What is Breathwork?

Published on
September 6, 2023

What is Breathwork?

Breathwork is a general term used to describe a variety of practices that use conscious breathing techniques to improve mental, emotional, and physical well-being. At One Breath Institute, we believe that breathwork is the most powerful tool we have for personal transformation, healing, and growth.

Breathwork is not a new concept. In fact, it has been used for thousands of years in various spiritual and healing traditions around the world. We find numerous references to breathwork within different religious spiritual texts, unspecific to any particular culture or geographic location. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in breathwork as a tool for personal growth and healing.

Sooooo... what is Breathwork?

For the purpose of this article, we’ll say that there are 2 categories that breathwork can fall under. Within these 2 categories exists a wide range of different practices and approaches, and breathwork techniques can also have multiple benefits. The two categories are:

1- Breathwork as a therapeutic process, primarily for mental health

2- Breathwork techniques that offer specific physical health benefits

Pranayama breathing techniques (Pranayama translates to breath control) fall under the second category. Many pranayama techniques have numerous health benefits and also support stress relief, while breathwork in the first category has a different approach and intention. Breathwork as a therapeutic process is sometimes called an alternative or “new age” therapy. It is this type of breathwork we explore in this article.

Breathwork as a therapeutic process is based on the idea that the breath is the bridge between the body, mind, and spirit. Through breathwork, we can integrate adverse life experiences–which in turn changes our outlook on life as we transform the belief systems which automatically drive our behavior.

By breathing deeply and intentionally, we can create space for emotions and stored memories to come up, be seen and released; this can be a powerful tool for healing and transformation.

What happens during breathwork?

During breathwork, you will typically be guided to breathe in a specific way, often through the mouth or nose, depending on the type of breathwork being practiced. The breathing pattern may be fast or slow, deep or shallow, depending on the specific technique being used.

As you breathe, you may begin to feel various sensations in your body, such as tingling, warmth, or a sense of expansion. You may also begin to feel emotions coming up, which can be released through the breath.

At One Breath Institute, we developed Introspective Breathwork™ as a system to support you in your personal healing and growth. The philosophy of Introspective Breathwork™ is that every person has the ability to heal themselves, through a process that involves connecting with a present-moment sensation in their body, conscious breathing, and allowing the mind-body to completely process and integrate what arises. We believe that Introspective Breathwork™ provides the safest, quickest and most effective way to transform someone's life! At the core of Introspective Breathwork™ is, of course, the breath. An Introspective Breathwork™ practitioner will guide their client into a circular rhythm with their breath, but once a person enters an altered state of consciousness, the intelligence of the breath guides the session. Instead of controlling the breath, as is generally the case with Pranayama or many types of breathing techniques, we release control of the breath and allow it to go where it is needed within the body. The intelligence of the breath, and the body, is incredibly profound. Once this state has been attained, the body has the opportunity to complete a process which had unconsciously stifled in the past. This can involve movement, sound, emotional release, and more.

"The body keeps the score" is a phrase coined by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading expert in the field of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It refers to the idea that traumatic experiences can become "stuck" in the body, affecting both physical and psychological health.

Traumatic events can activate the body's ‘fight or flight’ response, which is a natural biological reaction to danger. When this response is activated, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, preparing it to either fight or run away from the danger. This can lead to a number of physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and muscle tension.

In some cases, however, the body's response to trauma can become "stuck" in a state of hyperarousal, even after the danger has passed. This can lead to a range of physical and psychological symptoms, including anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other health problems.

According to Dr. van der Kolk and other experts in the field of trauma, one reason why trauma can become "stuck" in the body is that the process of dealing with the traumatic event was not completed in the moment. For example, if someone experiences a traumatic event but is unable to fight or flee, their body may still be in a state of hyperarousal long after the danger has passed. This can lead to the development of PTSD and other trauma-related disorders.

In order to release the trauma that is stored in the body, it is often necessary to engage in therapeutic techniques that focus on the body, so that individuals can work to complete the process of dealing with the traumatic event, and release the trauma that has become stuck in their bodies.

