Written by our Nabila Qureshi
My dad has always said I have a ‘shift-and-drift’ brain, moving from one thing to the next faster than words could ever come out of my mouth or a meaningful thought be uttered. This was irritating at the best of times, but worst when I opened my prayer mat and faced my Lord. I was completely unable to silence my mind and honour the treasured conservation I was being granted. The talks I saw online about khushu’ told me that I was not on my own, but no matter how many tips I found and tried, nothing worked.
That was until, like many things in life, help finally came from an unexpected source: yoga.
The first type of yoga I tried was Ashtanga, a practice which focuses heavily on syncing breath with movement. Doing so requires you to be conscious of every inhale and exhale, observing where our bodies start and finish. Paying attention to what each muscle is doing and, most likely, how much strain it is experiencing. The penny dropped when I finally caved and listened to what I thought was just my yoga teacher rambling about breath and found a rhythm:
In, out, in, out. I could think of nothing except the air going into my lungs. My pain softened.
I was familiar with conscious breathing from the many encounters with mindfulness I have had since being a teenager. As anyone who has spoken to a professional, a friend, or even Google, about anxiety will tell you, one of the first things you are advised to do is mindfulness. This is a technique developed to help draw your attention to the present moment, and thus, help reduce the mental chatter that anxiety brings. It is also (as you see above) a key aspect of many yoga and holistic healing practices.
But why? One of the most fascinating aspects of breathing is that we do it all the time with absolutely no notice of it whatsoever. We refer to our ‘dying breath’ as a shattering, final moment on earth, but most of our ‘living breaths’ drift past, leaving without a trace. This is not by accident, but by design. Like many things our brains tune out, if we were to think about breathing every second we wouldn’t be able to fit much else in.
When this becomes beautiful is when it works in reverse. Because when we think about our breath, nothing else can fit in. If we focus entirely on our chests rising and falling, air being sucked in and pushed out, we don’t have space for anything else. Focusing on the one thing that is truly fundamental to our physical existence on this earth shuts everything else out.
There has been a huge amount of research on the importance of breath in soothing our nervous systems, in helping heal from trauma and much more (see links below) – and yes, absolutely, just stopping, closing my eyes and breathing deeply, even once, has pivoted many moments in my life. But one of the greatests blessings it has given me has been beginning to transform my prayer.
Once, entirely unintentionally, I began my prayer with a full deep breath, the exact same as I would if I was stepping on a tube or walking into my Year 8 class or any other anxiety-inducing moment, and I noticed something shift in my brain. The previous months of breathing intended to teach me to slow and focus did exactly that. They gave me power over my attention and allowed me to put that to God, quieting the world down and reminding me of my purpose. I could start my prayer with a heart and mind that was, even for a moment, aware, in every sense, of the presence of Allah.
Learning to be with your breath is not easy, nor is it a straight road where serenity waits at the end. It requires practice, patience and consistency – small and little every day. Even one conscious breath, where you stop yourself to close your eyes and slowly breathe in and out can start to give you power over your attention. I am reminded of the verse: ‘Hold firmly to the rope of Allah’ (3:103), and am comforted in the depth to which our Lord knows us. He knows we will need to grasp onto Him, for there will be moments when this world takes us over and tries to claim us for its own. There are moments throughout prayers where my mind wanders, drifts to the world and then I am reminded of this, reminded of Him, and I stop reciting, I breathe deep and try to connect to His infinite presence. And I continue.
Whilst I didn’t do this with the intention of improving my focus in prayer, and whilst, if I were to speak truly, I know my prayer alone should have brought this to me, I am so grateful that Allah provided me with a way to begin to heal my mind and soul together and I hope that, in some way, beginning to understand the power of our breath can help soothe and focus our energies during this blessed time.
- A simple breathing exercise: Listen to the track ‘2 bells’ by Coherence on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/track/1vuf0jxcfB7Ry8qeSr7pBp?si=6wcYEJf9TM6mlaDV2QwBNA) . Find a comfortable position to lie, bend your knees with your feet on the ground. You can place your hands on your belly to draw your awareness there. Take some slow, deep breaths through your nose. As you inhale, your belly rises, and as you exhale your belly falls. Do this in time with the bells in the track for as long you feel comfortable.
- Beginner’s guide to breathwork: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEW0TRQorLM
- Headspace (great app for meditation and quick breathing exercises, lots are available for free): https://www.headspace.com/. They also have a Youtube channel with resources: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEW0TRQorLM
- Calm (app for mediation): https://www.calm.com/
- A GIF (yes, believe it) that can help regulate breath: https://gph.is/2o12n8S
- Some books on trauma and the body, which include lots of insight into the psychology and science of breath:
- The Body Keeps the Score by Besel Van der Kolk https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-body-keeps-the-score/bessel-van-der-kolk/9780141978611
- It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn