“When the breath wanders, the mind is also unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still. … Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” – from the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā
Take a moment right now, before reading any more, and inhale a deep breath. Let your belly, ribs and chest expand. Now, exhale slowly. Do it two more times. Focus on one breath at a time. First the inhale, then the exhale. This simple breathing exercise links your mind to your body, and you to the present moment. Welcome to now.
Practicing mindfulness requires us to become mindful to what is happening right now. When we are distracted, lost in thought or not paying attention, bringing our awareness to our breath is the quickest and most effective way to get back to now. Our breath anchors us to the present moment.
Two formal ways to cultivate mindfulness are through meditation and yoga. Breath is the foundation of both. A basic and effective meditation practice is to sit quietly and bring your attention to your breath. I begin all my yoga classes by inviting my students to bring their awareness to their breath. Once we begin moving in class, we link the movement with our breath. When we reach our arms overhead, we take in a big inhale; as we fold forward, we exhale. Inhaling as we extend through our bodies, exhaling as we contract. And we hold poses, breathing into them, and organically sinking deeper as we inhale and exhale. It is through the coordination of breath and movement that students can experience a meditative quality to their practice, keeping them present and focused in the moment.
I invite you to become acquainted with your breath. Sit quietly, exploring your breath, from the time it enters your nostrils to the point of exhale. Where does it go? Note the quality based on what you’re doing. Learn to notice when it is shallow, when it quickens, when it’s ragged, and when it is slow and deep. Often, we are holding our breath and we don’t even know it. We run up the stairs and we’re out of breath. Because we forgot to breathe. But when we’re in the moment, quietly reading or engaging in a project we love, our breath becomes naturally calm, and the rhythm is smooth. The more familiar you become with your breath, the more your breath will guide you. If you’re excited about something, good or bad, you may notice your breath is shallow and originating in your upper chest. Take a moment for a nice deep inhale and slow exhale. Note any changes to your body, to your mind, and to your energy. When your breath is ragged, you might be physically or emotionally overexerting yourself. By paying attention, you’ll know when to back off. When you focus on your breath, you are mindfully living in the present moment; your inhale and your exhale are happening now.
Practicing coming back to the breath again and again throughout your day provides the perfect tool for learning how to bring your awareness and focus back to the present moment. Because it aligns the mind and body, it also creates a sense of grounding and centering, allowing you to feel more in control of your actions. Your mind quiets and you learn to thoughtfully respond rather than quickly react to a situation. As simple as this is, I think you’ll find that with practice, the benefits are profound. Next month, Practicing Presence. Until then …
Mindfulness Practice: Begin to practice taking a deep breath before you start anything. Or better yet, take three deep breaths. Before you eat a meal, before you make a phone call, before you take your dog for a walk, before you enter a meeting, before you get out of your car, before any activity, bring your awareness to your breath and then to the task at hand. Ask yourself how it affects your state of mind, how your body feels, and maybe even your perspective. Enjoy!
By Contributing Author, Heather Noto