How we can use something as simple as the air we breathe to take deep inner journeys into the unknown realm of our psyche.
In 2017 I was fortunate enough to participate in a life-changing group session where I was cathartically met with visions from other realms, experienced beings from other dimensions, deceased ancestors, alternate realities, surprising messages, intense physical sensations, and a lasting high afterward. No, I wasn’t a part of the latest experimental drug treatment or on a psychedelic journey, though it was remarkably close to those sensations. It was my first journey into Holotropic Breathwork.
Breathing can be very life-affirming. We are certain to feel alive when inhaling and exhaling, but can often be unaware of how much we actually vary the regulation of our breath throughout our day. On encountering a stressful situation, our cortisol levels elevate and we may find that our breathing is quickened and heavy. When scared, shocked, or surprised, we may actually hold our breath or have our breath “taken away”. One thing we can do upon noticing these automatic reactions is decide to focus on this inhale/exhale process, endeavouring to become a mindful, neutral observer in our natural process. This is a great way to practice being present, but what if there was an opportunity to use something as ordinary as our breath to travel to the depths of our subconscious and unconscious mind where we can begin healing stuck emotions and old traumas as well? No substances, no yoga poses, just pure unfiltered breath… and some added evocative music of course.
Breathing to the Rhythm
Music has such an effect on our well being, and when listened to with intention music takes us directly into its sound frequency experience. This is where we allow ourselves to bathe in the soundscape of awareness.
Frisson, an intense tingling sensation when listening to music, is a very visceral experience affecting an average of two-thirds of the population who experience it. It’s indicative of a strong connection between the auditory cortex (the section of the brain that processes sound) to the insular cortex (the part of the brain that processes emotion). If you’ve ever driven down an empty road with your favorite song blasting on the speakers, a giant smile on your face while every chord pulsates in your body, you are familiar with this experience. When you combine rhythmic breath to the rhythm of music, there is a tonal synthesis that begins to happen, an alchemization of momentary existence that is strong enough to transform consciousness. This is what Breathwork does.
There are many forms of breathwork these days, and everyone seems to be trademarking their own version of practice while tweaking them slightly to fit their intention of experience. They’re all very valid in their own way and usually very helpful. You can’t go wrong once you start to take control of your breath, afterall breath is life, and intentional breath can help break automatic habits and responses, allowing a deeper grasp on the many facets of life and longevity.
A Brief History in the Art of Breathing
The first known breathwork method can be traced back to the 1920’s with Reichian Breathing invented by radical psychoanalyst Willhelm Reich. This technique incorporated deep breathing into therapy sessions to help patients relax. It wasn’t until the 1960s, and therapists embracing psychedelic experimentation, that a new form of breathwork was invented which was found to simulate a hallucinatory state. Invented by Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina who also pioneered Transpersonal Psychology, this new method of accessing, processing, and releasing stuck trauma and emotions was given the name Holotropic Breathwork. When facilitated and practiced in its purest form this very powerful breathing technique lasts on average three hours and can elicit intense physical and psycho-spiritual sensations. Here the use of one’s own breath in combination with music arouses a non-ordinary state of consciousness.
In 1962 Born again Christian and aspiring Minister Leonard Orr began to experience regressive memories of his own birth while bathing, leading to the invention of the Rebirthing Breathwork technique. He practiced this technique for about thirteen years before proceeding to share his work with hundreds of people in the 1970’s both in and out of hot tubs. He claimed this method of re-examining the trauma of our own birth had the power to purge repressed traumatic childhood memories as well as to cure pain and disease. This method, unlike Holotropic Breathwork, did not use provocative music, yet despite their differences the two forms paved the way for many other methods of breathwork techniques to follow:
There were many other less popular techniques, some of which differing purely in the names they were given. Despite their differences all these methods share a common goal: to consciously connect the breath to the body in order to provide a sense of balance, integration, and wholeness.
