Breathing = Life
Breathing is life, prana as the yogis say, and yet so many of us do it badly.
Stress, poor posture, emotional blockages, can all contribute to having inhibited breathing patterns, the most common of which is not inhaling enough which overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system, creating more stress and dis-ease within the mind and body.
The compelling thing about ironing out your breathing is not only is it good for you physically, but it tends to throw up a lot of insights from the emotional body too.
‘Breathwork’ has therefore become a whole field of self-discovery in itself and is an umbrella term for all of the varying approaches to self-enquiry through the breath. In recent years, a wealth of breathing techniques have come through to help people address breathing deficiencies and with them physical, mental, and emotional conditions that have been fixed in the body.
Each of these have variants on the same theme of using conscious breathing to calm the mind and bring it into an altered state of consciousness to allow blocked emotional energies to release.
It seems remarkable at first that just a short period of intense breathing can bring up so many waves of emotion but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The body is an energy system, a 3D physical representation of the sub-atomic energy particles that constitute it.
When we inhale, we introduce new energy into the system and when we exhale, we let go waste product. By flooding the body’s energy system with 2-3x more fuel input, we temporarily create an unstable energy environment within the body. Blocked and held emotions (energy in motion) are stored in the body as tension. As you flood the body with breath, you destabilise that bonds that are holding old emotions in place, and open the gates to release potentially huge amounts of stuck energy.
The positive side-effects span physical, mental and spiritual:
- Increases oxygenation throughout the body
- Strengthens immune system
- Relieves tension and detoxify
- Greatly increases your energy
- Stimulates circulation
- Improves respiratory capacity
- Improves well-being for many conditions and ailments such as stress reduction, respiratory ailments, headaches, low energy, psychosomatic illnesses, anaerobic diseases, and many others.
- Reduces worry, stress and anxiety
- Enhances the awareness of self-sabotaging patterns
- Relieves depressive and negative emotions
- Improves mental and emotional clarity
- Increases creativity
- Improves self-esteem
- Experience more peace, joy and compassion
- Allows deeper meditation and connection to your true self
- Experience greater awareness and love
- Strengthens your connection with Spirit
Having experimented with several of these techniques, I’ve found three modalities to be the most effective in correcting breathing abnormalities and healing the various psycho-emotional conditions that often accompany them.
The most popular contemporary breathwork approaches are the Wim Hof Method, popularised by the legendary cold-immersion adventurer of the same name, Transformational Breathing, and Holotropic Breathing.
In this post I’ll talk about each, what they’re about, what you can expect, and how you can practice them safely and successfully.
The mind and the breath are the king and queen of human consciousness.
— LEONARD D.ORR
Holotropic Breathing was invented in the 1970s by the scientists and researchers Dr. Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof.
Stanislav – a legendary LSD researcher and psychotherapist – sought to find a breathing technique that could create similar effects to his LSD-assisted therapy. The result was the Holotropic Breathing method – a very safe and extremely effective way to induce an altered state of consciousness that quite often results in major emotional release and profound personal insights.
‘Holotropic’ comes from the Greek holos, which means whole and trepein, which means to move toward. So, holotropic can be translated to mean moving towards wholeness.
In a holotropic breathwork session you typically use short, intense breaths followed by long, deep breaths, over a prolonged period of time (usually 2-3 hours) to induce an altered state of consciousness. Typically you perform it lying down, in a group of 10-30 others, with evocative music playing in the background to create a setting.
Participants of the workshop work in pairs, with one as the breather and the other as the sitter. The breather lies down on a mattress, while the sitter ensures that the breather is physically safe and supported during the session.
After the first round of breathing, it’s not uncommon to experience quite profound waves of emotion coming through, running the full spectrum from crying to screaming(!) to laughing. The space is deeply tailored to non-judgement of the things that surface so you’ll find people tend to really let go, be with what comes up, and trust a natural healing process.
