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 techniques I teach the most. Buddha said this meditation technique bears “great fruit” (meaning great benefit) when practised regularly. Bhikkhu Analayo states that it is the most commonly used method for contemplating phenomena. It is an essential Buddhist meditation [READ: Buddhist methods for beginners]
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.
Let’s get into it.
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”. So it is a method in which we are mindful (consciously aware) of the breath.
As meditations go, this is a biggie. Anapanasati meditation is one of the most popular techniques used in Zen Tianati, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism. It was initially taught by Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The original instructions are found in the Anapanasati sutta .
In the 6th Century BC, Buddha instructed his followers to go into the forest, 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’s traditional Anapanasati meditation. Anapanasati has evolved over the years.
Today, Anapanasati meditation 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, as the Buddha advised originally in the Anapanasati Suta. You can read about those benefits below. For now, let’s get meditating. And if you would like my help, please 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 shaking or sweating profusely when you meditate.
2: Choose a posture
I always recommend doing Anapanasati seated and in a good cushion. But: It is possible to do Anapanasati meditation technique in various positions. You can do it lying down, standing, or sitting. You can use whichever pose you’re happiest with. Just makes 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.
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 that counting your breaths helps you to concentrate. 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 eh one doing it) to active breathing (awareness that we are creating the breath).
If you find that you are struggling to concentrate, count your breaths up to ten and then start over. Spiritual teacher Nan Huai-Chin states that counting the breaths help us to move into a state of peaceful contemplative meditation. Alternatively, move your focus to a different part of your breathing, a part that appears more apparent. You can also count 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. If you are aiming purely for focus, keep concentrating on your breathing. You may also use visualisations and other techniques at this point. Indian Buddhist Kamalaśīla is said to have recommended combining Metta Bhavana (Loving Kindness) with Anapasanati.
5. Advancing In Anapanasati Meditation Technique
Now that you know how to do Anapanasati meditation technique, you may wish to vary it, depending on your reasons for meditating.
Here are some of the best ways to adapt the basic Anapanasati meditation:
- 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.
- 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—the most elemental part of ourselves. When you connect with this part, you will find immense freedom and power.
- Meditate on the connection between mind and breath. You will find that how you breathe alters your mental state and vice versa.
- Mindfulness: Observe your thoughts to discover the truth of yourself.
- 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.
- 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 16 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 only so far as mindfully observing the breath. Once you have gained practice, progress through all sixteen stages.
7. First Tetrad
We begin with the first tetrad. The first tetrad is being simply mindfulness of breathing (observing the physical sensations of the breath) and noticing 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 the body.
8. Second Tetrad
We now come to the second tetrad. At this stage, Anapanasati becomes more of a contemplative method.
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 these feelings mindfully.
The Anapanasati sutta recommends maintaining mindfulness of breath while also observing feelings. Mindfulness of breathing is used as the anchor, so we do not get drawn into emotions and lose ourselves. 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 keep the mind anchored while we mindfully observe our feelings.
You will notice that the mind tries to avoid negative feelings and is attracted to positive emotions. Once we are aware of this process, we can label them as craving (the mind wanting more positive feelings) and aversion (the mind wanting less negative feelings).
9. Third Tetrad
The third tetrad deals with emotions and with the mind. Because we have learned to stop reacting to our experiences, we become calmer and happier. The next step is to observe how the mind is filled with joy. Our more joyful mind is now more still. This leads to heightened concentration.
10. Fourth Tetrad.
This tetrad is all about freeing the mind by using reflections. In this tetrad, we reflect on the impermanence of experience and the continually changing nature of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations. This is done by mindfully observing how these elements change as we meditate.
Note that according to Katsuki Sekida in some forms of Buddhism (mostly in Tibet and Mongolia) there is also an active form of Anapanasati meditation that uses throat singing.
Anapanasati Meditation Benefits
There are so many reasons to start to use basic breathing methods.
Life is better when you practice 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. Meditation helped me get through a very rough patch in my life. Now I practise every day, so I stay relaxed and stress-free.
Millions of people do the same thing. The world is waking up to the fact that meditation massively helps with stress and other problems of the mind. And Anapanasasti is one of the best techniques to learn.
When the Buddha taught Anapanasati in the Satipatthana Sutta, he said that monks should go into the forest and sit beneath a tree. In the forest, monks would sit and watch the breath. The 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 the phenoms of the mind. He advised monks to focus on: dispassion, relinquishment, inconstancy, and cessation, and to allow the mind to calm and become still.
That is the original teaching from the Anapanasati Sutta.
Thanks to modern science we now know that there are significant benefits of Anapanasati meditation. Research from Guru Deo at the Department of Bioenergy, Division of Yoga and Physical Sciences, S-VYASA Yoga University shows that Anapanasati meditation benefits us by activating the parasympathetic nervous system to produce feelings of relaxation and wellbeing. Research by Michael Melnychuk, Ph.D [Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, Ireland] shows that mindful breathing also helps to keep the brain young and fit by affecting levels of a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline, a stress hormone that is involved with the formulation of new brain cells. And Harvard Medical School states that deep breathing, which we perform in Anapanasati meditation, helps to reduce the “fight or flight” response.
Scientific evidence also suggests the following 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
- Lower 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
In terms of the spirit, Buddha said in the Anapanasati Sutta that it is a vital stage on the path to enlightenment. Buddha taught in the Anapanasati sutta that this technique would develop the Seven Factors of Enlightenment:
- Sati (mindfulness)
- Dhamma Vicaya (analysis)
- Viriya (persistence)
- Piti (rapture, which essentially means that you are joyful and enthusiastic)
- Passaddhi (serenity)
- Samadhi (concentration)
- Upekkha (equanimity)
And finally, Anapanasati leads to freedom from suffering. * Read our guide to reaching enlightenment for more on this
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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 principle 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 as 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 to mean the act of bringing into one’s focus.
Dhamma Vicaya (analysis): Translate to mean 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 essentially means that you are joyful and enthusiastic in meditation.
Passaddhi (serenity): Passaddhi is a Pali term that is translated to mean 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.