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  • Michael Ryan Therapy

How to Create a Mindfulness Breathing Practice

There are different paths to create healthy changes in your life. You can change yourself by working on your thoughts, emotions, physical body, and spirituality. What many of us don't pay attention to is that, without any effort, our breath changes in response to stressful thoughts, emotions, illness, and physical activity. Just think of some common expressions we use: shallow breathing, take a deep breath, breathing heavy, and take my breath away. Since thoughts, emotions, our bodies, and our spirituality are tied to our breath, we can also change ourselves by focusing on how we breathe. Mindfulness is a tool we can use to make these changes.

Last week I wrote about the “why” of mindfulness. This week, I’ll talk about the “how.” What does mindfulness look like? Do I have to sit with my legs crossed? I don’t have a lot of time, so how long should I practice? What if my mind wanders?

Space, time, and posture

Every positive habit begins with a first step. Set aside your physical space. This could be a corner, a bathroom, or a locked car. As long as you can practice without being interrupted. If you have the means, a comfortable chair, floor pillow, candle, soft light, and/or music can also be useful.

How much time do you need? Start small. Two minutes. As you continue to practice, try to extend that to five minutes and then ten. Or try multiple times per day. Be consistent. Practicing every day is best or, at least six days per week. If you can't, then try every other day. Just begin. And be kind to yourself. You know your limitations.

How you sit depends on factors including your health, flexibility, and strength. You can sit on the floor or a cushion with your legs crossed. Personally, I sit in a chair with good back support. I tell myself, “Firm back and soft front.” You want your spine to be straight and tall but not rigid, with your head floating on top of your spine. This should feel natural. Put your feet on the ground and rest your hands on your thighs (your fingertips do not have to touch.) If you still don’t feel comfortable, you can lie down. Close your eyes, or let your gaze rest gently in front of you, or focus on a single object. Do what feels comfortable for you. Settle into your space and begin breathing.

How to breathe

Feel the rise and fall of your belly. By extending your stomach, you allow your lungs to fill more fully with air, and your diaphragm to expel the air your body no longer needs. Next, visualize one of the two basic anchor points. One is at the base of the nostrils where air enters the body (the gate of breathing); and the other is near the navel (the core of the body and the rising and falling of the stomach). During your first practice, try to feel into which anchor point works best for you.

As you breathe, it might be helpful to add a light anchor word such as “rising, falling” or “breathing in, breathing out” or “in, out.” Most of your attention should remain on the feeling and sensation of the breath. Don’t try too hard. If you feel tired, stop.

I’m going to take away the suspense. Your mind will wander. That’s normal. Gently re-direct your mind back to the breath. Be gentle to yourself and forgiving. Even monks who have practiced for decades have to re-direct their thoughts. If your mind wanders it might be helpful to add an anchor word, like “thinking” or “planning.” Don’t focus too much on labeling your thoughts. The anchor should help you return to the breath.

You can also count each breath. An inhale starts with 1. The exhale is 2. Count until you reach to 10 and then start again at 1. This is a good way to check your progress. Were you able to go to 2 without your mind wandering during your first week of practice, but now you’re at 8? If you forget the number, simply return to 1, and start again. If you criticize yourself for wandering thoughts, simply say “thought” or “judgment.” Allow those thoughts to float away like a cloud in the sky, and return to the sensation of the breath.

Try different techniques and sitting postures until you find what works best for you. Most importantly…enjoy the benefits of mindfulness!

Next week, I’ll talk about mindful actions!

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