What is particularly powerful about Holotropic breathing is the focus on integration through group discussion and creative output afterwards (doing free-form arts like painting and mandala drawing etc). It’s quite common for people to find the most profound healing and insights through the group discussion afterwards. Whether you’re speaking about your own experience or listening to others, the group discussions are deeply vulnerable and moving experiences to be a part of and share in.
For many of us, we’re so used to holding our feelings in and expressing them privately to trusted family members and partners. It can be a revolutionary and deeply heart-opening experience to be part of a group of new friends that do the same right away. The power of mutual vulnerability, compassion, non-judgement, and respect, is deeply transformative.
Across the field of breathwork, Holotropic breathing is probably the strongest technique. Whilst it’s a powerful and useful technique to anyone at any point in time, its definitely a strong modality to consider if you’re looking for deeper healing to work through more persistent emotional issues or psychosomatic conditions. Its also not uncommon for people to have profound personal insights about the true nature of reality / the cosmos through this experience. So buckle up for an interesting ride whatever the weather J
Of all the breathwork approaches, I think Holotropic offers the most power in terms of scope for greater self-exploration and understanding.
A great place to check out Holotropic events is through the European Association for Holotropic Breathwork which regularly host 1-3 day workshop retreats across the UK and Europe. In the US, you can check out the Holotropic site.
Transformational Breath (TB) is a holistic healing and self-discovery breathing technique developed by the spiritual teacher Judith Kravitz, who started working with conscious breath in the mid-70s. It is a synthesis of kundalini yoga, sound healing and breath analysis.
TB involves using a circular, diaphragmatic breathing technique and then targeting it through the body. The approach is much more guided than Holotropic, with a strategy to move through three distinct levels of consciousness and direct the breath to achieve specific healing.
The first step is remedying physical abnormalities in the breathing cycle. Many of us inhale and exhale in uneven, irregular, or even sporadic ways, and TB looks to iron these out through its consistent, conscious, and circular diaphragmatic breathing method. This also introduces massive amounts of energy into the body’s energy system for use in step 2.
The second level then focuses on the negative patterns / trauma in the unconscious that are disrupting your breathing on a subtle level. Essentially finding and healing the ‘why’ of the breathing problem. The aim is to reverse breathing abnormalities by breathing directly into closed places and letting go of where you’re holding on. This is a much more direct approach to bringing up old emotional wounds, memories and trauma, for exploration and release.
As you work through releasing and clearing these unconscious holding patterns, the mind frees up, opening you to the third level; the higher subconscious. At this level, the personal experience is transcended and the mind is open to spiritual insight, mystical revelation and non-dual experiences of reality. This is most similar to the ecstatic / altered state at the peak of holotropic breathing but can be harder to reach through this method because of the processes unfolding in level 2.
The biggest difference between Holotropic and Transformational is that Holotropic floods the body with energy and unfolds healing spontaneously, whilst Transformational has a slower gradient and a targeted approach to clearing physical blockages in the body. Instead of immediately reaching an ecstatic, altered, peak state, and clearing blockages, Transformational Breathing slows the process and targets along the way. It is very much reliant on having a trained instructor to be with you, scan your body for breathing blockages, and guiding the release.
TB is typically done 1-1 (though group sessions exist) and so it really suits those looking for a personal experience. Lots of trained facilitators work out of yoga studios and meditation centres so it’s very easy to connect into a network of trained and certified teachers. Many of the teachers have gone through their own presonal healing processes with TB so are intimately familiar with working you through level 2 and cultivating a relationship of vulnerability and support to help you through.
When I tried it, I found the targeted emotional release pretty uncomfortable (it involves stabbing you in the stomach at spontaneous points), but I know for many people it has proven very effective so I recommend trying it to see how you feel.
Wim Hof Breathing
Named after the legendary ice cold-immersion athlete of the same name, Wim Hof breathing is an amazing blend of yogic breathing that can be combined with cold immersion to initiate major breakthroughs and insights mentally, spiritually and physically.
