What Is Breathwork?

Katherine and Kerry Veitch write the first in our Breath series, covering the history and different practices.

Breathing is one of the very few bodily functions that occurs both unconsciously and consciously. 

Many practices such as yoga and meditation use breath to tap into the conscious ability it has to  quieten the mind. Breathwork however suggests something a little less passive. 

As the name suggests, breathwork also involves a conscious effort. In the first of our series, Kerry and Katherine take you through what this practise is, where is originated and two of the cornerstones of breathing.

So what is Breathwork? 

The basic definition of breathwork is ​​the reference to any type of breathing exercises or techniques. There are many forms that involve breathing in a conscious and systematic way, from breath awareness, which is simply noticing the breath as a mindfulness practice; to breath control, where different breathing exercises and techniques are used with a view to a particular aim or result. 

Author Dan Brulé, a renowned pioneer known as the world's foremost expert in the field of breathwork today, in his book ‘Just Breathe’ he defines breathwork, as the use of “Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing for healing and growth, personal awakening, and transformation in spirit, mind and body.”

Breath is one of the most accessible ways to alter your state, as World freediving champion Stig Severinsen explains, “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.”. 

Dan Brulé

Where did it originate?

The use of breath to reach altered states has played an essential role throughout the ages, with the practise being found in the roots of yoga, taoism, buddhism and Qigong. However, most of the breathwork therapy that we recognise today originates from the 19060s and 19070s when there was a ‘consciousness raising’ of society. 

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.

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. 

Why?

A recent scientific study proved  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 and other crises having been prolific in all our lives, we are perhaps ready to appreciate our breath and health, and life, more than ever. 

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. 

Image thanks to Anahana

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.”

A 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. 

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. 

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

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. We can let 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 and loving awareness 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

“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.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika. 

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.

As we move along the spectrum to the more therapeutic side, we learn more about 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 the 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.

Kerry Veitch first experienced conscious connected breathing in 1993, she trained with AIR School of Breathwork as a Rebirthing Practioner, and then more recently with Alchemy of Breath (AoB), where she has worked for the last 4 years, graduating as a Master of Breath, Practitioner and Trainer. 

Katherine Veitch is a mama, a writer and a Rebirthing breathworker. 

She currently works for AIR School of Breathwork as the Administrator. She also co-founded and is part of the team at Breathe, a Festival of Life. She holds breathwork dearly in her life as it has been, and continues to be, a very powerful part of her own healing journey, as well as witnessing this for so many others.

Breathe, the UK's only breathwork festival will take place over the weekend of the 12th to 15th of August. The comprehensive 3-day programme welcomes a whole host of different breathwork practitioners from across the world, who are there solely to share their wisdom, and passion. From Soma Breath to Transformational, to Wim Hof and Buteyko, to Rebirthing and Integrative Breath, as well as modalities that are less known; the multidimensional programme moves from the mother's womb to cosmic dimensions, reaching the depths and heights of expansive creation.

Next time, we cover breathwork in the modern day.

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