Ancient practice synchronizes breathing with sacred words
May 6, 2023
Originally published May/June 2020
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 CE.
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.
Put into practice
- Choose a phrase of up to 12 sacred words.
- Divide it into two parts. You will pray the first part on the inhale and the second on the exhale.
- 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.
Diane Stephens Hogue for Presbyterians Today, Special to Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Breath prayer eases anxiousness
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Monica Buonincontri, Director, Enterprise Marketing, Board of Pensions
Cherrie Burch, Senior Accounting Clerk, Presbyterian Foundation
Let us pray
God of grace, we ask that you would give us creative ways to serve the people and that they would one day claim the hope and joy of abundant life in Christ. Amen.