Breath Prayer: An Ancient Spiritual Practice Connected with Science

on July 1, 2019

On the way to a big tennis tournament once, I admitted to my high school coach that I felt nervous. He told me about breathing. “If you find yourself needing more energy and power in a long game,” he said, “breathe more shallowly, through your mouth. If you find yourself overwhelmed or stressed, take long, slow breaths through your nose, especially between points. Try it right now, and see what happens.” I’ll be honest, the fact that I went on to play Division 3 tennis and become a minister had more to do with my serve than his advice.

The use of breathing techniques permeates the field of sports psychology today. But what’s the connection to prayer, and why write about it at BioLogos? Simply, the same science that helps athletes transform their stress also stands behind the ancient spiritual practice of Breath Prayer. In my work as a spiritual director, I have seen the practice transform responses to both daily distress and complex trauma, as well as deepen devotion to God. Breath Prayer provides a person of faith a conscious way to partner with God in healing physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds.

Science and Spirituality Interact

When I teach Breath Prayer, a few of my clients think it sounds “touchy feely” and subjective. Others grasp the benefits, but don’t see the connection to faith. So, I find it helpful to explore some of the science that relates to the ancient practice. In essence, naming the science-spirituality intersection offers both permission and inspiration for practicing Breath Prayer in distressing situations. Moreover, the science and spirituality of Breath Prayer can help bring compassion to experiences of doubt and shame, particularly in the context of severe distress.

When deep trauma occurs—the tragic death of a child, physical violence to a loved one—the well-trod paths of faith can be erased. In those situations, describing God’s action as part of the most basic of human actions—breathing—can reignite an intimacy with the One, who is closer to us than our very breath. Even worse, shame often amplifies trauma. When the role of unconscious, and therefore involuntary, physiological responses are unknown, shame often berates a person for her/his response to the traumatizing pain and fear. Conveying some of the science related to trauma can nourish self-empathy and healing. For me, providing a link between science and Breath Prayer extends pastoral compassion in challenging and vulnerable circumstances.

The Practice of Breath Prayer

The linguistic connection between Spirit and Breath Prayer is unambiguous in the Bible; both the Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma mean breath, wind, and/or spirit. The simplicity of breathing can relieve us from complicating our prayer. Contemplative prayer awakens our attention, so that we listen for God’s presence and become open to it. Such an experience of prayer supports Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing and fits with the simplicity of Breath Prayer.

Within the Orthodox tradition, Breath Prayer appears perhaps as early as the 3rd century. Known as the “Jesus Prayer” or “Prayer of the Heart,” it draws from Mark 10:47, where a blind man, Bartimaeus, calls Jesus to heal him. A common form is, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” By placing a few words on the inhale and a few on the exhale, it unites the prayer with the body.  As a prayer of the heart, the exact words may change to reflect the longing of the one who prays, seeking a lived experience of God. Some common forms are, “Sophia, wisdom,” and “Jesus, companion.” Or, a word of hope on the inhale and confession on the exhale may prove inspiring, as well. For those who want to integrate their bodies even more, add a single step with each inhale and exhale.

woman in a pine forest with her face raised to the sun with her eyes closed

The Science of Breath Prayer

Most of us have experienced our breath changing when we encounter sudden disturbance. Sometimes we bounce back fully in a short time, a few seconds at most. Suppose you drop your keys in a crosswalk when your hands are full and a car is waiting to turn. Potentially no problem, a minor inconvenience. Recovery might take a bit longer, though, if the driver blows the horn, someone makes a provocative comment when you bend over, or your coffee spills all over your crucial work documents. With a surge of adrenaline, blood rushes to the large muscles to activate a response. The eyes dilate to process the scene. Inflammation prepares the body to respond to injury. Pain tolerance increases, and digestion and immunity responses stop to prioritize protection over health. Breathing becomes more rapid, and this opens small airways in the lungs, moving more oxygen to the brain for greater awareness. The autonomic nervous system triggers all these responses in a flash. Nothing is thought out. We just sense there’s an emergency far beyond the proportions of a blaring horn, a painful comment, and ruined work.  Then, if you add prior trauma and experiences of systemic sexism or racism, Post Traumatic Stress kicks in, and the dropping of keys is just the tip of the iceberg.

