I’ve been doing Pranayama for years, but mostly integrated with my yoga practice. It wasn’t until recently that I tried what many call breathwork and it was transformative. Literally. My hands transformed themselves into cramped-up lobster claws and I felt like all of the earth’s gravity was pushing down on me, trying to squish me into the floor. Yet I went back for more.
It’s not uncommon for someone’s first breathwork experience to be unpleasant. I’ve heard loads of stories from people saying they were gagging or sobbing or, like me, they were reduced to molecules, which were all trying to rip through the flesh of their host to escape. So why then am I so evangelical about it?
Firstly, it does get better and easier and breathwork is simply good for you, for me, for everyone! When you consciously control your breath you are able to harness the power of your nervous system. The simple practice of directing your breath in a pattern you devise has the power to reduce anxiety and stress as well as boosting your immune system. By tapping into the power of your parasympathetic nervous system you are choosing to take your body and mind from the “fight or flight” state we so often operate in to “rest and digest,” which is a far more pleasant place to exist.
There is something inherently powerful in manipulating your breath. You are taking control of what is supposed to be an automated function regulated by the nervous system and by doing so you can also better control how you feel. There is evidence that through regulating your breath by simply making your exhale longer then your inhale you can reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, in your blood. There are as many different breath practices as there are practitioners and I recommend the book, Breath – the New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor if you’re looking for a good intro to many of these techniques.
The breathwork sessions I facilitate can be as simple as leading participants through some anxiety-busting box-breaths where we inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and hold for a count of four to a more structured, long-form session. In these longer, more intense practice we use what’s called a three-part circular breath to bring more oxygen into the body than normal, which increases the alkaline levels in your body and reduces the acidity. This is not without contraindications. Those with pre-existing breathing or vision issues, cardiovascular problems, high or very low blood pressure, psychiatric issues or anyone recovering from surgery should avoid this practice. Those who are pregnant should also abstain.
These hour-long sessions are all designed with a specific soundtrack and theme I use to guide participants. This can help in connecting to one’s deeper self and to loosen up any stagnant energy and emotions that might need to be released. Breathwork has been shown to help those working with trauma and other mental health concerns to access emotions and memories by bringing them to the surface. It is my privilege to hold space for people during these sessions and although I make no promises that you will have an “awakening” or an “emotional purge” I’ve seen these things happen if we’re able to become vulnerable and surrender to the process.
Although breathwork is said to be “meditation for people who can’t meditate,” I would argue that breathwork is meditation. Through breathwork you are able to focus on just the feeling or the length of the inhalation and exhalation. Thoughts come and go, but you are meant to acknowledge these and get back to the breath as soon as you can. I’ve been meditating for years and this is very similar to what I do and what many prolific teachers, like Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe, teach. I find that by having the breath to focus on my “monkey mind” becomes less chatty.