Transcending pain and the 3D realm through breath.
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I don’t think it would be a great leap to say there is nothing more essential to our existence than breathing. It’s on the podium with eating and sleeping as a rather vital necessity. On average, we take 25,000 breaths each day, and how we breathe has a significant impact on our mental, physical and spiritual health. And yet, it’s something that in modern Western culture, we’re never taught how to do. But, getting it wrong can affect our anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate, along with our teeth alignment, mouth shape, attention, focus and connection to spirit.
In our modern world, we are more than a little void when it comes to connection to spirit and ritual. And collectively, we are hurting because of that. Across the generations, perhaps thanks largely to the industrial revolution, we’ve lost touch with the ancient rituals that allow us to ground, to centre ourselves and find ease. But, in the last 12 months, I’ve been playing calm-cadet, digging back through human intelligence and scientific studies to uncover and remember the practices we once knew and bring them to Channel Void’s consciousness.
One such ritual that I’ve discovered (and become obsessed with) is breathwork. And it’s quite apparent that I’m not alone, Wim Hof’s guided breathing video at the time of writing has over 22 million views.
If you take a yoga class you may have dabbled in Prana breathwork which has roots dating back over 5000 years. And if you have explored the stillness of meditation or even the not-so-stillness of meditation, it’s quite likely that you have used slow and deep breathing to find calm. And if you, like me, have dipped a toe into an ice bath workshop, you may well have played around with Wim Hof breathwork, made popular thanks to Netflix’s Goop Lab.
But what I’ve become obsessed with is the deep journeying of holotropic breathwork, a two-hour guided exploration of consciousness, of expansive heart opening, of meeting spirit guides and aliens, of reprogramming mental and body trauma and of the unexpected portals this practice opens up. There are a vast number of scientifically endorsed benefits of breathwork spanning everything from increasing your pain tolerance, improving immune function, and decreasing stress and anxiety and improving sleep.
Breathwork has only been on my radar for 12 short months and it’s been something like a hybrid Redbull-come-Xanax-equivalent in my life. It has the supercharging capabilities of caffeine with the calming ease of benzodiazepine. It has saved me a few times over from the realness of navigating a friendship breakdown to reviving fuzzy brained days at the desk to building my confidence ahead of speaking gigs. Breathwork has been a life raft that I’ve come to call a dear friend. And so, in a quest for self-indulgent knowledge expansion, I reached out to three breathwork facilitators so we can better navigate the occasional bin fire of life through the world of breath.
“Breathwork became popular when LSD was banned from psychedelic therapies studies in the 70s because it was believed that Holotropic breathing could create a similar experience by releasing naturally occurring DMT within the brain”.
What is breathwork?
Breathwork is an umbrella term for any practice that uses the breath as a tool. It can get confusing as there are many different types of breathwork, however, they largely centre on Conscious Connected Breathwork where the breather intentionally connects the inhale with the exhale without any pauses. Variations of breathwork include Shamanic, Vivation, Transformational, Holotropic, and Rebirthing. So where do you start?
Anna Papaioannou, breathwork facilitator and Anxiety Coach explained the difference between the key modalities:
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Shamanic breathwork is accompanied by drumming and chanting and involves rapid, rhythmic breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth typically for 1-2 hours.
Holotropic breathwork is a technique where the breather increases the speed and rhythm of breathing over the session. Sessions typically go for 2-3 hours in total while repetitive music is played, afterwards, participants are encouraged to draw, often mandalas, or creatively express their breathwork experience through art form.
Using a breathwork technique called conscious energy breathing (CEB), the participant practices circular breathing, without pausing between inhale and exhale. Typically breathing for 1-2 hours. Rebirthing breathwork may involve being wrapped within blankets and pillows to resemble a womb, or submerging yourself with a bathtub.
Vivation breathwork is very similar to Rebirthing without the submersion in water or swaddling in blankets. In Vivation sessions, participants are encouraged to take control of their own experience.
Transformational breathwork follows a circular breathing pattern all through the mouth. Participants may be encouraged to pound or slap their hands on the ground to support releasing tension, emotions or energies.
Where did breathwork originate
Breathwork has been practised for many thousands of years and its origins are believed to be born in Pranayama. In Sanskrit, prana means breath and within yogic practices, it has been utilised for more than 5000 years. There are many threads to breathwork in ancient Chinese culture and Taoism. More recently, Wilhelm Reich pioneered breathwork through the mid-1960s and Stanislav and Christina Grof popularised Holotropic breathwork in the 1970s.
