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ānāpānasati (Pali; Skt. ānāpānasmṛti; T. dbugs rngub pa dang 'byung ba dran pa དབུགས་རྔུབ་པ་དང་འབྱུང་བ་དྲན་པ་; shuxi guan/annabannanian 數息觀/安那般那念), known as mindfulness of breathing, is one of the oldest and most basic methods of meditation found in Buddhism.[1] In this practice, one uses the medium of the breath to develop calmness (shamatha) and/or insight (vipassana). One begins by paying close attention to one's breath: watching the breath as it goes in, and watching the breath as it goes out. Next, while maintaining attention on the breath, one also pays attention to the sensations of the body and cultivates calmness. In some cases, one expands one's attention to mental activity and other phenomena.

Contemporary Theravada teacher Ajahn Karuniko states, "What I see from the way the Buddha taught ānāpānasati: it is using the breath to keep us connected to the experience of the present moment. It is not to get rid of things, but to understand the experience of the present moment."[2]

This technique was practiced by Gautama Buddha,[3] and he also taught this technique to his disciples on multiple occassions, as recorded in a variety of sutras.

This technique is also commonly practiced by modern-day meditation practitioners.


Bhikkhu Analayo states:

In ancient times, and still today, mindfulness of breathing might well be the most widely used method of body contemplation.[4] The Buddha himself frequently engaged in mindfulness of breathing, which he called a “noble” and “divine” way of practice. According to his own statement, even his awakening took place based on mindfulness of breathing.
The discourses present mindfulness of breathing in a variety of ways. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta describes four steps of the practice, to which the Ānāpānasati Sutta adds another twelve, thereby forming a scheme of altogether sixteen steps. Elsewhere the discourses speak of mindfulness of breathing as a cognition (saññā), and as a concentration practice. These various presentations demonstrate the multifunctional character of the process of breathing as a meditation object. This much is also documented in the range of its possible benefits, which include both penetrative insight and deep concentration.
As a meditation practice, mindfulness of breathing has a peaceful character and leads to stability of both posture and mind. The mental stability brought about through mindfulness of breathing acts in particular as an antidote to distraction and discursive thought. Awareness of the breath can also become a stabilizing factor at the time of death, ensuring that even one’s last breath will be a mindful one.[3]

Practice instructions (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta)

Four steps

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta presents the mindfulness of breathing practice (anapanasati) in four steps:

  1. Breathing in long, he knows “I breathe in long,” breathing out long, he knows “I breathe out long.”
  2. Breathing in short, he knows “I breathe in short”, breathing out short, he knows “I breathe out short.”
  3. He trains thus: “I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,” he trains thus: “I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.”
  4. He trains thus: “I shall breathe in calming the bodily formation,” he trains thus: “I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation”.

Explanation of the four steps

Bhikkhu Analayo explains mindfulness of breathing as presented in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta as follows:

According to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the practice of mindfulness of breathing should be undertaken in the following way:
Here, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, he sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
Breathing in long, he knows “I breathe in long,” breathing out long, he knows “I breathe out long.” Breathing in short, he knows “I breathe in short”, breathing out short, he knows “I breathe out short.” He trains thus: “I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,” he trains thus: “I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.” He trains thus: “I shall breathe in calming the bodily formation,” he trains thus: “I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation”.
The instructions for mindfulness of breathing include the appropriate external environment and the suitable physical posture. The three kinds of places recommended for practice are a forest, the root of a tree, and an empty hut. In the discourses, these three usually indicate suitable conditions for the practice of formal meditation, representing the appropriate degree of seclusion required for mindfulness of breathing (or other meditation practices). According to modern meditation teachers, however, mindfulness of breathing can be developed in any situation, even while, for example, standing in a queue or sitting in a waiting-room.
As well as describing the external environment, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta also specifies the proper sitting posture: the back should be kept straight and the legs crossed. In the discourses, this description of the appropriate posture for meditation occurs not only in relation to mindfulness of breathing, but also in the context of several other meditation practices. Although this does not imply that meditation should be confined to the sitting posture only, these occurrences nevertheless clearly underline the importance of formal sitting for cultivating the mind.[3]

