Lately, I’ve been holding my breath. It’s actually something I inherited from my mother’s side of the family. Many of my female relatives on the Irish side of the clan have this habit of holding our breath when we’re talking—or rather, listening—or concentrating, or thinking. And especially when we’re anxious.
Stress makes many people turn to comfort food, while others lose their appetite. Some folks chew their nails; some look for relief in the bottom of a cocktail glass; still others lose sleep or sleep too much. Me? I forget to breathe.
When I was a member of a college theater ensemble, our director often focused on the importance of breathing, not only for our physical persons but also for our souls. In the Bible, the Greek word used for “breath,” pneuma, is also used to describe the Spirit—our spirits and the Holy Spirit.
Breathing is, of course, essential to life. The air that moves through our lungs sustains us. But the Spirit also imbues us with eternal life and the true sustenance of our earthly lives.
Before rehearsals or performances, our college theater director would lead us through a series of warm-up exercises, all of them focused on breath. We began by lying flat on our backs with our eyes closed, letting go of all of the physical and emotional tensions we’d brought with us into the room. As we centered ourselves, body and mind, we’d pray the “Jesus Prayer,” silently. It’s a simple yet powerful prayer that comes from the practice of hesychasm, or contemplative prayer, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
It goes like this: (Breathing in) “Jesus Christ.” (Breathing out) “Son of God.” (Breathing in) “Have mercy on me.” (Breathing out) “A sinner.”