Breathwork For Transformation

How Breathwork Works: Mentally, Emotionally & Physiologically

I was totally “fine” in 2015. Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional had become a way of life for me – and yet, I was completely blind to who I’d become. I knew something was off, but I didn’t know what was wrong or how to address it. Then I breathed for my first time.

I was in Bali holding hands with sixty seekers all looking to experience something new. We began breathing and within minutes my body was boiling with energy. Sweating profusely, hands cramping, my belly began swirling like a vortex of crazed butterflies. Terrified, I opened my eyes thinking my legs had vanished, before pushing onward into the unknown.

Forty minutes later fifty-nine breathers began carefully stepping over me as I laid crying on the floor blocking their exit. I was sobbing uncontrollably as the pain and shame I’d internalized from my best friend’s rape was wrung from my heart. Somehow in that single session I revisited the memory of her recounting the events, relived the horror and forgave the perpetrator, a man I’d hated the better part of my life… before bursting into laughter and forgiving myself for failing to protect her. Minutes later I walked out of the studio feeling something completely foreign. I was at peace for the first time in two decades.

There is an innate intelligence to the breath. Somehow, in some inexplicable way, it knows where to lead us and what to show us in order to heal. It unlocks us from the inside out, revealing our deepest mysteries so we can transcend and reframe the events of our lives. We cannot change our past experiences, but we can change the way we relate to them.  Breathwork gives us an opportunity to confront the people, events, experiences, feelings and beliefs that block us from loving ourselves and living in the flow of life. Our breath turns a light towards the heaviness we’re repressing, not only growing our awareness, but releasing us from the underlying energy behind our negative thoughts and emotions.

For me, this first breathwork session was transformational. Not only did it help me release stored anger and resentment, but it introduced me to my own primal energy. I felt as though I’d become a supernova, collapsing in on myself before exploding outward, creating and connecting with everything and everyone. It was this energy that captivated me and propelled me forward on a quest of self-discovery.

So, what is breathwork? Breathwork is any deep breathing practice that is done for a sustained amount of time. Stanislav Grof pioneered breathwork in the 1960’s after his experiments with LSD became illegal. He had noticed that his subjects all used a similar breath pattern while “tripping,” so he began using the breath without the use of psychedelics. To his surprise, the breath delivered similar results to LSD and modern breathwork was born.

Today, there are many variations of Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork which include Shamanic, Rebirthing and Conscious-Connected. They are all forms of circular breathing, whereby you breathe through the mouth in a connected pattern for an extended amount of time. 30 minutes to 3  hours is typical. The breath, ceremony and facilitation can vary slightly, but they all use over-breathing to induce an altered state of consciousness. The practices are typically done laying down with eyes closed, but this too can differ. Music is often used, but not always. Facilitation can be with words alone, or incorporate light touch and manual adjustments.

So, how does breathwork work? Understand this, the breath is systemic. It works simultaneously on the physical, mental, emotional and energetic levels all at once, which is what makes it such a powerful mechanism of change. Physiologically, over-breathing creates five main changes in the body. It increases stress hormones, depresses carbon dioxide levels, diminishes blood flow to the brain, elevates blood PH and changes our brain wave patterns.

Adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine are released while breathing deeply and “charging” the body.  Then later, the body is flooded with endorphins and dopamine as we slow our breath and begin to relax. Blood flow to the brain is decreased by as much as 40% within the first 15 minutes of breathing as blood vessels narrow and capillaries constrict. This is a result of depressing our carbon dioxide levels with pronounced exhales. In turn, this affects the hypo campus and parieto-occipital cortex which govern visual processing, memory, our experience of time and our sense of self.

While this is happening, the PH balance of our blood rises, becoming more alkaline. This sends distress signals throughout the body and limbic system, perhaps tricking our body into thinking it’s dying. After a few minutes of breathing our brain shifts from our Beta wave “monkey mind” to a more relaxed, open, and receptive Alpha wave state. Towards the peak of the journey breathers can enter Theta and Delta states, potentially triggering deep intuitive insights and noetic experiences many consider life-changing. Throughout the process breathers can experience tingling sensations, hot, cold, shivering, sweating and tetany (cramping) of the hands and feet – all of which is completely safe. Your body will return to normal once you slow your breath.

By practicing breathwork, we are training our Central Nervous System (CNS), learning to titrate between “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” mode on command. As we gain mastery over our nervous system we bring balance to our lives. Breathwork, by design, is meant to stir us up! By activating our Sympathetic Nervous System we induce a state of panic in the body which we learn to manage and accept, creating resilience in mind and body. Ultimately, we learn to go beyond the sensations of our body and the persistent thoughts of our mind to enter a purely energetic state of being.

The process is as follows: Body : Mind : Emotions : Energy. First, we learn to relax into the feelings of our body, accepting the discomfort. Then we use the breath to quiet our frontal lobe, silencing our critical mind. As emotions arise, we turn our attention towards them, growing them and breathing with them so they move through us! We meet all of our emotions with unconditional allowance, feeling what needs to be felt until our body and subconscious mind become free to let go. Only then are we able to engage on the energetic level, breathing without internal constriction and obstruction. It’s in this state that our spirit is free to connect with something greater and profound healing occurs.

Breathwork is a physical, meditative and energetic practice that will change us given the chance. It requires conscious commitment, but little else. We simply lay down, commit to breathing and open ourselves to a process of self-discovery. Turning towards our fears and insecurities isn’t easy, but it’s the only way forward. Addressing our emotions is the fastest and most effective way to change our reality. By working with the underlying emotions that drive our unconscious patterns we dissolve the blockages that keep us from moving forward and becoming our best selves.

Towards the peak of every session you’ll access what I call the “golden zone” – a state of spaciousness where you are no longer ruled by your emotions and the events of your past. Protected by this energetic field you’ve generated for yourself, your subconscious mind is free to confront difficult situations with your body feeling completely safe. It’s in this field of safety that we open to our deepest intuition and the magic unfolds.

At its core, breathwork is an energetic practice, beyond thoughts and emotions – so not every session is going to be heart-felt or cathartic. In fact, the most profound sessions are purely energetic, triggering a spontaneous release of the CNS which manifests as trembling in the body. In this state, which should never be interrupted, the body is dumping unwanted energy without the breather being aware or conscious.

Finally, breathwork doesn’t need to be heavy work! In fact, more sessions than not are light, loving, blissful and ecstatic for those willing to open themselves to the experience.

I realize this may sound ridiculous to you scientifically-minded skeptics. Just know, I was one of you before I breathed for my first time! Every ancient civilization before us has believed that air is more than carbon and oxygen alone – that it’s infused with life-force energy that generates health, healing and vitality within us. {Prana/India, Chi/Chinese, Pneuma/Greek, Ruah/Hebrew, Qi /Japan, Orenda/Iriquois.}

So, I ask you, are you sure breath isn’t more than air alone? Is it possible our breath is the primary mechanism through which we grow our energy and heal our bodies? And even more curiously, could our breath be a direct channel to experiencing something infinite, profound and beyond explanation?

Well, there’s only one way to find out!

*Consult a doctor before practicing breathwork if you have any serious health conditions. Contraindications of deep breathing and breathwork can include:

Physically: Pregnancy, cardiovascular issues, lung conditions, aneurisms, strokes, seizure, GI upset, gastric ulcers, high blood pressure, ocular problems, vertigo, osteoporosis, migraines, recent surgeries and hernias.

Mentally: Chronic anxiety, PTSD, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia or any severe psychiatric symptoms.

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