Breath is an ever-present aspect of life, which is part of the reason why "mindfulness of breathing," or ānāpānasati in Pāli, is probably the most common form (object) of meditation. Typically, the practice involves focusing attention on the physical sensations caused by the movement of the breath, the in-breaths and the out-breaths. Mindfulness of breathing is a feeling practice, not a thinking practice. It's so profoundly simple that we can do it at any time, whether seated in meditation, holding a yoga posture, or picking up after the dog. We breathe continuously throughout life, so we can always practice mindfulness of breathing.
It also can be an effective practice that provides numerous benefits. According to it's most famous practitioner, the Buddha:
"This concentration on mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, is peaceful and sublime, an ambrosial pleasant dwelling, and it disperses and quells right on the spot evil and unwholesome states whenever they arise." (SN 54.9)
Anyone who practices meditation or yoga probably would like to feel "peaceful and sublime" and learn how to effectively quell "evil and unwholesome states whenever they arise." Even after his enlightenment, the Buddha continued to practice mindfulness of breathing and sometimes he spent entire three-month solitary retreats practicing it (SN 54.11).
In addition to ancient sages, scientists continue to find evidence that ānāpānasati and related mindfulness practices create lasting positive effects, such as enhanced brain connectivity. Furthermore, the positive benefits we gain from this practice transfer to other aspects of our lives. There's a large and growing body of scientific research into this topic, with organization like the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison leading the way.
None of this should suggest that this practice is easy. Breathing is a complex topic. In his book, Breath, James Nestor writes, "In a single breath, more molecules of air will pass through your nose than all the grains of sand on all the world's beaches — trillions and trillions of them" (44). We can't possibly pay attention to trillions and trillions of molecules with each breath. We can only potentially learn to develop a generalized attention to the breath.
Even generalized attention can be hard. Despite the wonder and complexity of the breath, it's difficult for most people to keep their attention trained on the breath. As the famous American meditation teacher Luang Por Sumedho put it, "The breath lacks any exciting quality or fascination, and so we can become very restless and averse to it. Our desire is always to 'get' something, to find something that will interest and absorb us without any effort on our part" (Sumedho, 141). Through this practice we might learn to let go of our desires to become something else, to get rid of something we don't like, or be somewhere else, and instead use the breath as a tool stay focused in the present moment.
The basic guidance for ānāpānasati is to sit comfortably and focus on your breathing, noticing the physical sensations that arise in your body, such as the air moving in and out at the tip of your nose or the rising and falling of your belly. It's essentially a simple practice.
The Buddha left us with a more detailed training manual and guide in the Ānāpānasati Sutta, the "Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing In and Breathing Out" (MN 118). That sutta contains instructions for mindfulness of breathing in 16 steps, including phrases such a "breathing in long, I know I breathe in long," "breathing in experiencing rapture (pīti), I know I experience rapture," "breathing in gladdening the mind, I know I am gladdening the mind," and "breathing in contemplating impermanence, I know I am contemplating impermanence." I won't say much more about this sutta here, but if you would like a deep dive into the Ānāpānasati Sutta, I highly recommend the German scholar-monk Bhikkhu Anālayo's recent book, Mindfulness of Breathing: A Practice Guide and Translations.
In yoga, the practice of breath control is called prāṇāyāma, and can take many forms. For instance, the practice of ujjayi prāṇāyāma, often translated as "victorious breath," involves listening to the "oceanic sound" of breathing that is lightly constricted. Notably, prāṇāyāma typically involves more controlling rather than simply observing the breath, such as with "square breathing" (sama vritti in Sanskrit), in which the inhalation, retention after inhalation, exhalation, and retention after exhalation are each held for the same time period (e.g. four seconds each). In other words, prāṇāyāma is usually different from "mindfulness of breathing."
As is often the case, I have found that Theravada meditation teachers in the Thai Forest Tradition provide some of the most helpful instructions for how to practice mindfulness of breathing. For instance, Luang Por Sumedho once compared ānāpānasati to easing into a yoga practice:
"We don’t start from where a perfect yogi is, we’re not doing complicated postures before we can bend over and touch our toes. That is the way to harm ourselves. We may look at all the postures in yoga books and see people wrapping their legs round their necks in all kinds of amazing postures, but if we try to do them ourselves they’ll cart us off to hospital. So we start from just trying to bend a little more from the waist, examining the pain and resistance to it, learning to stretch gradually. The same with ānāpānasati: we recognize the way it is now and start from there, we sustain our attention a little longer and we begin to understand what concentration is. Don’t make Superman resolutions when you’re not Superman." (144)
Luang Por Sumedho once suggested the most people approach life wanting everything to be happy all the time, which he compared to deciding to only breathe in during your life, never out (Sumedho, 148). Practicing ānāpānasati reminds us that we can't avoid pain in life and that there are continuous ups and downs, just as there are continuous in-breaths and out-breaths.
He also reminds us that mindfulness of breathing is not a competition. Don't try to set a "goal" to "last" a long time. If we determine that we want to pay attention to our breath continuously for 30 or 60 minutes straight then we are creating conditions that will lead to suffering. Instead just pay attention to this breath in this moment.
A few years ago I was on a meditation retreat in the UK led by Ajahn Candasiri where she quoted Luang Por Sumedho as saying he had practiced his whole life and that he could only be mindful of one breath. I had been sitting in meditation somewhat disappointed that my mind kept wandering, even on this wonderful retreat at Amaravati Monastery, and she was saying that Luang Por Sumedho could "only" pay attention to one breath. Hearing her say those words at that time had a significant effect on my retreat. I realized that my life did not exist in 60-minute segments and that the only breath I can observe is the current one. As Luang Por Sumedho says, "Wisdom does not come from studying great theories and philosophies, but from observing the ordinary" (141).
If you would like to practice mindfulness of breathing right now, you can listening the most recent episode of Pretty Good Meditation.
Anālayo, Bhikkhu. Mindfulness of Breathing: A Practice Guide and Translations. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2020.
Nestor, James. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.
Sumedho, Ajahn. “Ānāpānasati (Mindfulness of Breathing).” In Ajahn Sumedho: The Anthology (Vol. 1: Peace Is a Simple Step). Hertfordshire: Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, 2014.
SN = Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
MN = Bodhi, Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Nanamoli. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.