The phrase "established mindfulness in front of him" (quoted above from the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta) is interpreted in different ways. The literal understanding of "in front" is to focus on the nostrils while breathing in and out. Another interpretation suggests to keep "mindfulness" (sati) in the front of the mind, in the sense of maintaining meditative composure and attentiveness. Bhikkhu Analayo notes that: "In fact, several modern teachers have developed successful approaches to mindfulness of breathing independent of the nostril area. Some, for example, advise their pupils to experience the breath in the chest area, others suggest observing the air element at the abdomen, while still others recommend directing awareness to the act of breathing itself, without focusing on any specific location."[3]

Bhikkhu Analayo continues his explanation as follows:

Having described the appropriate environment and posture, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta instructs the meditator to breathe in and out mindfully. Next, the meditator should become aware of the length of each breath as “long” or “short”. The point here is to be aware of long and short breaths, not consciously to control the length of the breath. Nevertheless, the progression from knowing longer breaths to knowing shorter breaths reflects the fact that the breath naturally becomes shorter and finer with continued contemplation, owing to increasing mental and physical calmness.
The discourse compares this progress to a skilled turner who attends to his lathe with full awareness of making a long turn or a short turn. The simile of the turner suggests increasing degrees of refinement and subtlety in practising mindfulness of breathing. Just as a turner makes progressively finer and more delicate cuts on the lathe, contemplation proceeds from long and comparatively gross breaths to shorter and subtler breaths. The Paṭisambhidāmagga compares this progressive refinement of mindfulness of breathing to the progressively fainter sound of a gong after it has been struck.
The third and fourth steps introduce a different verb to describe the process of contemplation: in place of “he knows” (pajānāti), the text now uses the expression “he trains” (sikkhati). In the Ānāpānasati Sutta, this “training” covers altogether fourteen steps, in addition to the first two steps concerned with “knowing”. The use of the word “training” indicates some degree of additional effort on the part of the meditator, owing to an increased degree of difficulty in these steps. Such training seems to entail a shift to a broader kind of awareness, which also includes phenomena other than the breath itself.
In the scheme described in the Ānāpānasati Sutta, awareness moves through sixteen steps, which proceed from the bodily phenomena of breathing to feelings, mental events, and the development of insight. Considering the range of these sixteen steps it becomes evident that mindfulness of breathing is not limited to changes in the process of breathing, but covers related aspects of subjective experience. Undertaken in this way, mindfulness of breathing becomes a skilful tool for self-observation.[3]

The phrases "experiencing the whole body" and "calming the bodily formation" (quoted above from the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta) can be interpreted in different ways. The phrase "experiencing the whole body" can literally refer to the whole body, or it is also understood to refer to the "body of the breath," in the sense of maintaining awareness of each stage of the breath. Similarly, "calming the bodily formation" can be understood as maintaining a calm and stable posture, or as calm attention to the in-breath and out-breath. Bhikkhu Analayo suggests that these two interpertations overlap, since "since a calming of the breath naturally leads to increased bodily tranquillity and vice versa."[3]

Bhikkhu Analayo further states:

Such calming of breath and body can then either become the basis for developing awareness of the inner constitution of the body, as in the subsequent satipaṭṭhāna exercises, or else lead to an awareness of feelings and mental processes, as in the sixteen steps. In both cases this constitutes a natural progression in which the establishment of a basis in bodily calmness enables awareness to proceed to subtler aspects of contemplation.[3]

Practice instructions (Ānāpānasati Sutta)

Sixteen steps

The Anapanasati Sutta presents the mindfulness of breathing practice in sixteen steps, which are commonly divided into four tetrads (i.e., groups of four).

