Coming Out of Lockdown
After over two months in lockdown, for many of us the current lifting of restrictions feels like a big breath of fresh air. And there’s so much to breathe in right now, with the lilacs and the irises beginning to bloom and the heady smell of fresh-mown grass perfuming the air. The world smells like new life, new beginnings, and new possibilities.
Lately, it might seem as if we’ve had a lot in common with Jesus’ disciples, as they sheltered in the Upper Room, full of uncertainty about the future. Like us, they were mourning the loss of the physical presence of Jesus after He ascended into heaven. They were also waiting and praying that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, God would breathe new life, courage, and purpose into their lives and inspire them with a new direction.
Breath of God
In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is called the breath – or ruah – of God, throughout Genesis as well as in the New Testament. When Jesus appeared to His apostles in the Upper Room after His resurrection, He breathed on them and said, “Peace be with you.” When we’re breathing with the Spirit – living intentionally in the presence of God’s love and life – we feel calm, peaceful, focused and creative.
On the other hand, when we’re stuck in anxiety, fear, worry, or anger, we can find it hard to access the peace that Jesus has to offer us in His Spirit. And this spiritual deficiency can have an effect not only on our faith life but also on our mental, emotional and physical health. As St. John Paul II says, “life depends on a spiritual principle” and that spiritual principle has to do with learning how to breathe with the Holy Spirit – body, mind, and soul.
Health Benefits of Breathing ?
On a physical level, scientific research has shown that besides keeping us alive, proper breathing has many other physical health benefits. It can help lower cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure, improve core muscles, and strengthen our immune system, which is a big plus during these times of uncertain health.
Diaphragmatic breathing, aka belly breathing, can also build a healthy lymphatic system, which is part of our body’s waste-removal service. Proper breathing pumps the fluid in our lymph vessels and clears toxins and inflammation from our body that can lead to chronic health conditions like autoimmune diseases and cancer.
It’s no surprise that what’s good for our body is also good for our mind as well. Our brain has lymph ducts too, and using our breath pump helps detoxify our brain, which can improve mental functioning, banish brain fog, lower anxiety and lift depression.
When we’re breathing slowly and steadily from our belly, we also wake up our vagus nerve. The vagus – or wandering – nerve is the longest nerve in the body and connects our main abdominal organs to our brain. When the vagus nerve is awake and doing its job, it helps us to switch from “fight or flight” mode into “rest and digest” mode. This switch translates into emotional calming and a more resilient “bounce back” when we’re under stress. Waking up the vagus nerve also stimulates the brain areas responsible for compassion and connection with others. In fact, Dr. Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory, calls it “the love nerve”… hmmm, we’re back to the Holy Spirit again!
Retraining the Breath
You would think that something as fundamental to life as breathing would be second nature. But chronic stress, poor habits or posture, or just plain lack of awareness can lead to unhealthy breathing patterns that can compromise our health. For example, have you caught yourself holding your breath when you’re concentrating? Do you breathe from your chest when you’re anxious or angry? Ever had a panic attack, where over-breathing makes you feel dizzy, jittery, and even more anxious?
Try one of these breathing strategies to help you to relax your body, calm your emotions, and slow down the runaway train of negative or anxious thoughts in your head:
- Be a cliché – open wide your window or door every morning and take some deep, belly breaths to clear your lungs and get your lymph flowing
- Throughout the day, practice gratitude breathing to cultivate a thankful attitude that can help with anxiety and depression
- Try this 4-7-8 breathing technique to calm your mind and body if you’re in panic mode
- Learn more about your breath in this short 5-part video breathing mini-course to lower stress and improve brain function
- Watch The Lymph Man, John Ossipinsky , as he talks about how to ease chest tightness so you can breathe better
- Check out this Rosary hack and tap into the power of one, small breath to break you out of autopilot mode and improve your ability to focus during meditation
- Let Dr. Greg Bottaro teach you how to use your breath to find God in the present moment in his book The Mindful Catholic, or take his course at Catholic Psych Academy
- Dive deeper into your spirituality with the book, Nine Days to Rediscover the Joy of Prayer by Fr. Jacques Philippe, who teaches that proper breathing can help dissolve tension before you pray
Preparing for Pentecost
Once you’ve got your breathing under control and you’ve awakened your “love nerve,” now you’re able to show up to prayer with a relaxed body and a calm mind. On the feast of Pentecost, invite the Holy Spirit to breathe in you and through you as you prepare to receive the love and life that God wants to give.
For a real spiritual treat, watch this video of Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven, as she gives us a glimpse into the heart of Mary, Our Blessed Mother. For surely, there is no one who was ever filled more abundantly with the breath of life. In fact, she breathed in the Spirit of God so completely that Love and Life became Flesh and dwelt among us. Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful. Amen.