Anapanasati Meditation: Instructions For Mindful Breathing

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In this article, we’ll be looking at how to do Anapanasati meditation technique (mindful breathing), based on the actual Anapanasati sutta of Buddha.

As a meditation teacher, this is the meditation technique I teach the most in my online meditation lessons.

Buddha said this meditation technique bears “great fruit” (meaning great benefit) when practised regularly. Scholar and meditation teacher Bhikkhu Analayo states that it is the most used method for contemplating phenomena. That’s why I included it in my list of the best contemplation meditation techniques. 

It is an essential Buddhist meditation [READ: Buddhist methods for beginners]

The deep breathing that we perform in the technique helps to calm the mind. Focusing on the breath also boosts concentration. And monitoring the movements of the mind is excellent for developing insight. You might like to practise this method alongside other breathing meditations.

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Introduction to Anapanasati Meditation Technique (Mindful Breathing)

By the end of this guide, you will know how to do Anapanasati meditation correctly, based on Buddha’s teachings from the Anapanasati Sutta. This will give you the power to stay calm no matter what life throws at you just by breathing mindfully.

In this guide, we will look at:

  • How to do Anapanasati meditation technique (mindful breathing)
  • The Anapanasati Sutta
  • The benefits of Anapanasati meditation technique
  • How to get the most out of the experience.
  • How to gain emotional control. 

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How To Do Anapanasati Meditation Technique (Buddhism)

Anapanasati meditation technique is a type of mindful breathing

Anapanasati (pronounced “An-a-pan-a-sah-tee”) trains the mind to stay calm and balanced. 

The word Anapanasati means “mindfulness of breathing”. Hence, it is a method in which we are mindful (consciously aware) of the breath. 

As meditations go, this is important. 

Anapanasati meditation is one of the most popular techniques used in Zen Tianati, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism. Buddha initially taught it more than 2500 years ago. The original instructions are found in the Anapanasati sutta [1].

In the 6th Century BC, Buddha instructed his followers to go into the forest. There, they would sit under a tree and mindfully observe how the breath flows through the body. Good advice. Spend ten minutes sitting under a tree watching your breath, and you will become very relaxed and calm. That is the traditional way of doing Anapanasati meditation.

Anapanasati has evolved over the years.

Today, Anapanasati meditation technique is not just a Buddhist practice but a medical and scientific practice too. It is more commonly called Mindful Breathing, although the latter term can refer to numerous methods where the former is one specific technique.

Science has proven that there are many benefits of Anapanasati meditation technique. Indeed, it seems Buddha was right in the Anapanasnati Sutta. You can read about those benefits below. For now, let’s get meditating. And if you would like my help, book an online meditation lesson with me. 

How to do Anapanasati Meditation Technique (Beginners)

1: Where to practice Anapanasati Meditation

Proper space is important because it helps you to relax. 

Your area should be quiet and peaceful, which is why Buddha instructed his monks to go into the forest in the Anapanasati Sutta. It is easy to get distracted when practising Anapanasati Meditation technique, so make sure that there are as few distractions as possible. 

You should also consider lighting. The area should not be too light nor too dark. And it should be a comfortable temperature. You don’t want to be shivering or sweating profusely when you meditate. 

2: Choose a posture

I always recommend doing Anapanasati in a good cushion. But it is possible to do Anapanasati meditation technique in various positions. You can do it lying, standing, or sitting. You can use whichever pose you’re happiest with. Just make sure you have good posture.  

To practise Anapanasati meditation sitting, place your feet at shoulder-distance apart, make sure your spine is straight but with a natural curve, place the tip of your tongue on your hard palette, slightly lower your chin to lengthen your spine, and close your eyes.

3: Relax

Make sure your mind is relatively calm before continuing. You might like to count breaths, stretch your body, or just take a few moments to let go. 

4:   Start mindful breathing

Begin to focus on your breathing.

You may find counting your breaths helpful. If so, count an inhalation and exhalation as one count (breathe in, breathe out, count one. Breathe in, breathe out, count two etc.) This connects us with the breath.

As has been noted by Alan Watts, in Anapanasati we move from passive breathing (the idea that breathing is happening but we are not the one doing it) to active breathing (awareness that we are creating the breath). 

If you struggle to concentrate, count your breaths up to ten and then start over. Spiritual teacher Nan Huai-Chin states that counting the breaths helps us move into peaceful contemplation. Alternatively, move your focus to a different part of your breathing, a part that appears more apparent.