It’s not only big traumas that are stored in the body. Anytime we hold our breath in non-necessary situations, it can lead to increased tension in the body and a feeling of anxiety or stress. For example, people may hold their breath as a response to fear, anxiety, or stress, and this can result in physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and a feeling of being "stuck" or unable to move forward. Through breathwork, we can move any stored or stagnant emotions and bring new life, new ideas, and new inspiration in with every breath.

Most modern breathwork schools are based upon the teachings of Rebirthing Breathwork and/or Holotropic Breathwork. These two styles of breathwork were both founded and developed around the same time.

Holotropic Breathwork was developed in the 1970s by Dr. Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina Grof. Dr. Grof was a psychiatrist who had previously studied LSD-assisted psychotherapy and was searching for a way to achieve similar states of consciousness without the use of drugs, which had become illegal.

Together with Christina Grof, who had experience in various bodywork modalities, they developed Holotropic Breathwork as a way to access non-ordinary states of consciousness through deep and fast breathing, evocative music, and bodywork.

The term "holotropic" comes from the Greek words "holos" (meaning "whole") and "trepein" (meaning "to turn or direct towards something"), and refers to the idea of moving towards wholeness or completeness through the process.

Rebirthing Breathwork was developed in the 1970s by Leonard Orr and Sondra Ray, who were both seeking alternative forms of therapy and self-exploration. Leonard Orr, who is often credited with founding Rebirthing Breathwork, had a transformative experience while submerged in a bathtub, which he believed helped him to access memories from his birth and early childhood.

Inspired by this experience, Orr began to explore the use of breathwork as a tool for healing and personal growth, and developed the practice of Rebirthing Breathwork as a way to help people access and release deeply-held emotions and beliefs.

The practice involves conscious connected breathing, which involves taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths without pausing between inhales and exhales. This is typically done while lying down, often with the support of a facilitator or therapist.

Rebirthing Breathwork is based on the belief that our earliest experiences, including our birth and prenatal experiences, can have a profound impact on our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. By accessing and releasing these experiences through breathwork, individuals can experience a sense of rebirth or renewal, and may be able to release emotional and psychological blocks that are holding them back in their lives.

Since their development, both Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing Breathwork have become popular forms of alternative therapy and personal growth, with many practitioners and facilitators offering workshops and training programs around the world. These techniques are often used in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches, and have been used to address a wide range of mental and emotional health concerns.

Another popular type of breathwork that has been around awhile is Transformational Breath®.

Transformational Breathwork was founded and developed in the 1990s by Dr. Judith Kravitz, a holistic health practitioner and spiritual teacher. Dr. Kravitz had studied various breathing techniques and therapies, including rebirthing, and had a vision for creating a more accessible and integrative approach to breathwork.

Drawing on her training in Eastern and Western healing modalities, Dr. Kravitz developed Transformational Breathwork as a comprehensive system that incorporates conscious breathing, sound, movement, and meditation. The practice is designed to help individuals release physical, emotional, and mental blocks, and to access deeper levels of consciousness and spiritual awareness.

Unlike some other forms of breathwork, which may focus exclusively on the breath, Transformational Breathwork emphasizes the integration of the breath with other aspects of the body and mind. Practitioners may use various techniques, such as acupressure, visualization, and toning, to help individuals release tension and access a deeper sense of peace and well-being.

Since its development, Transformational Breathwork has been used to address a wide range of mental and emotional health concerns, including anxiety, depression, trauma, and addiction.

Holotropic Breathwork, Rebirthing Breathwork, Transformational Breath®, and Introspective Breathwork™ share similarities and also differences with regard to their philosophy and approach to healing. When seeking a breathwork practitioner to work with or school to attend, it's always a good idea to ask questions and ensure you feel comfortable with the person(s) you will be working with. Many schools offer free sessions you can experience.  At One Breath Institute, our free Introspective Breathwork™ sessions happen every Sunday at 11am-Noon Eastern. You can learn more and register here.

You may also want to check out this article about the benefits of breathwork.

This article was all about: What is Breathwork?

by Lisa McNett

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