‘Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.’ ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Breath Work: An Introduction
Conscious awareness of the breath connects to the present moment and the body. Breath Work, or breathwork, itself is a relatively new concept, largely used in New Age teachings, whereby it generally refers to a number of practices that involve the conscious control of the breath. It is said to influence one’s mental, energetic, emotional and physical states by inducing states of deep relaxation or giving rise to alternate states of consciousness. There are many forms of Breath Work, each with its own unique methods of using breath for various healing purposes. It draws from Eastern practices such as Yoga and Tai Chi, while incorporating Western psychotherapy techniques. To bring about self-awareness, Breath Work can include elements of talk therapy, breathing exercises, art, music, and Body Work. This therapy can be used with individuals, couples, and groups. It should be facilitated by a certified professional. In general, the goal of any Breath Work therapy is to support people in achieving a greater sense of self-awareness and capacity for self-healing. It also helps people work toward overall improvement in mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Breath Work practitioners guide students and participants through various therapeutic breathing techniques.
Understandings of the Role of the Breath Across Cultures: Ever-Ancient, Ever-Modern
For centuries, people have sought spiritual awakening, self-healing, and meditative relaxation through breathing techniques. Breathwork has roots in Eastern practices like yoga, Tai Chi, and Buddhism. However, most of the breathwork therapy used today got its start during the consciousness-raising era of the 1960s and 1970s. Several types of breathwork were formed during this era. These included Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing Breathwork. Some models emphasized self-awareness and inner peace. Others dealt with altered states of consciousness and psychedelic effects. Rebirthing Breathwork, for example, was developed by Leonard Orr. It focused on the traumatic experience of birth. Holotropic Breathwork, established by Dr. Stan Grof and his wife, Christina Grof, grew out of their research on consciousness and the effects of psychedelic drugs like LSD. Since the 1970s, the field of breathwork therapy has grown further. In 1991, Jacquelyn Small founded Integrative Breathwork. This approach is based on her work in Holotropic Breathwork alongside Dr. Grof. In addition, Clarity Breathwork, which evolved from Rebirthing Breathwork, was established in 1999. Clarity Breathwork expanded upon the principles of Rebirthing to include a more generalized approach to trauma and therapy. To date, there have been few scientific studies conducted on various forms of Breath Work since various breathing practices are often studied in combination with other practices, such as Asana (the third limb of classical yoga) and various forms of meditation. Additionally, some studies have reported that people may also find the effects of various forms of breath work distressing. Breath Work is reported to benefit people experiencing issues such as anxiety, chronic pain, anger, depression, trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and grief and loss.
There are various forms of Breath Work, these include one or more of the following:
1. Biodynamic Breathwork
Fully known as BioDynamic Breath and Trauma Release System, this modality integrates six elements. It seeks to release tension, support natural healing, and restructure internal systems. The categories of biodynamic breathwork are breath, movement, sound, touch, emotion, and meditation. This approach recognizes trauma is stored in both psychological and physical ways. Trauma may be stored through emotional patterns, chronic stress, and blocked energy. Biodynamic breathwork aims to restore balance to these systems. Treatment sessions might incorporate exercises like deep, connected breathing and revisiting ingrained memories and sensations. It might also include music or sound therapy, vocalization, whole-body shaking, and even dance therapy. Giten Tonkov, founder of the BioDynamic Breathwork and Trauma Release System, says the therapy focuses on self-transformation. “People become more capable of supporting others to do the same. It’s not a knowledge based on academics. It is based on creating space and relaxation in your physical body.”
2. Holotropic Breathwork
This is a practice that uses breathing and other elements to putatively allow access to non-ordinary states of consciousness. It was developed by Stanislav Grof as a successor to his LSD-based psychedelic therapy, following the suppression of legal LSD use and clinical experimentation in the late 1960s. In this type of breathwork, the goal is to achieve “wholeness” of mind, body, and spirit. Sessions are facilitated by certified practitioners who have completed the Grof Transpersonal Training program. With the aid of “evocative” music and occasional bodywork, participants are guided through breath exercises while lying down. This is meant to induce altered states of consciousness. Holotropic Breathwork is often conducted with groups. This allows people to work in dyads and support each other’s processes. Participants usually create mandalas related to their breathwork experience immediately after the group breathing exercises. Sessions end with sharing and discussion. This helps participants integrate what they have learned about themselves.
The Stanislav and Christina Grof Foundation (formerly the Association of Holotropic Breathwork International (AHBI)) cites the following research in support of the benefits of Holotropic Breathwork. In 1994, Spivak and fellow researchers concluded that the alteration of consciousness that occurs during Holotropic Breathwork incites not only phenomenal influence but also physiological effects. In 1996, a study conducted by Sarah Holmes et al. found that participants who received Holotropic Breathwork experienced a reduction in “death anxiety” and an increase in self-esteem. A study conducted by Binovera (2003) found that Holotropic Breathwork participants reported better communication with others and a deeper understanding of the world around them. Despite this research and support, breathwork therapy is not without limitations, contraindications, and criticisms. One major concern is that breathwork has been known to induce hyperventilation. Hyperventilation may lead to physical issues including dizziness, tingling of extremities, heart palpitations, or muscle spasms. Prolonged hyperventilation can lead to decreased blood flow to the brain, clouded vision, ringing in the ears, and possible cognitive changes. It is not clear whether these effects cause long-term damage. But people interested in breathwork should be aware of any potential risks. Breathwork is not recommended for people with a history of aneurisms, cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, vision problems, osteoporosis, or any recent physical injuries or surgeries. It is also not recommended for people who experience severe psychiatric symptoms or seizures or who take heavy medication. Potential participants may want to consult with their primary care physician and seek a certified professional before engaging in breathwork therapy.
