Utilize an ancient practice to calm the mind and re-center yourself on truth.
I’ve spent years struggling with anxiety. I’m also a Christian and my faith is an integral part of my life, including how I manage my mental health. One of my favorite tools to help manage my anxiety while also strengthening my faith is breath prayer.
Christian breath prayers combine the practice of deep breathing with prayer, helping to calm the body while turning the mind away from anxious thoughts—focusing instead on truth.
The Origins of Christian Breath Prayer
Breath prayers are not new. Some believe breath prayers began thousands of years ago with the repetitive prayers of the Psalms. Others attribute the first breath prayers to desert dwellers as early as the 3rd century. After years of intense persecution, martyred Christians were exiled to the Egyptian desert to pray and meditate on God’s Word, using breath prayers to help them get through their days.
Breath prayers are very short, broken into two halves, and prayed in rhythm with the breath: the first half is prayed while inhaling, and the second half while exhaling. Christian breath prayers are typically based on Scripture and are prayed to God.
One of the earliest known breath prayers is known as “The Jesus Prayer” and is based on Luke 18:13. Simply, it reads: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Breath prayers like this one have been used around the world, particularly by Orthodox Christians in Russia and Greece.
Breath prayers work to calm anxiety as they combine two powerful practices: breathing and prayer.
The practice of deep breathing techniques, or breathwork, has many proven physical health benefits from reducing stress to assisting with pain management, as well as reducing anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Breathing is often called the bridge between the brain and body. Breathing gives us a direct connection to the vagus nerve in our parasympathetic nervous system, which serves to regulate our stress response. Slowing and deepening the breath directly affects the signals being sent from the vagus nerve to the brain, telling the brain that we are not in distress and to ease the body’s stress response.
In his book Anatomy of the Soul, Dr. Curt Thompson writes, “By controlling our breath, we can willfully influence the brain and the autonomic nervous system and literally change our mind-body state. By changing the pattern of our breathing, we change the pattern of the information being sent to the brain. In other words, how often, how fast, and how much you inflate your lungs directly affects the brain and how it operates.”
Just as breathing is a bridge between the brain and the body, prayer is like a bridge between the soul and God. In many ways, prayer is like a spiritual breath: breath has a rhythm to it, a cadence of inhales and exhales. Prayer has a rhythm too, a cadence of inhaling God’s grace and exhaling our fears. Breathing can help reset and realign the nervous system. Prayer can help reset and realign the soul. Deep breathing can calm the brain and the body. Prayer can calm the mind and the soul.
Connecting breathwork to prayer is a powerful tool that can bridge the brain, body, mind, and soul, especially in times of stress. Slowing down breathing calms the physical body, reorienting the mind toward truth.
The best part? Breath prayers are simple and easy to learn. If you can breathe, you can pray a breath prayer.
How to Perform Breath Prayer
Begin with the breath.
There are multiple breathing techniques that you can use, but my favorite is a simple 5-5 pattern:
Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for five seconds, then exhale slowly and fully through your mouth for five seconds. Repeat a few times to focus on the slow and steady rhythm of your breath.
Now, add in prayer. For a traditional Christian breath prayer, try starting with one of my favorites, from Psalm 23:1:
Inhale: Lord, You are my shepherd,
Exhale: I have all that I need.
Breathe in deeply as you focus your thoughts on: Lord, You are my shepherd.
Exhale slowly as you focus your thoughts on: I have all that I need.
You can modify this to work with any prayer you choose.
Repeat the prayer several times, for 3–5 minutes, keeping your breathing slow and steady and meditating on the words of the prayer.
Give breath prayers a try for a few days in a row and pay attention to how they may affect your overall mental health. Breath prayers aren’t a cure for anxiety, nor are they a replacement for professional medical treatment or therapy, but they can be a powerful tool that benefits your physical, mental, and spiritual health.
So go ahead, take a deep breath, and discover that every breath can be an invitation to pray.
Interested in more ancient Christian practices for today? Explore the labyrinth.