Get your breathing right first!
Most meditation methods feature awareness of the breath in one way or another but one thing they don’t explain is the correct way to breathe. In my experience, this is a massive hole, as quality of breath impacts mental-emotional state dramatically.
Please note, in this post we are talking about meditations which involve “normal” breathing, such as anapanasati concentration meditation, where the breath is allowed to come and go. I am not talking about breath-holding (e.g. pranayama) or other yogic practices which stress very direct control over both in- and out-breath (e.g. in specific ratios).
So, this is for normal, everyday breathing. My theory is that being forced to sit at desks from the age of four onwards has massive detrimental impact on our breathing. I think that sitting partially inverts the breath, and this gets trained as “normal”. E.g. if you ask someone to take a breath, chances are they will first suck air through their nose quite forcefully, before “deflating” on the out-breath. In my experience this harsh in-breath (which seems standard) is quite adrenal and raises stress. In a meditation context, this is going to emphasize the negative qualities of one’s mind, and was in fact quite a serious problem in my practice that I only recently noticed.
The video above is just the first thing I found when I typed “how to breathe correctly” into Google. I figured it would probably pull up something from the Alexander Technique and I was right. You should watch the video, probably several times, and practise along with it until the breathing pattern advised there is completely ingrained. The main principle is that the out-breath should be the primary “flex” when breathing, done via a soft blow, after which the body refills with air of its own accord to constitute the in-breath. In other words, it’s probably the opposite of what you considered to be correct breathing before this.
In a meditation context, this style of breathing completely eliminated the “stressed” factors I would typically experience when practising with awareness on my breath. Because I had learned the jhanas with poor breathing, fighting through such stress, when I switched to this breathing pattern the jhanas became easier than they had ever been and ten times as blissful. It really has made this much difference to my practice.
In a daily life context, this breathing pattern has led to more fluid movement, and areas of chronic tension in my body spontaneously relaxing. It has also allowed me to sit a lot more comfortably.
I strongly recommend you adopt this style of breathing ASAP, if you don’t already do something similar. I recommend you spend a week just ingraining the pattern non-stop, in all areas of your life, so that it becomes the default way you breathe. Then, introduce it to your meditation practice.
In order to turn this way of breathing into a jhana, simply try to make the outward “blow” merge into the “body refilling itself” stage, then back into the “blow” stage, as seamlessly as possible. A sense of continuous flow arises from this seamlessness and the jhana rides on the back of this continuous flow. It is quite beautiful. General awareness should be kept on the area just underneath the nostrils once this breathing pattern is mastered.