Breathwork Explored

by Katherine Veitch

What is Breathwork?

At breathwork conferences, a conversation will often emerge around the formation of the word ‘breathwork’. Is it really ‘work’ ? Do we want to be associated with the feeling of ‘going to work’ given that what we offer is so light and liberating ? Those conversations will probably continue but so far no better single word has emerged to hold the variety of practices around conscious effort involving the breath.

Breathwork can refer to anything from breath awareness, that is simply noticing the breath, as in a mindfulness practice; to breath control, where different breathing exercises and techniques are used with a view to a particular aim or result; to breath therapy, where again different techniques are used on their own or in conjunction with other techniques or resources, with a therapeutic aim. 

Dan Brulé, one of the pioneers in the field of breathwork today, offers a great definition in his book ‘Just Breathe’, ‘Breathwork is the use of Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing for healing and growth, personal awakening, and transformation in spirit, mind and body.’ His is an excellent book to explore some the many different exercises and techniques that come under the general heading of breathwork. Indeed, as you can discover, most all breathwork can assist in transformation and healing, when practiced regularly and consciously. Stig Severinsen encourages, ‘If you think that it is probably necessary to perform breathing exercises or meditation for months or years before you experience marked results, you are mistaken. From my own experience and from people I have taught, I know that significant changes can happen in a matter of minutes, hours or days. A recent scientific study actually showed that body-mind training combining relaxation, conscious breathing, imagery and mindfulness meditation revealed measurable changes in subjects following 5 days of 20 minute daily training. The participants showed less tension, were in a better mood, had an improved immune response as well as significantly fewer stress-related hormones in their blood.’  

The breath is indeed becoming more well known as a useful resource for our personal growth and well-being. And with Covid 19 prolific in all our lives, we are perhaps ready to appreciate our breath and health, and life, more than ever. 

For the sake of navigating the breathwork territory of the 21st century, it is helpful to regard it as a spectrum. 

Breath Awareness 

At one end of the spectrum we can say we have breath awareness.  Breath awareness is simply noticing the breath, as it is, and not trying to change it. It is the starting point of breathwork, and the point to which we always return. It can be a powerful and profound practice in itself. The purpose is to anchor ourselves in the present moment, so letting go of worrying about the past or the future. Many benefits have been reported and recorded – reducing stress levels in the body, lowering heart rate, lowering blood pressure, reducing depression, better management of chronic pain, better regulation of the body’s reaction to stress and fatigue.

‘The simple practice of noticing the breath is to notice the moment we are in and how we are in it. To be in the moment is to truly live! To notice and accept the breath as it is, in all its beauty, fullness or erratic, anxious, shallow or pained state, and not try to change it, can be an act of self-love and self-acceptance. It is from this place of presence that healing and transformation can happen. Simply noticing the breath can lead us to noticing our bodies and feelings. As we give our attention to what is going on in our inner world, and what is arising for us, we learn a lot about the relationship we are having with ourselves, others, life and the experiences we are having. Breathwork can help us to know it is ok to feel what we are feeling and be experiencing whatever we are experiencing. We can learn to be present, without judgement and with compassion, to what is going on inside us and what is going on in the world around us at the same time. To be with things the way they are, neither resisting nor clinging, is true freedom.’

Breath Control

Moving along the spectrum we start to control our breath as we attempt to alter our state or achieved a desired result. As human beings we have the capability to consciously control our breathing as well as it happening automatically, without us doing anything at all. This is a miracle in itself! 

Every state of being – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual has a corresponding breathing pattern. The desired result may be to become more energized, more relaxed, more focused, perform better at work, or in sport, sleep better, be less stressed or anxious, or to enter altered states of consciousness. There are breathing techniques to assist in all of this and more. 

Many breath practices and exercises are learnt with an instructor, such as in a yoga class or a singing or acting class or in a specific breathing class, or as a guided audio. Ultimately, they can mostly be done alone, and a practice can fit in to our schedules.  Breath control methods are usually employed over relatively short durations of some minutes, although when used as part of meditative practice they may be sustained.

Many of the methods that emphasise closer regulation of the breath have been derived from ‘pranayama’. ‘Pranayama is a traditional aspect of yoga and is composed of two Sanskrit words: The first, prana, meaning life force, and the second, ayama, meaning control. If we understand breath in terms of life force, there is a connection between controlling your breath and controlling your life force.’  It can be thought of as a conscious co-creation with the breath. Pranayama originates from around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Pranayama is mentioned in early yoga texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The goal is often to promote the flow of prana (life force energy) and the experience of inner stillness, to assist in meditation, and can also be to energize, purify, calm and so on. 

“When the breath is irregular, the mind wavers; when the breath is steady, so is the mind. To attain steadiness, the yogi should restrain his breath.”

