We do it around 23,040 times a day and even more if we’re in a state of exertion. Our life cycles start and end with it, from our very first inhale at birth to our last exhale at death. I’m referring to the breath—the universal language of humanity and the vital force that fuels our existence.
There’s no doubt that the breath is a majestic and miraculous phenomenon. Yet, most of us carry about our days largely disconnected from this incredible source of life, which can calm your mind and body.
I first learned to pay attention to my breath as a third grader. I would lay awake at night, plagued with stomachaches and anxiety. In attempts to help calm me down, my father taught me to deeply inhale while saying “Jesus,” and “please help me” when I exhaled. This simple prayer proved to be effective for my 9-year-old self.
As I grew older, I quit noticing my breath except for the times I’d gasp for more of it during my high school swim meets. Then once I hit my 20s, I became a serial smoker for far too many years, and my inhales were mixed with tobacco and chemical compounds.
I rediscovered the soothing power buried within the breath five years ago as I battled postpartum depression around the same time I lost my grandma to cancer. I began to notice the way I would hold my breath when I felt sadness or anxiety, and how the invisible elephant sitting on my chest would disappear when I breathed deep into my belly.
I’d utter a simple prayer of “God, give me your peace,” as I’d feed my newborn in the quiet wee hours, be on the go with my then-preschooler during the day, and as I watched my tears swirl down the shower drain at night. Just as they did when I was a child, breath prayers quieted the sorrow within me and paved the way for the peace I craved.
The breath can calm your mind and relax your body
On several (alright, more like hundreds of) occasions, my youngest daughter and I have sung the catchy “Daniel Tiger” song about self-regulation:
“When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four…”
Breathing deeply does more than cause us to exercise self-control in those moments we’re tempted to let out a big “roar!” Breathing is the only autonomous system of the body that can be controlled and altered through conscious practices, such as belly/diaphragmatic breathing. It is the gateway toward bringing the body to rest along with several other benefits.
Here are just a few of them:
• Calms the nervous system
• Slows down the heart rate
• Relieves emotional stress and anxiety
• Releases carbon dioxide and increases oxygen supply, which improves blood quality
• Lowers blood pressure
• Increases energy
• Improves digestion
God’s Breath, Our Breath
Deep breathing has the ability to reorient our minds to the present moment. It can provide physical relief to our bodies in the midst of external and internal chaos. But it can do more: as a spiritual practice, we can visualize our physical breath intertwined with the holy breath—where God is the source of oxygen to our spirits.
We can picture our inhales as God’s love, health, and vitality filling our lungs. Our exhales become vessels for ridding our bodies of impure air, toxins, anxiety, or anything else we may be carrying. The Old Testament word for “spirit” is interchangeable with the Hebrew word “breath.” Consider the ways Scripture reminds us of our Maker using the breath to fuel creation:
“The Spirit of God made me what I am, the breath of God Almighty gave me life.” Job 33:4
“The spirit [breath] of the Lord is the creative power of life.” Psalm 33:6
No matter what is going around us, we can harness this powerful source of life to reconnect with God through breathing prayer. Breath prayer is exactly what it sounds like: prayer synced with the rhythm of the breath.
A Simple Breath Prayer to Try for Yourself
Go to a quiet place in your home, outside, or in your car if it’s accessible for you (if solitude isn’t an option, that’s okay. Breath prayer can be done anytime, anywhere). Sit, stand, or lie down in a comfortable position. Scan your body, starting at the top of your head, working your way down to your toes. Notice where you may be feeling tension or pain. Try to relax and soften those areas of the body by unfurrowing your brows, unclenching your jaw, and allowing your shoulders to sag.
Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your heart, and begin inhaling slowly through your nose for a count of four as you feel your stomach rise. Hold your breath for seven counts and exhale slowly through the mouth for eight counts as you feel your stomach fall. Keep breathing this way and notice what’s taking place within you. How does your body feel? Imagine your breath moving to any painful or tense parts of your body.
Begin to use a biblical phrase that is grounding for you as you inhale and exhale, such as:
Inhale, “Jesus,” exhale, “you are here.”
Inhale, “God,” exhale, “you are my rock/you are my source of strength and healing/you are love.”
Inhale, “Father,” exhale, “thank you for your grace.”
Inhale, “Be still,” exhale, “and know that I am God.”
Inhale, “Breath of the living God,” exhale, “fall afresh on me.”
Breathe your prayer as many times as you want and notice any changes in your body, thoughts, and emotions.
Oxygen flowing through our lungs sustains our lives, yes … but our connection with God is the true source of oxygen to our spirits. As we discover a deeper connection with our Maker, may we continue to receive his rest, peace, and vitality each and every day.
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