The four tetrads and sixteen steps are listed below:[5]

First Tetrad
1. Breathing in a long breath, one knows one is breathing in a long breath.
    Breathing out a long breath, one knows one is breathing out a long breath.
2. Breathing in a short breath, one knows one is breathing in a short breath.
    Breathing out a short breath, one knows one is breathing out a short breath.
3. Breathing in, one experiences the whole body.
    Breathing out, one experiences the whole body.
4. Breathing in, one relaxes the bodily formations.
    Breathing out, one relaxes the bodily formations.
Second Tetrad
5. Breathing in, one experiences joy (pīti).
    Breathing out, one experiences joy .
6. Breathing in, one experiences happiness/well-being (sukha).
    Breathing out, one experiences happiness/well-being.
7. Breathing in, one experiences one’s mental activity (mental formations).
    Breathing out, on experiences one’s mental activity.
8. Breathing in, one relaxes one’s mental activity.
    Breathing out, one relaxes one’s mental activity.
Third Tetrad
  9. Breathing in, one experiences the mind.
      Breathing out, one experiences the mind.
10. Breathing in, one gladdens the mind.
      Breathing out, one gladdens the mind.
11. Breathing in, one settles/concentrates the mind.
      Breathing out, one settles the mind.
12. Breathing in, one liberates the mind.
      Breathing out, one liberates the mind.
Fourth Tetrad
13. Breathing in, one observes impermanence.
      Breathing out, one observes impermanence.
14. Breathing in, one observes fading away (of clinging).
      Breathing out, one observes fading away (of clinging).
15. Breathing in, one observes cessation (of clinging).
      Breathing out, one observes cessation (of clinging).
16. Breathing in, one observes relinquishment.
      Breathing out, one observes relinquishment.

Explanation of the sixteen steps

The following brief explanation of the sixteen steps is based on a dharma talk by contemporary Theravada teacher Gil Fronsdal:[5]

First tetrad

In the first two steps, pay attention to the breath. Recognize when you are breathing in and when you are breathing out.
1. Breathing in a long breath, one knows (recognizes) one is breathing in a long breath...
2. Breathing in a short breath, one knows (recognizes) one is breathing in a short breath...
In the steps above, you are getting to know your breathing - the goal is to stabilize your attention on your breathing. You might recognize a change in your breathing as you pay attention; your breaths might become shorter (or longer).
All the remaining steps involve being with the breathing; breathing is the common thread for these instructions. Focus on the breath keeps us centered and keeps us from getting distracted. If you are aware of your breathing, then it is more difficult to get lost in pre-occupations.
In the next step, while staying with the breath, start using your peripheral awareness to pay attention to what's going on in your body. For example, when you are driving car, your primary focus is on driving, but you can be aware of the periphery. Here, one uses the periphery awareness to pay attention to sensations or tension in the body.
3. Breathing in, experience (feel) the body...
Next, let the body relax.
4. Breathing in, one relaxes the bodily tensions...
As we relax bodily tensions, the mind begins to relax.

Second tetrad

The relaxation of the body tends to create a sense of well-being; when this is strong, it is called "joy." While staying with the breath, allow yourself to feel/experience this "joy."
5. Breathing in, one experiences joy...
When the sensation of joy settles, the sensation of "happiness" or "well-being" can naturally arise.
6. Breathing in, one experiences happiness/pleasure...
Some people have aversion to feeling joy and happiness, some are excessively pre-occupied with feeling these in meditation. Best to not push it away, or reach for it. When it begins to happen, make space for it and feel it fully. Feel it rather than getting excited about it. [22 min]
As we settle, the feelings of joy and happiness support the mind to become more concentrated in the present moment.
As we settle more and more into the present moment, we become more aware of our mental activity.
The next step is to start becoming more aware of what's going on in your mind.
7. Breathing in, one experiences the mental activity...
Next, let the mind relax.
8. Breathing in, relax the mental activity...
Now you are beginning to relax the mind.
When you are settled enough, you begin to sense what is going on in your mind.
If you have been preoccupied, thinking a lot, there is a pressure or tension, like a muscle that is tight. The instruction is to relax the "thinking muscle," to relax mental activity.
You can think of letting the mind relax and spread out like a wide peaceful lake.
This instruction to relax the mental activity is very helpful, because some people are so focused on what they are thinking about, that it prevents them from noticing the inner process of thinking.
If we can switch our focus from what we are thinking about (the content) to what it feels like to be thinking (the process), then we can access the ability to relax the "thinking muscle" (mental activity). " Breathing in, one relaxes the mental activity..."

