Instead of living one day at a time, do life one breath at a time. Now, don’t take that literally. Let me suggest you take it spiritually. It might change the way you experience daily life.

We live with different challenges, different stresses, different distractions. We miss some of the good stuff, you know, the graces of living spiritually. Sometimes things come toward us at heart racing speed. With practice, intention, and learning how to breathe, you can have a quiet mind and present heart.

Breathing techniques are core disciplines in most major spiritual practices, like contemplation, meditation, mindfulness, Lectio Divina, and yoga. Slow, rhythmic, and deep breathing stimulates the mind and relaxes the body. In spiritual terms, such breathing styles awaken us to the Divine. Unfortunately, most of us are not attuned to meditative breathing habits.

In contemplation, we learn how to quiet the mind. We also learn how to be present in the moment. Much is made about how to focus and manage thoughts. However, breath management provides a foundation for a focused mind and spiritual presence in everyday moments.


Contemplative tradition encourages us to practice contemplation once, if not twice daily. Setting aside quiet times during the day is a good habit. But Madame Guyon, a 17th century mystic and writer, posed a challenging question: “What good is it to sit in silent contemplation once or maybe twice a day if that same peace is not taken into the rest of your day?” That would be a good goal for every contemplative.

Breath gives life. It has always been that way. God breathed spiritual breath into a lifeless mound of dust on the ground, and it became a living human being. In the upper room, Jesus breathed on his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Breath gives spiritual life as Jesus gives abundant life.

Contemplation is the highest form of prayer and yields many spiritual benefits. But these meditative breathing exercises will help you develop spiritual “superpowers” that prepare you for living one breath at a time. They give peace and compassion you can integrate into your daily life and take into your community. A quiet mind and present heart are within your reach.


I use meditative breathing in daily life to manage my emotional response in any situation. It helps me keep focus and presence. I practice rhythmic, and steady breathing from the belly. My breath flows peacefully and naturally, keeping my mind and my heart connected, in balance, and calm.

Like everyone, I gasp when I get startled. We gasp because a stimulus is frightening or unexpected. It sets off an emotional response that disturbs our mind, our heart, and our breathing. Soon we return to a normal level of breath and calm. Our sense of danger has passed. Peace is restored.

In many situations, we can anticipate challenges, stresses, and other distractions that disturb a quiet mind and present heart. We can see, hear, or feel threats that may cause loss of presence in the situation. We see a physical danger. Something we hear alerts us. An uneasy feeling tells us we are about to have a problem.

I have developed a habit of intentional deep breathing when this happens, so my mind and my heart stay connected and unperturbed. Practicing these techniques regularly helps me remember to use breathing in situations where I might otherwise lose focus.

For example, I used to officiate a lot of weddings. When I got distracted or felt stressed during the ceremony, a few deep breaths got me back on track. And nobody noticed. I do the same thing in everyday conversation. Deep breathing helps me maintain focus and presence in the moment.

In yoga, one practices breathing techniques, then applies them in a variety of poses to release physical tension and emotional anxiety. In the long term, practicing traditional yoga breathing techniques, outside of the physical practices, leads to spiritual realization in the individual. Think of it as nurturing your spiritual self.

Here, I offer two breathing practices that will help you in many situations. As in yoga, these breathing techniques become more effective with regular practice. They will help you along your contemplative path toward Christlikeness.


Meditative breathing plays a vital part in all contemplative practices. It helps to calm your mind, still your body, and direct the Spirit into your heart. Breathing practices will enhance your contemplative practices of meditation and stillness. Why not try these breathing techniques for a season and see what happens in your contemplative life?

Breath Retention
This is an exercise for you to do daily as you begin your season of breathing practice. It is a great way to destress and increase your lung capacity. When you master this technique to a point where you can use it effortlessly, almost like a reflex, you can call on it in everyday situations to relieve stress and return to a state of calm presence.

