Friday, March 30, 2012

St. Nicodemos and Controlled Breathing

     The tradition of controlling ones breath in prayer as our fathers have taught is one of the most misrepresented aspects of our Byzantine tradition. Many of us have heard the same things: that "we are borderline Buddhists" or that we have "an exaggerated psychophysical symbolism ". One time I had some one send me some Roman Catholic teachings on prayer after they read some of my posts on Hesychasm. He demanded that I stopped teaching it claiming that the tradition is against the Catholic Church. This understanding often comes from a failure to understand the role of the body and how it is an instrument for our salvation, which is a teaching highly developed in the Byzantine tradition.
     Sometimes in the Western spiritual traditions there has been a lack of understanding when it comes to the role of the body in the work of salvation. It is as if in seeking ways to purify the soul the body has been left out. For example, I heard a teaching around thanksgiving many years ago where there was great emphasis on avoiding lustful thoughts and in the same teaching there was a joke about overeating. It was as if the mind was the only thing in need of purification for salvation. In contrast, in the Byzantine spiritual tradition the body's role in salvation has been fully integrated in every aspect of worship. There is not one liturgy where we don't see constant physical work especially in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, in which there are constant prostrations.
     Many saints of the Byzantine tradition have provided many teachings concerning the body. Among them it could be said that St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain was one of the most prolific. Based on his writings not only concerning the body but many other aspects of spirituality the saint continues to be source for spiritual renewal in the churches of the Byzantine tradition. This was even more so in his time where he helped bring about lasting renewal in many areas of the church of his day. In my opinion, he should be named as an essential saint that we should look to for the renewal of our churches in our modern time.
     When it comes to the role of the body we find In the teachings of St. Nicodemos an understanding that many of us are not used to. Often we find a tendency to understand the soul as something trapped or contained in a body, which makes the body of little value when it comes to spirituality . Echoing the words of St. John Damascene St. Nicodemos writes," the difference between a rational and irrational soul is this: The irrational soul is led and ruled body the body and the senses, while the rational soul leads and rules the body and the senses (A Hand Book on Spiritual Counsel pg.69).".According to the saint the soul is better understood as containing the body making the body truly at its service. However, because of sin there is a disruption in body's relationship to the soul. The body tends to exist for itself leaving the realm of the soul subject to it. Instead of being an instrument that helps develop our relationship with God the body leads us away from him.
     Understanding the body\soul relationship is essential for understanding Byzantine spirituality. The ascetic disciplines found throughout the Byzantine tradition are for the reconditioning of the body's relationship with soul and in turn God. All too often some of the bodily acts are attributed to being purely symbolic or even psychosomatic. For example, history can attest that there have been at times people in the West who have even accused the Byzantine churches as being those who contemplate their navels, which has been the case concerning the tradition of Hesychasm. However, any bodily action involved in the Byzantine tradition has always been for the ultimate healing of the broken condition that resulted from sin.
     For most, some of the bodily disciplines of the Byzantine traditions, such as fasting or prostrations, are easily accepted as ways to develop spiritually. However, there is one aspect of the Byzantine tradition that sometimes is met with reservation, which is controlled breathing that is employed in our prayer tradition of Hesychasm. What is often misunderstood as a psychosomatic technique is really a way to subject the body to the workings of the soul and in turn God. In fact, St. Nicodemos demonstrates great insight in how our relationship with God develops through controlled breathing. He writes," The mind, the activity of the mind, is used from a very early age to be scattered toward the external world. For this reason when you say this sacred prayer(Jesus Prayer) do not breathe continually as is natural to our nature, but hold your breath until your inner consciousness has a chance to say the prayer once. By holding your breath even for this short interval the heart is pressed and troubled and feels pain for not receiving natural oxygen. The mind on the other hand is much more readily controlled to return to the heart, both because of the pain and suffering of the heart but also because of the pleasure that is created from this warm and vivid memory of God (A Hand Book on Spiritual Counsel pg.160)." As the saint demonstrates the controlling of breath that we often employ in praying the Jesus prayer is a way to use the body in order to grow in intimacy with God.
     Byzantine spirituality can be physically demanding. However, undergoing the labor leads to a better relationship with God. Not to be confused with purely symbolic acts the bodily actions found in prayer and worship should be properly understood as ways to develop spiritually. Nicodemos and many fathers of Byzantine tradition can attest to this fact. Also, this understanding is essential for understanding the Byzantine tradition of Hesychasm, which would include the breathing disciplines or even bodily postures associated with the Jesus Prayer. Not approaching this from a Byzantine mindset has led to many in our day to believe that we have a practice that's identical to what can be found in non-Christian religions of the East. This understanding could not be farther from the truth. All though they might look the same the discipline behind it has a different goal and even the structure for its use.

(note: controlled breathing takes on various forms, is optional at times, and is not for everyone.)

To read about the use of repetition in the Jesus Prayer (click)


  1. Thank you your article.It is very sad that the Byzantine or the whole Eastern or Oriental spirituality is so unknown in the West.

  2. The Church really is wise in that it acknowledges that we are spiritual and corporal beings- all the 'smells and bells' and various body positions and the breathing are good for our souls

  3. have you seen this blog?

  4. It's interesting, I've actually heard of some Western Saints that speak of controlling your breathing during meditation on God and prayer - it's certainly not something absent from Western Tradition, although granted it's probably more developed in the East.

    I think that Benedictine spirituality in particular has a very strong sense of meditation, contemplation, and controlled breathing, especially in the Lectio Divino.