Breath Meditation FAQ: Why Do So Many Meditation Methods Focus on the Breath?

Breath Meditation FAQ: a young woman meditating on a mat accompanied by her dog

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Have you ever wondered, why do so many meditation methods focus on the breath?

Whatever the purpose of the meditation technique is, whether it’s for physical health, mental health, spirituality, sport, art, creativity, productivity, music, etc., breath is always one of the favorite meditation objects.

In this post, I’d try to answer some of the questions people frequently ask about breath meditation.

I’m not claiming that I have all the answers, but I’d try my best to answer those questions in the context of mindfulness meditation.

Let’s begin.

Why do so many meditation methods focus on the breath?

There are some good reasons why so many meditation methods focus on the breath.

As a meditation object, breath has some advantageous qualities.

Breath is readily available. You don’t need to buy it or find it. It’s always with you.

Breath is neutral. Meaning, usually it doesn’t carry any significant emotional weight, making it an ideal object for initial practice. 

Breath rarely triggers any intense emotion like love or hate that can potentially cause mood swings.

Breath is natural. Meaning, breathing is a natural process. You don’t need to conceptualize or visualize it.

Because it’s a natural process, breath is dynamic, making it suitable not only for developing focus but also for cultivating mindfulness.

Breath also gives us options to where we pay our attention.

We can focus on the nostrils or upper lip to feel the sensation of the air flowing in and out or the rising and falling of the abdomen.

We can also feel the temperature of the air.

If we want to go further, it includes the air entering our lungs, our body absorbing it, the resulting body internal energy flow, etc.

As we go deeper into our meditation, our mind and body become calmer, and our breath becomes slower. The sensations will change from obvious to subtle, to barely noticeable.

This dynamic can accommodate practices ranging from beginner to advanced, making breath a very versatile meditation object.

Apart from the reasons above, meditation can also benefit overall health by utilizing certain breathing techniques.

For example, a Chinese meditation technique “Zhen Qi Yun Xing” combines normal breathing, lifting the tip of the tongue to touch the roof of the mouth, and focusing attention on certain meridian points in the epigastrium area to connect the “Ren” and “Du” meridians to facilitate the circulation of “Qi” for healing.

What are other ways to meditate without focusing on the breath?

Other than breath, you can use pretty much almost anything as a meditation object.

Just to name a few, you can use candlelight or a circle of light, bodily sensation, noble figures, sound, visualized images, mantra, also wholesome mental qualities like loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic-joy, and equanimity, whichever you prefer, to serve the purpose of your meditation.

infographic: meditation radiates positive energy

You’d want to avoid any unwholesome mental qualities like greed, clinging, attachment, hatred, anger, aversion, and ignorance or delusion as a meditation object.

Also, focusing is not the only method of meditation. 

You can simply be aware of the present, mindfully, and continuously. 

By being aware of anything that arises in the six sense doors (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind), you’re cultivating another mental faculty called mindfulness.

You also don’t have to always meditate in a sitting posture.

As an alternative, you can do walking meditation, paying attention to the movement of your body, feeling the sensation of your feet touching the ground, etc.

Can I meditate just by breathing in a certain way?

Yes, you certainly can.

Although, you don’t have to.

It depends on the purpose of your meditation.

For example, many martial arts include meditation in their training with the emphasis on breathing in a certain way. Another good example is pranayama in yoga.

If your focus is a bit more on the physical benefits, this is the way to go.

But, in the focus-based and mindfulness meditation, you don’t need to regulate your breath in any way. You just need to pay attention to it and be mindful of the process.

In these types of meditation, we develop the stability, focus, mindfulness, sharpness, agility of the mind.

In short, there are many types of meditation. Each is designed with a different goal in mind.

Why can’t I feel the breath sensation flowing in and out during meditation?

First, try to relax and calm down.

Then, try to focus your attention on your nostrils and or your upper lip. Can you feel the sensations of the air moving in and out?

Sometimes, when you’re in a very calm state, the airflow becomes so slow and subtle to a point you can barely feel it but usually, you can still feel the temperature of the air. Can you feel the exhaled air is slightly warmer than the inhaled?

If you feel you’re not quite sensitive in those areas, alternatively, you can watch the rising and falling of your abdomen.

Also, you can feel the freshness of the inhaled air in your upper larynx. This sensation will also get subtler and subtler as you get calmer and more “stabilized” in your meditation.

