4 Alternatives to Focusing on the Breath in Yoga Practice

...and why having options matters

In yoga and meditation practices, we’re often told that observing our breath or practicing pranayama can bring us into the present, helping to facilitate a sense of calm and relaxation. For some people, however, the breath is not a source of calm. It may not feel particularly useful, or it may be too challenging to tap into the breath and stay with it throughout a class. In some cases, the breath can also be a source of discomfort or trigger unpleasant emotions such as anxiety or stress. 

In any of these cases, it’s important to know that we have options. As practitioners, we can use other anchors as tools to help cultivate a present moment experience in yoga. 

Aside from breath awareness, here are a few helpful possibilities in organizing our focus and staying present in our practice. 

The Body as a Whole

Exploring the body through sensations, thoughts, and emotions can be one way we center ourselves in the present moment. During meditation, savasana, or more restorative asana practices that focus more on being than doing, it may feel like there isn’t much to notice. There is, however, plenty to explore. You can tune in to the grounded feeling of your body positioned on the floor, or the sense of the air flowing across your skin. Notice how even in “stillness” there are subtle shifts and movements. Maybe you’ll feel a gentle sway through your spine as you sit, or your belly and chest gently expanding and contracting in savasana. You could also focus on your alignment, or whether your body feels warm or cold.

Then, when you’re moving through asanas, sense what it feels like to transition through different poses. For instance, in the transition from three-legged dog into warrior I you might notice the open feeling in the hip of the lifted leg, the feeling of your leg traveling through space as you step your foot through, and how the front foot presses down into the mat as you lift your torso. Regardless of the pose you’re practicing, whatever is happening in your body can become a meditative experience. And there is no “right” or “wrong” way to go about this experiment in presence.

One Specific Area of the Body

But, as with the breath, tuning in to the body as a whole may be challenging for you. You may feel the need for more guidance on where to focus so that your attention doesn’t drift. Tuning in to overall sensation might also bring up uncomfortable feelings, memories, and thoughts (especially for those who've experienced trauma). In that case, try focusing instead on just one area that feels grounding and safe.

Once you shift your focus to a particular area of the body, notice how you feel and tune in to all of the tiny details there. For instance, if you’re focusing on your hands, observe the knobbly parts of your knuckles, or the fleshy pads of your fingers when they’re clasped. The point is to simply notice whatever you notice. 

Any specific area of the body can be a center of attention. Find one that works best and feels the best for you. And again, notice whatever you notice—there’s no right or wrong. 

Sounds

Sounds can also anchor us in the present. This does not mean you have to have music on (though if music is playing, that too can be something to observe).

Your focus could be on “inner” sounds, like the sound of your breath or heartbeat (though a heartbeat is hard to hear, so you’ll have to use your imagination for that). You could also focus on external sounds that we frequently miss. You might notice the hum of the air conditioning, the fan on your computer while streaming your favorite yoga class, or sounds coming from your house (like floorboard creaks, or someone making lunch in the next room). If you’re practicing outside, tune in to the sounds of nature or even traffic. As you explore, notice the quality of these sounds. Are they pleasant or unpleasant to you? Are they persistent? Do they come and go? Observing sound can remind us that much of what we experience is only temporary.

Visuals

In yoga, we often hear about drishti, a specific focal point to help ground us while we move through different poses. While you can use specific areas of the body—such as the tip of the nose, a specific spot on the wall or floor in front of you, or the flicker of a candle—the focus can also be less specific. Simply gazing into the space around you can be grounding. This could mean gazing into the room as a whole, different patterns of light, the intensity of the color of different objects, or varied textures. 

Remember that you are your own best teacher. While it may be common for instructors to guide you to notice your breath, we are all different, with unique circumstances, abilities, and emotional weather patterns. Yoga and meditation help us tune in to our inner worlds and cultivate our own intuition. And shifting our focus to something that feels right for us when the breath doesn’t work is part of this process.

Try using these different anchors in your practice and see which ones feel best for you. They may add a new richness to your time on the mat—helping you create a practice that feels comfortable, safe, and even more uniquely yours.

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About the teacher

Melissa Leger is an MBSR and yoga instructor who works with veterans, the medical community, and government... Read more

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