Breath, Movement and Your Spiritual Life

Confession. I am crazy excited to launch the SpirFit blog. Gosh, there’s so many exciting things to talk about regarding the health of our body and soul! The benefits and science of breathing exercises, fitness, prayer and journaling; the awesome resources that have challenged, enriched and stirred our souls; the in’s and out’s of SpirFit, and much more.


Let’s get this blog started by addressing an important question many of you may have...


Why combine breath and movement with prayer?


So glad you asked.


Let me give you the scientific explanation first. Human bodies are comprised of many systems. The nervous system, digestive system, and circulatory system, to name a few. There are actually 11 organ systems in all, and they work together to maintain a functioning body. Which means, they’re constantly communicating and interacting with each other to maintain homeostasis (equilibrium).


But as we know, these systems can be thrown out of balance. Take the Nervous System for example. When the Nervous System is imbalanced this can lead to imbalances in our physical, mental and emotional bodies. Have you ever tried to meditate or read when your emotionally distraught? It probably wasn’t the most fruitful use of your time!


Luckily, as science has it, we can control, or calm, parts of our systems through conscious actions. Let’s refer to the nervous system, also known as the Autonomic Nervous System or ANS. One of its primary components is the Vagus Nerve that runs from the brain stem through the face and thorax, innervating the heart and lungs, down to the gut. (Healthline has a cool 3-D diagram of it here.) When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calming neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, GABA) are released. These are the “feel good” chemicals in our ANS. As studies show, we can activate these neurochemicals by naturally stimulating the vagus nerve through a variety of actions like moving the facial muscles; humming; deep breathing; and exercise. To read examples of this, check out an article in Pscychology Today, How Does "Vagusstoff" (Vagus Nerve Substance) Calm Us Down?.


Also, thanks to scientific research, we have learned that breathing, meditation and movement can increase overall brain activity, generating more gray matter along with activating the amygdala (part of the brain responsible for emotions, memory and survival instincts) and the frontal cortex (which contains dopamine neurons responsible for feelings of pleasure, reward and motivation). - Sciencedirect.com, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. Without getting into a deeper discussion on brainwaves, which is fascinating in itself, we can thank neuroplasticity for our ability to change and improve the brain’s function, which can lead to unlocking an imbalanced way of thinking and lead to more clear and focused thoughts. Morgan Cerf of Northwestern University writes about one study that observes the brain’s response to controlled breathing here.)


In addition to stimulating brainwaves and the vagus nerve through breath and movement, exercises like stretching and balancing improve our movement patterns and increase our range of motion. Once again, referring back to the ANS, when we’re chronically stressed, our nerves tell our muscles and fascia to tense up because our connective tissue is filled with sensory nerves that communicate with the brain. Because our nerves find comfort in continuity, constant tension restricts our muscles (making them tight and glue-like) and there by limit, or change, our pattern of movement.



It’s safe to say that stretching, balancing and strengthening improves not only our physical state but our mental and emotional states as well. A balanced mind and body gives us clarity and focus. And that brings me to my main point.


Our spiritual life is linked to our mental and physical well being.


Let me ask you a question. How well are you able to focus in prayer?


Life is full of distractions, anxieties, demands and chaos. The famous Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote about the dangers of distraction long ago in The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, a senior devil training a young apprentice, explains that by creating a world with so much noise and distractions humans can no longer hear the voice of God in their lives. “Whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out...”


Our world today keeps our minds so occupied that we don’t have the time, or the patience, to pray. We are living in an imbalanced world. But Jesus also lived in an imbalanced world. In the Bible, He shows us that retreating, and giving God our full attention, is essential to one’s faith.


Indeed, to be spiritually fit, we need to step away, put everything on pause, and give God our full attention. We can build this into our daily routine. We don’t need to go on vacation or even leave our house to do it. By using breath and movement to exhale the clutter and wring out the tension, we can inhale the sweetness of a healthy spiritual life. The essence of SpirFit - breath, movement and prayer - is a simple formula. And now, thanks to modern science, we can understand why the combination of these three practices fit together so beautifully.


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