Breath as Prayer

Louise is a big proponent of the healing and restorative power of breath. When we are stressed out, a deep breath helps restore a sense of calm. When we are injured, a deep breath helps relieve muscle spasm and pain. Technically what happens is that stress and injury activate the body’s sympathetic response system, the fight or flight response.  There are evolutionary reasons why this was an advantage; increased adrenaline, increased blood sugar levels, higher heart rate all prepared us to battle or escape a physical threat. But today in a high-pressure culture, we spend a lot of time prepared to fight or run from perceived threats and stresses. This can lead to a whole host of health problems. A deep and full breath activates the parasympathetic response system and allows our bodies to get back in right relationship with our minds and our surroundings.

Prayer serves a similar purpose. While many of us approach prayer as a way of presenting a “to do list” to God, a request list of blessings and healing for ourselves and our friends and of punishments for enemies, Pastor Earl explains that the real purpose of prayer is quite different. Prayer is meant to change us, to help us re-establish a right relationship with God and his creation. At various points in confirmation classes and sermons, Pastor Earl has gone through the six segments of the Lord’s prayer detailing how each section helps us to re-establish a proper relationship with God.

Pastor Earl has preached on prayer in the past, and years later one of his sermons still stays with me. I heard the sermon at a time in my life when my kids were all very young, and I was overwhelmed. I was constantly running on a sleep deficit and always stressed out. I have never thought of myself as someone who is good at prayer. And while I was struggling through what some might have termed postpartum depression, I was annoyed that I couldn’t even find the energy to pray about it. That was when Pastor Earl delivered a sermon detailing the many ways that prayer can look for people. The example that struck me to the core was one of a new mother letting out a sigh of exhaustion. If sighing out of exasperation and a sense of inadequacy counted as prayer, I figured I was doing pretty well.

The language is different, but the concept is the same. Prayer/breath helps to re-establish right relationships and has the power to change and heal.

Breath and Sky

We all have our Achilles heels, chinks in our armor.  Sometimes those are physical: old nagging injuries, pain from use or disuse, structural weak spots. Sometimes those are mental: too much or too little self-esteem, illusions of perfectionism, inability to ask for help, and so on. One of those physical chinks that Louise and I have in common is occasional, but sometimes debilitating, low back pain.

In the midst of one of my recent back episode, I emailed Louise to ask her how she usually coped. Here’s her response:

“My answer bounces right off most people that ask me how I manage back pain, but here goes:  I breathe and meditate. …that’s the short answer.  I used breath and meditation to get me through two 24 hour labors/births of big babies with no meds.  I used it most recently when my body literally stopped moving. I used it because breathe was all I could do: I could not move anything without excruciating pain.  I use it now at the first whisper of discomfort.  Deep, diaphragmatic breathing both guides me to the source of the pain and simultaneously starts my healing.”

It seems too simplistic to be the answer and yet physiologically amazing things happen in our bodies when we consciously breathe a little deeper. We stimulate the parasympathetic response which begins to counteract some of the negative effects that stress from both injury and life has on our bodies.  The parasympathetic response slows the heart rate and improves digestion, which is how it gets nicknamed the “rest and digest” response.  It allows the body to find homeostasis, to balance its systems.  It encourages us to find and then function from a place of relaxation and calm and from there to begin to repair and heal ourselves.

From my own experience, I know that when my back hurt and I breathed more deeply I was able to relax through the pain and get to the other side of it. I know that when I stress out my friends tell me to “just breathe”. I know that when I get spooled up with anxiety, a deep breath starts to settle me down, keeping me grounded in the present moment rather than careening forward into a feared and totally imagined future.

Kinder sky

I suppose that Louise’s recognition of the need to breathe is somehow connected to the fact that she collects sky pictures. Recently I became one of her “sky buddies”.  (Yeah, Sky, not Skype. It’s way better.)  Whenever we see a particularly beautiful sunrise, a stunning sunset, or big billowy clouds we take a picture and text it. There’s something about staring up at the vastness of the sky, the power in a thundercloud, the elusive beauty in a rainbow, and really seeing it, that allows us to see ourselves too, to view ourselves through a different and clearer lens. Somehow that vast expanse above us makes it ok to be small and broken and to not have all the answers. Somehow looking at the sky puts us in our proper place. And you know what happens automatically and almost miraculously at that very moment?  A deep, full, and healing breath.