Breath Awareness – A Simple Exercise to Reduce Stress and Improve Focus


Breath awareness is a simple technique, but only through repetition of practice and intensity of experience can you affect real inner change. Practicing this technique can restructure the brain, trigger physiological processes to enhance health, and develop a mind capable of experiencing happiness and peace. Before you embark on this transformational journey, prepare yourself both inwardly and outwardly. Be courageous and willing to walk this path alone. Not everyone is ready to look within, understand why there is discontent and disease, and find a remedy. Your partner, your children, your closest friend, and all the people you see who are suffering, may not share your enthusiasm. If you are asked to explain why you do it, or find yourself defending your beliefs in the face of skepticism, be diplomatic and empathetic of other people’s opinions or feelings. Arguing may cause undue agitation and end up dampening your own inspiration to continue. Guard your innermost wish to be happy and share your aspirations with those who understand, care, and support your endeavors. When you begin this introspective journey you are like a vulnerable sapling. Protect yourself against external forces that could undermine your growth until your roots are well-established and your purpose is clear. It is difficult to proceed confidently if friends and family misunderstand what you are doing. Be confident and stay focused on your goal. Later, when you are a mature tree sharing your shade, fruit, and beauty, others will notice your transformation and may be inspired to do the same.

Establish a Daily Routine

Choose a time of day when you will be least disturbed or needed for other family responsibilities. Early in the morning or in the evening would be great if you have a busy life. You may also find time after everyone has gone to sleep, although the problem with practicing late at night is natural sleepiness. Select a quiet corner in your home where the lights can be dimmed. The area should be organized and free of distracting clutter. Ticking clocks can be annoying; use a quiet clock that has illuminated numbers visible if it is dark. After some practice you will get a sense for how much time has passed and will only have to glance at the clock now and again. Using a clock is an important part of the practice. Without a set time you would get up when sitting became uncomfortable, which would be counterproductive to developing focus.

To develop your ability to sit longer and concentrate better, practice by sitting with your legs loosely crossed or in a kneeling position on the floor. Use a firm cushion or folded blankets high enough to prop you up and to let your knees drop down slightly. A cross-legged position creates a tripod effect and provides great stability. If this position does not work, try sitting on the edge of a chair with your feet placed flat on the floor or crossed at the ankles. Using a back support or soft couch may cause drowsiness, which makes doing breath awareness difficult. Make adjustments until you find what position works best. If the room is cool, you may want to drape a shawl around your shoulders. Be warm, but not hot. Wrapping a shawl around you will also provide a sense of comfort and protection. Sit somewhere where insects will not bother you; compassionately remove flies, wasps, bees, mosquitoes, or other buzzing critters from the room. Close windows to minimize outside noise if the room is not too stuffy. Once you have found a comfortable sitting position on your cushion or chair, fold your hands in your lap or rest them on your knees. Whenever possible, keep your eyes closed or lowered while practicing.

Feel the Breath – Nothing More

Start your session with a calm and quiet mind. When ready, direct your attention to your breathing. You do not need to control your breath, breath deeply, or change your breathing in any way. Breath awareness is not a breathing exercise. Your job is simply to observe your natural, normal breath as it is. When you inhale, feel the breath flow over the area of skin at the entrance of your nostrils or slightly above your upper lip. Be aware of its cool temperature or slight stinging inside your nose. Now be aware of your breath leaving your nose; feel its warm air flowing out and touching the small area of skin at the entrance of your nostrils. For twenty minutes remain continuously aware of your incoming and outgoing respiration softly touching your skin at the entrance of your nose and its cool or warm sensation inside your nose.

The only difficult part of breath awareness is keeping your attention continuously fixed on feeling the breath. Given any opportunity, your attention wanders away from your breath. You become distracted by an external event-a noise in the next room or a bird chattering outside the window. Or you start examining other things going on in your body-a numb foot, an aching back, or a rumbling stomach. Or you let your mind do what it likes to do best-think, imagine, remember, stress, hope, anticipate, doubt, analyze, and so on.

