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Breath prayer eases anxiousness


Ancient practice synchronizes breathing with sacred words

By Diane Stephens Hogue | Presbyterians Today

Victor Garcia/Unsplash

Whether it’s threats like climate change or a pandemic — or whether we feel powerless after news of another shooting or natural disaster — we live in a state of fear and constant vigilance.

Take a deep breath, I tell those who come to me for spiritual direction. Let’s breathe together, slowly, I say.

These are anxious times. And they are taking a toll. We find ourselves restless and indecisive. Tears flow at every injustice. We are less patient and more snappish. Self-doubt, stress eating and insomnia have a hold on us. Our creativity is shot.

Just breathe, I hear myself saying again and again.

While we cannot avoid stress in our lives, we can develop healthy ways of managing stressors, beginning with mastering “breath prayer” — a spiritual practice tracing its roots to the desert fathers and mothers in the third century A.D.

We take about 25,000 breaths per day. The air we breathe contains 21% oxygen, 0.04% carbon dioxide, 78% nitrogen and small amounts of other chemical elements. The air we exhale is different only in the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide, now 16% oxygen and 4% carbon dioxide. In that exchange, we have oxygenated our blood with nutrients our cells need for energy, intelligence, imagination and love.

But we tend to be shallow breathers, using only about 15% of our lung capacity, which exacerbates fear and any anxiety we may be feeling. Deep breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing and belly breathing) is the antidote, and it is as straightforward as filling the lungs by inhaling deeply through the nostrils, holding for three counts and exhaling slowly through the mouth.

In the past few years, the health care profession has been touting breathwork for improved health. All the while, religious traditions worldwide have known for millennia the benefits of breath awareness, from Taoist Qigong breathing to Tibetan Pranayama to Zen breathing practices. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we understand that we are animated and enlivened by the breath that was breathed into us at Creation.Interestingly, in Hebrew the word for “breath” and “spirit” are the same — ruach.

In our Christian faith, we also know the power of prayer. If we turn our attention to God, we can catalyze our deep breathing with breath prayer. This prayer invites us to synchronize our breathing with sacred words. The psalms, with their raw emotions and poetic language, are well suited to breath prayer. Sacred poetry and hymn texts work, too.

Breath prayer is simple to do, requires minimal preparation and can be done anywhere. The repetition of words that mean something, our breathing — they engage us body, heart, mind and soul. We rest in the Spirit and discover new dimensions of trust in God.

These are anxious times.

Yes, they are. But just breathe and pray, I remind myself.

Diane Stephens Hogue is a spiritual director and writer, specializing in spirituality and the arts, prayer and liturgy.

Put into practice

  • Choose a phrase of up to 12 sacred words.
  • Divide it into two parts. You will be praying the first part on the inhale and the second on the exhale. For example, take words from Psalm 23 and as you inhale, pray, “beside still waters” and as you exhale, say, “you lead me.” Or these words from Romans 8:38–39 (inhale): Nothing can separate us, (exhale) from the love of God.
  • Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Tune out any distractions.
  • Take three deep breaths, slowly. Resume your normal pace of breathing.
  • When ready, introduce the first part of your prayer on the inhale. Exhale the second.
  • Repeat the phrase in the silence of your heart as you breathe naturally, up to 20 minutes.
  • Slowly let the words fall away. Tend to your breathing. Open your eyes and reorient yourself.
  • Carry your breath prayer with you as God’s word to you today.

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