Breathwork is a general term used to describe any type of therapy that utilizes breathing exercises to improve mental, physical, and spiritual health. Many forms of breathwork therapy exist today, each with their own unique methods of using breath for healing purposes. Drawing from Eastern practices like yoga and Tai Chi while also incorporating Western psychotherapy techniques in order to bring about self-awareness, breathwork can include elements of talk therapy, breathing exercises, art, music, and bodywork. This therapy can be used with individuals, couples, and groups and should be facilitated by a certified professional.
For centuries, people have sought spiritual awakening, self-healing, and meditative relaxation through breathing techniques. Breathwork has roots in Eastern practices like yoga, Tai Chi, and Buddhism. However, most of the breathwork therapy used today got its start during the consciousness-raising era of the 1960s and 1970s.
Several types of breathwork were formed during this era, including Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing Breathwork. Some models emphasized self-awareness and inner peace, while others dealt with altered states of consciousness and psychedelic effects. Rebirthing Breathwork, for example, was developed by Leonard Orr and focused on the traumatic experience of birth. Holotropic Breathwork, which was 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.
Since the 1970s, the field of breathwork therapy has grown even further. In 1991, Jacquelyn Small founded Integrative Breathwork, which is based on her work in Holotropic Breathwork alongside Dr. Grof. In addition, Clarity Breathwork, which evolved from Rebirthing Breathwork, was established in 1999. Clarity Breathwork expanded upon the principles of Rebirthing to include a more generalized approach to trauma and therapy.
Today, the field of breathwork continues to evolve, with dozens of models and certification programs available to interested participants and practitioners alike. Organizations like the Stanislav and Christina Grof Foundation (formerly called the Association of Holotropic Breathwork International (AHBI)), Rebirthing Breathwork International (RBI), the Global Professional Breathwork Alliance (GPBA), and the International Breathwork Foundation (IBF) all contribute to the training, research, and expansion efforts of Breathwork therapists around the world.
In general, the goal of any breathwork therapy is to support people in achieving a greater sense of self-awareness, an increased capacity for self-healing, and overall improvement in mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Breathwork therapists, or Breathworkers as they are sometimes called, guide participants through various therapeutic breathing techniques.
Breathwork therapy is believed to be of benefit to those who are experiencing issues such as:
- Chronic pain
- Anger issues
- Trauma and posttraumatic stress
- Grief and loss
- Emotional effects of physical illness
There are several kinds of breathwork therapy available today, many of which have similar foundations. Some of the more well-known types of breathwork are described below:
- Holotropic Breathwork: In this type of breathwork, the goal is to achieve “wholeness” of mind, body, and spirit. Sessions are facilitated by certified practitioners who have completed the Grof Transpersonal Training program. With the aid of “evocative” music and occasional bodywork, participants are guided through breath exercises while lying down in order to induce altered states of consciousness. Often conducted with groups, Holotropic Breathwork allows people to work in dyads and support each other’s processes. Participants usually create mandalas related to their breathwork experience immediately following the group breathing exercises. Sessions conclude with sharing and discussion to help participants integrate what they have learned about themselves.
- Rebirthing Breathwork: This type of breathwork, also known as Conscious Energy Breathing, is based on the premise that all humans carry with them the trauma of their birth experience. After allegedly re-experiencing his own birth in his bathtub, Leonard Orr was inspired to help others find the same inner peace. The goal of Rebirthing is to help individuals release the energy blockages that have been stored in the body and mind due to suppressed trauma. In treatment, participants are asked to lie down, relax, and breathe normally. Through the use of “conscious connected circular breathing”, inhibitions surface and the tensions of past trauma are illuminated. Deep relaxation is used to promote brain waves that lead to the release of subconscious issues and pent-up energy.
- Clarity Breathwork: This type of therapy is based on many of the tenets of Rebirthing Breathwork, but it does not solely focus on the trauma of birth. Clarity Breathwork addresses any and all issues that hinder the healthy flow of energy and breath. Clarity Breathwork is based on the idea that most people do not breathe to their full capacity. The main goal of a Clarity Breathwork Practitioner is to teach people how to breathe fully in order to release the emotional energy that keeps them stuck. Therapy begins with an in-depth interview about present concerns and past experiences. Sessions include in-depth intuitive counseling, somatic exploration, and one hour of circular connected breathing practice.
Other types of breathwork therapy include Integrative Breathwork, Shamanic Breathwork, Vivation, Zen Yoga Breathwork, and Transformational Breathwork.
Although all forms of breathwork therapy are centered on the act of breathing in and out, each model incorporates its own breathwork exercises. Overall, breathwork exercises involve deep, focused breathing that lasts for an extended period of time. Some examples include:
- Continuous circular breathing: Using full deep breaths, participants breathe in and out continuously without holding their breath at any point. This continuous in and out creates a circle of breath.
- Immersion in water: The participant is partially or fully immersed in water and asked to breathe deeply, either above the surface or with the aid of a snorkel. Although not as prevalent as it was in the 1970s, this Rebirthing technique has historically produced dramatic results.
- 20 connected breaths: The participant is asked to breathe in and out 20 times: four sets of four short breaths and one deep breath. It is suggested that the breathing be done through the nose. Participants may experience “non-ordinary” states of consciousness as a result of this exercise.
Over the past few decades, controversy has surrounded the practice of certain kinds of breathwork. However, supporters argue that breathwork can be extremely effective in the treatment of several physical and mental health issues. The Stanislav and Christina Grof Foundation cites the following research in support of the benefits of Holotropic Breathwork:
- In 1994, Spivak et al. concluded that the alteration of consciousness that occurs during Holotropic Breathwork incites not only phenomenal influence but physiological effects, as well.
- In 1996, a study conducted by Sarah Holmes et al. found that participants who received Holotropic Breathwork experienced a reduction in “death anxiety” and in increase in self-esteem.
- A study conducted by Binovera (2003) found that Holotropic Breathwork participants reported better communication with others and a deeper understanding of the world around them.
Despite this research and support, breathwork therapy is not without limitations, contraindications, and criticisms. One major concern is that breathwork has been known to induce hyperventilation. Hyperventilation may lead to physical issues including dizziness, tingling of extremities, heart palpitations, or muscle spasms. Prolonged hyperventilation can lead to decreased blood flow to the brain, clouded vision, ringing in the ears, and possible cognitive changes.
Although it is not clear as to whether these effects cause long-term damage, people interested in breathwork should be aware of any potential risks. Breathwork is not recommended for people with a history of aneurisms, cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, vision problems, osteoporosis, or any recent physical injuries or surgeries. It is also not recommended for people who experience severe psychiatric symptoms or seizures or who take heavy medication. Potential participants may want to consult with their primary care physician and seek a certified professional before engaging in breathwork therapy.
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