Breathing is something we do continually (usually completely unconsciously) every moment of our lives, so it’s something we often take for granted, but it can offer us so much more.
Our breath can be a powerful tool in supporting our prayer life. Here are three reasons why our breath can make a difference and how we can use it most effectively.
Breath and our body
We all breathe every moment of the day without even thinking about it, but I had no idea how much impact the way I breathe has on my body, my mind, and my emotions until I trained as a yoga teacher.
The movement of our breath through our nasal passages influences our autonomic nervous system. These are the systems, like our heart beat, that keep our body going without our conscious thought.
Each inhale stimulates that system, causing our bodies to feel more energetic and awake. Each exhale soothes that system, helping to calm and soothe us.
This means that altering the amount of time we spend inhaling vs. exhaling can change the state of our nervous system, which affects our bodies directly, and the state of our bodies then impacts our mind and emotions.
For many of us, especially if we engage in meditation or contemplative prayer as part of our prayer lives, learning to calm our bodies, minds, and emotions enough to reach deeper contemplative states is the biggest challenge we face in prayer.
Using our breath to influence our nervous system into calmer states can help with this. Using a faster inhale and a slower exhale extends the time we spend on our exhalations relative to our inhalations, which creates an overall calming effect that can make settling into contemplative prayer easier.
Breath and being present
Another challenge many of us face in prayer is keeping our minds focused on the here and now. Our thoughts easily drift away into the past to relive old memories or into the future to worry about what may come.
The breath, however, is always in the present. Focusing on our breath gives us something to help center us here in the present.
There are a variety of ways to do this. One is just to notice the feel of each inhale and exhale in our bodies—how it feels in our nasal passages, how it feels in our lungs and chest and belly as we breathe. Paying attention to these bodily sensations grounds us in the present moment.
Another method is to add counting the breaths as we notice the feel of them to give our minds something to do. (Using prayer beads to help count the breaths can help with this.)
Using counts to measure out the length of our inhales, exhales, and any spaces between them can also be an effective way to ground both mind and body in the present.
All of these methods of focusing on the breath are tools to help keep our minds here in the present moment as we pray or meditate.
Breathing God’s name
In The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Richard Rohr writes of the Sacred Tetragrammaton in Hebrew, the four unpronounceable letters that are the name of God as God gave it to Moses in Exodus. These four letters are roughly the equivalent of YHVH in English and are translated as “I am who I am.”
Many people now try to add vowels to this set of letters in various ways in order to make it pronounceable (Jehovah is one example), but the Jews believed that any attempt to reduce this name to speech was to take the name in vain by attempting to limit into language that which was bigger than anything we could know.
According to Rohr, many have claimed that the correct pronunciation of the word “is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation.” This would mean that the word is not actually said, it is breathed.
I don’t know enough of the scholarship behind this claim to know whether this is true, but I find the idea intriguing. What if every breath we breathe all day every day was repeating the name of God?
Breathing is something that we have in common across the entire human race. There is no religion-specific way to breathe. It is not practiced by only those of certain faith traditions. It is not differentiated by race or gender or creed or orientation or political affiliation or citizenship or status or wealth.
We all breathe, and we all do it the same way—with an inhale and and exhale. Every one of us has equal access without need for specific locations, practices, intermediaries, or beliefs. The divine is available to all of us every moment from birth until death.
That has profound meaning for the ability of every one of us to have access to God in every moment no matter where we are.
What if every breath is a prayer? A wordless, undemanding, formless prayer that keeps us connected to God even as it keeps us connected to life.
Keeping this image in mind keeps God always as close to us as our next breath and makes it possible to consciously engage in prayer throughout our day simply by taking a moment to pay attention to our breath.
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