3. Pranayama (The Fourth Limb of Classical Yoga)
Breath work in classical yogic traditions is the considered the gateway between body and mind, that, is the bridge between asana and dharana to dhyana. Pranayama is the fourth limb of Raja yoga, or classical Hatha, often utilised as the preliminary tool for training the sensory mind (manas) and attentional awareness. Some yoga teachers, such as T. K. V. Desikachar and his disciple Leslie Kaminoff believe that the practice of yoga is “all in the breathe”. If pranayama is mastered, asana (postural yoga) and later dharana and dhyana happen naturally with sustained practice. While there are a number of pranayama techniques that has varying purposes, from Ujjayi (ocean breath/victorious breath) to Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) to Bastrika (bellow’s breath) and many more, preliminary breath work training in pranayama begins with the long, slow, gentle, deep breath. This involves breathing in as deeply as possible (inhalation or puraka), holding for as long as possible (retention with full breath or antara kumbhaka) and breathing out slowly and gently as possible (exhalation or rechaka). If breath retention is a challenge, it can be added after some time of simple inhalation and exhalation. Holding the breath in the space of no breath (retention with empty breath or bahya kumbhaka) can also be added later after some time of practice. There are some contra-indications for pranayama practices and techniques, but many are accessible despite requiring initial training. Bastrika Pranayama actually forms the basis of the modernised and popular version of Breath Work, known as the Wim Hof method (see below). While there is little research on the long-term physiological benefits of pranayama, there is a great deal on the psychological benefits.
This practice was devised by Leonard Orr in the 1970s. It is claimed to be capable of releasing suppressed traumatic childhood memories. This type of breathwork is also known as Conscious Energy Breathing. It is based on the premise that all humans carry with them the trauma of their birth experience. After allegedly re-experiencing his own birth in his bathtub, Leonard Orr was inspired to help others find the same inner peace. The goal of Rebirthing is to help people release energy blockages that have been stored in the body and mind due to suppressed trauma. In treatment, participants are asked to lie down, relax, and breathe normally. Through the use of “conscious connected circular breathing”, inhibitions surface. The tensions of past trauma are then illuminated. Deep relaxation is used to promote brain waves that lead to the release of subconscious issues and pent-up energy.
5. Tai Chi, Qigong and other Taoist Practices
In esoteric Taoist practices (the third wave of Taoism), breathing features heavily. These are usually incorporated into Tai chi (太極, Tàijí, short for 太極拳, T’ai chi ch’üan or Tàijí quán in Chinese Mandarin), Qigong (气功, Qìgōng, also known as Chi kung or Chi gung) and other meditative practices as techniques to connect with the natural force of Qi (气, Qì, loosely translating as ‘life force energy’ from the Chinese) through the body and breath. Some of these techniques include connecting the breath with the ground beneath us (as in breathing in from the ground), microcosmic orbit breath work (connecting to the circular flow of energy within the body), and organ breathing (sending our attention and awareness to the energetic qualities of our organs). There are a number of techniques that esoteric Taoism teaches, and one of the most widely-renowned teachers in accessible universal Taoist practices for health and healing today is Thai-born Chinese master Mantak Chia of the training centre Tao Garden, Chiangmai, Thailand.
6. Wim Hof Method
Named after its co-creator, Wim Hof markets a regimen, this method involves three pillars: cold therapy, breathing and meditation. There are many variations of the breathing method. The basic version consists of three phases as follows: 1. Controlled hyperventilation (the first phase involves 30 cycles of breathing. Each cycle goes as follows: take a powerful breath in, fully filling the lungs. Breathe out by passively releasing the breath, but not actively exhaling. Repeat this cycle at a steady pace thirty times. Wim Hof says that this form of hyperventilation may lead to tingling sensations or light-headedness), 2. Exhalation (after completion of the 30 cycles of controlled hyperventilation, take another deep breath in, and let it out completely. Hold the breath (with lungs empty) for as long as possible), and 3. Breath retention (when strong urges to breathe occur, take a full deep breath in. Hold the breath for around 15 – 20 seconds and let it go. The body may experience a normal head-rush sensation). These three phases may be repeated for three consecutive rounds.
7. Other Practices
There are many other form of Breath Work that have emerged over the last few decades. These include but are not limited to: Vivation, Integrative Breathwork, Transformational Breathwork, Shamanic Breathwork and Zen Yoga Breathwork. All forms of breathwork therapy are centred on the act of breathing inwards and outwards. But each model incorporates its own particular exercises. Overall, breathwork exercises involve deep, focused breathing that lasts for an extended period of time. Some examples include continuous circular breathing, immersion in water and connected breath.
Breath Work: Spiritual Practice and Scientific Evidence
Over the past few decades, controversy has surrounded the practice of certain kinds of Breath Work. While many of the claims are inconclusive and preliminary, as part of a larger system of wellbeing practices, breath work can be transformative.
See also: ‘Pranayama’ in the Resource Library; What is Integral Yoga?; Pranayama & Sound Healing Meditation; The Stanislav and Christina Grof Foundation; Rebirthing Breathwork International (RBI); The Global Professional Breathwork Alliance (GPBA); The International Breathwork Foundation (IBF).