Building your “Focus Muscle” – Using your Breath to Create Greater Awareness

By Vicki Flaherty and Megan Moyer

Mallorca Sunset from Costa D'Or. Mindfulness blog 2

Image: At sunset from Deia, Mallorca, Spain (Photo by Vicki Flaherty)

“Awareness is like the sun, when it shines on things, they are transformed”.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

As we focus our energy on bringing mindfulness to IBM, we intentionally pause to reconnect with why mindfulness is important to us. This past week, the answer came in a word: AWARENESS.

Awareness has three key focus areas:

  1. Self
  2. Others
  3. Surroundings

Awareness of self involves turning inward, or slowing down enough to understand what you are experiencing and what you want to create in the world. Awareness of others includes realizing the impact of your actions on others and paying attention to the quality of your relationships – essentially moving your attention from yourself to others. Awareness of surroundings is about tuning in to your environment and understanding the context in which life is happening. With these forms of awareness comes an amazing ability to move with grace through change and chaos.

Mindfulness is a way of creating these kinds of awareness. And, there are infinite ways to practice mindfulness. In this post, we’ll explore how you can use your breath to create greater awareness. Primarily, we’ll focus on two approaches:

  1. Observing your breath
  2. Focusing your breath

Observing your Breath

Wherever you are, simply bring your attention to your breath. Experience each breath as it happens. You can gently close your eyes, if you wish. You might focus on the sensation of the air moving into your nostrils or how your belly and chest gently rises and falls. The goal here is to notice, simply pay attention to your breathing, without changing it, without judging it. It’s natural for our minds to wander – distracted, for example, by sounds around you or feelings that arise, and that’s OK. Just observe them and then refocus on your breathing.

You can do this for a few seconds or as many minutes as you like. You can do it spontaneously while waiting for something, like your kettle to whistle or your computer to process, or you can do it intentionally and set a timer for some period of time. At whatever point you decide to stop, take a moment to be present with your experience, reflecting on what you noticed. If you do this many times a day or over the course of several days or weeks, you may notice different sensations and feelings arise. The goal is simply to focus and notice, continually bringing your attention back to your breath. Think of it like building a muscle, each time you refocus strengthens your ‘focus muscle’. Start wherever you are. If inspired to do so, you can gradually increase the time you spend focused on the process of breathing.

Focusing on Your Breath

You will find all kinds of different breathing techniques online from yoga and mindfulness practitioners. A very powerful and effective technique is Alternate Nostril Breathing. (Note that you should avoid alternate nostril breathing if you have a cold or if your nasal passages are blocked in any way) Sit in a relaxed yet attentive position, whatever that means to you. Gently close your eyes, if you wish.

  • Use the fingers on your right hand – your thumb and index fingers may work best
  • Use your index finger to close your left nostril and breath in the right nostril
  • Close the right nostril with your thumb and remove your index finger from the left nostril as you breathe out
  • With the thumb continuing to hold the right nostril closed, breathe in the left nostril
  • Then close the left nostril with your index finger and breathe out the right nostril
  • Repeat this sequence, breathing in and out of each nostril in turn

As with Observing Your Breath, expect that your attention will wander. The mind is always active and naturally gets busy. Remember, that’s normal; it’s what our brains do. When it happens, just bring your attention back to the alternate nostril breathing cycle.

Additional ways you can play with this breathing approach include breathing in and out as gently as possible, or breathing in and out very intentionally such that you pull air deep into your lungs and belly and release it out through your mouth with a sound like you’re fogging up a mirror . When we practice this technique with a moderate breath – not too softly or too forcefully – a circular rhythm sometimes opens, which can be very soothing.

May the awareness that is the heart of all transformation awaken in you.


Content authored by Vicki Flaherty and Megan Moyer

Vicki Flahert

Vicki Flaherty is responsible for executive leadership development and leads the Mindfulness@IBM community. You’ll find her on LinkedIn and Twitter and over at her Leading with Intention blog.

Megan Moyer

Megan Moyer is IBM Smarter Workforce marketing leader and corporate wellness, mindfulness and whole life yoga instructor.

 We hope you find these suggested mindfulness approaches useful for creating greater awareness in your life and work. Please feel free to add a comment below to let us know how you have got on.

Find previous edition of the mindfulness blog series here

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