Psychological Aspects of Breathwork
There are many scientific studies done on the benefits of frequently utilized and incorporated breathwork, such as Pranayama and yogic breathwork, while others have received observational research outlining their benefits within the framework of infrequent psychotherapeutic supplementation. These breathing techniques have been engaged with by hundreds of thousands of participants since their inception in the early 20th Century. A vast majority of participants claim they received some form of benefit including trauma integration and deep relaxation. There have been a minority of breathers that encounter a re-traumatization of stuck emotional patterns and/or experiences which lead to a more challenging integration. This may be where a trained professional facilitator or therapist can be very helpful to the process. Overall, the many benefits that breathers claim are quite extensive and enough to spark curiosity. A shortlist of some of the reasons people participate in this practice and keep going back to breathwork is that it has been claimed to:
Awaken dormant parts of the brain
Enhance creativity and problem solving
Create heightened states of consciousness and inspiration
Improve brain function and mind power
Cleanse and purify the bloodstream and lymphatic system
Reduce depression and anxiety
Aid positive self-development
Clear negative imprints and traumas from early life (0-7 years)
Reimprint your mind with more empowering beliefs and habits
Create the motivation and energy to complete important goals from set intentions
Enhance self-realization: help to discover your true self and your deepest inner calling
Increase confidence, self-image, and self-esteem
Connect to the emotions and/or what is going on in the body
Help to get out of “the head” and to increase the ability to be in “the heart”
Expand the capacity for forgiveness, love, and compassion
Allow creativity to flow more freely
Release emotional or physical symptoms and unproductive behavior patterns impeding with the process of moving forward
Release deep-rooted and long-forgotten past events buried within the unconscious
Process emotions, heal emotional pain and trauma
“Re-charge” from the stress of daily activities
Connect deeply or re-connect to the spiritual side of life
Connect to “God” and/or a “Higher Power” and/or a “Higher Self” in relationship to the world
Help to process necessary grieving
Calm the nervous system to improve sleep
Deal with physical illness by inward for possible psychosomatic components of the illness
Break writers free of their writer’s block and potentially giving them a jumpstart on the writing process
Embark on an “adventure of the spirit” — aiding in exploring the Socratic advice to “Know Thyself”
Attain a mystical experience and/or satori states without the use of drugs
Move one out of the feeling of disorientation and/or disconnection with the state of the world and into a new perspective on how to deal with the feelings of disempowerment
Connect with the intuition and innate wisdom
Aid in support and compassion to another person in pain, knowing how to better “be there” for that person
Deepen the capacity to feel “present,” both with the self and others
Help to feel comfortable with the self and feel more authentic
Allow psychonauts or for those that have experience with psychedelics in the past with good results re-enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness without the use a substance
Aid seekers to a more fulfilling life
Build a deeper trust in the capacity to access inner wisdom and intuition to improve life
And the list goes on
My personal experience with breathwork has helped me break through unconscious, unhealthy relationship patterns with my family and has provided a greater awareness of the multi-dimensionality to life and its various layers of conscious connection. In other words, through breathwork I was finally able to understand that things are not what they seem, so it’s wise to have more compassion for others and situations outside of myself.
Physiological Function of Breathwork
What leads most individuals to practice inner healing and journey work, including breathwork, is oftentimes a response to a build-up of stress in the mind, body, or energetic field around them. As we know stress is a major contributor to disease and the deterioration of health. The regulation of breath has been highly linked to healthier homeostasis. Physiologically speaking inefficient use and distribution of oxygen in the body has been found to cause oxidative stress. This can exasperate free radicals, a contributing factor to inflammation, autoimmune function, degeneration, and disease. Under stress or in tension, more breaths are taken in than let out as a type of hyperventilation; too much oxygen production. The Bohr effect illustrates that this type of breathing leads to an increase in carbon dioxide, decreasing the pH in the blood, which then stimulates the hemoglobin proteins to release more oxygen. There is a delicate balance of carbon dioxide to oxygen levels that is necessary for mitochondrial ATP energy production. The forcing of lowered CO2 levels causes temporary respiratory alkalosis affecting the functioning of the nervous system. This is what can cause light-headedness, dizziness, and tingling sensations throughout the body. The forced lowering of oxygen is called Hypoxia, and some breathwork techniques have been shown to put someone into this state, which may seem to indicate detriment. However there have actually been known benefits resulting from intermittent hypoxia, and the lowering of stored oxygen in the blood. In addition it is important to note here that intermittent hypoxia is a normal occurrence in strenuous exercise including cardio, swimming, and yoga, which have all been proven to be beneficial when done responsibly.
So, why expose the body to levels of perceived or forced hyperventilation then?
Breathwork helps you tap into the parasympathetic system, training your brain, or in most cases your vagus nerve, to respond to stress with more intentional breath instead of its usual shorter, fear-induced panic breath. If you’ve ever experienced exposure therapy or psychedelic treatments, you will understand the concept “The only way out is through”. Much like the outcome of those methods, studies have shown that breathwork can improve anxiety, depression, panic disorders, mood disorders, and self-awareness. But whether or not breathwork has a physiological benefit or detriment on the body has not been fully determined. One can look into potential risk vs reward as in any treatment or approach to healing. That said, there have been no known cases of injury during breathwork. In fact longtime practitioner Stanislav Groff is a testament to health as a very vital 88-year-old working researcher and psychiatrist who just published his latest of many books in 2019 entitled The Way of the Psychonaut: Encyclopedia for Inner Journeys. Among the varying opinions on breathwork’s benefits, one thing is for sure; for the same reason people love to smoke or even mountain climb, restricting the oxygen in the blood restricts the blood flow to the brain, and that gets you high, sending you into non-ordinary or even extraordinary states of consciousness. And the side effects of this can be “mind blowing”.
So, how is Breathwork done?
As there are many different forms of breathwork, there are many forms of breathing taught in each of them. Some require longer exhales, while others double inhales, some require you to hold your breath between breaths, and the list goes on. Each one involves a particular study of the breath and its ability to induce a level of psychological or emotional state, but essentially all put focus on one thing: the conscious awareness of your inhales and exhales.
Things you need to get started
A good playlist particularly designed for breathwork
A comfortable place to lay down and/or a mat
An eye mask
And maybe a blanket depending on the climate
It usually always begins with lying down on the back with the eyes closed. An eye mask is ideal to block out any potential distractions to the inner vision by external sources. Ideally the only external source of experience should be the music, with the exception of the optional breathing guidance of a facilitator or sitter. If this is being done alone, then listening to the music on headphones works. Lying the body flat on the back is a great way to ground the body’s energy to prepare for the journey ahead.
Start breathing slowly, fully and deeply with an inhale through the nose. Fill the lungs with air and allow the diaphragm to raise, the stomach to raise, the shoulders to drop and then release a slow peaceful exhale, emptying your stomach fully. I prefer starting the inhale through the nose and then allowing the exhale to come from the mouth, but it's best to feel into what is most comfortable for you. This rhythmic and circular breath should be consciously repeated without stopping at a slow to normal rate. By focusing solely on the breath, the mind can have an easier time slowing down.
At a certain point the music may speed up a bit and you may feel more inspired to quicken your breath, just make sure you are feeling peaceful during the process. You will get into the groove that is most comfortable for your body at a certain point, and may actually enjoy the sensation you’ll receive from the rate of breathing, so long as you are not pushing your body too hard. It’s always important to remain conscious of the breath and how it’s affecting you. The nice thing about this experience is that if at any point it starts to feel too intense, you can slow down the breath again to dissipate some of the discomforts.
Body tensions can actually be a normal part of this process. Feeling certain cramping in the arms or hands or “lobster claws” also known as tetany can be a very normal part of the process. Tingling in the face, chest, legs, or anywhere else in the body is also common. This indicates that there may be stuck energy, emotion, trauma, etc. there, and these cells are receiving the attention they need to begin activating their clearing process. You can easily relieve this sensation by slowing and deepening the breath through the nose. The body will know if it would like to go deeper, or if it is too deep, when it’s had enough, and when it’s done. The key is to listen and feel into the messages of the body in connection to the breath. This practice can improve this mind/body connection function at the very least and has the potential to do so much more.
The body has the capacity to self-heal, and one of the goals in intense therapies like this one is to spark that healing to begin. It will feel different to every breather when experienced and look different when seen. Many different sensations and visions have been known to occur, from physical catharsis to emotional retraumatization to ecstatic bliss. Crying, laughing, growling, they’re all fairly common responses during a breathing session. I found breathwork to be extremely effective in helping me directly connect to my subconscious and unconscious mind. I found very disturbing things lurking in those corners, trauma experienced in my early life, that I was then able to integrate and begin to heal. I’ve known breathers to get downloads of information during their breathwork about people in their life that later turned out to be true. I’ve also known breathers to enjoy a continuous state of bliss and relief. Even though breathwork has been found to be very helpful to many, it may not be suitable for everyone. With or without a therapist, we are our own best healers. When we decide to breathe deeply in knowing this, we move closer to the center of our power: our breath.
*** Important Disclaimer: It is not recommended to try Breathwork on your own and without a facilitator if you have a history of seizures, psychosis, panic attacks, serious heart conditions, or are pregnant.