No matter where you are or what you're doing, your breath is always available to you as a source of nourishment and soothing. It can be easy to take it for granted, so this practice can help you remember your breath and to mindfully and compassionately let your attention rest there when you are struggling.
This practice is usually taught as a meditation, so I will describe it here in steps, and then include a link at the bottom for a recording by Kristin Neff, so you can be guided, if you prefer that.
Also, you may have experience with meditation being focused on your breath. This is a very common type of meditation. With affectionate breathing, the difference is that you are bringing a warm, kind attention to your breath, and you are opening more fully to the possibility of being soothed by your breath.
1. Start by finding a comfortable position ~ you want to be seated upright, but not straining to maintain a rigid posture. You might also experiment with lying down, if you feel alert enough that you won't fall asleep.
2. Breathe a few times and try noticing the way that your breath is moving in and out of your body. There's no particular way that it needs to be. You're just noticing how it is moving right now.
3. Experiment with placing a hand over your heart (or in some other soothing gesture). Doing this can help you remember to be kind in the way you notice and relate to your experience.
4. Try to bring your attention more fully to your breath and notice where you feel it most easily ~ it may be in your chest or belly, or at your nostrils. Take some time ~ as long as you need ~ to just focus on the way breathing feels.
5. See if you can allow your breath to be infused with affection and compassion, for yourself and for others. As you breathe in, imagine inhaling affection and kindness, and as you breathe out, try exhaling affection and kindness.
6. If you notice that your mind wanders, gently bring it back to warmly focusing on your breath. The goal isn't to have perfectly composed attention. Wandering is what the mind does. Bringing your attention back in a kind way helps strengthen your mindfulness and compassion.
7. Continue to let your attention warmly rest on your breath. Notice that there is nothing you need to do to deserve your breath; it is given to you moment after moment. See if you can allow your body to breathe you, recognizing that you do not have to make any effort to breathe.
8. As you continue focusing on the breath, try to feel your whole body breathe, perhaps even noticing that your whole body becomes the breath. Continue in this way for a few minutes, keeping a kind attention on your experience of breathing.
9. As you feel ready, you can let go of your focus on the breath and allow your attention to come more fully into the room. See if you can let your experience be exactly as it is right now; nothing to fix or change.
Notice how you feel. The first time you try this practice, you may want to journal afterward, in order to digest the experience.
Once you have experimented with Affectionate Breathing, you have a personal sense of what it feels like, and you can practice it in a less formal way whenever you are in a challenging situation.
If you would like to listen to a guided Affectionate Breathing meditation from Kristin Neff, please click here