On average, we have 14 breaths per minute, every minute of the day, every day of the year from the beginning to the end of our lives. The breath is essential to life as we know it. It is our primary source of energy and yet, it tends to be another unconscious process which is just happening as we move through life.
The significance of the breath has been recognised throughout the ages and is central to our etymology for words such as “spirit”. The English word for “spirit” comes from the Latin word “spiritus”, meaning “a breath”. So, etymologically, there is an implied relationship between what we have believed to be our essence and the breath. Whether you believe in a spirit or not, there is a profound life force cycling through your lungs every moment.
Becoming aware of the breath is perhaps the most simple and most empowering practice. It is deceptively simple and yet, not easy to maintain. When you are aware of your breath, you are present. Life is richer when you can observe the subtlety of each moment and turning your awareness to each breath is a profound practice in and of itself.
What Is Breathwork
Modern forms of breathwork vary in style; however, they usually have commonalities in open mouth breathing, connecting the inhalation to the exhalation, in a cyclical nature. Such practices are referred to as “conscious connected breathing”. You alter the breathing pattern for a prolonged period of time (usually for 30 mins to 1 hr), which results in an altered state of awareness and much more. Gaining popularity for its healing benefits and intensity breathwork is being referred to as the new yoga. Breathwork can be very powerful in accessing deeper states of consciousness and releasing latent stress, fear and trauma.
The Origins Of Breathwork
The yogis discovered that where the breath goes, the mind follows. So that, by controlling your breath you can control your mind or your thoughts. Through altering breathing patterns, suspending the breath and developing sequences, they were able to enter deep states of meditation and access consciousness in a new and profound way. “Pranayam” or “Pranayama” are yogic terms used to describe the sequencing and systems of controlling your breath for particular benefits.
Many of the modern breathing techniques encapsulated in breathwork stem from pranayam.
However, in the 1960s and 70s, there were new developments arising. Leonard Orr, the founder of the rebirthing breathwork model (widely considered the father of conscious connected breath), developed the technique while submerged in water, breathing through a snorkel. He had memories of his own birth and then began experimenting with the technique and re-experienced past traumas in a way to release them from his system. Orr espoused that there are 10 big traumas which form our egos (starting with birth, then parental disapproval, school/religion traumas and so forth) which can be released through this method.
Concurrently, Stan Groff and his wife developed Holotropic breathwork inspired by their psychedelic journeys and were drawn to the transcendental and healing aspects of using conscious connected breaths (cyclical breathing) for prolonged periods of time.
More recently, the likes of Wim Hoff and Patrick G McKeown have pioneered breathing techniques with breath holds to increase physical performance, train athletes and enter deep meditation.
Types Of Breathwork
What happens during a breathwork session?
It depends on the intention of the breathwork practice. If it is for performance or meditation, it will be between 10 – 30 minutes, with sequencing and breath suspension to enter deeper states of meditation.
If it is a transcendental or healing breathwork practice, it is normally for a duration of 1 hour in a group or 1 on 1 private session. The facilitator may use music to help the participant(s) move through the journey and access different layers of their subconscious.
As we breath through the mouth in connected cycles, the fight or flight system (sympathetic nervous system is activated), which can bring up latent stress in the nervous system, body, mind, past memories, emotions and stuck energy which can potentially be re-experienced and transmuted or let go of. Breathwork can trigger past traumas or latent stress in the body/mind, memories, induce a trance-like state and touch a much more primal aspect of who you are.
The experiences during and after a breathwork session vary widely and often depend on the technique, the constitution of the person, what they need to experience. In short, breathwork sessions vary from session to session and from person to person. In longer breathwork sessions, the first few times can be quite physical including tingliness, tightness, heat, sweatiness, cramping etc and include emotional release as what is experienced may be uncomfortable or unusual. There are of course some major benefits despite some discomforts of breathing in an unnatural way.
What Are the Benefits Of Breathwork?
Everybody has a different experience with breathwork and it does depend on the type and intention of the breathwork you practice. Some of the benefits include:
uncovering and releasing limiting beliefs
trance-like states of consciousness
increased sense of self worth
deep connection to self and others
states of elation, compassion, empathy, love, understanding, acceptance, joy, etc.
What is the purpose of breathwork?
There are many reasons to practice breathwork. For shorter breathwork practices and daily routines, there are performance reasons, clarity of mind, focus, meditation, calming and getting clear, more intuitive. For longer sessions, the purpose of breathwork may be just to have an experience of deeper layers of the self; more often than not, it is to remember who you truly are and shed that which is in-authentic. This might look like releasing emotional tension and embracing a new way of living and feeling. It can be impactful in re-wiring your subconscious mind, stepping into something scary, relating to yourself in a more healthy way or for a transcendental or meditative experience.