You can count breaths for the entire session if you wish, but this is only for beginners. Once your mind is fully focused, maintain that focus for a minimum of five minutes. After this, you may wish to adapt your technique depending on your reason for practising.

To give you a few ideas about how to advance: If you are meditating to develop an understanding of yourself, you may wish to observe your thoughts. For focus, concentrate on your breathing. You may also use visualisations and other techniques. Indian Buddhist Kamalaśīla is said to have recommended combining Metta Bhavana (Loving Kindness) with Anapanasati.

 5. Advanced Anapanasati Meditation Technique

Now that you know how to do Anapanasati meditation technique, it is time to advance your practice.

Here are some of the best ways to adapt the basic Anapanasati meditation technique:

  1. Focus on the entirety of the breath. Imagine the breath as one. There is no in or out there is just breathing. Meditating on the oneness of breathing helps develop inner stillness.
  2.  Focus on the energy behind the breath. There is an energy, or a lifeforce, behind the breath. When you meditate on this, you will find what I term Infinite Creativity. This is the most elemental part of ourselves. When you connect with this part, you will find immense freedom and power.
  3. Meditate on the connection between mind and breath. You will find that the way you breathe alters your mental state and vice versa.
  4. Mindfulness: Observe your thoughts and emotions mindfully.
  5. Impermanence: Notice how each breath is different, how body and mind continually vary. We are like liquid—always moving—and yet we may be inwardly still.
  6. Try humming or reciting “Om.” This will tune your mind-body into the frequency of the sound.

 6. Development through the 16 Stages of Anapanasati As Described In The Anapanasati Sutta

Traditional Anapanasati meditation progresses through sixteen stages broken into four tetrads (groups of four practices). These stages of Anapanasati are not for beginners. If you are a beginner, practice Anapanasati meditation by just mindfully breathing. Once you are experienced, progress through the next steps.

7. First Tetrad

The first tetrad is simply mindful breathing (observing the physical sensations of the breath). We notice whether the breath is long or short. This then leads to mindfully observing the breath through the whole body. We then use this to relax.

8. Second Tetrad

At this stage, Anapanasati becomes contemplative.

This stage of Anapanasati meditation is all about feelings and emotions. Because the mind and body are relaxed, we will experience the feeling of rapture (piti). The second stage of Anapanasati is to observe this state of rapture mindfully.

The Anapanasati sutta recommends maintaining mindfulness of breath and observing feelings. Mindfulness of breathing is used as the anchor. It stops us from getting lost in emotions and thoughts. Like Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor”. We use the breath to anchor the mind. Meanwhile, we mindfully observe our feelings. 

Buddha instructed monks to notice if the breath is long or short. Then, to be mindful of either the entire body, rapture, pleasure, the mind, or mental phenomena. He advised monks to focus on: dispassion, relinquishment, inconstancy, and cessation, and to allow the mind to calm and become still.

how mindful breathing works
how mindful breathing works

You will notice that the mind avoids negative feelings and is attracted to positive emotions. Once we are aware of this process, we can label the movements of the mind. We say to ourselves “craving” (the mind wanting positive feelings) or “aversion(the mind wanting fewer negative feelings).  

9. Third Tetrad

The third tetrad deals with emotions. Because we have learned to stop reacting to our experiences, we become calm and happy. Observe how the mind is filled with joy. The joyful mind is still. Hence, we can concentrate.

10. Fourth Tetrad.

Here, we use reflections to free the mind. We reflect on the impermanence of experience and the continually changing nature of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations.  We do this by mindfully observing the mind.

Zen master Katsuki Sekida states that in some forms of Buddhism (mostly in Tibet and Mongolia) there is also an active form of Anapanasati meditation that uses throat singing. 

16 stages of anapanasati

Anapanasati Meditation Benefits 

Life is better when you practise Anapanasati meditation every day. I’ve learned that through personal experience.

When I was a teenager, I went through a very rough time. I was bullied every day. Life at home was always tricky because of my dad’s drinking. And there was a lot of turmoil in my life. I decided to learn meditation. I knew some basic breathing methods. When I was stressed, I would focus my mind on my breathing. As I focused, my thoughts began to quieten. The demons in my mind started to part. My mind cleared. And I found calm.

Meditation helped me get through a very rough patch in my life. Now I practise every day, so I stay relaxed and stress-free

Modern research on Anapanasati Meditation Technique

Modern science has found significant benefits of Anapanasati meditation.