Nicknamed “The Iceman”, Wim Hof got his name by breaking a number world records for cold exposure, some of is feats include
- Running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle, barefoot only wearing shorts
- Swimming underneath ice for 66 meters
- Hanging on one finger at an altitude of 2,000 meters
- Climbing the highest mountains in the world while wearing shorts
- Running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking
- Standing in a container while covered in ice cubes for extended periods of time
In total he holds some 21 Guinness World Records and is, in short, a beast.
The Wim Hof Method has three pillars, breathing, cold immersion, and commitment. In the breathing portion, a session typically goes as follows:
Controlled hyperventilation – This first phase involves 30 cycles of breathing. Each cycle you take a powerful breath in, fully filling the lungs and breathe out by passively releasing the breath, but not actively exhaling. You repeat this cycle at a steady rapid pace thirty times. This form of hyperventilation usually leads to tingling sensations or light-headedness which is fine.
Exhalation – After completing the 30 cycles of controlled hyperventilation, you take another deep breath in, and let it out completely. You then hold the breath for as long as possible.
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.
It is during the controlled hyperventilation phase that the first emotional waves and releases tend to come through (similar to holotropic). Just as in HB, you keep breathing and allowing these to surface however they need to. For me, I’ve found myself yelling as I exhale and eventually crying. For a lot of women I’ve shared the experience with, they seem to experience rebirthing trauma quite commonly, which manifests with some pretty intense emotional outpours as you might imagine!
Each whole phase might last about 15 minutes and tend to be repeated for three consecutive rounds, with a compounding effect as you can imagine. In my experience, breakthroughs happen in the 2nd and 3rd rounds.
The way the breathing exercise is set up is to stimulate your nervous system and change various physiological responses. Through the process, you are actually voluntarily inducing a short stress response which aims to build resilience towards everyday stress, so you feel more in control mentally and physically.
With a focus on more physical and mental benefits, the Wim Hof technique is the most scientifically researched and validated of all breathwork techniques. The physical and mental benefits in particular are well documented with Wim Hof including:
- Stress reduction
- Faster recovery from physical exertion
- Better sleep
- Improved sports performance
- Enhanced creativity
- More focus and mental clarity
Wim Hof is the easiest to learn and easiest to practice effectively alone. You can study it online through Wim’s site, check out a bunch of free YouTube videos, or attend one of many workshops taking placing year round globally.
Bonus: Go Ice Cold
For bonus points, you can go to the next level with Wim Hof and pair it with ice cold immersion through ice baths or cold showers. In recent years, cold exposure has gained serious popularity, because it is linked to numerous health benefits.
Research has shown that three minutes in a cold shower is equal to the magnetic, glandular and nervous system effects of 31 minutes of meditation. The practice also makes your skin beam like the sun, boosts your immune system, and increases your neuron velocity (makes you think quicker).
It also does two other things that are total game changers:
1) It builds your willpower and ability to overcome resistance to fear each day (trust me, you’ll never find a day where you willingly want to jump into a cold shower); and
2) It cultivates surrender to the present moment (cold showers force you to focus on your breathing and yield to the moment).
From my own practice of cold showers I recommend:
1) Starting 1-2 mins warm and doing your cleaning first (straight into the cold is brutal); and
2) Do Wim Hof breathing before to oxygenate yourself and then massively extend your exhales whilst in the water whilst focusing your attention ONLY on your breathing. It keeps your mind off the cold.
Try it for a week and see how you feel!
Wrapping It Up
Like so many things in life, you need to pick your poison (or medicine in this case) by trial and error. I found breathwork in reverse order of their preference for me. First it was Transformational, then Holotropic, and finally Wim Hof.
Nowadays, I most regularly practice Wim Hof because it’s so easy to do at home and has such immediate benefits for switching mental/emotional states. If I head out on a retreat, it’s for Holotropic, because the group facilitation is amazing and the breathwork gets you deep into the emotional body. Transformational isn’t something I’ve continued with but I know it helps a lot of people.
For you, I highly recommend experimentation and with the guidance above, you can’t go far wrong.