By Dr. Alan Ruth
Recently, I completed a number of mindfulness courses, two of which were taught in a classroom situation and three which were taught online. I was a little surprised to find that in all five courses, when the mindfulness of breathing practice was explained, there was no mention of the importance of breathing in and out through the nose. The participants in these courses (including myself) were instructed to focus on our breathing without trying to change it in any way. In other words, anyone who was breathing in an unhealthy way was effectively being instructed to continue doing so.
Subsequent to attending these courses, I bought many modern books on mindfulness written by people who appeared to be experts in the field. Again, I was somewhat surprised to observe that the importance of nose breathing (both in an out) was not mentioned in any way in the overwhelming majority of these modern books. Only one of the books made a specific reference to nose breathing (the touch of air at the nostrils) in its instructions for the mindfulness of breathing exercise. This book was titled ‘The Art and Science of Mindfulness’ by Professor Shauna Shapiro and Professor Linda Carlson. It states:
“Focus your attention on the breath as a primary object of attention, feeling the breathing in and breathing out, the rise and fall of the abdomen, the touch of air at the nostrils.” (p. 13)
For the many people who are chest breathers and mouth breathers, following the above instruction would actually require them to change their breathing.
In a relatively recently published book by Kamalashila, titled ‘Meditation: The Buddhist way of tranquillity and insight’ (published in 1995) it describes the four stages of mindfulness of breathing meditation. Stage 4 is described as ‘Experiencing the Subtle Sensation of the Breath’ and Kamalashila (a member of the Western Buddhist Order) describes this stage as follows:
“Now focus on the subtle sensation just at the point where you feel the air entering and leaving your body. Choose any point that seems right – it will probably be in or around your nostrils or upper lip, but it could be further in towards your throat – and then stay with it. As your breath passes this point, you may feel it as a soft, brushing sensation, cool as it comes in, warm as it goes out. Remain with that single point of sensation as continuously as you can, and rather than forcing your attention on the sensation, try to be receptive to it.”
I then decided to do some desk research on Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing). The basic text on Anapanasati is the Anapanasati Sutra (Breath-Mindfulness Discourse). Below, I provide 2 translated quotations from this text.
“Here a bhikkhu (a Buddhist monk), gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him (parimukha: “in front of the face”–at the tip of the nose), ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
“By holding to the breath and the nose tip alone, all will be manifested to us in time without our needing to look or concentrate elsewhere. This is the teaching of Buddha.”
I also discovered an interesting quotation in a book titled ‘The World Religions Reader’. The quotation is from page 387 under the heading ‘Theravada Sources’ and it relates to Anapanasati meditation. Theravada is one of the 2 major traditions of Buddhism. The other being Mahayana, They agree upon and practice the core teachings of the Buddha’s Dharma.
The interesting quotation is:
“The only thing you have to do is fix your attention on the breathing in and breathing out. You have nothing else to do but that! Keep your mindfulness fixed on the in and out breaths as they occur. Be aware of the beginning, middle and end of each breath. On inhalation the beginning of the breath is at the nose tip, the middle at the heart, and the end at the abdomen. On exhalation, it’s just the reverse: the beginning of the breath is in the abdomen, the middle at the heart, and the end at the nose tip. Develop the awareness of the breath: 1, at the nose tip; 2 at the heart; and 3, in the abdomen. Then in reverse: 1, in the abdomen; 2, at the heart; and 3, at the nose tip.”
Anapanasati and the Anapanasati Sutta
Anapanasati is a form of meditation that was taught by the Buddha. According to teachings, presented in the Anapanasati Sutta, practising this form of meditation as part of the Noble Eightfold Path, leads to the removal of all defilements and finally the attainment of nirvana. The Anapanasati Sutta is specifically about mindfulness in relation to inhalation and exhalation.
According to an analysis of the Anapanasati Sutta by Ven. Mahathera Nauyane Ariyadhamma, published by the Buddhist Publication Society:
“Anapana sati, the meditation on in-and-out breathing, is the first subject of meditation expounded by the Buddha in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta, the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness.”
“To cultivate anapana sati one should be clearly mindful of the place where the incoming and outgoing breaths enter and leave the nostrils. This will be felt as a spot beneath the nostrils or on the upper lip, wherever the impact of the air coming in and out the nostrils can be felt most distinctly. On that spot the attention should be fixed, like a sentry watching a gate.”
“This work of contemplating the breath at the area around the nostrils, without following it inside and outside the body, is illustrated by the commentaries with the similes of the gatekeeper and the saw.”
“Just as a gatekeeper examines each person entering and leaving the city only as he passes through the gate, without following him inside or outside the city, so the meditator should be aware of each breath only as it passes through the nostrils, without following it inside or outside the body.”
