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Breathwork: What Is It and How Can It Improve Your Life?

‘Take a deep breath’ turned out to be better advice than we thought …

breathwork

When the instructor said that emotions from our subconscious may arise, I felt nervous. Years of battling depression and anxiety led me to suspect that something dark was lurking in mine. Within minutes of breathing in the prescribed fashion, feelings of sadness started welling up. As I continued breathing, the sadness intensified into feelings of grief and what I can only describe as abandonment. The emotions felt strongly connected to my childhood, although no particular event or incident came to mind. 

breathwork

Before I knew it, my whole body was shaking and twitching uncontrollably, and there was a tremendous amount of tension in my jaw and neck. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, and the instructor was crouching next to me, encouraging me to keep breathing. The shaking and crying didn’t stop until the breathwork session was over, the music had stopped playing, and the other workshop participants were sitting back up. Suffice it to say that I had not been prepared for this when I signed up for a weekend yoga & breathwork retreat …

Life & breath coach, Marcus Blacker, reassures me that my experience is not uncommon. ‘Essentially what is happening is that the breathing is changing our biochemistry. When this happens, the body responds by turning down certain parts of the brain, particularly a network called the default mode, which is where our sense of self resides,’ he explains. ‘When this area of the brain goes offline, we are able to access these emotional memories (also known as implicit memories), bring them into our conscious awareness […] and integrate them, rather than them remaining unconscious.” 

Endorsed by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson, breathwork might seem like a new wellness fad, but it has been around for thousands of years as part of Yogic, Buddhist and Sufi traditions, among others. Along with Hollywood celebs, Western science is now catching up with ancient wisdom and validating many of the benefits of this astounding practice.

Breathing to Heal the Body

How we breathe has an impact on our bodys autonomic nervous system, which controls automatic functions like heartbeat, blood pressure and digestion. We have all heard of the sympathetic nervous system that controls the ‘fight-or-flight’ response and the parasympathetic nervous system that controls the ‘rest-and-digest’ response. When we take slow, deep breaths, we activate the latter, sending the signal to our brain that all is well; the heart beat slows, blood pressure drops, muscles relax, and feelings of calm pervade our body. 

Studies show that regularly engaging in mindful breathing exercises can permanently modify brain circuits, strengthening our resilience to stress, reducing anxiety and improving sleep. Research also indicates that, over time, it reduces inflammation in the body and strengthens the immune response.

One popular technique, Coherent Breathing, involves slowing our breathing to five breaths per minute (the average person takes 12 to 20 breaths per minute). This can be done by making our inhales about six seconds long and our exhales about six seconds long. Do this exercise for 20 minutes a day or three times a day for five minutes, and you should start seeing results within weeks.

Breathing to Heal the Mind

Unlike the slow breathing exercises done for relaxation and stress reduction, Transformational Breathwork — the variation of breathwork used for the purpose of emotional and psychological healing — uses rapid breathing akin to hyperventilation. It is thought that this pattern of breathing can bring repressed emotions to the surface where they can be resolved and released. 

Many people come to breathwork sessions because they want to process experiences from the past that are still having an effect on them in the present,’ confirms Blacker, further shedding light on my own experience. 

Sessions are usually undertaken in group settings under the supervision of trained facilitators, and are accompanied by evocative, rhythmic music. They last anywhere from twenty minutes to three hours, and end with a closing circle where participants may share their experiences.

Diana Medina, breathwork instructor, advises practitioners to prepare mentally for this exercise and to choose an environment that feels safe and supportive. She further cautions people not to skip the post-session work of reflecting on what came up and integrating it into their consciousness.

Whilst scientific research on this form of breathwork is still in its early days, anecdotal evidence suggests that it has tremendous potential for individuals suffering from depression, chronic anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Breathing to Awaken the Spirit

It is no coincidence that the words breath and spirit have the same word root in many languages. The French word for breath, for example, is ‘’respiration’ and the word for spirit is ‘esprit’. Moreover, the ancient Greek word ‘pneuma’ is used to describe both breath and soul, the Sanskrit word ‘prana’ means breath as well as life force, and the Hebrew noun ‘ruach’ refers to breath, wind or spirit. 

‘Placing your awareness on the breath quietens the mind, and draws you into a state of pure presence,’ Blacker says. ‘It connects you to the flow of life as it’s moving through you.’

This connection between breath and spirituality is fully explored in practices like Shamanic Breathwork, where rapid breathing is incorporated into a ceremony inspired by ancient indigenous traditions. Immersed in nature, incense smoke and the rhythmic beat of drums, spiritual seekers go beyond their everyday waking consciousness and report feeling a blissful sense of unity with all things and a heightened sense of love and compassion. Some emerge with profound personal insights or a new-found sense of purpose.

As for myself, I can’t say that I attained enlightenment of any kind, or that the breathwork experience led to a permanent improvement of my mental health. But it did give me some valuable information to work with on my healing journey. And more than one co-worker commented the following week that I appeared lighter and happier. 

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