While the practice is born in ancient wisdom, breathwork facilitator Loren Honey says Conscious Connected Breathwork became popular when “LSD was banned from psychedelic therapies studies in the 70s because it was believed that Holotropic breathing could create a similar psychedelic experience by releasing naturally occurring DMT within the brain”.
Some experts believe that the pineal gland in the brain naturally produces DMT (or N, N-dimethyltryptamine in science talk) and releases it when we dream, during birth and death, and during strenuous breathing activities, such as Holotropic breathing.
I can personally attest to the similarities in the therapeutic, out-of-body and hallucinogenic experiences when journeying with breathwork, dropping acid, or sitting ceremony with plant-based psychedelics, like ayahuasca.
What can breathwork help with?
Breathwork can produce a wide variety of transformative experiences in the physical, emotional and mental body. Whether I’m studying or on deadline and need a burst of focus or if I’m feeling that familiar rise of panic, negative cycling thoughts and a sense of overwhelm, a dose of o2 brings my parasympathetic nervous system back into line, and with it, a quick about-face.
A 2011 study found that participants reported increased mental clarity, deep relaxation and a sense of calm after just one breathwork session. Further studies have evidenced its role in supporting and alleviating the symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma and chronic physical pain.
Brisbane-based Breathwork Practitioner, Kirsten Morrison explains, “breathwork supports the regulation of the nervous system, rebalancing the body from states of hyperactivity (fight or flight) or dissociation (freeze). It also supports deeper sleep, lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels and alkalises the blood, boosting the immune system.”
Beyond the physical, breathwork can have a profound impact on our mindset, and can “provide a boost in mood and allow us greater access to our prefrontal cortex for decision making and clarity”.
The icing on the cake is that it connects us with spirit and “gives us a deeper sense of connection to our intuition and receptivity” as it pulls us from beta brainwaves to states of alpha, theta and even delta.
According to Loren, breathwork can also assist us to access suppressed emotions, inner child healing, let go of painful memories, allow forgiveness, and incite uncontrollable laughing and joy. And – for the lucky few – it may even result in an orgasm.
Regular breathwork benefits include:
Reduced stress and tension
Feelings of openness, love, gratitude, and clarity
Improved relationship with your body and deep understanding and connection between mind and body
Release of fear, grief, or anger
Heightened creativity and inspiration
A healthy connection to your emotions
Physical and energetic release
Release of toxins and trapped energy
Shifts from victimhood to empowerment
Deep inner peace and compassion for yourself and those around you
How does breathwork work?
There are many different styles of breathwork. Shamanic, Vivation, Transformational, Holotropic, Clarity, Rebirthing, Pranayama, Kundalini all the way through to some box breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nose breathing, Wim Hof method and 4,7,8 breathing.
In my own personal breathwork practice, I’ve jumped into Owaken’s daily breathwork exercises (which takes about five minutes) and I’ve attended a handful of mindblowing, galaxy realigning, three-hour in-person Holotropic workshops.
At the core of breathwork is one continuous breath or Conscious Connected Breathing. This technique allows us to access deep awareness of self, those around us, to nature and for me personally, it’s provided the groundwork to become more reflective and open to personal development.
So, what’s involved?
Conscious connected breathing: no pauses between the inhale and the exhale.
Diaphragmatic breathing: active inhale into the belly with the relaxed expansion of the chest.
Relaxed exhale: breathing out is a passive movement (let go).
Breathing channel: breathe in and out through the same channel.
Many practitioners believe breathwork supports an ‘opening’ in the body. Kirsten explains, “imagine you are gently expanding a balloon inside of you to create space for old stagnant energy, emotion and experiences to shift from the body”.
The Shamanic and Holotropic breathwork styles involve breathing at a fast rate for anywhere between five to ten minutes up to three hours, which changes the balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. Specifically, Holotropic breathwork integrates short, intense breaths followed by long, deep breaths.
There are two key activations when it comes to breathwork:
We can activate the parasympathetic nervous system through slow and deep breathing, which generally leads to us feeling calm, safe and relaxed.
We can also activate the sympathetic nervous system, which generally includes breathing faster than our normal pace, which mimics that of hyperventilating, which changes the balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. Through this style of breathing the stress response, transcend the narrow boundaries of the conscious mind, dismantle the ego and relax into a spiritual high.
What are the risks associated with breathwork?
There are contraindications to breathwork. “Breathwork is not recommended for people with a history of aneurysms, stroke, cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, vision problems, osteoporosis, or any recent physical injuries or surgeries,” Kristen advises. “It is also not recommended for people who experience severe psychiatric symptoms or seizures or who take heavy medication, are pregnant or believe they may be pregnant as it is an activated breath and is designed for an energetic release”.
