Though we are born knowing how to breathe optimally, we begin to lose that knowledge as we get older – our breathing patterns change. It may even change due to trauma or sickness. If we concentrate however on “going back to basics”, we can experience a much healthier life. The body has tremendous abilities to self-heal and self-regenerate, so by changing our breath cycles, we can harness these healing properties.
Breathwork has many names. Some are more familiar, such as the breathing done in a Saturday morning yoga class, and others are less common. While each has a specific therapeutic benefit, the end goal is the same; to use the tremendous power of breath. Below we take a look at a few of these methods.
Pranayama: This style of breathwork derives from early rituals, particularly from the yoga practice of Pranayama – which translates to “controlling the breath” in Sanskrit – from the Indian religious texts, the Vedas.
Prana is the universal life force or chi that keeps us alive; it is the essential energy needed by our physical bodies. Ayama means “to extend or draw out.” There are more than fifty techniques to control the breath in Pranayama and each has a unique purpose. A few common ones that are incorporated in many yoga classes of today are: belly breathing, breath of fire, and ujjayi breath, which is the most frequent form of pranayama used during yoga poses and body postures. For instance, you are practicing Ujjayi breathing when you breathe in and out through your nose and the back of your throat. (We will talk more about Pranayama in the following section)
Holotropic breathwork: This is an unorthodox New Age practice born in the 1970s by psychiatrists Stanislav and Christina Grof. It was developed to reach an altered state of consciousness, without the use of drugs. It is traditionally conducted in groups of two people and centers on “altering the breath to alter the consciousness”. This breathwork incorporates controlling and quickening the breath in order to positively affect ones mental, emotional, and physical states. During the two to three-hour session, people explore and discuss personal traumatic experiences, feelings, or thoughts. Holotropic breathing can be a very powerful process and may cause hallucinations, crying and even slight physical discomfort.
Shamanic breathwork: It is believed that we all have a shaman, or seer, within us, and this technique allows us to connect to that shaman to heal our pain and wounds. Throughout life, we experience trauma that accumulates and causes dysfunctional patterns and by reaching our “internal healer”, we can release the Ego and thus the pain. When practicing Shamanic breathwork, a person engages in rhythmic breathing and chakra-attuned music, and drumming.
Wim Hof Breathwork: This technique was developed by Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof and is somewhat new, though because based on early pranayama practices. His nickname, “Iceman”, was given to him because of a string of extreme physical achievements; such as withstanding freezing temperatures and ice baths for extended periods of time. His system includes 3 m ain pillars: breathing/controlled hyperventilation, subjection to cold, and meditation. The first step is to take 30 power breaths, inhale deeply and hold your breath for as long as you can, then exhale. Then again take another deep breath for 10-15 seconds, hold, and release. Repeat this process 3 times. It is aimed at improving physical and mental health and has been associated with the relief of inflammation and pain.
Life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. – Author Unknown