exhale, notice you are exhaling. If your breath feels short, you simply notice your breath feels short. If it feels long, you notice it feels long. There’s no need to change anything. Just notice it. It’s that simple.
You now have a basic understanding of mindful breathing, its benefits, and three practices you can get started with today. You may not reach enlightenment, but you will definitely feel calmer and clearer afterward. So, enjoy noticing and harnessing the power of the breath!
If Your Lungs Need Some Extra Love
If you're having trouble controlling your breath or feeling like your breath is controlling you, resB Lung Support is a great holistic tool to get back on track. You can learn more at www.resbiotic.com.
About the Author
Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.