That’s not to say that all breathwork is out of the question if you experience any of these contraindications. “For people who fall under these categories, the breath may be
too activating – however deeper, more relaxed, meditative breathing (even box breathing) would be more suitable,” Kristen continues.
And in terms of general risks? There’s dizziness, tingling, tetany, cramping and also just experiencing emotional states for the first time and potentially going back into trauma states. This is why doing breathwork with an experienced practitioner and preferably someone who is trauma trained is important.
It’s also worth noting that participants are always in control of their breath. “If at any point there is pain, participants are encouraged to resume their regular breathing,” says Anna. It’s recommended that you don’t stand up during this style of breathing as it’s quite likely that you will become dizzy or blackout (my partner went to the bathroom for a leak and passed out on the way!)
What happens in your body and mind when you practice breathwork?
At the beginning of your breathwork training, it can feel challenging to keep up and continue but pretty quickly the breath will take over.
Anna describes the physical experiences as being weird and wonderful, and often the sensations that her clients are typically most apprehensive about, “tingling or vibrations in specific areas of the body, warmth or cooling sensations, limbs moving without a conscious thought”.
When it comes to the mind, Anna believes this is where breathwork really shines. “Breathwork can allow you to release emotions, past trauma, experiences, as well as locate a blissful state of zen and relaxation”, she continues. “Whatever emotions you experience, you are always encouraged to express them, let them up and out and release their grip on your body and mind”.
For me, working through 20 minute rounds of hard and intense continuous mouth breathing almost felt like heavy panting at first. But over time, my body adjusted to the style and it became less laborious.
When I transitioned from heavy mouth breathing into gentle and slow nose breathing, I experienced a euphoric high, and powerful releases of emotion. In some sessions I found myself crying while in other sessions I’m laughing. The colours shown in my minds-eye are like an intergalactic circus interwoven with some of my most painful and joyful memories thrown up to revisit and release.
It is common for us to experience ego-dissolution or ego-death through breathwork and I’ve personally found the practice has led me to a reconnection to source, to the interconnectedness of nature and opened my mind to experience a deeper love for myself and those around me.
What is tetany?
Tetany or T-rex hands or lobster claws is a fairly common phenomenon in breathwork. It presents in the hands and sometimes feet, where they cramp or tense up, often looking like a lobster claw. This is truly strange to watch (and experience!) and makes for a great breathwork tourism snap.
Anna explains, “it’s caused by a deficiency of carbon dioxide in the blood brought on by breathing rapidly. Tetany tends to get worse when you push the exhale for longer but quickly goes away upon breathing normally or through the nose for a few minutes”.
Kirsten goes on to say, “this isn’t dangerous, just uncomfortable depending on the intensity of the cramping and typically appears in people’s first few sessions as they adjust to a smoother cycle of breath – as it is amplified when the breath does not allow for an equal inhale/exhale. This begins to dissipate as soon as you breathe through your nose and return to normal breath”.
What breakthroughs might I experience using breathwork?
Expect the unexpected! When I quizzed friends and folks in my community about their breathwork experiences, I heard everything from people being visited by loved ones that have passed, to having revelations with lovers, resolving past traumas, to finding clarity in business or relationships and finding a greater sense of peace and purpose.
How should I prepare for a breathwork session?
Be well hydrated but not too hydrated. Make sure you do a wee and empty your bladder before you settle in for the long haul.
Before your session, set an intention. The more clarity and direction you arrive with, the better. But, remain open to experiencing whatever is thrown up during the session, you may or may not visit your intention.
Wear loose layers of clothing so that you can remove or add a layer depending on the climate (you’ll likely drop your temperature a few clicks).
Bring a yoga mat and a blanket as well as lip balm and an eye mask (a towel or piece of clothing will suffice if you don’t have an eye mask).
Bring your journal to write your intention beforehand and to capture any revelations during your session.
I’d recommend clearing your schedule an hour or so after a deep 2-3 hour journey to avoid being a bit of a space cadet. However, if you’re dipping into a 10, 20, 30 (Owaken Daily) exercise, you should be hyper-focused and alert, so this is a great practice to start your day.
Do your research and make sure you feel comfortable that the facilitator knows their stuff, set up a phone interview or coffee catch up or read testimonials to get a good sense of what your practitioner does and doesn’t know, and to get a personal read on whether you feel that they will be able to support you if past traumas are triggered through the process.
Things to check out:
Daily deep breathing practice: The Breathing App
30-day breathwork challenge: Owaken Daily
Try Wim Hof’s guided breathing
Click here to watch the UNCENSORED.TV episode.