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A friend recently emailed me:
A couple years ago you talked about a breathing exercise. Breathing in, holding, out, holding, and what it means regarding needing God.
Could you message me how to do it? I am thinking that it would really help me with my anxiety.
Breath prayers have been a vital anti-anxiety practice for me. I was first introduced to them at a spiritual retreat. My dear friend Amy Carroll — co-author of Exhale: Lose Who You’re Not, Love Who You Are, Live Your One Life Well — teaches this technique to her speaking clients under the name “square breathing.”
I’ve adapted and added a few elements in the years I’ve been practicing this spiritual discipline.
No “Right Way”
Breath prayers are personal and individual. There is no one “right way.” A breath prayer is never meant to be a mindless ritual but, rather, an intimate way to take captive every thought and surrender to Christ. The Holy Spirit will guide you.
I often use the song “Everyday God” by Bernadette Farrell. The message is beautiful, the music is gentle, and the pace is just right for my own breathing patterns. At five minutes, it’s also long enough for my mind to start settling down by the end. Experiment with music that speaks to you and that matches your breathing rhythms.
- Breathe in … “Your word to me” … Hands upraised (receiving)
- Hold breath … “Your work in me” … Hands over heart (accepting)
- Breathe out … “Your strength through me” … Hands open and extended (giving)
- Hold breath … “My need of you” [or: “You’re all I need”] … Hands limp and open in lap (anticipating)
Experiment with how many counts you use for each step to see what’s comfortable for you.
I tend to settle into a rhythm of 4 — Breathing in (1-2-3-4) … Holding my breath (1-2-3-4) … Breathing out (1-2-3-4) … Holding my breath (1-2-3-4).
A caveat about the hand motions: Every person is different. For me, personally, they are vital, at least when I’m in private. Due to my history of sexual trauma and eating disorders, I dissociate from my body without realizing it.
I want my life–especially my spiritual life–to be more than just a “head trip.” Intentionally making prayer and worship a whole body experience makes me more open to and connected to God.
But for another person, the hand motions may be very distracting.
Again, the Holy Spirit will guide.
The practice of breath prayers has been helpful in my own battle against anxiety.
Think about the “typical Christian woman”: which two parts of the prayer does her life likely involve?
Perhaps a quick bit of “Your word to me” (a one-page devotional in the morning…if she’s lucky!) and then a lot of “Your work through me (caring for other people 24/7).
Now, try breathing this way: short inhale, long exhale, short inhale, long exhale. Physically, what does this imitate and what emotion does it evoke?
It feels like panting.
And it can trigger panic — as if I can’t get enough oxygen no matter how hard I try.
The balance in a full breath prayer demonstrates the necessity of the “hold breath” moments in our spiritual lives:
Just as our bodies need physical rest, we need spiritual rest or we will experience spiritual burnout which can manifest as anxiety.
We must be intentional in creating rhythms of reserving time for God to work in us (“Your work in me”) and recognizing our need of Him (“My need of You”).