As your meditation goes deeper, your breathing will get slower. In the process, the sensation of the breath can get subtler and subtler to a point you can barely feel it. Just relax and be patient. Usually, you’ll feel it again.

At the point where you can barely feel your breath, usually, another object has become more obvious. You need to be aware of that too.

Because breath is not the only right meditation object, no need to get attached to it.

Any object is the right object if being observed with the right attitude.

What should we do in meditation? Should we focus on breathing or analyze our minds?

Focusing on breathing is one of the concentration-based meditation techniques.

In this case, the breathing or breath is the meditation object.

It tends to be very effective to calm the mind, achieve a state of tranquillity.

Many practitioners use this technique to develop focus and concentration.

Although you can use almost anything as the meditation object, there are good reasons why so many meditation methods focus on the breath.

Or, you can just be mindful of your breathing in a relaxed way continuously, from moment to moment, without focusing too much.

This is the technique used in mindfulness meditation.

Other than breathing, you can also be mindful of the mind and or body. Simply watch what is happening and what has stopped happening in the mind and body with the right attitude.

The right attitude means we see what’s happening in the body and mind as natural processes, instead of me or mine. In other words, avoid self-identifying with them.

They can be bodily sensations like pain or aches, itching, muscle tension, heat, cold, etc. It can also be mental phenomena like thoughts, feelings, perceptions or memories, etc.

This technique helps the mind learn and understand itself. 

Practiced continuously and regularly, it will lead you to the natural acceptance of things as they are, and eventually, to liberation.

However, I’d avoid analyzing things too much during meditation. Other than tiring, overanalyzing, and overthinking tend to cause you to lose awareness. Meaning, you are unaware that the objects are consuming you.

As a result, without continuity of awareness, you’re not meditating.

Instead, I’d suggest you just relax and simply be mindful of the object of your meditation. 
Have no goals or targets. 

Avoid drawing any conclusions. 

Conserve your energy, and try to maintain awareness continuously from moment to moment.

Is it possible to be aware of our breathing during times of challenge or hard engaging work as you would be aware of breathing during meditation? Is watching the breath during times of challenging work even beneficial for optimal performance?

Yes, it is possible.

During times of challenge or hard engaging work, it makes a lot of sense to take a break, calm down, and breathe to gain perspective.

Then, you need to be aware of the whole situation, and try to comprehend it with clarity by taking into account all relevant details to come up with the best solution for the situation.

You shouldn’t be attached to the breath and watch it indefinitely during those times. You just need to take advantage of it to gain back your center and maintain awareness.

A good analogy is when you’re facing a fight-or-flight situation. Say you’re encountering a hungry lion. You don’t want to direct your attention to anything other than how to escape. You’d want to focus all your mental and physical energy on finding the escape routes, tricking the lion, and running.

In that kind of situation, intentionally watching the breath indefinitely is not beneficial, not wise, and therefore, not advisable.

In mindfulness meditation, we practice to develop mindfulness and focus in balance so that our mind can have the needed agility, flexibility, and resilience to handle such challenges.

So, when you’re practicing watching the breath, be aware of the attachment to it. Remind yourself not to get attached.

After breath meditation, which meditation routine is good for the mind and body? I have now full control of my breath meditation and want to explore more.

I hope what you meant by “have now full control of my breath” is that you can stay focused on your breath steadily without too many wanderings.

If that was so, you’re doing good. Congratulation!

Now, while maintaining awareness, try to expand your attention to other objects.

What I mean by other objects is anything that arises in the six sense doors (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind). You don’t need to pay attention to all of them at once. You just need to start with the most obvious ones.

Remember to be mindful while watching the objects. Avoid getting involved in and getting attached to any of them. Remember not to identify yourself with them.

If you can maintain awareness of the objects with the right attitude, you will be able to see them as they arise and pass away. You’ll be able to see them as natural processes and not as me or mine.

This step will be more difficult. Why? While breath is neutral, meaning it carries no intense emotional weight, other objects like feelings, emotions, thoughts, memories are entirely different. You might find them a lot more challenging.

But, if you can maintain mindfulness throughout the entire process, with patience and persistence, in due time, you will start to gain some understanding of the workings of the mind.

The process is gradual. You cannot rush it.