Your aim in this session is to develop the ability to concentrate on feeling the breath for twenty minutes without becoming distracted. This goal may take some time to do, so for now even a few minutes is an achievement. Until your mind becomes calm and sensitive, you might not be able to feel the breath’s touch. If you cannot feel it on your skin or inside your nose, breathe harder until you can. Once you do feel your breath, go back to normal breathing and see if you can still feel it. Keep doing this until you are successful. Even if you feel nothing, if you remain focused on the area below your nose you will eventually feel the subtle, almost imperceptible, touch of air. This technique requires that you observe and feel the soft touch of natural respiration. Natural breath means exactly that-your normal, ordinary, everyday breath. Sometimes your natural breath is rapid and shallow; sometimes it is long and deep. Sometimes your breathing is erratic; other times rhythmic. Sometimes your nose is stuffy and breathing is strained or noisy. The main thing to remember is that the object of focus is always your natural, normal breath, as it is, in the moment you are aware of it.

Observe Natural, Normal, Ordinary Breath – As it is

Many of us do various breath exercises like Pranayama, belly breathing, or controlled breathing to deal with pain or stress. Some of us visualize white light while we breathe or use our breath to heal and energize different parts of our body. These breathing technique are similar but not quite the same as this method.

To understand the difference, it is helpful to put aside the other techniques while learning breath awareness or you may start mixing techniques and compromise the results. While working through the program, it is recommended that you practice exactly as instructed. Then when you go back to other breathing techniques and exercises you will know the difference.

Breath awareness provides a way to observe your reality as it is-not the “reality” you create in your imagination. The aim is to develop the ability to observe reality objectively and without reaction. This is the reason why you do not control, slow, or change your breathing. The moment you start manipulating your breathing, you interfere with what would be happening naturally. When you objectively “watch” the breath you are actually experiencing it while being aware of it. This is a rare event. Usually we experience something while simultaneously reacting to it without much awareness. In this technique you will not be using your imagination, you will be experiencing sensation the whole time. Thoughts and imagination are also real and do exist, but they are intangible, transient, and illusionary, whereas a sensation is tangible.

For this meditation to effectively transform deeply ingrained habits and conditioning, we need to work with actual sensations and concrete experiences. We need to feel pain, pleasure, restlessness, or irritability, or experience emotions like sadness, depression, anger, or fear in order to change our unconscious reactions to these sensations and feelings. Otherwise, we could simply imagine something like fear or pain, and imagine changing our reaction to it. This futile mind game would simply engage our fantasy, and none of our deep-rooted conditioning would manifest to give us the opportunity to change our reaction to the conditioning. Therefore, when you practice breath awareness, remember to not stay engrossed in thinking and imagination, because the technique will be less effective.

When you observe your breath, you will be continually experiencing your reality as it happens in the moment.Like a scientist, you will objectively examine every detail of your breath-its temperature, characteristics, rhythm, which nostril it is entering and leaving, and how it changes over the course of a sitting. The moment you manipulate or control your breathing you will no longer be observing your natural reality. When you realize that you are controlling your breath, merely acknowledge that you are controlling it and resume breathing naturally. Your aim is to become aware of your reality by feeling it. You want to experience what is going on at exactly the moment a sensation manifests. The aim is to stay alert, attentive, and connected with every sensation that arises and manifests on your skin in this limited area. This is how you consciously experience your “now” state.

Fix Attention on the Spot Where Breath Touches

To perform breath awareness, begin focusing your entire attention on a small patch of skin about one or two centimeters in diameter located directly below the nostrils and immediately above your upper lip. If you were to spread your attention to studying larger areas, you may compromise developing one-pointed focus. Your first goal is to develop a sharp and alert mind capable of examining the tiniest details of your physical reality. Although you begin by limiting your area of examination, you will learn a great deal about your mind/body phenomenon by studying this one small spot. Once your attention is sharp and focused, you will have the ability to perform a penetrating and meticulous examination of your entire physical and mental structure and experience deeper levels of your reality.

Decide how long you wish to sit for your first practice. In the beginning, it is recommended that you adhere to the suggested times. This first session is for twenty. If this seems too long, work for ten. Whether you sit for ten or twenty minutes, the important point is to remain sitting until the time is up. If you choose twenty minutes, sit twenty minutes-right down to the last second. If you choose ten minutes, sit for the full ten minutes. Glance at a clock and determine when the time will be up. Set an alarm if you like, but know that an alarm will startle you unless it is a quiet one. It is fine to open your eyes occasionally to check the time as long as it does not distract you from feeling your breath. With experience, you will be able to determine how much time has passed.

