November 28, 2023

Take a Breath: How Breath Work Provides a Portal to Our Spiritual Lives


“…then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’ and the human became a living being.” 

Genesis 2:7

The gospels don’t describe Jesus’ first breath. What they do tell us is that he was born, and that he lived among us. God became flesh and bone, experiencing the pleasures and pains of embodied life. The story of Jesus’ life is also about his sacrifice and the moment when he breathed his last. According to Luke 44:46, “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” The inhale at birth and the last exhale at death bookended Jesus’ humanity. And like Christ, the first thing we do in life is inhale and the last thing is a final exhale. Between these are thousands of inhalations and exhalations that we take for granted, but we shouldn’t. Breath allows life. Moreover, if we pay attention to it, our breath has power to change our lives.

We breathe, and we don’t have to think about it. Our bodies just do it. It’s automatic. When a small child gets mad at his parents and holds his breath, his body will force him to breathe; even the most stubborn child can’t hold his breath forever. I knew a kid who had the willpower to hold his breath until he passed out, but the second he lost consciousness his body took over and he began to breathe again. When we don’t breathe well (e.g., sleep apnea), we can develop health problems. When we have a cold or the flu and temporarily can’t breathe well, we feel miserable. We even have bias against “mouth breathers,” slang signaling someone uncouth. While we often don’t pay attention to this automatic process, we do notice it. The steady sound of our partner’s breathing often lulls us to sleep (except if they have apnea, then their breathing patterns can cause alarm!). The sound of our children breathing quietly at night provides a sense of peace and gives us permission to focus elsewhere.

Why focus on breathing?

Adding attention and energy to breathing can help us manage our emotions and opens us to a deeper level of understanding, and the internal softening that occurs through breath work provides a portal to our spiritual selves. As we practice paying attention to the pattern of the inhale and exhale, we settle our bodies and minds, creating space to observe our emotions and thoughts. As we do so, we grow our capacities to attend to what is meaningful and perhaps begin to experience the gentle stirrings that we often miss in our daily haste. Western research is just beginning to understand what Eastern meditative traditions have long understood—that intention around our breathing is a spiritual practice. The word for spirituality in Latin, “spirare” means “to breathe.” “I have come that you might have life….” (John 10:10) Breathe in that life.

Finding the promised fullness of life isn’t so simple in our modern world. We tend to live at a fast pace and are bombarded by many stimuli. I find that even when facing really difficult news, focusing attention on the pattern of my breath, feeling the flow of air into and out of my nostrils and lungs, provides a sense of calm. Research supports my personal experience and shows that slowing down the breath—extending the number of seconds you inhale and exhale—offers psychological and behavioral changes, such as “increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.” Proper breathing improves health. Anyone who has seen someone hyperventilate knows how anxiety can show up in the pattern of the breath. The recommended first aid solution to hyperventilation is to give someone a paper sack and ask them to breathe into it. The body constantly works to balance oxygen and carbon dioxide, so the paper sack helps the hyperventilating person’s body balance the levels of the gasses in the bloodstream. Anxiety can increase the rhythm of the breath, but intentionally slowing that rhythm can counteract the anxiety. When we ruminate or feel anxious, we can find ourselves almost panting, but intentionally deepening the breath changes the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our bloodstream and settles us. 

There is a rich history around breathing techniques to enhance connection to a sense of transcendence and to other people. Centering prayer uses the breath as a way to settle the body and open us to God’s love. Ignatian spirituality “is incarnational and reminds us that our bodies as well as our minds can be part of our prayer. If God created us body and soul, then we can pray as much with the movement of the body as with the movement of our intellects or emotions1.” Attending to our breathing can attune us to God’s voice and guidance – within us and around us. Sometimes even more visceral, synchronized breathing connects us. Think about choral singing and the breath patterns of the singers. The communal singing of hymns has the power to heal pain and emotional wounds, in part from the spiritual practice of breathing together. Yoga and other practices that link breath to movement gain spiritual power when done in a group where breathing is deepened and synchronized. Focusing on the pattern of the breath- whether alone or with others-creates space for meaning and insight into just how connected our thoughts, bodies, and spiritual selves are.

Practices to try

If you find yourself caught in anxiety or a destructive thought pattern, focus on the pattern of your breath, either squaring it, or extending the exhale. These simple techniques can bring you back to yourself and to more constructive and purposeful thoughts. You don’t have to be in distress to use breath work as a spiritual practice. Centering prayer uses focused breathing and a word such as “love” or “Jesus” as tools to refocus thoughts and create space for God’s presence. Breathing techniques can be used to energize or help to balance us, as well as calm us down. There are techniques that create various patterns with the breath, each affecting the body, mind, and spirit in different ways. You might want to experiment with various types of breathing techniques to see how they affect your body, mood, and spiritual life. We like this simple breath practice offered by the Greater Good Science Center, or if you are looking for a guided reflection toward your values, consider Thrive’s 5 A’s practice.

Final Thoughts

Focused breathing allows us to soften, opening our hearts to God and ourselves. When we pause and take our breath off autopilot, we make room to hear God’s Spirit within us and beyond us. Our breath becomes a portal to our spiritual lives. In seeking a life of wholeness, where all aspects of ourselves are connected and in sync, we need tools and practices that create space for our minds and our bodies to integrate. Breathing practices create space to examine our thoughts and the meaning behind our emotions.

Focused breathing while meditating on an intention or themes such as love, peace, joy, and hope energizes the brain and propels our bodies into action, connecting us to purposefully engage in the world2. When we pay attention to our breath, it can change our lives by connecting us to what matters most. Plus, the focused act of breathing can bring a great deal of pleasure. I like to imagine Jesus sitting quietly and listening to the sound of his breath, experiencing this simple human act as a beautiful part of his embodied life. Breathe in the breath of God and exhale into a softer place, for your benefit and for the world.

Notes:

(1) Ignatianspirituality.com

(2) The plasticity of wellbeing: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing, Cortland J. DahlChristine D. Wilson-Mendenhall, and Richard J. Davidson, 2020, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2014859117

For further reading or exploration:

https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/ted-cosse-on-awareness/

https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-role-of-mindfulness-in-the-midst-of-pain-the-importance-of-present-focus-attention/

Pray as you go app

Healthy Minds app

Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form
Basil Pennington, 1980

Centering Prayer: Sitting Quietly in God’s Presence Can Change Your Life, Brian D. Russell, 2021

Breathwork, How to Use Your Breath to Change Your Life (Breathing Techniques for Anxiety Relief and Stress, Breath Exercises for Mindfulness and Self-Care), Andrew Smart, 2020 

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