In case you need some tips on how to keep your mind from wandering away during meditation, check these easy hacks to maintain mindfulness, stay focused, and avoid mind-wandering during meditation.

If you need a more step-by-step guide, grab my free eBook: Mindfulness in Two Steps.

Often, during a long sitting, people are experiencing bodily pains, aches, and other discomforts.

If you need a simple guide to preparing your body and mind for sitting meditation, check this 10-minute sitting meditation preparation exercises.

I practice it every time before my sitting sessions. It works wonders for me.

How to do breath meditation to build mindfulness?

Start by finding a quiet comfortable place with minimum distractions.

Although you can be mindful of your breath in any posture or even while you’re doing any activities, at this early stage, it’s best to start with the sitting posture.

If you’re used to sitting cross-legged in that famous lotus or half-lotus position, great! But, you don’t have to. Just sit comfortably. You can use a chair. But, remember to keep your spine upright in a relaxed and natural way and don’t lean back.

Rest your hands on your thighs, palms facing downward or upward or on top of each other, in front of your abdomen, whichever you feel most comfortable.

With a proper sitting posture, you can practice longer and prevent drowsiness at the same time. That’s why it’s important to keep your back naturally straight.

Eyes? Close or half-closed. At this early stage, it’s important to minimize distractions. At later stages, when mindfulness has grown strong enough, practicing with eyes open won’t be a problem.

meditation postures - full lotus, half lotus, burmese, on a stool, on a chair

Take your time to adjust your posture to find the most relaxed and comfortable one.
Now, breathe normally, no need to control or regulate your breath.

Try to maintain mindfulness of the breathing process. You can direct your attention to the nostrils or upper lip, feeling the sensation of the air flowing in and out. Or, as an alternative, you can pay attention to the rising and falling movements of your abdomen.

Do it in a relaxed way. Avoid focusing too hard. You need to conserve your energy.
Duration? Start small and increase it gradually over time. You can start with five minutes and increase it by one minute every two or three days until you reach twenty minutes.

Although you might have heard many practitioners meditate for thirty minutes, one hour, or even more per sitting, I’d advise to not worry too much about the duration. The regularity and consistency of the practice are much more important.

I recommend practice at least twice daily, once in the morning, once in the evening.

Whenever you find yourself wanders away into thoughts, feelings, memories, etc., gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Now, this one is important.

Remember to have no goals and targets while practicing. They won’t help you in any way other than adding unnecessary pressure in the mind that will only hinder progress.

After a few weeks, you will feel that mindfulness is getting stronger.

How do you know?

You know when your mind wanders less. It can stay with the object longer. It’s becoming more stable and you’re not as easily distracted during practice.

These are some proven and easy hacks to maintain mindfulness, stay focused, and avoid mind-wandering during meditation.

To combat common hindrances, check these most effective meditation hacks for lazy people.

You might find many useful and practical tips in the above posts.

Now that mindfulness is getting stronger, you can use it to observe other mental objects like thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, emotions, etc. 

You’ll be able to observe as they arise, run their courses, and cease.

You’ll remember not to reject them.

You’ll remember not to hold on to them.

They can no longer define who you are. 

For a more detailed step-by-step on how to do mindfulness meditation, feel free to grab my free guide here.

Conclusion

There are a lot more questions about breath meditation. The questions above are only some of them; the ones I get asked frequently.

I don’t have all the answers but, I tried my best to answer them in the context of mindfulness meditation, in which I have a bit of knowledge and experience.

In short, breath is readily available, natural, neutral, and versatile. That’s the main reason why so many meditation techniques focus on the breath.

It’s a meditation object that can accommodate many meditation purposes, from physical health to mental well-being, from productivity to creativity, from relationship to spirituality.

Recommendation

Concerning meditation practice, there are some key points worth repeating.

The regularity and consistency of the practice are much more important than the duration. In other words, meditation is a marathon, not a sprint.

Sales and marketing person mentality like goals and targets won’t work well during meditation practice. They add unnecessary pressure to the mind making it more difficult to maintain awareness.

If you feel stuck practicing on your own or experience no progress, consider taking a meditation course. You might want to check the one I highly recommend.

Not only you’ll have the options to try many different styles and techniques to find the one that suits you the best, but you’ll also be provided with easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions.

On top of that, you’ll have a supportive community with an accomplished teacher to back you up.

Further readings


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