As is clear from seeing the ways in which the breath is used to moderate our states, as in the examples above, our breath and the way we breathe is connected to every system in our bodies, and beyond! It affects our immune systems, nervous systems, lymphatic, hormonal, cardiovascular, and digestive systems, our mental health and spiritual capacities and potential. The ancient yogis and other ancient cultures knew this, and modern science is proving it. 

Using this knowledge many breathwork styles have emerged to assist people in all kinds of ways from relief of asthma such as the Buteyko method and to performance such as the Wim Hof method. 

For example, Stig Severinsen tells us, ‘higher levels of carbon dioxide in the body helps against asthma and a myriad of other breathing problems. This is also the underlying concept of Buteyko breathing.’ Another well-known breathing technique, the ‘Coherent Breath’, uses knowledge about Heart Rate Variability to ensure the nervous system is in balance and this is and has been used widely in the healing of trauma. 

Many wellness apps and technology exist today so people can measure the levels of CO2 and oxygen in their systems as well as heart rate and HRV, etc, and how their breathing is affecting it. 

Some of the well-known styles using breath control can be found here.

As we move along the spectrum to the more therapeutic side, we learn how our breathing mechanisms have been compromised and that there often exists a need for us to learn how to breathe freely and fully again. 

As part of our bodies’ purpose and incredible ability to keep it all in balance and healthy, the rhythm of our breath changes naturally all the time. We may notice when we ‘sigh’ for example. A natural sigh actually happens every few minutes. ‘It works to reinflate alveoli that have deflated during normal breathing. This helps to maintain lung function’ Or we may yawn. Dan Brulé dedicates several pages to yawning in his book, and tells us, ‘Everywhere I go I encourage people to yawn…. Yawning is a natural breathing technique that will improve your overall health and well-being. It energises you while also triggering the relaxation response. It helps with sleep, mood, anxiety, and it discharges stress and tension.’ 

However, our body’s ability to adjust and self-regulate gets compromised. Rebecca Dennis, explains, ‘Breathing is something we all know how to do. And yet, the majority of teenagers and adults let go of their natural ability to breathe fully. We are conditioned from an early age to control our feelings and emotions, and as a result our muscles tighten and our breathing patterns become restricted. The impact on our mental and physical wellbeing is huge.’ 

Stig Severinsen tells us, ‘Your breathing is a perfectly accurate and honest barometer for your emotions.’ For example, when we’re angry, we breathe faster; when we’re sad, our exhalations are longer than our inhalations.  Stig continues, ‘You can feel for yourself how stress affects the ease and pace of your breathing – especially the way you inhale. If you become aware of this strained condition, you can “heal” yourself simply by taking a few conscious breaths – soft, deep and slow.’

As we practice breathing exercises, it restores our bodies’ natural ability to use the breath and connected systems to self-regulate and regain balance and health with more ease. Stig states, ‘The point of training your breath is to create a stronger and more stable nervous system and thereby an advantageous method of breathing – your own new and natural breath. In this way, your natural unconscious breath will be beneficial in everything you do – since your breath influences your body from even the finest nerve fibres to all your organs, your hormone production, and even your thoughts. In addition, during the night you will be able to harvest the fruits of your new breath in the shape of deeper and more tranquil sleep.’

In conclusion, most of us have restricted breathing patterns that correspond to tension held and inhibited energy flow in our body-mind systems. Restricted breathing can be the cause and effect of many mental, emotional and physical issues and ‘breathing better’, learning to breathe a full and free breath again, can be a great contribution to our mental, emotional and physical well-being, and can indeed affect and transform our lives on every level.

Breathwork (‘modern day’) 

The type of breathwork most often being referred to when you hear the word ‘Breathwork’ these days is found more at the therapeutic end of the spectrum and is used to access non-ordinary states of consciousness for the purpose of transformation and healing.  It is the kind that has seen a recent explosion in popularity and use. It is a re-emergence of the use of the breath that was ‘seen in many ancient cultures and religions including Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Yoga, Qigong, Shamanism, Sufism, and martial arts.’ Similarly, AIR School of Breathwork tells us, ‘The use of the breath to access heightened states of consciousness for healing and reaching the experience of oneness is found in all cultures and religions and is very ancient. In many languages the words for ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ are the same.’

This re-emergence began in the 60s ‘thanks primarily to four people – Stanislav and Christine Grof, Leonard Orr and Sondra Ray. These four individuals gave birth to the two original branches of modern-day Breathwork – Holotropic and Rebirthing, from which dozens of offshoots have since been born…’ 

There are indeed a growing number of styles that come under this umbrella term of Breathwork, ever expanding and evolving as more breathworkers play with the Breath, creatively devising their own unique ways of working with it, for themselves and others. 

