The breath is central to life in our bodies and unfortunately fear and anxiety can wreak havoc on our breath. When you’re feeling fearful or worried, your heart begins to pound, you take shallow breaths, or find it hard to take a breath at all.
Prayer is central to our spiritual life. If you’ve experienced a season where you didn’t pray for a while, or felt like your whole day was off because you didn’t start your morning off with prayer, you know how centering prayer can be.
The practice of breath prayers is the act of combining taking slower, deeper, life-giving breaths while focusing on God’s life-giving words. Breath prayers can be practiced anytime, as you go about your day, but I find them especially helpful when you're feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
When you say breath prayers, they are short, one sentence prayers rooted in Scripture that can be repeated several times. The first part of the sentence is prayed on the inhale, and the second half on the exhale. The goal is to meditate on and pray God’s Word, while releasing tension in your body and worries whirling around in your mind.
Jennifer Tucker explains in her book Breath as Prayer:
Breathing is the bridge between the brain and the body…Prayer is a bridge from our heart to His. It’s like our 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 reset and realign your nervous system. Prayer can help reset and realign your soul.
Deep breathing can calm the brain and the body. Prayer can calm the mind and the soul.
When we pray, we inhale the truth of God’s presence and love, breathing in His goodness and grace—and we exhale the weight of our fears and anxieties, giving God all our worries and wants.
I wish I had known about breath prayers when I struggled with postpartum anxiety. It’s such a beautiful practice of slowing your breath and your mind and your worries, while simultaneously turning to the comfort of God’s presence and His Word.
Some of my favorite breath prayers when I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious are below. Do not say the Scripture reference, I simply wanted to share the reference for you:
As you inhale, breathe in the truth of the words. That God is with you. That He is good. That He will give you all you need.
As you exhale, breathe out your worries. Surrender them to God, knowing that He cares for you and He doesn’t want you holding on to them. You are safe and loved.
Repeat the breath prayer or prayers as many times as you need until both your mind and your body are feeling at peace, and more centered on God’s goodness, rather than your worries.
I encourage you to keep a list of your favorite verses that bring you peace and comfort. Find verses that are short and sweet, and divide them up, the first part said on the inhale, the second part on the exhale.
You also can make longer passages into breath prayers, by dividing them into more parts. For example:
Inhale: You are with me Exhale: mighty to save. Inhale: You delight in me Exhale: with great gladness. Inhale: You quiet my fears Exhale: with Your love; Inhale: You rejoice over me Exhale: With singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)
If each time you find yourself feeling anxious, worried, fearful, or overwhelmed and you turn to the practice of breath prayer, it will become more automatic, and the reminders of God’s goodness in your worries will be wired into your brain. Your brain is a fascinating and dynamic organ that can be reshaped as you learn and experience new things and replace anxious thought patterns with God’s own words.
God created the brain and the mind and He knew we would need to transform our minds, to rewire our thought patterns and practices. It doesn’t come easily, changing our thought patterns, especially when we’re feeling afraid, worried, or anxious. Practicing breath prayers can help us find ourselves on the same page as God, filled with His “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8) things to think about.
And it is indeed a practice. It won’t come naturally to most of us. It may change as we learn more and grow in the practice of breath prayers.
In science, we call this neuroplasticity, the changing, rewiring, and reshaping of your brain. In the Bible, it’s called renewing your mind: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
Ann Voskamp beautifully writes in the foreword of Breath as Prayer:
“Your prayers are more than a desperate thing; they are a transporting thing, the most important thing. Your prayers immediately relocate you to the tender face of God. Your every breath—inhale, exhale—makes the sound of His name, is calling for Him—YHWH, YHWH….When life leaves us gasping for air, prayer is how you grasp the steadying, sure hand of God.”
When life seems overwhelming, when circumstances leave you feeling out of control, take some time to breathe and pray. And experience God’s perfect peace as you breathe and pray the very words of our faithful God.