Readers may be familiar with the breathing practices experienced in many yoga classes, based in the yogic tradition of pranayama. However, taking pranayama as a standalone practice of Breathwork Meditation, is a whole other experience.
Breathwork is quickly becoming a go-to method for clearing old emotional energy, gaining clarity and becoming more centred. In our fast paced lives, immediate relaxation is often the hope when someone decides to first join a meditation class. Meditation, however, takes discipline and consistency over a period of time. Breathwork differs from more traditional forms of meditation in a few ways.
Meditation can be difficult for people who have a hard time separating themselves from their thoughts, or who just can’t sit and be still for any amount of time. The active nature of Breathwork actually gives the mind something to concentrate on, a job to do. During Breathwork we breathe in a specific, deep and controlled pattern to actually change the physiology of our body, essentially causing a relaxed state.
A Breathwork session is experienced lying down and lasts about 40 minutes. It can be a tricky breathing pattern to get used to at the start, but after the first 10 minutes the body starts to respond. The body, the muscles, the nervous system starts to soften, relax and let go. As the mind starts to relax, the breathing rhythm starts to become easier and we slowly sink into an altered state.
I spent 6 months working at a beautiful retreat centre in Costa Rica some years ago. A retreat centre where the healing modality people were turning up for was a potent, psychedelic plant medicine, Ayahuasca. The program involved 7 nights, 4 nights drinking the medicine and 3 nights of Breathwork.
The plant medicine is powerful, as I had expected. Deep clearing, meetings with the Divine, a sense of complete oneness with the world around us, talking to the trees … you know, the usual! But what kept blowing my mind was the insights, clarity and total peace and connection that was coming from the evenings of just breathing. No external psychedelics required. I, as well as the other guests showing up every week, were having profound experiences, sometimes even more so than the evenings of plant medicine.
Many people describe an emotional release during their Breathwork sessions. It’s a fascinating phenomenon; we breathe in a certain pattern, then thoughts and emotions arise. We allow them to be felt, staying with the breath and they let go, leaving us feeling lighter, freer, calmer. What on earth is happening in the body?
Taking a step back, we can look at the psychological connection of breathing and emotions. Research shows that anxiety and a general perception of the world feeling unpredictable or overwhelming are related to a shallow or “inhibited” breathing pattern. Continued suppression of breathing leads to reduced oxygen and high CO2 levels in the blood. This can in turn lead to a reduction in serotonin creation and a tendency towards increased worry and negative feelings.
So, a sustained inhibited breathing pattern develops in response to stressful situations and environments. The mind requires us to keep up this suppression to maintain a sense of psychological balance i.e. “keep it together”. But this in turn leads to further feelings of worry and stress and a vicious cycle is created.
Breathwork assumes a link between this defensive, inhibited breathing and the presence of unprocessed emotional experiences. Breathwork gently allows these emotions back into conscious awareness, integrating those experiences into the general flow of consciousness.
The positive effects of Breathwork can be experienced immediately. Research studies have reported states of mental clarity, profound relaxation and sense of well-being after one Breathwork session. Studies have also shown significantly decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels after an 8 weeks period of just 2 Breathwork sessions a week.
So Breathwork will help your stress levels, but it has other physical and long-term benefits with rapidly growing research to support it. Research into controlled, deep breathing practices have shown significant effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular, cardiorespiratory and autonomic nervous systems.
So, short and long-term physical benefits, deep clarity and sense of connection to yourself AND it’s trippy and blissful. A worthwhile experience!
– Dr. Cathy Scanlon
Published in Yoga Therapy Ireland magazine, September 2020