As soon as you get interested in mindfulness or anything having to do with stress relief, it seems like there are throngs of people waiting to tell you you should practice deep breathing. What they don’t tell you is that it’s possible to try really hard at deep breathing and not feel very relaxed.

If you want to get the benefit of deep breathing, remember that breathing has two components: a physical one and mental one. Are you practicing both, or maybe only the physical one? Are you breathing with your mind and your body, or just your body?

What that looks like is, you’ve slowed down your inhale and exhale, you’ve deepened the inhale and you’re drawing it from the belly, everything about your technique seems “correct,” but mentally you’re somewhere else, thinking about your troubles – bills to pay, projects to complete – and you’re not actually practicing breath awareness. As your mind continues to buzz, you’re not listening to each breath, not noticing how it feels, not “tuning in” to the flow of it, not savoring the slow rhythm. Maybe you’re just waiting for the exercise to work, waiting to feel better as the self-help books guarantee.

Of course, you might feel better if you keep doing it, just like when you’re sullen but you go through the motion of smiling, it might actually brighten your mood. But it’s also true that when you’re really miserable, holding a smile for minutes on end while you keep thinking negative thoughts is unlikely to transform your condition. At some point, that smile veers into the territory we could call unnatural or inauthentic, even pointless.

Sometimes deep breathing itself can be artificial or “inauthentic,” in that we’re trying to manifest the breathing style of some kind of blissful, glistening yogi at a time when we’re totally frazzled and distraught. We’re hoping the physical exercise is going to calm us down, but our attempted “breath attitude” is so far from our actual mental attitude that it just doesn’t click.

In these cases it can help to go the other way around, to start with the mental side of things, and let the physical do what it will. This means, practice breath awareness – just breath awareness. Try to listen and feel the way you’re breathing right now, without making any attempt to change it. Do you find that small, shallow, quick breaths from the chest feel more comfortable than deep, slow ones from the abdomen? Do you find that the kind of breathing that you’ve been told is not-so-good actually feels better right now than the kind that’s supposed to be good? Do what’s comfortable, without trying to mold your breathing to any particular ideal.

As you pay more attention to your breath and really tune into what it’s doing, you might notice a subtle physical effect. Your breathing might naturally start to slow down and become calmer little by little, without any effort on your part to control it – as long as you keep tuning into it.

The challenge, of course, is that you might not find your breath very “interesting” as an object of attention. It might not be the kind of thing that you can easily stay focused on, especially if your breath is competing with worries in your mind, news updates, social media alerts, and the like. But through practice you can get better at “taking an interest” in how breathing feels. It helps to notice that while anxieties and emails and news items are ephemeral, you can actually feel your breath – it’s a group of physical sensations. What you’re trying to do is tune into sensation over thought. 

If you look at what people have written about breathwork, you’ll probably find the suggestion that you should begin a practice session with breath awareness, and then move into the more physically-oriented exercises. You might think you can skip the breath awareness part, the initial process of tuning in. You might think you don’t need or don’t have time for a warmup and you’d rather just get to the physical core of the practice. But that’s like skipping foreplay. You can. People do. But something’s lost, maybe the best part. ■

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