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Breath as Prayer

Image of human lungs

Getty/magicmine

Many forms of prayer take the same amount of time to complete. The amount of time, it turns out, has powerful physiological benefits.

Slow breathing goes by another name: prayer.

When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale.

The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best‑known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there were the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above the soft palate so that it’s pointed toward the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds. Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian—these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, requiring the same breathing patterns. And they all likely benefited from the same calming effect.

In 2001, researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy gathered two dozen subjects, covered them with sensors to measure blood flow, heart rate, and nervous system feedback, then had them recite a Buddhist mantra as well as the original Latin version of the rosary, the Catholic prayer cycle of the Ave Maria, which is repeated half by a priest and half by the congregation. They were stunned to find the average number of breaths for each cycle was “almost exactly” identical, just a bit quicker than the pace of the Hindu, Taoist, and Native American prayers:

5.5 breaths a minute.

The Physiological Results of Slow Breathing

But what was even more stunning was what breathing like this did to the subjects. Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased, and the systems in the body entered a state of coherence where the functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency. The moment the subjects returned to spontaneous breathing or talking, their hearts would beat a little more erratically, and the integration of these systems would slowly fall apart. A few more slow and relaxed breaths, and it would return again.

A decade after the Pavia tests, Patricia Gerbarg and Richard Brown, two renowned professors and doctors in New York, used the same breathing pattern on patients with anxiety and depression, minus the praying. Some of these patients had trouble breathing slowly, so Gerbarg and Brown recommended they start with an easier rhythm of three‑second inhales with at least the same length exhale. As the patients got more comfortable, they breathed in and breathed out longer.

It turned out the most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked in to a spooky symmetry: 5.5‑second inhales followed by 5.5‑second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths per minute—the same pattern of the rosary.

The results were profound, even when practiced for just five to 10 minutes a day. “I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices,” says Brown. He and Gerbarg even used this slow breathing technique to restore the lungs of 9/11 survivors who suffered from a chronic and painful cough caused by the debris, a horrendous condition called ground‑glass lungs. There was no known cure for this ailment, and, yet, after just two months, patients achieved a significant improvement by simply learning to practice a few rounds of slow breathing a day.

Gerbarg and Brown would write books and publish several scientific articles about the restorative power of the slow breathing, which would become known as “resonant breathing” or Coherent Breathing. The technique required no real effort, time, or thoughtfulness. And we could do it anywhere, at any time. “It’s totally private,” writes Gerbarg. “Nobody knows you’re doing it.”

In many ways, this resonant breathing offered the same benefits as meditation for people who didn’t want to meditate. Or yoga for people who didn’t like to get off the couch. It offered the healing touch of prayer for people who weren’t religious.

Did it matter if we breathed at a rate of six or five seconds, or were a half second off? It did not, as long as the breaths were in the range of 5.5. “We believe that the rosary may have partly evolved because it synchronized with the inherent cardiovascular (Mayer) rhythms, and thus gave a feeling of wellbeing, and perhaps an increased responsiveness to the religious message,” the Pavia researchers write. In other words, the meditations, Ave Marias, and dozens of other prayers that had been developed over the past several thousand years weren’t all baseless.

Prayer heals, especially when it’s practiced at 5.5 breaths per minute.

Want more? Read Ram Dass' thoughts on the power of breath. 

From Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor, published in 2020 by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 James Nestor.


About the Author

James Nestor

James Nestor has written for OutsideScientific AmericanThe AtlanticDwellThe New York Times, and many other publications. His book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves was a finalist for the 2015 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, an Amazon Best Science Book of 2014, and more. Nestor has appeared on dozens of national television shows, including ABC’s Nightline and CBS’s Morning News, and on NPR. He lives and breathes in San Francisco.

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