Through intentional breathing, we are subtly able to affect both our heart rhythm and our interior life (see Heartmath Institute). Such gentle guidance of our interior life constitutes a form of asceticism whereby we can calm the disorders of the heart and create the opportunity to receive God’s love. In addition, the natural wisdom of techniques promoted by Heartmath and others can be put at the service of our relationship with Jesus. For example, in the Christian East, monks developed methods of integrating intentional breathing with short prayers from scripture.
Before we delve into the vast potential of praying with the breath, we should include a word of caution. Intentional breathing may produce pleasant sensations and may help in the short term, but the reality is that prayer techniques must be coupled with moral and spiritual conversion with the communion of the Church. In this way, we should understand that spirituality is not divorced from the other areas of our Christian life. Another way to put it is that meditation and prayer must be integrated into the constant call of Jesus Christ to experience healing and transformation in ways that free us to love God and neighbor. If we practice some esoteric spirituality while continuing to commit mortal sins, we are living in an illusion and not following the will of God.
With this in mind, praying with the breath can be a powerful means of helping us to open our hearts to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. As we move beyond discursive and analytic thinking, we give room for our more intuitive means of understanding. Of course, any intuition and inspiration must be weighed using good discernment, but often our overly rational way of seeing can limit our receptive potential. As the saying goes, sometimes we need to move from the head to the heart.
To do so, we can use a simple technique, and I encourage people to play with it. Traditionally, the Eastern Christians would use the Jesus prayer and would combine its recitation with the breath. Thus on the inhales, they would pray part of the prayer, and on the exhale they would pray the other half. Likewise, St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests such a practice with the Our Father and the Hail Mary in his Spiritual Exercises.
In my own musings and explorations, I would add a few points to the classical wisdom and a few of the ways in which we will benefit from praying in this way.
1. How Breathing Can Help
First, playing with different kinds of breaths can help to gently redirect our interior life. Fast breathing (without causing hyperventilation of course), can give us a little burst of energy and invigorate us when we feel sluggish or too relaxed. In addition, slow breaths can calm us down when the heart is beating out of control.
2. Importance of Sacred Scripture
I recommend that we use any phrase that helps us relate to the Lord – still, a special emphasis should always be given to the words of Sacred Scripture – and I also hold out the possibility that we need not use any phrase at all. We should be free to relate to the Lord however makes sense. The methods are a kind of preliminary guide that should respond to the individual reality of each person.
3. Techniques Prepare the Way
I agree with the Eastern writers who see such techniques as merely a preparation for what they called pure prayer. Pure prayer consists of our spontaneous giving and receiving in the Holy Spirit. Thus, pure prayer is the relationship established between us and God when the chains of sin have begun to be overcome and we begin to live in the freedom offered in Jesus Christ. Along these lines, we should feel free to leave behind any technique when the Holy Spirit leads us to deeper prayer.
If we truly desire to go deeper into our prayer life, having a faithful, knowledgeable, and orthodox spiritual director is highly recommended. An experienced outsider’s view can play a key role in helping you to discerning what is coming from yourself and what is truly coming from the Lord.
4. Dealing with Stress
Intentional, rhythmic breathing can help move the body from an excited state to a more calm, gentle place. The main way it does this is by helping to calm and regulate the beating of the heart. The literature of groups such as HeartMath seem to show that erratic heart rhythms can be calmed through techniques which combine physical awareness with intentional breathing. This in turn helps us to process and let go of stress for there is profound interconnection between our interior life and our bodies.
5. Cultivating Stillness
In Eastern Christianity, stillness, or apatheia, was considered the prerequisite for what they called pure prayer. Their understanding was that by gently guiding disordered patterns of thinking, feeling, and desiring to a place of repose and receptivity, one became more available to God. In this way, our intentional effort and role in the work of transformation consists of us disposing ourselves to receive from God with an open heart. Praying with the breath can help cultivate such a disposition by helping us to gently master our interior life.
6. Preparation for Prayer
Before we begin Mass or before we enter into a set period of prayer, we can use intentional breathing to help us transition from our daily activity. Although we should be careful not to forcibly rid ourselves of “distractions”, using the breath with a kind of patient consistency can help us to maximize our time in prayer and meditation. Preparing for prayer by using the breath is an integral component of opening our hearts to the spontaneity of the Spirit. In this way, it is not an end in itself, but the means to an end, namely an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.