In Eastern Christian spirituality, there is a rich tradition of praying with the breath. The method they employ is fairly easy to learn and summarize. First, it was tied to the Jesus prayer (My Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner). On the inhale, you pray part of the Jesus prayer, and on the exhale you pray the rest. In addition, the Eastern Fathers counseled that the believer should tie this rhythmic praying with the beating of the heart. The idea is to draw one’s awareness to the heart, listening with a gentle attention to its rhythms. In this way, we are able to let go of the turning and burden of our discursive reasoning and open our hearts to a more intuitive form of relating to the Lord.
In addition, such rhythmic forms of praying and breathing can be incredibly helpful in dealing with stress. In their research, the Heartmath Institute (https://www.heartmath.org) has developed techniques which bear a remarkable resemblance to Eastern Christianity. Although Heartmath does not promote prayer as such, their technique involves breathing and focusing on the heart. In their research, they have found that such a focus can help open up feelings of well-being and empathy, leading the person to a more relaxed state of awareness. They call this state “coherence” and it is connected with more regular heart rhythms.
In terms of helping you to put this wisdom into practice, I would make the following counsels. I would recommend playing with the way you breath as you try this out. Different lengths of breath and different kinds of breath can help the mind and body come to a relaxed state. Sometimes, a more rigorous breath can energize while at other times a more gentle breath can soothe and relax. Over the last several years, I have found that a variety of ways of breathing can be employed at different times to move our interior life from a place of dissonance back to a place of gentle attention and strength.
In addition, you can use a variety of words or phrases that help you relate to the Lord with directness and familiarity. For example, you could relate to the Lord by saying, “Jesus, I love you.” As a general guide, I recommend trying phrases tied to the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love). However, you should use phrases that have meaning for you, mindful that you can simply rest in your breathing if you desire.
In time, you will find that adjusting your breathing throughout your day can be a powerful way to discard disordered thoughts, feelings, and desires, and return to a place of receptive attention to the Holy Spirit. Although these techniques are not a magic formula, when combined with regular confession and virtuous living, praying with the breath can help deepen our walk with the Lord. Also, it can be a great way to enter into an extended period of prayer such as a holy hour. In this way, we can take 5-10 minutes at the beginning of a prayer period to let go of our fears and anxieties, using the breath as a symbol of our surrender to the Lord.
So give it a try. If it works for you, great; if not, store the idea away and maybe you can come back to it in the future. Either way, praying with the breath is not strictly necessary for salvation or intimacy with Christ, but it can help many people as a means towards helping them to enter into the silence of prayer.