As I wrote an article for work, I tried to focus despite the cacophony of sounds around me: the pinging of new emails arriving in my inbox, the conversations of coworkers in a hallway, and the beeping of a delivery truck outside. Then my cell phone rang, so I pulled my attention away from writing to glance at the screen in case the call was important. The number was one I didn’t recognize. It’s probably a telemarketer, I thought as my pulse started to race from anger and stress. I returned to the article, but the words I’d been in the process of typing evaporated from my mind after my concentration was broken.
“Center me, God,” I prayed.
That one brief prayer – expressed in just a few seconds as I exhaled a breath – had a huge impact on my ability to focus. A sense of peace settled on my soul like a blanket. Soon I was able to concentrate again. My office continued to be noisy that day, but I still completed my article successfully and on time.
Saying a breath prayer means praying a word or short phrase that you can express in the time it takes you to breathe in and out once. Breath prayers, an ancient spiritual discipline, can help you find stress relief quickly in any situation.
“Take a deep breath,” people often advise those who are going through stressful situations. As it turns out, that popular suggestion is an effective one. Breathing deeply can relieve stress as much as professional spa treatments like massages can, according to a study from the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle that was published in the journal Depression and Anxiety. But deep breathing’s benefits extend beyond physical health. When we incorporate deep breathing into our prayers, we can blow stress out of our souls and welcome in peace.
Psalm 150:6 of the Bible urges: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” In the 5th century, monks who wanted something simple yet complete that they could pray at any time and place developed the tradition known as breath prayers -– prayers short enough to be expressed in just one breath.
The rapid pace of life today fits in well with the ancient practice of breath prayers. As life rushes toward you at full speed, you can relieve the stress of it through breath prayers. And even if you’re too busy for a long prayer session, you can always make time to pray when you’re breathing, because that’s a constant process.
Here’s how you can relieve stress through breath prayers:
- Choose a brief phrase that expresses what you want to say to God: Read through the a sacred scripture from your faith for some simple expressions that reflect how you’d like to express yourself to God in prayer, or simply reflect on some of your current prayer concerns and how you can express them succinctly. Say the phrases out loud and notice if you can say them easily during the time it takes you to breathe in and out just once. Keep in mind that breath prayers are usually between six and 12 syllables long. Some examples of popular breath prayers include: “Dear God, I am yours,” “Show me your ways, God,” “Holy God, please help me,” “Give me more faith, God,” “God, my light, guide me,” “I want your will, God,” and “My trust is in you.” Choose something that is especially meaningful for you right now in your relationship with God.
- Repeat your phrase out loud and meditate on its meaning: Practice saying your chosen phrase over and over, listening carefully to the words and reflecting on the full meaning of them. Consider how the thought you’re expressing through this phrase can change your life for the better if you incorporate its meaning into how you live each day.
- Say the first part of your prayer while inhaling: Divide your phrase up into two parts that you can naturally say while breathing in and breathing out. Don’t force yourself to stay exactly in sync with your breathing; just see what works best for you. As you say the first part of your chosen phrase, imagine God’s Spirit blowing into your soul like a wind. Invite God’s Spirit to renew your mind as he blows in, clearing out all thoughts that don’t reflect the truth and bringing fresh inspiration to your mind. It’s interesting to note that the word “inspire” originally had to do with breathing; it comes from the Latin word “spirare,” which means to breathe in. Imagine God pouring out his peace into the air for you to breathe into your soul and absorb.
- Say the second part of your prayer while exhaling: As you say the second part of your breath prayer, imagine all that’s unhealthy blowing out of your soul. Imagine the stress you feel disappearing in an explosion of power from God’s Spirit at work transforming you. Imagine sin loosening its grip on you as you mentally turn away from it and toward God, who gives you true peace. Feel the relief of letting go of your worries, knowing that you can trust God to help with each of them. Rest assured that God hears your prayer and will answer it.
- Keep praying whenever you sense an urge to pray: Incorporate your breath prayer into your daily life, saying it whenever you sense God reminding you to do so. You can say your prayer anytime and anywhere you breathe — which is quite often! Try saying your breath prayer during times when you may not already be praying, such as while you’re driving, exercising, showering, doing chores, or running errands. The more you pray, the more aware you can become of God’s constant presence with you. Once you’ve prayed the same breath prayer for a while and feel inspired to choose a new phrase to pray, switch to a fresh phrase and see how God uses that to change your life in a different way.
Breath prayers make spiritual renewal as natural as breathing. So go ahead and let God inspire both your body and your soul!
Whitney Hopler is author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including Crosswalk.com, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and Dotdash.com (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). Connect with Whitney on Twitter and Facebook.