If you are like me, the very thought of breathwork can leave you gasping for air. No form of mindfulness sounds less relaxing or restoring than being asked to focus on your breath. Your heart starts racing. Your breathing becomes fast and shallow. Or maybe you get a queasy feeling in your stomach. For people who suffer from conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, and chronic pain, the thought of breathwork can bring to mind more panic than peace. However, once you understand why this response happens and how to avoid it, breathwork can become an incredibly powerful tool for healing.
What is breathwork? And how is it different from meditation or other forms of contemplative practice? The breath keeps us in constant exchange with the world around us – taking in the oxygen that cells need to process energy and releasing the carbon dioxide that is the waste product from this process. A contemplative practice like chanting regulates the breath by encouraging us to take a short inhale between notes and then a long exhale as we sing out. Dance, as a contemplative practice, also influences the breath by encouraging us to take faster, energizing breaths to the music. In meditation, the attention on the breath can be even more direct, and we might even be intentional about the kinds of breaths we take (for example: in through the nose and out through the mouth). What distinguishes breathwork from other contemplative practices and from meditation in general is that the breath becomes the center of the practice, and it is intentionally manipulated by means such as counting, pattern making, and adjusting where and how the breath flows to produce specific states (energized, aware, relaxed, etc.). Breathwork is also a core component of yoga, known as pranayama.
Now, in case this description already has you cringing, let me explain why breathwork can be unsettling to those with conditions that involve extra stress or pain. In simplest terms, we associate heightened awareness of the breath with our suffering. Stress and pain put the body on high alert, triggering a “fight or flight” response. The blood vessels dilate, the pupils dilate, the heart rate accelerates, and blood flow is diverted from non-urgent processes like digestion and reproduction as the body prepares for a life-and-death struggle.
This response is the body’s swift, short-term strategy to save us from danger. The problem with conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and chronic pain is that the threat never goes away fully or for very long. Our bodies spend far more time than Nature ever intended in high alert. Since the fight or flight response affects breathing so markedly, we associate any kind of attention on the breath with being triggered. And, for us, being triggered into a fight or flight response isn’t a welcome boost of energy that will help us win a 2K; it is a state that feels truly dangerous and can leave us panicked, dysregulated, and numb.
Recently, I was invited by the popular Aura app to create new meditation recordings for their users. I was excited to share my experience and techniques as a meditation guide with a wider audience. However, you can imagine my discomfort when they specified that at least half of my initial contributions should help grow their new collection of breathwork recordings! Over my years as a healing practitioner, I have developed creative, fruitful ways to manage breathwork in meditation. However, I had never focused solely on breathwork. It was always an accent to meditation for me, never the primary tool or focus. Designing exercises specifically for breathwork still sounded a bit like torture for myself as well as for my listeners.
At first, I really struggled. I questioned whether I was qualified to guide others in a practice that had been so challenging for me. One of my first recordings, a belly relaxation exercise to help people who suffer from trauma, took three full takes and several days before I submitted it to the app, only to be rejected three times before it finally passed. While the issues were with the sound quality, not the content, I resolved not to give up. In the end, I told myself that the Universe must just want me to keep practicing working with my breath. When the track finally came out, it quickly became my most popular recording at the time. The more I focused on breathwork, the more creative I became in my approach. To my delight, I discovered that my listeners also appreciated these inventions.
One thing that sets my approach to breathwork apart is that I never focus solely on the breath. This is how I avoid triggering an immediate fight or flight response. I use imagery – light, color, shape, sound, etc. – to help the listener see the energy we are moving with the breath. I encourage the listener to notice the sensations of the body as the breath is moving through it. I always use music as an inspiration and guide in my recordings. I sometimes have the listener make sounds with the breath (humming, sighing, etc.), and, although my breathwork is not yoga, I often incorporate small movements to assist in the flow of energy and to connect with the body.
As I produced more recordings, to my surprise, I started to enjoy breathwork. And I noticed that I was benefiting from it as well! While there is a great deal of hype about breathwork out there, as someone who once deeply struggled with the very idea of it, here is what I appreciate most:
- You can use breathwork to retrain your Central Nervous System and manage conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and chronic pain. The breath is associated with the two branches of the Central Nervous System. One, the sympathetic branch, which controls the fight or flight response, is associated with the in-breath. The other, the parasympathetic branch, which controls our “rest and digest” functions, is associated with the out-breath. When we work with the breath, we bring these two branches into balance.
- Breathwork makes the magic of energy healing easier. The breath is a constant and one of the most direct forms of energy exchange that we have with the world around us, controlling the respiration process that brings energy to the cells of our bodies. This makes the breath an incredible vehicle for energy work. We can use it to clear old patterns, release blockages, restore broken areas, and much more. All it takes is combining patterns of breath with imagery and intention.
- Breathwork brings the body and mind into balance. The breath is one of the few bodily functions that can fall under either automatic or conscious control. When we take conscious control of the breath, we strengthen the connection between mind and body and even influence how the breath behaves when it is under automatic control. For instance, the more I practice taking calm breaths with a long exhale when I feel stressed, the more my body will learn to respond to stressful situations with calming breaths.
- Breathwork is a great alternative to traditional meditation on days when you feel like you just can’t focus or sit still. Breathwork makes it perfect for those moments when you feel too scattered to meditate or your mind is racing too hard to stop and relax. Breathwork gives the mind an activity and something to focus on, which gently brings it into a state of calm awareness and balance.