Exercise Determination

When sitting becomes uncomfortable, and it will, know that the real work has begun. Make a strong determination to sit through any discomfort, restlessness, or boredom. Persist and be rewarded. If you have pain in your legs or back, slowly shift your position. Whenever you move, move consciously so as not to overreact and break your concentration. While changing positions, continue feeling your breath. Moving your leg or foot should not interrupt your focus. When you first start observing your breath it may be awkward to breathe naturally. It takes a bit of practice to breathe normally when observing the breath because we become self-conscious, which actually changes how we breathe. After a few breaths your attention might wander. As soon as you discover that you are thinking rather than feeling the breath, start again.

Focus on the incoming breath. Focus on the outgoing breath. There is nothing more to do. You might become aware of your breath’s temperature-its cool softness entering your nose and its warmth as it leaves. This is good. Feeling everything about the breath is essential to this technique. Where there is feeling there is experience and this technique is all about actual, real experience. The moment you stop feeling and get distracted in thought, the now experience is gone. Continue being mindful of breathing. You may start to notice the breath causing occasional itchiness or stinging-sensations manifest when the mind becomes aware of the breath touching the skin.

Be Aware of Every Breath

In this particular technique you do not follow your breath inside your body. You keep your attention fixed at all times on the small area of skin below your nose. Breath awareness is about being continuously aware of breath as it passes over this one spot. The smaller the area, the sharper your focus becomes. If you are imagining your breath entering your nose, traveling to the back of your mouth, down your throat, and then filling your chest, lungs, and stomach, you are practicing a different exercise. In this particular technique, the attention remains fixed on the small area of skin at the entrance of the nostrils. If you cannot feel your breath’s delicate touch, take some harder breaths until you can. Once you detect it, resume natural, normal breathing. As long as you fix your attention on the area where you should be feeling your breath, your mind will gradually become more sensitive and alert.

Soon you will be able to feel the breath ever so slightly. If the mind is preoccupied or insensitive, feeling the breath’s touch will be difficult. If you do not feel its touch, that is fine, but continue focusing on the exact area of skin below your nose. You will probably feel the skin throbbing, itching, tickling, vibrating, or stinging. Although these sensations are not the touch of breath, they will keep you focused until you do feel it. Continue concentrating on natural breathing without missing a single breath. Be aware of how many consecutive breaths you can feel before your attention wanders, but resist counting. Counting can become a distraction. Pure natural breath is all that you want to focus on. This technique does not use counting. At first, you may only be aware of five or six breaths before your mind wanders. When your mind wanders, simply bring it back to the touch of breath. Attention training happens by repetitively bringing focus back to the breath. The length of time that you focus on the breath will eventually stretch into a minute or two, and eventually you will focus for ten or fifteen minutes. Focusing purely on feeling without letting your attention wander into your imagination is difficult in the beginning, but with practice it becomes easier.

Equanimity is the Goal

Fatigue can become an obstacle. Sleepiness may simply indicate that you need more rest, but it can also be how your subconscious copes with pain, boredom, frustration, or stress. If you keep nodding off or feel overly tired, acknowledge your sleepiness, straighten your back, and take a few harder breaths. If this doesn’t wake you up, open your eyes for a few minutes. If fatigue still overwhelms you, stand up, walk around, and then sit down and continue working. Remember that when you do any one of these things, stay continually focused on your incoming and outgoing breath in order to not break your concentration. Return to focusing on your respiration and make an effort not to let one single breath go unnoticed. Now and again, however, your mind will slide back into thinking. Know that each time you start thinking or imagining, it is like landing your aircraft and postponing your journey; it will take much longer to arrive at your destination.

To reach your goal-a more calm and focused mind-you must keep your attention continuously fixed on the area below your nose or slightly above your upper lip. When twenty minutes is over, resist jumping up and tending to all those tasks and duties calling for your attention. Take a minute to savor the moment, stretch your legs, and be mindful of how your body and mind feel. If you had an inattentive, irritable practice session, acknowledge how it was, and smile. Remember, whether your experience was focused or unfocused, pleasant or unpleasant, maintaining equanimity is the key to success.

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