In the first article of this Path to Mindfulness series, I introduced the concept of mindfulness and explored how you can begin to hone your focus and awareness by really observing a concrete object. Now that you’ve learned how to be mindful of an object, you will learn how you can start to be mindful of yourself. This article will discuss how you can begin to focus your attention inwards by becoming fully aware of your breath.
Breath is a wonderful way to bridge awareness of the other to the self as the body and breath are both tangible parts of the self. Learning to observe your breath as it relates to your body will help to strengthen the muscles of perception through practice, and will help you learn how to be mindful of yourself.
In this article I explore the 3-part breath exercise, which will help you begin to notice your body and slow yourself down, allowing space for exploration and observation of the physical self. Mastering this exercise will help lay the groundwork for the next article in which you will practice observing your inner thoughts and feelings.
I love 3-part breath exercises because they allow us to focus our attention directly on how our observable body responds to the process of breathing. Your first goal of this exercise is to become aware of the three distinct parts of your body involved in each breath.
The first step is to put your hand on your belly, and then to take a deep breath in, feeling the air expand your stomach, ballooning your hand outward. As you exhale, notice how you can pull your navel to your spine to fully expel the air.
Now you’ll want to explore the second part of breath, which is when the sides of your chest expand horizontally. To do this, fold your hands, so your fingers point downward, and place the tops of your hands to the side of your ribcage, a few inches below the armpit (for women, this is typically where your bra strap is). If you feel like you’re almost ready to do the chicken dance, you’ve found the position. Take a deep breath inward, and you will feel your ribs expand horizontally wider with each breath.
Place a flat palm on your upper chest, and take a deep inhale. Notice how your chest rises vertically when it fills with air, and how it depresses when you release your breath.
Once you’ve practiced with each part of your body, you will then combine all three to observe your breath. Taking one inhale, feel your belly fill with air, your ribs expand horizontally, and your chest rise vertically, tracking the process from one part of the body to the next, starting from the bottom and working your way up. Pause for just a beat when you’ve noticed your upper chest rise – what is called “the moment at the top of the inhale” – and then begin to exhale. You’ll follow the pattern in reverse, noticing the decompression in your upper chest, the relaxing of the ribs on your side, and finally, the belly emptying of breath – pull your navel to your spine to complete the full breath.
It may take a few practice attempts before you start to notice how your body and breath connect with each other. The goal is not to do anything with your breath, just merely to observe it. When you are comfortable identifying each distinct part of your breath, try placing your hands in your lap with palms facing up and simply watching your breath as it moves through the body.
Breathing is an excellent way to start becoming familiar with self-observation using a physical process that is part of your body. In the 3-part breath exercise breathing isn’t just a reflexive action that your body takes, but is instead a way that you can connect your mind’s observational skills with your body’s actions. These exercises make your breathing feel new and different from the involuntary breaths you take throughout the day, which calls your attention to the process and allows you to be mindful of it.
Watching and observing your breath can be one of the best ways to strengthen your observation muscles and to help you learn to focus your attention on to a part of yourself.
The 3-part breath process slows us down to truly take notice of each step. When we breathe slower and with intention, our mind also moves slower, and we can start to feel the connection between the body and mind.
Once you are comfortable with the 3-part breath process, you can begin to weave in a cognitive component that will help you slow down even more.
I use the word SLOW in my practice to help tangibly connect each step of the breathing process to the mind, assigning one letter to each part of the breath:
S: Inhale, filling the belly with air
L: Feel the middle ribs expand horizontally
O: The upper chest lifts with air
W: Hold that moment at the top of the inhale
Follow the pattern in reverse for the exhale, tying each expulsion of air to the part of your body that is showing the physical process, and labeling it with a letter. Continue to do this with your hands palm-up in your lap, noticing if your breathing decreases and if your thoughts have slowed down. Try and feel the weight of your body sinking deep into your seat, and begin to identify how each exhalation makes your shoulders drop and your hands feel heavier in your lap.
I find it helps to imagine there is a curtain closing down on you each time you exhale, draping your body from top to bottom and allowing your weight to continue to sink into your seat. You can even start to see the curtain as a private space that envelops you with each breath.
To close out this exercise, open your eyes and just observe your hands in your lap, paying full attention to yourself using your newly practiced observational skills.
I recommend using 3-part breath as a useful tool on its own, but successfully completing this exercise is also crucial for understanding how to practice mindfulness. In the next and final article in this series, I’ll explain how to parlay the relaxing skills of observing objects and breath into the very useful skill of observing thoughts and feelings.