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Introduction to Breathwork

by Hal Geddes, LICSW

Breathing techniques have been a part of certain meditation and yoga traditions for centuries and were a part of early primal therapy and primal integration work. Breathing techniques have become more visible as they have become more central in the various healing systems since the birth of Rebirthing in the middle seventies. A relatively recent proliferation of breathwork systems has taken place including, but not limited to, Vivation, Transformational Breathwork, Conscious Breathwork, Radiance Breathwork, and Holotropic Breathwork.

From my own experiences doing breathwork and facilitating breathwork groups and workshops, it seems apparent that the common denominator in all the forms is hyperventilation, which simply means fast and deep breathing. The continuous intake of more than the usual amount of air translates into an alteration of consciousness for most people. Some methods use gentle but circular breathing without pauses. Some use breathing that starts in the abdomen and works its way up to the chest. Some use deep, aggressive breathing with no concern about pauses. Every method, in some way, increased the air intake over an extended period of time.

Given these observations, I have concluded that what the "breather" needs is information about this simple concept: increasing the air intake for an extended period of time will probably lead to an alteration in the "breather's" state of consciousness with some resulting inner experience that is healing in nature. Increasing the air intake (hyperventilation) frequently also leads to one or more body reactions which have been called hyperventilation but are more accurately called hyperventilation syndrome. These reactions include lightheadedness, tingling in the extremities and lips, and tetany. Many breathwork professionals do not believe, contrary to usual medical belief, that the biochemical changes from hyperventilating are the cause of these body reactions. One belief is that the reactions are the result of a struggle between strong emotions trying to express themselves and the body's usual defenses trying to suppress them. They do see a relationship between the biochemical changes and an increased access to unconscious material.

As a loose rule of thumb, we can assume that the greater the biochemical changes the more likely that the person will access an altered state and the deeper the access will be. This rule allows the "breather" complete control over his own experience in so far as access and depth are concerned. Once given some simple instructions about breathing technique, the "breather" may choose a style that fits his or her purpose.

It is my current belief that emotional/spiritual healing is most deeply and permanently reached by accessing a non-usual level of consciousness and allowing each human organism's unique, innate, already-there program to actualize and do the job of healing. Whether the healing needed is strongest at the current this-life level, the earlier this-life level or the past life level, the already in place inner program will search and find the appropriate healing needed at this time.

Many of the ever-growing number of "alternative" healing systems and styles in some way include accessing a non-usual level of consciousness or an altered state. Well-known examples are meditation, hypnotherapy, primal integration and breathwork.

The breathing continuum goes from:

  • the "normal" style of any individual with some form of moderate breathing with pauses between inhale and exhale and between exhale and inhale to
  • the aggressive "breather' who breathes very deeply and very fast with no pauses.

I believe that, in breathwork, the access to the altered state is primarily the result of biochemical changes. The nature of the individual's experience is unique to that person. It seems that more emphasis is placed upon this-life experiences including pre- and peri-natal experiences by the less dramatic methods while the more energized methods emphasize transpersonal and past-life experiences.

In addition to the breathing itself, a variety of secondary stimuli may be added to the experience such as a) immersion in water; b) body posture; c) degree of light/darkness in the room; d) number of people in the group; e) relaxation techniques; and f) music. While all of these stimuli are involved in all breathwork experiences, only some may be consciously attended to by the facilitator. The one most frequently attended to in a conscious way is music.

Immersion in water: Although submerging the "breather" partially to fully in water was the original modality in rebirthing and frequently has dramatic results, it is rarely used in breathwork these days. What I read is that the water doesn't matter, it's the breathing that counts. Personally, I think it became too inconvenient.

Breather posture: It seems probably that in the continuum from sitting up straight to lying prone, the closer one is to prone the deeper access is attained. Facilitators who ask their "breathers" to lie prone are consciously making use of that probability. Facilitators in the know who ask that their "breathers" sit up are, probably, for their own reasons, doing the same.

Light/darkness: The probable continuum is that the darker the room, the deeper the experience, but there are innumerable exceptions to this rule of thumb.

Group size: The number of people in the group, from one to hundreds, usually has significant effect on the breather's experience. This effect is unique to each person.

Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques are frequently used in breathwork just before the breathing begins. Since a good relaxation technique is a method of accessing an altered state of consciousness all by itself, combining the two increases the access possibilities.

Music: Music is that extra piece that most breathwork facilitators use as part of the experience. It is my belief that the music usually used does not induce the change in consciousness, but it may affect and modify the nature of the experience. Music described as sad, angry, joyful, terrifying, happy or wild may influence the breathed in those directions. Also, it may not.

Given the reality that the breather is often little known (or even unknown) to the facilitator and given that breathwork may be a very powerful opening up experience, it behooves the novice breather to be at least minimally informed about the breathwork experience and to trust his or her own instincts to lead the way using the above information to do so.

This article appeared in the Summer 1995 IPA Newsletter.

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