Through evolution, the human autonomic nervous system (ANS) developed two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which include up to three neural circuits: engaged, fight/flight, and freeze. The anatomy and physiology of the two branches of the ANS is widely accepted in neuroscience research.  The description of the three circuits, not two, has less consensus but is widely used in trauma therapeutic professions.1 During the course of a routine day, these systems interact fluidly to respond to a person’s needs: elevating and dropping hormone levels to stimulate wakefulness, immune system, digestion, sleep, etc. When the systems are in harmony with each other, a greater resilience to stress arises. But when the system is repeatedly overwhelmed, the harmony dissipates into an altered feedback system that triggers distress or trauma.

Crucially, the autonomic nervous system can’t distinguish between cars, criticism, or loneliness.2 The system becomes more vulnerable by previous experiences of trauma, shame, or violence.3 As Rangan Chatterjee, M.D., warns, the body evolved to experience stress in short bursts; we are not biologically suited for extended periods of it.4

In the face of all these automatic fight-or-flight and freeze responses, someone might wonder where attention to breath comes into play. Is it really valuable? Research on voluntarily-regulated breathing practices (VRBPs) indicates that it is. In one study, breathing practices proved successful “to correct imbalances of the stress response systems and to facilitate emotion regulation, social engagement, bonding, and recovery from trauma.… (VRBPs) are particularly useful with those who have experienced symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, depression, stress- and trauma-related disorders, ADHD, schizophrenia, and substance abuse.”5 Intentional breathing interrupts the feedback that perpetuates the trauma, returning the nervous system to harmony.

Breath Prayer in Daily Life

While various sciences measure the health markers related to breathing, ancient Christian Breath Prayer involves belief in God, in whose name Jesus healed. This Creator is also Redeemer, breathing new life into us through the Holy Spirit. The spiritual practice of Breath Prayer provides a person of faith with a conscious avenue to partner with God in healing physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds. In an act of faith, we can breathe with the Spirit toward new life.

Again, why complicate things—Just pray! But, of course, we don’t always pray as often as we might or in the ways that could draw us close to God. The simple practice of Breath Prayer can bring calm and spiritual awareness of God’s healing power into the emotionally fraught world of prior distress and trauma. In the end, since we are practicing something all the time, either revving our nervous system or calming it down, why not practice what brings more resilience and perhaps communion with God?


Notes & References


So What Is BioLogos?

Well it all began with a scientist and a book. Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, wrote the book, The Language of God. In it he describes his own journey from atheism to Christian faith, and the harmony between Christianity and science.

Today, BioLogos continues to carry out the vision of Collins, showing that you don’t have to choose between modern science and biblical faith.

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Nancy S. Wiens
About the Author

Nancy S. Wiens

Nancy S. Wiens is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Christian spirituality, ritual studies, and the dialogue between theology and natural science from the Graduate Theological Union.  At Emergence Initiatives, she helps individuals and organizational leaders come alive.  She practices ​Spiritual Direction with those who long to deepen their relationship with God and respond to God’s calling more fully in their lives.  She coaches individuals and non-profit leaders, applying the insights of neuroscience and epigenetics with her clients. Nancy also guides wilderness rites of passage, helping people mark transitions in their lives by discerning God’s calling through nature.  She teaches a two-year parenting intensive, called Resilient Families. Nancy authored “Practicing Christian Spiritual Discernment in Light of Natural Science” in Spirit and Nature:  The Study of Christian Spirituality in a Time of Ecological Urgency, Princeton Theological Monograph Series, eds. Timothy Hessel-Robinson and Ray Maria McNamara, Eugene, OR:  Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011.
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