Breath Awareness

Focusing on our breath helps anchor us in the present

There are different ways we can practice anchoring our attention in the present. The first approach we’re going to talk about is the simplest, only requiring us to tune in with our breath.

Mindful breathing has been a transformative tool for me, especially when it comes to disengaging from painful memories. It allows me to observe those memories without getting swept away by the emotions tied to them. It’s really helped me to better create a space between myself and the past.” – Sven, 35

Why breath awareness?

Breath awareness is a practice that is often combined with other breathing exercises in a variety of situations. From box-breathing (a technique used in US Navy Seal military training) to yoga (where movements and breath are tied together), to archery (where breath control is crucial for precision and accuracy), all of these start with the basic skill of breath awareness.

Our breath can be a very helpful way to bring our attention to the “now”, as it’s always occurring in the present moment – we can’t observe the last breath or the next breath, only this breath right now. As the breath is always with us, this is a practice we can take wherever we go. Whenever attention is pulled into ruminations about the past or worries about the future, we can turn attention to the sensations of the breath. This way we can harness our breath as a built-in tool to manage our thoughts and emotions.

Breath awareness provides a simple, yet powerful exercise in training one’s attention, and will help us build the following skills:

Ability to concentrate

  • As we focus on the sensations of the breath, we practice sustaining attention and resisting distractions, strengthening our ability to concentrate.

Redirecting focus

  • As the mind inevitably wanders, the practice of gently shifting attention back to the breath cultivates the skill of redirecting our focus.

Regulating emotions

  • By observing thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them, we enhance our capacity to better regulate our responses, even to strong emotions.

Through consistent practice, breath awareness strengthens these skills, paving the way for increased mental clarity and emotional resilience.

Guided Practice

Follow the steps below as we guide you through a simple breath awareness practice.

  • You can adapt the practice to however long you want, but we suggest starting with 5-8 minutes (follow along with the guided audio practice or set a timer on your phone).
  • As you become more skilled at noticing where  attention is placed, it will take less time to redirect attention to your intended focus.
  • With practice, this can help you to disengage from difficult thoughts, allowing you to acknowledge them and redirect attention with less reactivity

Feel free to practice at your own pace with the following script or skip to the guided audio practice below.

Before you start

  • Find a comfortable posture that supports being alert (we don’t want to get tired and fall asleep). In a chair, this might mean sitting upright, away from the back of the chair with your feet on the floor, finding a stable position. 
  • Release any rigidity in your shoulders and spine, relaxing your body. You can shift around any cushions or use a folded sweater for extra lower back support. 
  • Close your eyes, or lower your gaze to a short distance in front of you with a soft, unfocused gaze to minimize visual distractions. (You can do this after you’re done reading the instructions!)
  • Use your senses to notice how you are sitting e.g., feet on the floor, legs on the chair, hands wherever they’re resting, arms along your sides, head balanced over your shoulders. Make any last adjustments to be comfortable and at ease.

Step 1: Focus

  • Focus your attention on either the nostrils and the area below the nose, or the sensations of the breath in the chest or belly. Bring your awareness to one of these areas and gather your attention there.

Step 2: Breathe

  • Let your breath flow naturally, at its own pace, without forcing it – whether it’s fast or slow, shallow or deep, uneven or steady. 
  • Pay attention to your breath as you fully inhale and exhale, as well as any pauses between breaths. Try to notice any sensations associated with the flow of air – warmth, coolness, tingling, or any other noticeable sensations.

Step 3: Observe

  • Be aware of any tendency to manipulate or regulate your breath,  if you notice this, try stepping back and simply observe your breathing as it is instead. If you feel the urge to adjust, just acknowledge it and continue to notice your breath without any pressure to change it.
  • If you find yourself overanalyzing or overthinking, remember the goal is to simply observe each breath and any experiences or sensations that arise, whether they’re enjoyable, uncomfortable, or neutral.

Step 4: Notice and Acknowledge

  • As time passes, your focus will naturally drift away. When you realize your attention has wandered – whether it’s drawn to a sound or lost in thoughts – – no problem. The goal is not to keep your attention glued to your breath and ignore everything else. Instead, it’s to know where attention is in this moment, and to be aware of the movement of attention. 
  • When you notice that attention has moved, this is mindfulness. In this moment of awareness, we can cultivate a moment of kindness and patience for our busy mind, then make the intentional choice to guide attention back to the intended focus for this practice, the breath. 
  • If you notice frustration or irritation when your mind wanders, know that you’re not alone. See if it’s possible to begin again, inviting a sense of non-judgment, kindness, and patience toward the habits of your mind.

Step 5: Redirect and Repeat

  • After noticing your attention has wandered, consciously choose to redirect your attention back to your breath. 
  • Remember that your aim isn’t to fixate your attention on your breath and block out everything else. Our aim is to be aware of where our attention is in the moment, so we can have more choice about where we place our attention in this practice and our daily lives.
  • Keep observing any sensations of your breath, regardless of whether they are strong or subtle.

Step 6: Wind Down

  • As you conclude your practice, gradually open your eyes and take a moment to observe the state of your body and mind. 
  • Notice any sensations or emotions, whether it’s tension, relaxation, boredom, curiosity. Remember that there’s no specific way you’re supposed to feel. 
  • It’s perfectly alright if you feel frustrated or tired as well. Recognizing and identifying these feelings is a valuable skill in mindfulness, which we will delve into in a future lesson.

As you bring to a close your breath awareness practice, you might form an intention to maintain the same open, curious, and non-judgmental attitude toward your internal experiences throughout your day.

Whether the experiences are enjoyable, uncomfortable, or neutral, see if you can step back and approach them with that same sense of interest and non-judgment.

Breath Awareness: Guided Practice

This practice is led by Dr. Thomas Stark, psychiatrist and Clinical Lecturer at the University of Calgary. He has a strong interest in mindfulness-based programs and employs it in his work with Canadian Armed Forces veterans and RCMP members.

The next page includes a Workbench Exercise that gives us the opportunity to reflect on this first breath awareness practice.