We are a culture that loves complexity. We like systems and hierarchies, frameworks and logarithms, research and reason. We believe most of our challenges are enormous and intractable, requiring the brainpower of our finest and budgets with more zeros than make sense. It can feel like the problems are growing day-by-day, like a snowball rolling downhill after us. As small individual humans, it can seem as if we don’t have much of a chance.
Certainly, there are some tough problems, the cure for many cancers, Alzheimer’s and other “dirty brain” diseases and how to provide clean water for humans around the world. It may be our grandchildren who find those answers. Yet, there are some serious discomforts, dis-ease and disconnections for which we do have an answer. An answer, that has been hiding in plain sight. In my humble opinion, and with some personal experiences, data and even some science to back me, the answer is breathwork.
What is breathwork?
I won’t be able to scratch the surface of this case for breathwork in this short blog but let’s, at least, get the conversation started. First, let’s begin with what is breathwork. Often when I say that “I am a Breathworker” or I am going to do a weekend of breathwork training, people hear the word breastwork and respond with a raised eyebrow. Breathwork is not a commonly heard word and there is work happening to get it in the dictionary, which then will require some sort of definition.
Doing a search for the term breathwork, Wikipedia, offers the following.
Breathwork is a New Age, umbrella term, for various breathing practices in which the conscious control of breathing is said to influence a person’s mental, emotional and/or physical state, with a claimed therapeutic effect. Breathwork has no proven positive health impact other than promoting relaxation and can cause distress.
So let’s pull this definition apart. I’d agree that breathwork is taking conscious control of your breath with the intention of influencing your state of body and state of mind. I’m not sure why this is considered New Age. While we may love complexity, we also have grandmothers. When life felt scary or when I fell and tears were flowing down my cheeks, my grandmother tenderly guided me to do one simple thing—to take a breath.
There was nothing New Age about the agency of that action. I took a breath. It was immediate and real. I did not need a multi-year, multi-million dollar empirical study from Johns Hopkins to confirm what I quickly found to be true. With a few breaths, I felt better. Sometimes.
Being intentional about breathing happened long before our grandmothers, or even their grandmothers. Within the practice of yoga, the practice of breathing is called pranayama. The practice of pranayama involves many different breathing techniques that use the breath to calm, to energize the body and the mind, and to cool or heat the body, to name just a few of the intentions of the practices. All pranayama practices promote and maintain overall health.
My definition of breathwork is simple—to consciously use the breath to enhance the body and mind’s capacity for healing, health and wholebeing. Similar to the different styles of yoga practices, breathwork includes many different types and styles of breathing. I want to dip your toe into four types of breathwork and what they might offer you.
Three Deep Breaths
This is one of the immediate Wholebeing Practices we teach to almost every person who participates in one of our programs. It’s my grandmother’s advice. The purpose is relaxation. The Wikipedia definition is written as if the benefit of relaxation is a negligible health benefit.
I’m not sure where the author of this definition is from but for many people relaxation is a hard state to find. I define relaxation not as a “vacation state” but as the basic human condition of being able to function with a calm mind and body that moves with ease. It means being able to rest and allow the body to repair and heal small and large injuries and disease.
The basics of taking a long deep inhale, in through the nose and then opening your mouth for a big exhale is a direct line to your nervous system. Without getting into the science of it all here, we know that more breath, pulled deeper into your lungs can quickly reduce the heart rate and even blood pressure and shift the body from the fight-or-flight mode to the rest-and-digest mode. These three deep breaths also bring you back from a racing mind to this moment.
In yoga training, we were told that you can’t have a racing mind while you are taking intentional long deep breaths. I have found this to be true. This practice can be done at any time, in any location and you don’t have to stop at three breaths.
Breathing is one of the body’s systems that can work all on its own or we can take control and direct the way we breathe. The way a person breathes is also a habit. It is most often a subconscious habit that has developed in response to living and our collection of experiences and the way we breath varies depending on a whole host of conditions at each moment. Your breathing can be seen as a reflection of your state of health. Slower, deeper breaths, is getting your body the most critical resource it needs, oxygen, and that dictates the capacity for health for body and mind.
Ocean Breath is called ujjayi breath in yoga. In this breathing technique, you are breathing in and out through the nose with a soft sigh sound on the inhale and exhale. It is the background breathing practice in yoga. We call it Ocean Breath because you are making the sound of surf coming in and coming out. It is soothing and again like the Three Deep Breaths is calming your body’s systems.
As you practice yoga, you practice Ocean Breath and retrain your body to breath like this when you are not paying attention. I call this the BOGO of yoga.
Most people think that yoga is about the physical postures, yet one of the biggest benefits of the practice of yoga is the embedded breathwork training within it.
This form of breathwork takes more time and has a confusing name. You lie on a mat, sometimes in a group and sometimes with your Rebirth Coach and are guided to open your mouth and take a big inhale and release the exhale in what is called a circular breath pattern for 50-60 minutes. You’re bringing in lots of breath and a whole array of different experiences can happen from feeling tingling in your body to having glimpses of the experience of your own birth.
I am trained as a Rebirthing Breathworker and have had many experiences of great clarity and release of tension in my body.
Philadelphia has one of the most well established Rerbirthing Centers in the country and they offer weekend and longer programs. On our Wholebeing Journey to Costa Rica in May 2020 we’ll be doing several rebirthing breathwork sessions.
This form of breathwork is for me where the real power of the breath lies. It was developed by Stanislav Groff, M.D. a psychiatrist now with over sixty years of experience in research of non-ordinary states of consciousness and one of the founders and chief theoreticians of transpersonal psychology.
A Holotropic breathwork session happens within a workshop format. I am currently training with Dreamshadow, and they have the best description of the experience that I have found.
Dreamshadow Holotropic Breathwork uses a workshop format that promotes experiential self-exploration and personal development in a safe and supportive setting. The basic components are intensified breathing, evocative music, focused bodywork, expressive drawing, and group process.
One of the key elements of this modality of breathwork is there is no specific breath pattern. You are your own expert and captain of your ship. You use the breath, with the instructions of “move a lot of air”, as the energy to travel into the places that need your attention and awareness.
In life, we have all had some level of trauma starting with the birth experience, and then throughout life with injuries, illness, abuse and loss. No person’s life is without these bumps and pain. For me during most of my holotropic breathwork sessions, I have felt the experience of Rumi’s Guest House poem, allowing the breath to sweep the house of my mind and body empty of its furniture clearing me out for some new delight.
We need safe and supportive spaces to process through ALL the feelings and experiences of life. We need places of deep connection and empathy, compassion and support where we can speak of grief and joy, loss and possibilities, fears and hopes for our future.
With this community, I have found all of these. I am committed to making this form of breathwork available to more people. I’ll be writing more about Holotropic Breathwork in future posts.
Are you breathing?
Life is full of complexities and unknowns. Flowing through those bold rivers of life are shimmering streams of simplicity. Sometimes the answer really is hiding in plain sight. Take a breath, my sweet one, take a breath.