The 3 Minute Breathing Space Exercise Explained

Published by Olivier Devroede on

The 3 minute breathing space is by far the most popular exercise from within MBCT. This small 3 minutes meditation forms the bridge between the formal meditations and applying the learned techniques in daily life.

Origins of the 3 minute breathing space

When John Teasdale, Mark Williams and Zindel Segal were trying to adapt MBSR for their depression patients, they knew that therapeutic change depends on applying therapy skills between sessions and in real-world situations.

‘Breath’, image by Andrea Castelletti

At that moment, MBSR training was having only longer, formal, meditation sessions, with little or no guidance on how to implement these skills in real-life situation.

Of course, there were the ‘mindfulness in an everyday activity‘ kind of practices, but none addressed a way to cope with difficult emorions in daily life.

Furthermore they wanted to introduce a practice that was grounding in the midst of a challenging experience and that encompassed both a narrowed down and an open point of looking at the experience.

What is the 3 minute breathing space?

This little exercise takes only three minutes, but manages, to guide us through three different phases, each taking roughly one minute.

During the meditation, our focus goes from wide, to narrow, to wide again.

Let’s unpack the practice. In the following, each step takes roughly one minute.

  • In the first step, the invitation is to become fully present to the experience we are having right now. By this we mean to look inward at what is going on. So, close your eyes and try to become aware of yourself. What are our thoughts? What emotions do we experience and where do we experience them? Are there any physical sensations that come to the foreground? We essentially become mindful of our complete state in this very moment. In this sense, our attention is broad.
  • The second step invites us to narrow our focus. To take our attention away form our internal and physical state and to focus exclusively on our breath. It does not matter where we notice the breath, as long as we focus exclusively on the sensations at the belly or chest or nostrils. It is a small breathing meditation of one minute. Here, our focus has become narrow.
  • In the last step, we broaden our focus again to encompass the full experience of ourselves as a body with emotions and thoughts. You can notice if something changed or remained the same. You can also slowly incorporate the outer world into your mindfulness. This step ensures a smooth transition to the world we stepped out for the duration of a small meditation. You can reopen your eyes at the end of the exercise, or you can choose to open them a little before and continue the practice with open eyes, taking in the whole of your experience.

I invite you to now take a small portion out of your time to practice this meditation via the guided meditation by Zindel Segal, the co-founder of MBCT.

Why is the 3 minute breathing space so popular?

Free image provided

We already noted that this small 3 minute meditation practice is the most popular one of the whole MBCT program. It is also the one that is reported most often by participants as ‘the only exercise they still practice’ after having completed the program.

And why is this?

Well, the shortness of the practice is certainly a good starting point, but I think that does not explain its popularity fully

My guess it that people find the exercise really helpful. And I concur.

The reason this exercise works so well is because you learn to retract your attention from all its reactivity toward a more centered view of the world.

  • In the first stage of the practice, we become present to whatever is going on inside ourselves. This is more often than not an unpleasant experience. We stay with the experience to slowly move ourselves from the frantic world towards the inner calm of stage two.
  • In stage two, attention is exclusively focused on the breathing sensations. This has the tendency to calm us down. It often calms us down quite a bit. This means that we have slowly gone from a hectic situation to something that resembles inner calm.
  • Now, in the third stage we can re-engage with the outer world from this place of inner calm. Usually, it allow you to find a way to respond to the situation at hand instead of just reacting from frustration.

As you can see, this exercise has the potential to take us out of a very frustrating state of mind into a state of mind that is far more equilibrated.

On top of this, when the 3 minute breathing space is practiced as a standalone exercise, it is generally found to be very relaxing and soothing. All the more reason that people are fond of it.

How and where should I practice this exercise?

The aim of the exercise is to be able to use it in the midst of a difficult situation. But in order to be able to do this, we first need to practice to become familiar with the exercise.

Practice stage

I recommend that you first practice with the help of a guided meditation like the one included a bit higher on the page. This will help you memorize the instructions and get a feeling for the timing of the different parts.

One minute per stage is really not a lot, so no time to dwell in any stage.

Next, practice the exercise a few times during the day. You will need to plan them into your day or you will not do them at all. Carving just three minutes here and there should not be a problem.

Aim to do this exercises a couple of times per day. Let’s say morning, noon and evening. In this way, you will also learn some things about how you feel yourself during these periods of time. You might discover that you tend to be more happy at noon, or cranky in the afternoon.

Although that is not the primary aim of the exercise, it is a good example of what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls ‘wisdom’. You discover things about yourself so you can act (or not).

‘I learned how to breathe fire’ by Jason Eppink

Real life stage

Once you have mastered the basic exercises, you can now start applying the technique to real life experiences.

As the three minute breathing space is mainly meant for dealing with difficult situations, we’ll have to be on the lookout for these types of events in our day.

The exercise is the same as described before, just that it will be much more difficult to reach a calm mental state. That is perfectly fine. Do not expect to become as calm as during the exercises in less challenging conditions.

Just notice at the end of the exercise whether it did something for you or not. Di you become more calm? Could you handle the situation better than you usually do? We sometimes tend to overlook the small victories. So, be on the lookout for this!

Obviously, one of the challenging parts of difficult situations is that you are stuck in the situation. When in an argument, it is not easy to close your eyes for three minutes.

In that case, you have three options.

  • The first one is the one you will be taking automatically since you will just engage in the situation and forget about the practice at all. That is ok. Just do it later when you remember. The negative energy from such an encounter can linger on for many hours, so taking some of the heat off with three meditation minutes is always a plus.
  • The second option is to excuse yourself and go cool off somewhere distant from the conflict and do the exercise there.
  • The third option is a very advanced practice where you do the meditation while immersed in the situation. Keeping your eyes open and responding more or less to the situation at hand and then doing the three steps. You might be surprised at whet you find!

Your experience?

Let me know in the comment whether you tried this exercise and if you enjoyed it. Also let me know in which situations you applied the technique.

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.