Anapanasati meditation benefits us by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This produces feelings of relaxation and wellbeing.  [Research from Guru Deo at the Department of Bioenergy, Division of Yoga and Physical Sciences, S-VYASA Yoga University]

Plus, mindful breathing helps keep the brain young and fit. It affects levels of a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline, a stress hormone that is involved with the formulation of new brain cells. [Research by Michael Melnychuk, Ph.D [Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, Ireland] 

Meanwhile, Harvard Medical School states that deep breathing reduces the “fight or flight” response. 

More scientific benefits of Anapanasati Meditation:  

  • One of the best techniques for relaxation.
  • Increases serotonin.
  • Improves communication between hemispheres of the brain.
  • Improve reactions.
  • Prevents depression.
  • Prevents anxiety.
  • Anti-again for body and mind.
  • Lowers heart rate.
  • Helps balance blood pressure.
  • Lowers risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Improves airflow to lungs.
  • Improves immune system.
  • Helps with PMS symptoms.
  • Decreases muscle tension.
  • Improves energy flow.
  • Reduces headaches and migraines.
  • Improves motor performance.
  • Increases productivity.
  • Increases focus.
  • Stops “Monkey Mind”.
  • Makes you more intelligent.

Spiritual Benefits  

In the Anapanasati Sutta, Budha said that Anapanasati meditation is vital for enlightenment. Specifically, it helps us develop the Seven Factors of Enlightenment:

  1. Sati (mindfulness).
  2. Dhamma Vicaya (analysis).
  3. Viriya (persistence).
  4. Piti (rapture, which essentially means that you are joyful and enthusiastic).
  5. Passaddhi (serenity).
  6. Samadhi (concentration).
  7. Upekkha (equanimity).

Finally, Anapanasati leads to freedom from suffering. * Read our guide to reaching enlightenment for more on this.

7 Factors of Enlightenment in Budhism
7 Factors of Enlightenment in Buddhism

I hope you enjoyed my guide and found it helpful. Please share on Facebook. 

 


SOURCES

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4479888/

https://chopra.com/articles/how-meditation-helps-your-immune-system-do-its-job

https://time.com/3340452/meditation-shortens-migraines/

 


GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Anapanasati: A form of breathing technique devised by Guatama Buddha.

Theravada: One of the most popular forms of Buddhism, with 100 million practitioners. It’s principal teachings come from the Pali Tipitaka or Pali Canon. And its basic instructions begin with the Four Noble Truths.

Meditation: The act of focusing the mind. Used in Buddhism, yoga, and health practices.

Buddhism: One of the most popular religions in the world. Based on the teachings of the Buddha.

Sati (mindfulness): The Pali word for mindfulness. Translated, it means “awareness”.  

Dhamma Vicaya (analysis):  This means analysis. Dhamma Vicaya is connected to discrimination, examination, investigation, and wisdom.

Viriya (persistence): A Buddhist term. Viriya means energy, the effort of perseverance.

Piti: Rapture, which means that you are joyful and enthusiastic in meditation.

Passaddhi (serenity): Passaddhi is a Pali term. Translated, it means repose, peace, or calmness.

Samadhi (concentration): A state of intense focus and concentration 

Upekkha (equanimity): Equanimity is one of the sublime states in Buddhism. It means stability in the face of worldly fluctuations.

 

 

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By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

3 comments

  1. thanks to the tutorial, this article is not giving me many lessons about meditation, for beginners how to share tutorialnya please, because I am very-very beginner

  2. found it very helpful the way you explained,its easy to comprehend but while practising is so hard to struggle, i have been trying to meditate for quite long, but i still feel like a beginner, presently i can go as long as 30 mins (as i lose track of time and quite enjoy the process of inner struggle of trying to meditate), but i still am struggling, just wanted to ask you, eg: when i meditate i am able to notice my breathe, but as soon as a bird chirps or some another sound comes for a split second my mind catch that and then again comes back to noticing the breathe, which is why i know i am not actually getting any good progress, how do i train my mind to pay no heed to those sounds? will look forward to your reply, thank you for your time

    1. Hi Kalyanjyoti, thanks for your message.

      It is natural for the mind to wander when you hear something, such as the birds chirping. Do not be hard on yourself when this happens. Simply label the source of your distraction. Think “This is just a sound”. And then return to focusing on the breath.

      One of the important things with Anapanasati is to accept the fact that the mind does sometimes wander, and then return. This is natural.

      If you want to be more focused on your breath, you might like to try Dhyana, which takes things a step further. Of course, our book Journey To The Buddha Within You provides the most in-depth tutorials that will help you to improve.

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