Sit in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor, back straight and well supported. You may also sit or lay on the floor if that is your style. Close your eyes and take a few normal breaths. When you are ready, take a slow deep breath in through your nose from your diaphragm. Take in as much air as you can and hold it to a count of ten.

Then slowly exhale through your mouth. Breathe deeply and rhythmically until you are breathing normally. Repeat this cycle two more times. Sit, breathing slowly and rhythmically while you feel your body and mind relax. I like to exhale with my lips practically closed, so it takes a bit of pressure to pass the air out of my lungs. This slows your breath as you exhale.

A respiratory therapist explained it does not matter how quickly you get oxygen into your lungs so much as you are able to efficiently expel the carbon dioxide. This style of exhaling helps balance the oxygen going in and the carbon dioxide going out. It also quiets the mind.

Cleansing Breath
I originally learned the cleansing breath in a natural childbirth class. Understand, my first born is now pushing forty. The idea was to distract the birthing mom from the pain of labor contractions. I will leave judgement about how effective that was to those who have experienced childbirth.

For me, it became an effective way to relax my body and calm my mind. This technique, once again, calls on your diaphragm to expand the air capacity of your lungs. Your diaphragm also pushes air out of your lungs like a balloon as it slowly deflates.

I found that three cleansing breaths followed by relaxed deep breathing increased awareness of my breath and thought patterns. Paying attention to my breath gave me clues that something distracting, or distressing had come my way. I learned to respond with cleansing breaths, or a deep retention breath released slowly, to restore my focus and presence. That is what I call living one breath at a time.

Such reflexive breath responses support all contemplative practices. For example, awareness of thought patterns is enhanced with meditative breathing. It is a great help in discerning between thoughts given by the Spirit and distracting thoughts that interrupt one’s focus on what God is doing. I like to imagine this as visiting eternity, one breath at a time.

Cleansing Breath Practice
You can practice this breath sitting in a chair, sitting on the floor, or lying on your back. Just keep your back straight. Keeping your back straight allows your diaphragm to extend more completely. It also helps you breathe more naturally and effortlessly.

Once you find your chosen posture, rest there for a moment until you settle into a relaxed pose. Place your hands over your diaphragm at the bottom of your ribcage. Feel the rhythm of your breathing in and breathing out. Notice when your breathing is natural and relaxed. How does it feel? Pay attention to your hands rising and falling with your breath. This helps you tune in to the habit of meditative breathing.

Now, slowly breathe in through your nose. Feel your belly rise until your diaphragm is fully extended. Hold that breath for a count of five. Exhale slowly for a count of five. Repeat this cycle of inhaling and exhaling two more times. Feel the air moving from your nose into your lungs and then out of your body on each cycle.

Relax, with your hands remaining over your diaphragm. Feel your breath going in and out as it returns to your natural rhythm. Continue normal breathing while you check your body from head to toe. Notice which parts of your body are relaxed and which parts of your body are not. Let go of any stress or discomfort. As you continue this daily practice in the weeks ahead, notice those parts of your body where tension exists and allow them to relax, one by one.

Keep in mind that it takes two months or more to form a new habit. Do not expect to experience life one breath at a time immediately. It takes patience and practice to integrate these breathing techniques into your being. For me, it took years of returning to these practices again and again before I could integrate them into everyday situations out of habit. We gradually grow into living one breath at a time, as is true of all spiritual habits.


Full disclosure, I am not perfect. Nor do I spend my days sitting under a tree. But, like the Apostle Paul, I continue training my mind to be quiet and my heart to be present for people around me and for God in his many disguises.

We all start somewhere. I have practiced the contemplative disciplines for over a quarter century. Wherever you are on your unique spiritual journey, please be assured that God your Father rejoices over you with singing. You are pre-approved by God’s love.

As it is written, never tire of doing good. Seek God with all your heart, mind, and spirit. Whatever desire God places in your heart, know that you already possess the grace to receive it in time. And so, with time, you will receive a quiet mind and a present heart. You already have the ability to live life one breath at a time.

Copyright, Calvin Wulf, 2023

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