Third tetrad

When mental activity starts to relax, we get a sense of clarity. For example, if your are driving car on long trip and the front window (windshield) slowly becomes very dirty. You might not notice the dirt because it has built up gradually over time. And then you stop at a gas station and someone cleans your windshield, suddenly your view through the window is clear. There is a state of clarity with respect to the window.
As the mind quiets down, settles and relaxes, the state of the mind begins to stand out.
The next step is to notice the "state of the mind."
 9. Breathing in, one experiences the mind...
The state of the mind might be clear or cloudy; or it can be contracted or expanded, etc. There are different states of mind that can be noticed.
You also might become aware that the mind is imbalanced. It can feel dull, lacking energy; or it can feel too energetic, too active, agitated.
The next two steps are partly to bring the mind into balance.
10. Breathing in, one gladdens the mind...
This step is to bring energy to the mine. Bring a sense of satisfaction, well-being. Being pleased with what's happening.
11. Breathing in, one settles/concentrates the mind...
If the mind is too active, you want to relax the mind, let it settle, become more concentrated. So that it is present in a direct, full way.
When the mind state comes into balance, then it is easier to notice what it is like when the mind is pre-occupied with something. It is more possible to let go of the coarser pre-occupations, such as the five hindrances of desire, anger, doubt, etc.
For example, your mind is settled and relaxed, but then you start thinking about what you should eat for lunch. So the next step is to "liberate" the mind for the course pre-occupations -- from desires, anger, resentments, etc. -- and let the mind settle even further.
12. Breathing in, one liberates the mind.
      Breathing out, one liberates the mind.

