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The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of your lungs. As you inhale, your diaphragm tightens and moves downwards, meaning that there is more space in your chest cavity for more air.
When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and returns upwards, into the chest cavity.
Breathing deeply, engaging the diaphragm, is a life-skill that many of us lose. We get into the habit of short, shallow, chest-breathing and lose the ability to take deep belly breaths. This is unfortunate, when deep breaths have been demonstrated to have many benefits, including reducing stress. And it is ironic that it is during times of distress that we are most likely revert to shallow breathing.
I’m usually pretty good at breathing.
However, over the past few months I have frequently needed to remind myself to breathe. As I scroll through the news: breathe. As I find myself worrying about things I cannot control: breathe. I try to remember to take a deliberate moment and pause. As I breathe in, I note the point when I move from chest to belly breathing. Then I exhale slowly. It helps.
Deep breaths are a core part of many meditation practices. For Christians, one such practice, known as Breath Prayer, dates back at least as far as the sixth century. Breath Prayer involves a repeated phrase that follows the rhythm of your breathing. The first part of the phrase is recalled as you breathe in, the second part as you exhale. Traditionally, Breath Prayer is linked with the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy"). However, it can be used with many words and phrases.
Such an exercise can help us acknowledge the stress and sorrow of everyday life, while also reorienting us towards goodness and hope. "Breathing in peace, breathing out fear," for example. Or "Inhale hope and courage, exhale worry and fear."
While some who adopt this practice use the same phrase repeatedly, others choose from among many phrases, depending on the circumstances. Either way, it can be helpful to have a default phrase that you can draw on in a moment of particular stress.
For Christians, Breath Prayers help remind us of our dependence upon God, who gives us the gift of life, and continues to sustain our lives, day by day. It has been this way from the beginning of human history.
The story of Adam’s creation (Genesis 2) includes God breathing "into his nostrils the breath of life." It was this breath, the breath of God, which caused Adam to become "a living being".
When Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, "he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’." (John 20:22).
As we breathe deeply, therefore, we are invited to remember God’s creation, redemption and sustaining in our lives. We are invited to recognise that each breath we draw is a gift from God, and that God’s Spirit is near to us. Nearer even, than our own breath.
If you haven’t already done so, begin to pay attention to your breathing.
The simple act of mindfully breathing in and out can help us to navigate challenging times. You might like to take it a step further and add words, perhaps a prayer, to your breathing. Doing so can help us to place our own existence in the context of a bigger picture, and in the care of a loving God.
- Lynne Taylor is Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago. She teaches in the areas of pastoral care and chaplaincy.