02.24.22 | by Kelly Wolfe
What is Breath Prayer?
The ancient practice of breath prayer ties a short, rhythmic prayer to our breathing. It's simple, and a meaningful way to practice mindfulness. According to Gravity Center, "Breath prayer is an ancient Christian prayer practice dating back to at least the sixth century. Historically, it is associated with the Eastern Church, particularly Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. Known as the “Jesus Prayer” or “Prayer of the Heart,” early practitioners would repeat to the rhythm of their breath the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” In time, the prayer was shortened to, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy” or simply, “Jesus, mercy.”
Breath prayer is a good example of “praying without ceasing” as St. Paul admonished us to do, and has the potential to become as natural as breathing. It is intended to be a very short prayer of praise or petition, just six to eight syllables. The words of the prayer can be easily adjusted to your heart’s desire.
Praise is expressed by calling on one of the Divine names such as God, Jesus, Lord, Father/Mother, Christ, or Spirit. Or you may prefer another name of adoration. Your request or intention is comprised by the words following. The breath prayer is usually said silently within. But some people sing it; others chant it. It’s your prayer; use it your way. You may also use the breath prayer for a focused time during a daily spiritual practice. Simply repeat the prayer over and over keeping your attention on the prayer. If your attention wanders, gently return to the prayer."
Instruction - Prayer Component
1. Begin with 5 minutes and gradually increase the time to 15 or 20 minutes as you become disciplined with the prayer. You may want to use a timer to free yourself from watching the clock. Some find it useful to write in a journal of their experience with the prayer
2. Close your eyes and recall the line “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Be still, calm, peaceful, open to the presence of God.
3. With your eyes closed, imagine that God is calling you by name. Imagine that God is actually asking, “(Your name) what do you want? Like the blind man on the road to Jericho, Jesus kindly looks you in the eyes and asks, “What do you want from me?”
4. Give God a simple and direct answer that comes honestly from your heart. Write down the answer. If you have more than one answer, write them down. Your answer may be one word such as peace or love or help. It may be several words or a phrase such as “feel your presence” or “lead me into life.” Whatever your answers, they are the foundation of your breath prayer.
5. Select the name that you are most comfortable using to speak with God. Combine it with your written answer to the question God asked you. This is your prayer.
6. Breathe in the first phrase/word (generally your invocation of God’s name) and breathe out the second phrase/word (request or need).
7. You may need to compose several prayers before you find one which truly arises from your deepest desire. So look carefully at your prayer. Does it reflect the heart of your desire? There’s no limit really to developing your breath prayer. It may be the same from day to day or it may change.
8. Sometimes you may want to reverse the practice a bit by sitting in silence and letting the Spirit pray through you. Ask for God to reveal your name, and God’s desire for you. This can be a profound experience. You may wind up hearing something like, “Beloved, you are enough,” or “Mighty One, rest.” Wait on God and see how you may be renewed.
Instructions - Breath and Body Component
1. Either sit upright with feet on the floor below you or propped up out in front of you, but where you can keep a straight back; or lie flat on your back on a yoga mat or slightly supportive surface (carpet, vs bare tile or wood flooring) with your knees bent so that your feet are flat on the floor. (Feet can be either hip-width apart, or you can spread your feet apart a little wider and bring your bent knees to meet in the middle for a good supporting stretch.)
2. Breathe from the diaphragm: With each inhale, your belly should extend as if it’s filling up, and as you exhale, press your belly inward toward your spine.
- Some people find it helpful to place a hand on their heart (as an action to communicate self love and safety) or their belly (to stay more aware and make sure to keep breathing from the diaphragm, so they can see or feel their hand going up with inhale and down with exhale), or one hand on each.
3. Incorporating the breath prayer phrase can be audible within the inhales and exhales, or can be prayed silently to yourself internally while the external action just looks like breathing.
4. From the three rhythms of breathing described below, do sets of 8-10 breaths per type and then return to normal breathing for as many breaths in between. (Example: Start with Symmetrical: do 8 belly breaths 4 counts inhale, 4 counts exhale, and then return to normal breathing for 8-10 breaths. Then repeat with Circular and Asymmetrical.)
Rhythms of Breathing
- Symmetrical: Inhale through your nose for the same length of time as you exhale through your mouth. Example: Inhale for 3 counts, exhale for 3 counts, repeat
- Circular (also called Square): Inhale through your nose, hold, exhale through your mouth, and hold — all for the same length of time. Example: Inhale for 3 counts, hold for 3 counts, exhale for 3 counts, hold for 3 counts, repeat
- Asymmetrical: Inhale through your nose, and your exhale through your mouth should be two counts longer than your inhale. Example: Inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 6 counts
Vagal Breathing + Breath Prayer
- There are times when ideal body posture and positioning isn’t possible, depending on the situation you’re in. Try to at least elongate your torso/straighten your back, but this is a practice of PRAYER more than it is a physical therapy exercise or yoga position.
- If you find yourself in a situation where you are anxious, overwhelmed, angry, frustrated, tempted to do something destructive, feeling unsafe due to past trauma but not physically unsafe (if physically unsafe in reality, your body is trying to help you by communicating a fight or flight response, listen to it) — the asymmetrical rhythm of breathing above is medically and scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and stress after as few as four breathing cycles. It does this by stimulating the vagus nerve (which originates in our brain stem and wanders down connecting to our heart, lungs, and gut organs, activating the parasympathetic system (the “rest and digest” system, responsible for breathing, heart rate, and digestive system — all of which become agitated in situations of stress and anxiety).
- Intentional vagal breathing — using our body’s built-in release valve for anxiety and stress — combined with prayer through those inhales and exhales — seeking God in a time of physical, mental, relational, emotional, or spiritual need — is a practice that is worth learning and having on hand in case you, or anyone with you, might need to access it.
- Inhale: I am Exhale: God's Beloved
- Inhale: Speak Lord Exhale: I am listening
- Inhale: You are God Exhale: I am not
- Inhale: God’s peace Exhale: Guard my heart
- Inhale: I need you Exhale: God, be near
- Inhale: Holy One Exhale: Heal me
- Inhale: Father God/Mother God Exhale: Draw me close
- Inhale: Divine Love Exhale: Help me trust you