Fourth tetrad

We have done a lot of work up until this point. At some point we stop "doing," and sit back and observe.
There are four things to observe. The first is the key buddhist insight that supports the movement towards liberation - that is impermanence (anitya).
13. Breathing in, one observes impermanence.
      Breathing out, one observes impermanence.
This instruction is not referring to impermanence at the conceptual level (e.g. thinking about mountains wearing down over time, or day changing to night, etc.).
It is about paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. When then mind is settled and quiet, there is a moment to moment recognition of how quickly experiences arise and pass in the field of awareness.
There is something about watching things come and go very fast, that highlights where we get stuck, where we create a sense of "self" and get attached to that, where we don't allow the flow of change to pass through us.
We realize, "Oh, I am clinging there." You realize you are making something solid in this field of things that is just flowing. So in this step we sit back and watch what is happening in the present moment
As we watch the impermanence and notice the clinging that happening, then the next step is to "observe the fading away" of the clinging.
14. Breathing in, one observes fading away (of clinging).
      Breathing out, one observes fading away (of clinging).
If you are centered, relaxed and present, if you are in the flow of things constantly changing, then you can feel the unsatisfactory nature of taking and congealing the impermanent flow, and holding it tight, and making it into a solid something.
Hence the movement towards wanting to be attached, wanting to cling to things, begins to fade away. One becomes more and more unattached. No longer in the grip of clinging or attachments.
The term "fading away," indicates there is no quick fix in Buddhism.
At some point, when things fade away enough, there is an experience of cessation. Some of our attachments or clinging fully drop off, they cease -- at least temporarily.
15. Breathing in, one observes cessation (of clinging).
      Breathing out, one observes cessation (of clinging).
This is the good news of Buddhism. That our tendency to congeal, to get caught up in attachment and clinging, is not hard-wired into our system. It can be released, and come to an end.
To have an experience of oneself without any clinging is one of the most pristine and wonderful things a human can experience. The sense of well-being, sense of peace, sense of compassion, and so on, is sublime. It is an experience without any suffering at all.
It is very educational to have such an experience. Because it gives a very different perspective of the world of clinging. Many people don't even know that they are clinging; and if they do know, they think that is the way you are supposed to be, that it is what you do to get on in the world. They think that "everyone else is clinging and ambitious and holding onto things very tightly, so that is the way I should be also."
There is also a lot of fear around not getting what we want, around feeling safe, and so on. It can feel very frightening to let go of that. One might think, "Then, how will I take care of myself?"
But to have this full cessation, and then to recognize how good this is, changes our perspective. It changes our relation to the world of clinging.
This leads to the final step:
16. Breathing in, one observes relinquishment.
      Breathing out, one observes relinquishment.
"Relinquishment" is a decision, or an aspiration, that arises out understanding "I am done with that." "I am tired of that." "I am no longer interested in that."
For example, you might have an attachment to constantly checking your phone every few minutes -- for a new message or email or whatever. The first thing in the morning and the last thing at night, you are checking your phone for the latest updates.
But if you are able to get into this deep, relaxed state, and it feels very good, then you start recognizing that constantly checking your phone is actually not so good for your mind. Because now you know what it is like to experience the letting go of this attachment.
Then at some point you decide, "I am done with this attachment." You still check your phone as needed, but the attachment to constantly checking your phone at all hours of the day and night is no longer there. You are able to set some boundaries for yourself.
Or someone else might have a strong attachment to smoking cigarettes. They can't seem to break this attachment to needing to smoke. If they are able to achieve this deep relaxed state of mind, then they gain a new perspective on how this habit is unhealthy for their body and mind; and they gain confidence that they can let go of this habit.
There is something maturing about saying "I am done." Taking responsibility for our attachments. To recognize what we are doing and to make a choice. "I relinquish."
This doesn't mean you are done once and for all. The attachment might come back. But it is a sea change to gain this new perspective -- to no longer believe in the value of being attached to something. It is a sea change to make a decision, "I am no longer interested in this."
So the movement towards liberation does not end in liberation, it ends in an understanding of what we are no longer interested in, what we are no longer going to be caught in.
"Breathing in, one observes relinquishment. Breathing out, one observes relinquishment."
This relinquishment can become quite deep. One of the deepest aspects of relinquishment is letting go of the attachment to self. (Self-identity, self concerns)
To experience the cessation of self pre-occupation at a very deep level of the mind, and then to come out of that and see "this concern that I have had with wanting everyone to like me, this is over-rated."
Or you might have a pre-occupation of wanting everyone "to see me" in a certain way: as strong, or intelligent, or beautiful, or whatever. You realize these pre-occupations are not helpful; they over-rated. You can decide, "I am done with that." "I can relinquish that."
All along one is breathing: breathing in and breathing out. And then with the peripheral awareness, one is aware of the body, aware of the mind, aware of impermanence, aware of fading away, aware of freedom, aware of relinquishment.
If we do this, the Buddha said, then there is much benefit, much fruit. It leads to full liberation. One is able to die peacefully.
Editornote image from pexelsdotcom 60x40px.png Editor's note: This explanation is based on a Dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal. A full transcript of the talk is available here: The Sixteen Steps of Anapanasati

Practice instructions (The Attention Revolution)

The following practice instructions are from the text The Attention Revolution, by contemporary Buddhist teacher B. Alan Wallace. These instructions are based on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, and they are representative of the presentations by contemporary teachers.

The Attention Revolution states:

