Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.
Thich Nhat Hanh – Buddhist Monk
We don’t have to think about breathing in order to survive. If we did, we likely wouldn’t last very long. There are times when we may be more aware of our breath, like breathing heavily after a strenuous workout, or seeing your breath on a cold winter morning, but for the most part, this powerful, sustaining life force goes unnoticed by most of us, most of the time. Thankfully, the medulla oblongata at the top of the spinal cord is the part of the brain dedicated to controlling respiration, heartbeat, and blood flow. It keeps us going without us directing it to, and healthy bodies function automatically in this way. But, when we learn and practice how to pay attention to our breath, deliberately and intentionally, it can become an important resource to support emotional and physical wellbeing.
There are many different mindfulness and meditation techniques, but one of the most fundamental relies on using the breath as an anchor, or object of focus. The more that we practice paying attention to our breath repeatedly and purposefully, the better able we are to balance ourselves, particularly in times of stress. Our breath can steady us, calm us, and help to settle our body and mind. Fortunately, it’s also something that is always available to us.
Take the next few minutes to first read the following guidance and then experiment with it a bit. Seriously, just try it.
Put down the phone you may be reading this on or close your laptop. Settle yourself in an upright, alert position, maybe with your hands resting gently in your lap. Close your eyes and slowly take three long and intentional breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to focus on the sensation of the breath in your nostrils and your chest or abdomen and notice your breath leaving your body when you exhale. Don’t rush to open your eyes, but simply sit for a moment longer as your breathing returns to its normal rhythm, and then slowly open your eyes when you are ready.
How did it feel to intentionally pause and breathe? Do you feel any differently than before you did the exercise?
If you felt maybe even a little bit more relaxed or centered, maybe you realize that closing your eyes and taking a moment to pause can feel like hitting a mental reset button. Perhaps you can begin to see how making a habit of intentionally using the breath as an anchor could build on that feeling.
If you didn’t notice any change, that’s okay too. A large part of breathing with intention, breathing mindfully, is just to check in with yourself and reestablish the connection between your body and your mind. This is important in and of itself, just noticing the breath and how it feels without being compelled to do or change anything. Taking a pause and focusing your attention is enough.
While this exercise is incredibly simple, it’s not something that many of us are used to doing. Becoming aware of the breath is a basic building block of mindfulness practice, and with practice, allows us to experience one of the benefits of mindfulness practice, the ability to better regulate emotions. When we build on this basic skill, we can become more observant of our feelings, thoughts, and actions in relation to our environment. When we take the time to pause, observe, and get curious about what is happening in body, we gain value feedback on how we are interacting with the world around us.
Experiment with this technique of pausing and focusing on the breath at different times throughout the day and see how it feels.
Meredith began exploring mindfulness over six years ago when an injury sidelined her yoga practice. It was not until stepping away from the mat that she realized how much she valued the mental benefits of yoga as much as the physical ones, and the mind-body connection inherent in practice. She discovered she could replicate and cultivate that same sense of calm and ease in seated meditation practice, and through continued study and practice has an even greater appreciation and understanding of mindfulness as a tool to support and enhance all aspects of daily life. Her current study of mindfulness practice is through Lesley University’s Mindfulness Studies program, the only M.A. of its kind. She will complete her degree by Summer of 2022, focusing on the integration of mindfulness in physical fitness programs. While Meredith is beginning her journey as a Mindfulness Coach, her background in Communication and Education informs her philosophy of teaching and learning. She strives to embody compassionate, mindful practice in engaging with students of all ages, recognizing that learning is a lifelong endeavor, and everyone is capable of personal growth. Meredith’s mindfulness practice has helped her to better manage stress and anxiety, become a more effective and compassionate communicator, and enjoy each small moment with much more focus and calm. It is both Meredith’s privilege and purpose to share mindfulness practices that support overall health and wellbeing with others. Meredith’s personal interest in mindfulness practice has been bolstered by her study of traditional Buddhist philosophy. She is also certified in Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness practice and Advanced Mindfulness Based Interventions for Children and Teens, as well as being a certified Reiki Level 2 practitioner.