The breath most often used in this type of breathwork these days is the conscious connected breath, where there is no pause between the inhale and exhale. It is also known as the ‘circular breath’. The facilitator guides the process as needed, and the breath often falls into its own rhythm, as the body and breath ‘take over’, knowing what is needed. The techniques and experiences vary from the virtually still and silent to the loud and highly energised. Different styles seek to manifest different shades of experience, even where there may be similar visions about the final goals or purpose. The quality of presence of the practitioner plays an important role in the process, as can the atmosphere, the environment, and the thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, intention, desires and will of the breather.

Different styles may use various other elements alongside the breath such as music, bodywork, movement, sound, touch, art, prayer, intention, ceremony, energy healing such as Reiki, Talk therapy, such as counselling or psychotherapy, among many other modalities.

These Breathwork sessions are done with individuals, couples, and groups, of any age. They are and should be facilitated by a certified professional. A session typically lasts from 30 minutes to 2 hours or in some cases longer. After a number of sessions with a breathworker, the breather can practice the technique on their own, and thus has a lifelong tool. There are certain contra-indications to doing this kind of Breathwork.  

Breathwork assists us in learning how to breathe deeply and fully again. It helps to awaken the part of ourselves that knows how to breathe, activate and heal ourselves. We don’t need chemical intervention, psychedelics, Plant medicine or another person or any particular substance – the idea is that there isn’t anything wrong with any of these, but more that it is all within all of us.  

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” Thich Nhat Hanh

As Stan and Christina Grof explain in their Principles-of-Holotropic-Breathwork, ‘As the process is unfolding, this “inner healer” manifests therapeutic wisdom which transcends the knowledge that can be derived from the cognitive understanding of an individual practitioner or from any specific school of psychotherapy or body work.’ Giten Tonkov, founder of the BioDynamic Breathwork and Trauma Release System, agrees 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.” Similarly, Leonard Orr states, ‘Relaxation is the ultimate healer. Every breath induces relaxation. Therefore, breathing is the basic healer. Conscious Energy Breathing is the most natural healing ability of all. This ability involves merging the inhale with the exhale in a gentle relaxed rhythm in an intuitive way that floods the body with Divine Energy.’

Breathwork is again being used widely today, and sometimes in large groups, to connect with what is beyond our everyday ordinary consciousness, to go on an inner journey, individually or collectively (when online, across the whole globe!), to experience deep awareness, profound insights, access our intuition and find answers within, to heal old wounds and trauma, anger or grief, to find personal freedom, to open to our sexuality, creativity, to a greater capacity for joy, aliveness and even miracles.

As we heal and allow our breathing to return to its natural flow, we have more choice, more freedom, a greater ability to self-regulate and function better in the world. Breathwork assists us in learning to be more present, more aware of our breath, our breathing patterns, our ways of being and of our reactions to things. It allows us more awareness of our bodies, and what they might be telling us, as well as a growing ability to be ‘in’ our bodies, when so many of us are living in our minds so much of the time, or elsewhere, and find it hard to be connected to our bodies. As we learn to breathe more fully and freely, and relax with our breath, tension and blocks in our systems are released, and we can be more ‘in flow’, often see a freeing up of where we were stuck in our lives before. Our relationship to our breath transforms, or may even just begin, as does our relationship to ourselves, our lives and the world. ‘Problems may become interesting challenges and new solutions may appear.’ There is literally more space to breathe, to be, to create, to receive, to enjoy, to perceive things differently, connect to the infinite possibilities from which we may have been cut off in our more restricted or limited ways of being, and we find new ways of being in the world that serve us and others more. 

“To me, the popularity of breathwork in the mainstream means that we have reached a new level of readiness in the collective to face our shadows, to learn to trust our bodies and our intuition again, and to heal more deeply,” Erin Telford says.

The connection to our own inner wisdom and healing energies and the divine, that is often experienced in Breathwork, is a strong affirmation that we all have everything we need within and that we’re part of something bigger than we commonly perceive. Breathwork is an amazing tool for self-empowerment and for our individual and collective healing journeys today.  

Before the explosion of this type of breathwork particularly in the last few years, breathing techniques were mostly referred to as that – breathing techniques or exercises.. So whether you’ve come across ‘breathwork’ as a mindfulness practice, from pranayama in yoga, from singing lessons, in psychotherapy, or in school, or your life has been profoundly transformed by Breathwork…as Leonard Orr said let’s stop talking about it and just do it 😉  

The breath is ‘probably the greatest transformer and healer on this planet and its right beneath our nose. It’s a thing that is within us and it doesn’t cost us anything except a little time and a little attention to just breathe….It’s available and here on this planet available for everybody at this time.. it’s accessible for everyone.’