“Be at ease. Be still. Be vigilant. These three qualities of the body are to be maintained throughout all meditation sessions. Once you have settled your body with these three qualities, take three slow, gentle, deep breaths, breathing in and out through the nostrils. Let your awareness permeate your entire body as you do so, noting any sensations that arise in relation to the respiration. Luxuriate in these breaths, as if you were receiving a gentle massage from within.
Now settle your respiration in its natural flow. Continue breathing through your nostrils, noting the sensations of the respiration wherever they arise within your body. Observe the entire course of each in- and out-breath, noting whether it is long or short, deep or shallow, slow or fast. Don’t impose any rhythm on your breathing. Attend closely to the respiration, but without willfully influencing it in any way. Don’t even prefer one kind of a breath over another, and don’t assume that rhythmic breathing is necessarily better than irregular breathing. Let the body breathe as if you were fast asleep, but mindfully vigilant.
Thoughts are bound to arise involuntarily, and your attention may also be pulled away by noises and other stimuli from your environment. When you note that you have become distracted, instead of tightening up and forcing your attention back to the breath, simply let go of these thoughts and distractions. Especially with each out-breath, relax your body, release extraneous thoughts, and happily let your attention settle back into the body. When you see that your mind has wandered, don’t get upset. Just be happy that you’ve noticed the distraction, and gently return to the breath.
“Again and again, counteract the agitation and turbulence of the mind by relaxing more deeply, not by contracting your body or mind. If any tension builds up in your shoulders, face, or eyes, release it. With each exhalation, release involuntary thoughts as if they were dry leaves blown away by a soft breeze. Relax deeply through the entire course of the exhalation, and continue to relax as the next breath flows in effortlessly like the tide. Breathe so effortlessly that you feel as if your body were being breathed by your environment.
Continue practicing for one twenty-four-minute period, then mindfully emerge from meditation and reengage with the world around you.[6]

Note that some contemporary teachers advise beginning meditators to start training with short sessions of five minutes or less.

Calm and insight

With regard to using mindfulness of breath (anapanasati) for the development of calmness (shamatha) and/or insight (vipassana), Bhikkhu Analayo states:

The basic difference between mindfulness of breathing as a samatha or as a vipassanā practice depends on what angle is taken when observing the breath, since emphasis on just mentally knowing the presence of the breath is capable of leading to deep levels of concentration, while emphasis on various phenomena related to the process of breathing does not lead to a unitary type of experience but stays in the realm of variety and of sensory experience, and thus is more geared towards the development of insight. These considerations suggest that the sixteen steps are not solely a concentration practice, but also introduce an insight perspective on the development of mindfulness of breathing.
An examination of the context in which the sixteen steps are taught in the Ānāpānasati Sutta supports this suggestion. According to the introductory section of the discourse the Buddha’s rationale for giving this discourse was to demonstrate to a group of monks, who were already using the breath as a meditation object (possibly as a concentration exercise), how to develop it as a satipaṭṭhāna. That is, the Buddha took up the breath as a meditation object in order to demonstrate how sati can naturally lead from mindfulness of breathing to a comprehensive awareness of feelings, mind, and dhammas, and hence to a development of all satipaṭṭhānas and to the arising of the seven awakening factors. Thus the main purpose of the Buddha’s exposition was to broaden the scope of mindfulness of breathing from awareness of the bodily phenomenon breath to awareness of feelings, mind, and dhammas, and in this way employ it as a means to gain insight. In view of this it seems reasonable to conclude that the purpose of the sixteen steps of mindfulness of breathing described in the Ānāpānasati Sutta, and by implication the purpose of the four steps of mindfulness of breathing in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, is not restricted to the development of concentration, but covers both calm and insight.[3]


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  1. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ānāpānasmṛti.
  2. Ajahn Karuniko — On Mindfulness of Breathing, at 6 minute mark
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Anālayo 2003, Chapter VI: The Body.
  4. "body contemplation" is referring to the "mindfulness of body" contemplation within the four foundations of mindfulness.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gil Fronsdal, The Sixteen Steps of Anapanasati
  6. Wallace 2006, Part 1. The Beginning Stages: Mindfulness of Breath.


Further reading

  • Mindfulness with Breathing by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu. Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1996. ISBN 0-86171-111-4.
  • Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg. Shambhala Classics, Boston, 1998. ISBN 1-59030-136-6.
  • Tranquillity and Insight by Amadeo Sole-Leris. Shambhala, 1986. ISBN 0-87773-385-6.
  • "The Anapanasati Sutta / A Practical Guide to Mindfulness of Breathing and Tranquil Wisdom Meditation" by Bhante Vimalaramsi. Yin Shun Foundation, January 1999; First edition (1999). ASIN: B00183T9X
  • Kamalashila (1996; 2004 [2nd ed.]). Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications. ISBN 1-899579-05-2.

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