Words: Jo Peters
The world of breathwork has only recently begun to gain global prominence throughout wellness and science spheres, despite having its roots in ancient practices that have been used for thousands of years. In this chapter, we will take a brief look at where the idea of breathwork originated, and how it has evolved and grown throughout modern history. Gaining an understanding of how breathwork came to exist and how it has been utilised by humans for so many years, as well as how the practice has been honed for contemporary lives, may help you to appreciate and seek out the many benefits of this wonderful branch of wellness.
“When the breath is unsteady, all is unsteady; when the breath is still, all is still.” -Goraksha Shataka
THE ORIGINS OF BREATHWORK PRACTICES
What we’ve come to talk about as breathwork in modern Western culture has its roots in many traditional Eastern religions and cultural practices, and we cannot discuss its current prominence without honouring and acknowledging this history.
Across the next few pages, we will briefly look at how breathing practices are deeply entwined in Buddhism, tai chi and yoga. While these traditional practices, and their work with the breath, are still honoured around the world, they have also been adapted and modernised to suit a contemporary society. But the aims of breathwork within these practices remains the same: to seek calmness and clarity through controlling the breath.
Buddhism is a religion or philosophical tradition that stems from the original teachings of Gautama Buddha, between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE in ancient India. Buddhism is currently the world’s fourth-largest religion.
Meditation is a key part of Buddhism, and the Buddhist pursuit of liberation and attainment of nirvana. Of the various techniques within Buddhist meditation, arguably one of the most key is ānāpānasati. Ānāpāna, meaning “inhalation and exhalation”, and sati, meaning “mindfulness”, ānāpānasati refers to the mindfulness of breathing.
Ānāpānasati involves paying attention to the breath and is one of Buddha’s key teachings. It is described in several of the Buddhist texts or “suttas”. One of the suttas in particular, Ānāpānasati Sutta, recommends the practice of focusing on one’s inhales and exhales as a way of cultivating mindfulness in the body and finding release from suffering.
Different branches of Buddhism have evolved ānāpānasati practices to have differing techniques. While some put greater focus on the natural rhythm, other schools engage muscles to create more forceful breath and some incorporate breathwork into chanting and singing.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that is still practised worldwide for its health benefits. It is founded on the need to maintain the natural balance in all things.
It revolves around meditation and movement, and among its five key elements are neigong and qigong, both of which prominently feature working with the breath.
A great example of breathwork in tai chi is the exercise known as “crane breathing”, which revolves around coordinating breath with body movement. Although “crane breathing” is for everyone, you might prefer to return to this exercise once you have established your breathwork practice.
- Start standing, feet hip-width or wider, distributing the weight evenly between both legs.
- Keep your centre of gravity low and your knees soft.
- Breathe in and out through your nose. Listen to the breath as it enters and leaves your body.
- Place your hands over your lower abdomen. Relax your shoulders and elbows.
- Move your weight into the front of each foot, then move it back to the back of each foot, while keeping your feet flat on the floor.
- Develop a steady rhythm and keep listening to your inhales and exhales. Can you link the rocking motion and your breath?
- Maintain this slow, steady rhythm. Inhale, rock forward. Exhale, rock back.
- Continue for as many rounds as you like.
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that aims to bring harmony throughout the body, mind and spirit. It has evolved and developed many branches over hundreds of years and is a hugely popular practice for health and relaxation. Whilst the levels of physicality, spirituality and meditation can differ between different schools of yoga, the importance of the breath is a common thread throughout.
In yoga, the practice of focusing on the breath is called “pranayama”. In Sanskrit, prana means “vital life force” and yama means “control”. Throughout ancient scriptures and texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, pranayama and the controlling of breath is referred to as the key to quietening the mind and gaining higher consciousness.
In more modern practices that often centre around “asanas” (postures), the breath remains a key component. Asanas are often held for a count of breaths, and exhales and inhales are utilised to aid movement and deepen stretches.
THE MODERN RISE OF BREATHWORK
The breathwork that exists most prominently throughout western society today is more aligned with the techniques that arose during the 1960s and 1970s. Some were forged from research into states of consciousness and psychedelic effects, whilst others were concentrating more on selfawareness and inner peace.
We will look briefly at the two original branches of modern-day breathwork and how it has developed more recently in the twenty-first century.
Holotropic breathwork derives from the meaning of “moving towards wholeness.” It was developed in the 1970s by Stan and Christina Grof while working as psychotherapists and conducting research on consciousness and the effects of psychedelic drugs.
Before LSD was classified as an illegal drug, they studied patients under the influence and noticed a particular breathing pattern common among those who were approaching the end of a trip on the drug, to prolong the drug’s influence. This led the Grofs to research the breath and how it could be controlled to produce non-ordinary states of mind and rapid healing.
The technique of holotropic breathwork involves spending 1–2 hours breathing at an accelerated rate, using the abdominal muscles to forcefully inhale and exhale, often accompanied by music. It has been described as voluntary hyperventilation and can produce a variety of reactions from laughter and crying, to visions and muscular cramps.
While there are claimed therapeutic benefits, it is advisable to do plenty of research and seek medical advice before trying it, especially for anyone with a heart condition or nervous disorder. It should only be carried out under the supervision of a trained holotropic breathwork instructor.
Rebirthing arose in the late 1960s–1970s, developed by Dr Leonard Orr, and was also used to heal past traumas.
Dr Orr claims he was inspired by a yogi named Mahavatar Babaji while at his ashram in the Himalayas. Orr was in the bathtub, experimenting with different breathing patterns, when his breath connected with the state of the warm water. The concept of escaping past traumas and the ability to “rebirth” through breath was born.
Spiritual teacher Sondra Ray is also attributed with the rise of rebirthing breathwork after learning from Orr directly and subsequently going on to help others heal from birth traumas through rebirthing.
Rebirthing breathwork focuses on a circular breath, where the inhale and exhale are continuous and connected, in order to elevate you to an altered state where you’re processing thoughts, feelings and emotions on a higher level. Unlike holotropic breathing, there is no music involved in rebirthing breathwork, and the focus is on more relaxed, fuller inhales as opposed to forceful exhales.
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY BREATHWORK
The popularity of rebirthing and holotropic breathwork practices waned slightly after the 1970s but have found a resurgence in the twenty-first century.
These days, there are dozens of different branches of breathwork, each with their own specific pathways and purpose. They may use different stimuli (such as music or incense), they may lean towards group or one-to-one sessions, and they may vary vastly in duration, but all of them involve consciously altering the breathing pattern in order to affect the mind, body or emotional heart.
THE WIM HOF METHOD
The most recent breathwork technique to gain notoriety was developed by Wim Hof in 2011. Founded on a strong scientific basis, it combines breathing exercises with cold therapy.
Following the suicide of his wife, Wim Hof sought ways to ease his depression and was drawn to cold water. He researched the reasons behind this urge and his discoveries evolved into the Wim Hof Method.
The method has become popular among athletes and those partaking in extreme physical challenges as a way to prepare and calm the body and mind.
The Wim Hof Method breathing technique:
- Strongly inhale through the nose.
- Gently exhale through the mouth, leaving a little air in the lungs.
- Repeat this cycle for 20–30 breaths.
- On the 30th breath, exhale all the way out and hold the breath until you feel the urge to breathe in again.
- When you need to breathe, inhale fully and hold for 15–30 seconds before releasing.
- Repeat these steps three times.