“Just as a man sawing a log will keep his attention fixed on the spot where the teeth of the saw cut through the wood, without following the movement of the teeth back and forth, so the meditator should contemplate the breath as it swings back and forth around the nostrils, without letting his mindfulness be distracted by the breath’s inward and outward passage through the body.
“The practitioner of meditation who consciously watches the breath in this manner should never try to control his breathing or hold back his breath with effort. For if he controls his breath or holds back his breath with conscious effort, he will become fatigued and his mental concentration will be disturbed and broken. The key to the practice is to set up mindfulness naturally at the spot where the in-breaths and the out-breaths are felt entering and leaving the nostrils. Then the meditator has to maintain his awareness of the touch sensation of the breath, keeping the awareness as steady and consistent as possible.”
Please note the words in bold type above i.e. ‘should never try to control his breathing’ are important and I will return the subject of not controlling the breath later in this article, under the heading ‘What’s the difference between Anapanasati and pranayama’.
You may access the analysis of the Anapanasati Sutta by Ven. Mahathera Nauyane Ariyadhamma via the link below.
The Satipatthana Sutta
The Satipatthana Sutta (The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness) is the fundamental teaching by the Buddha on the application of mindfulness. It is also known in English as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. It contains the Buddha’s set of instructions for vipassana (insight) meditation. In a translation of the Satipatthana Sutta, by Nyanasatta Thera, it states:
“When practising mindfulness of breathing, attention should be focused at the tip of the nose or at the point of the upper lip immediately below where the current of air can be felt. The meditator’s attention should not leave this “focusing point” from where the in-coming and out-going breaths can be easily felt and observed. The meditator may become aware of the breath’s route through the body but he should not pay attention to it.”
Also, in the book titled ‘Heart of Buddhist meditation: A handbook of mental training based on the Buddha’s way of mindfulness’ by Nyanaponika Thera (published by Buddhist Publication Society), on page 120, under the heading ‘Instructions for Practice’ (of mindfulness of breathing/Anapana-sati) it states that the instructions given in the book are based on the respective section of the Satipatthana Sutta. Immediately below, on the same page, it states:
“…………………… for Mindfulness of Breathing, the Lotus Posture with fully crossed legs is preferable though it is not of absolute necessity. We have also given a warning not to interfere with the breath in any way …………………… The only task here is to follow the natural flow of the breath mindfully and continuously, without a break or without unnoticed break. The point where one should fix one’s attention is the nostrils against which the breathing air strikes, and one should not leave that point of observation because here one can easily check the entry and exit of the breath. One should, for instance, not follow the breath on its way down the body and back since this will deflect attention by diverting it to the several stages of the breath’s journey.”
What’s the difference between Anapanasati and pranayama?
Having completed some research initially on pranayama and then on Anapanasati I began to ask myself – what’s the difference between the two? I found what appears to be the answer in a book titled ‘Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation’ by Larry Rosenberg. It states:
“ …………… all the Indian spiritual sciences had some form of pranayama, which is usually translated “breath control” …………………….. Most forms of pranayama, yogic breathing, involve controlling the breath. Anapanasati accomplishes some of the same things – it is a kind of Buddhist science of breath – by letting the breath be as it is, by surrendering to the process.” (p. 20)
Having read this, I asked myself, why then do the Anapanasati Sutta and the Satipatthana Sutta appear to instruct that one should breathe through the nose? For someone who is predominantly a mouth breather, to do so would mean having to exercise control over their breathing.
However, at the time these discourses were written, everyone (or almost everyone) was probably a nose breather, so they were not, in effect, being instructed to change or control their breathing by the Satipatthana Sutta. However, modern living has changed this situation. A paper published in 2015, which reviewed the findings of a number of studies, reported that the prevalence of mouth breathing among children is reported to be between 50 – 56%. Mouth breathing has been defined as using the mouth alone or the mouth and nose instead of the nose alone for respiration for longer than 6 months. Two of the main factors that are thought to be responsible for the unhealthy behaviour of mouth breathing are psychological stress and processed foods.
It appears to me that due to the high prevalence of unhealthy mouth breathing in modern society, modern mindfulness teachers and modern mindfulness textbooks should act on the ancient wisdom of Anapanasati and instruct individuals to breathe in and out through their nose during mindfulness of breathing practice, and indeed, in everyday life. This healthy practice will assist in improving their physical and mental health. Nose breathing, with its natural companion diaphragmatic breathing provides a wide array of health benefits, including elicitation of the relaxation response.
References available on request: e-mail Alan at: [email protected]