Updated: Aug 15, 2018
“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” Psalm 150:6
What is a Breath Prayer?
Sarah and I met in California, but I moved away before either of us had kids, so we have never actually parented together. This breaks our hearts, and we frequently lament over it. We would love to live this season of life near each other. I have always pictured Sarah as a perfect mother. She has a sing song-y voice and is so patient and fun. Everyone loves Sarah. She also has a teaching background, so she actually knows what she is doing when she teaches her kids at home. I just make it up as I go. I really look up to her, and I admit there have been times where I have been a little jealous.
But then we started talking about practicing breath prayers. At one point Sarah said, “This is a fabulous thing to do when you feel you are physically reacting to your kids. You know when they are whining or hitting or breaking your favorite vase and then all of a sudden you feel yourself getting hot and tense? You find yourself charging into the situation and you do what you vowed you wouldn’t do yesterday—completely lose it and yell, “EVERYBODY STOP” in an evil dragon voice? Or is that just me?”
I laughed out loud because I had recently been trying to get my kids into the car, and I lost my temper. I said, “GUYS! Get in the car or I’m going to turn into an angry dragon!” To which my two boys enthusiastically responded, “Cool! Are you going to breathe fire!?”
The point is none of us are perfect. There are no perfect mothers. There are no perfect children. We all have “angry dragon” moments, and in those moments, we need to center ourselves on the only perfect person—Jesus. Slowing down to focus on Him calms our hearts and focuses our minds.
Sarah learned about breath prayers and their wonderful benefits when she was a stay at home mom with a newborn and 1 ½ year old, and her friend invited her to a mom’s group at their church. The speaker had 5 adult children and told the group that her saving grace in the early years was breath prayers. She told them to come up with a phrase--it could be a mantra, a verse, or a name for God, and a desire. She then taught them to pair that phrase with deep and intentional breathing; this is a breath prayer.
Many of us already know about the numerous benefits that come from deep breathing—a slow and focused inhale and exhale slows down your heart rate, relaxes your brain, and even releases your endorphins. Physiologically, rapid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It’s part of our built in “fight or flight” response that kicks in during a stressful situation, like when you have one child throwing a tantrum on the floor of Target and another child simultaneously trying to jump from the cart. But! If you slow your breathing, you stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, and that is what calms us down. It’s simple but powerful.
A mantra is simply a word or a phrase that you repeat while meditating. It is supposed to clear your mind and focus your attention to center you; in this case it centers you in Christ. Some people recommend picking one mantra and sticking to it. Others suggest you mix it up. You will find whatever works for you and your child.
For example, breathe in deeply and say in your mind or out loud “Holy Spirit,” then breathe out deeply through your mouth and say to yourself or out loud, “Bring me peace.” Continue breathing in and out repeating the 2 phrases until you feel that you are truly at a calmer place and really receiving what it is you have asked for!
As parents, stopping to breathe deeply before you react makes a world of difference...hi, parasympathetic reaction! When my kids see me doing this paired with a short prayer, they know that I am pretty upset, but I am taking the time to go to Jesus before I react to them. By doing this as a parent, you are modeling coping skills and dependency on Jesus.
For children, this is an excellent way to help manage emotions and temper tantrums. If your child is beginning to spiral into a tantrum, you can scoop them up into your arms and recite a breath prayer. As parents, when we get on the same level as our kids and breathe with them, we are encouraging them that we are in this moment as a team. It becomes less of an accusatory “you need to calm down” moment and more of an empathetic and grace-filled “let’s work through this together” moment. When you do this together, your tantruming child can feel your love and God’s love wrapped around them. This can also be a great prayer to use when a child feels afraid or alone. Since it can easily be done silently or out loud, it is a tool that kids can use in many different situations.
Breath Prayer Ideas
Instruct your child to get in a comfortable position and close their eyes. Place their hand on their stomachs. Tell them to very slowly take a breath in through their nose, filling up their lungs until their belly begins to rise. Tell them to exhale slowly through their mouth. Watch them to help them find a rhythm. You don’t want them breathing too fast, and you really don’t want them breathing too slowly and holding their breath! It just takes some practice.
Breathe in slowly through your nose and say, “Father.” Breathe out slowly through your mouth and say, “Help me to forgive.” (Perfect for sibling conflict and anger).
Breathe in slowly through your nose and say, “Holy Spirit.” Breathe out slowly through your mouth and say, “Help me have peace.” (Perfect for anxiety about school or getting the wrong spoon or just about anything!)
Breathe in slowly through your nose and say, “Jesus.” Breathe out slowly through your mouth and say, “You are with me.” (Perfect for bad dreams).
Breath Prayers in Real Life
One day I saw an article online about how a school was replacing detention with meditation. It occurred to me that if kids could learn to meditate, they could learn contemplative prayer. I was in the midst of a struggle with my oldest son, Calvin. He has big emotions. That means he has lots of love and lots of tantrums. The type of tantrums where he throws himself on the floor and loses control of his body. I felt so frustrated, like I was doing everything I could to help him but nothing was working. I was desperately searching for a way to help him calm down and tap into his emotions. I started including contemplative prayer exercises into our day, specifically breath prayers. We started just by learning to take big relaxing breaths. Eventually we added the words “Lord give me peace” in. He really took to this. Not only does it help him calm down, but it helps me too. It stops us both in the spiral and forces us to slow down and look to Jesus, which means way less yelling and more talking. This is something we have been practicing daily for years. Calvin has internalized this prayer, and it is now his go-to for when he is upset. I ask him to breathe, and he automatically includes “Lord give me peace.”
After Calvin’s first week of kindergarten his teacher called me and said, “Stephanie I have to tell you a story about Calvin.” As a first time kindergarten mom, I was so nervous! What on earth was she going to say?! But she went on to explain that Calvin noticed that his best friend, Jack, was having a hard time. Jack was missing his mom while he was at school and was really struggling. He was starting to cry, he was having a hard time breathing, his heart was racing, and his stomach hurt. He was homesick. Calvin walked over to Jack, put his hand on his back and led him to the drinking fountain. He said, “Jack, sometimes when I’m feeling sad I close my eyes, take a deep breath in…breathe out…and say ‘Lord, give me peace’ and it makes me feel better. You should try it.” And Jack did. My 5-year-old walked his best friend through a breath prayer in his brand new public school without even thinking twice. I wish I had that kind of boldness and bravery!
Since we already told you that this prayer also helps to calm down your own heart as a mom, I should admit that a few months before that adorable kindergarten incident I was putting our middle child, Griffin, to sleep. He was pushing boundaries and trying to stall bedtime like every 3-year-old does. I personally felt like I was remaining very calm. Firm but gentle, right?! Well when I finally got him to sleep and went downstairs my husband, Trevor, was laughing and said, “Calvin heard you putting Griffin to bed and said, ‘It sounds like mom needs to do some Lord give me peace.’” I may not have been as calm as I had imagined, but I will gladly take a reminder to pray from my children any day!