When we put our bodies and minds into a calm, relaxed state we give our hearts and souls more freedom to be open to receiving what is available for us in prayer. One way to best facilitate our bodies being in a ready state to encounter God is to turn our attention to our breathing.
We know that we are made of both mind and matter. Breathing, this wonderful life-giving action, crosses the bounds of our bodies and spirits and ties them together into the intertwined beings of flesh and soul that we are. Breathing connects our material and immaterial selves, and when we breathe harmoniously, in sync with the rhythm of our existence, it roots us in our selves and in our eternal identity. Breathing is nearly synonymous with living; to breathe well is essentially to live well.
Most of us know that when we breathe fast and shallow breaths from our chest, or alternatively, when we hold our breath, it sends a signal to our brains that we are in danger, which activates the Limbic System and the Sympathetic Nervous System (think fight-or-flight response). Many of us are breathing this way without even realising it and therefore we are unconsciously going through our days in a state of low-key (or not so low-key) anxiety, stress, and tension.
When we take deep, slow breaths, all the way from our stomachs, it calms down our bodies and our minds, activating the neocortex and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (think rest-and-digest response). This enables us to be calmer, more thoughtful people, and more in tune with ourselves and the world around us.
You can imagine which of these modes is the healthier option for us, and which prepares us to enter the inner space of prayer, particularly Contemplative Prayer.
Luckily, just like Contemplative Prayer, this slower, deeper type of breathing is a skill that can be practiced and improved over time. Here are some tips that you might find helpful:
To improve your breathing:
- Make sure you have good posture
Proper alignment of your body ensures the air is able to flow without restriction. Remember the keys, shoulders back, head up.
Stretching enhances circulation and relaxation, as well as correcting posture, which in turn improves breathing.
- Breathe slower and looooooonnngggeeerrr.
Extended inhalations and exhalations calm the body, activating the PNS and increasing oxygen flow. Try breathing in for a count of 4-5 seconds and out for a count of 6 seconds. This technique can also be useful if you’re feeling quite anxious or worried. Sit in a chair and try this breathing for 2 minutes. The breathing will send a message to your body that nothing bad is happening and you will start to calm.
- Breathe through your nose
Our noses filter the air we take into our lungs and so breathing through your nose is healthier for you than breathing through your mouth.
- Breathe from your stomach (NOT your chest)
Your stomach should be inflating like a balloon when you inhale, and deflating when you exhale. Try placing your hand on your stomach so you can feel its movement as you breathe.
- Visual techniques
You can picture waves rolling in over a shoreline, and back out again, and allow your breathing to match this rhythm
- Drink enough water
Hydration is very important for oxygen absorption; the more dehydrated we are, the more laboured our breathing becomes. Also, hydration is just overall a health win so this is a good tip for everything.
The more we practise slow, deep, conscious breathing, in through our noses and from our stomachs, the better we become at it and the more natural it will feel.
While generally considered in the domain of physiological functioning, breathing is also an essential component of our emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Breath control can enhance wellness across the whole spectrum of our being, and is one of the most important skills we can develop in the service of our prayer life.
“In whose hand is the life of every living thing, And the breath of all mankind?” -Job 12:10