Your guide to cathartic breathwork

written by The WellBeing Team

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Breathwork has been around since humans began to develop the means to feel happier, improve health and be more connected to the universe. In the past five decades, breathwork has evolved to a whole new level; it has been developed into the technique we know as rebirthing breathwork or the more cathartic style originally known as holotropic breathwork. Thanks to the work of Leonard Orr, an American spiritual disciple, and Stanislav Groff, a Czechoslovakian doctor of psychotherapy, great psychotherapeutic advances have been made through the use of the breath.

Not all styles of breathwork are the same. What the ever-growing community of breathwork facilitators around the world view as breathwork is often different from what the average yoga, meditation, chi gong or psychotherapy practitioners may view as breathwork.

The main distinction the traditional breathwork facilitators agree on is that a breathwork session is based on an emotional energy cycle completing through a connected breathing technique of breath control. That is, the inhale is connected with the exhale and the exhale connected with the inhale, with no gap between the two. A continuous breath results. It’s often viewed that this continuous connected breath results in what most spiritual and therapy disciplines are trying to achieve: the connection between inner and outer consciousness, the merging of the conscious and the unconscious mind.

The definition of emotional energy cycle (EEC) length can differ in different schools of breathwork. The EEC is the cycle of an emotional pocket in the unconscious being penetrated and discharged thoroughly. The EEC can take from one hour for rebirthing breathwork to up to three hours for holotropic breathwork. Despite the differences, the merging of conscious and unconscious is what genuinely results for both. The near-magical quality of this style of breathing results in a breaking-down of the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind and results in the client experiencing unconscious emotional-level memories coming to the surface.

The key word here is “emotional”. Mental-level memory recall is nothing new or special. Hypnotherapy and other effective psychotherapeutic regression techniques facilitate remembering long-forgotten or repressed events. Breathwork, however, enables people to access the emotional-level memory, the emotional aspect of past incidents: the actual deeply buried, traumatic, emotional aspect of an experience that may not ever be accessed through other means. These emotions could originate from as early as the womb, birth and infancy. It is the feeling of these emotions, not analysing mental-level memories, that results in deep healing and permanent change relatively quickly.

 

Breathwork and anger

In the average session, some people release anger and rage, which are some of the main foundations of relationship issues and self sabotage. Anger is a very powerful energy that can do one of two things: either it goes outwards, is expressed and leaves the system or is turned inwards, becoming self-directed anger and rage, which is the true cause of self-sabotage of one’s life. The anger we speak of here is not the reactive anger we experience while driving or with our partner, for example, but rather the real reason we carry anger, which present-day situations and people trigger in us.

Just because a person is comfortable to express their anger at home does not mean they are healing the real cause of their anger. It usually means the total opposite, as rarely are we really angry about what we consciously think we are angry about. It is usually an earlier childhood or school period of disempowerment being “re-triggered” that is an adult’s genuine cause of anger. At times, the anger is a cover-up of deep hurt or grief.

Some people, on the other hand, have their anger buried so deeply they don’t experience it as the “raw emotional energy” of anger. These people will be so out of touch with their emotions that they will experience only the mental-level symptoms of anger, which are having critical thoughts of others and themselves, making people and themselves wrong or judging harshly and having fantasies of arguments with people they feel wronged by or have not communicated their truth to. Some people will not even be aware of that level and will simply experience the very end result of holding on to anger, which is lack of energy, personal power, motivation and inspiration to do things. This is because buried anger is such a massive amount of trapped life-force that they have very little energy left with which to truly live.

Breathwork and grief

Some people release built-up grief, one of the main foundations of depression and self-worth issues we suffer from. People don’t realise that the grief they hold in, and are not even aware of holding on to, is the early-life heart-wounding that is at the foundation of self-worth-oriented issues. Issues with abundance, feeling joy and happiness within oneself, letting in supportive and nurturing relationships, feeling good about oneself and so forth — these are all ultimately grief/heart-wounding-oriented issues.

To heal self-worth issues, most people need to heal their heart-wounding issues, and the main way to do this is to let themselves grieve. Some people will have their grief buried so deep they will only be aware of the surface-level symptoms of grief. Some of these may be lack of energy, tiredness, insomnia and hypersomnia, sinus issues, alcohol and depressant drug addictions such as to tranquilisers and marijuana, feeling generally negative and pessimistic about life, and money issues — for a heart closed off by grief to receiving the abundance currency of love is a heart closed off to receiving other abundance currencies, such as money.

 

Breathwork and anxiety

As a result of a breathwork session, some people experience intense fear and terror, which is one of the real foundations of anxiety. All the anxiety symptoms we suffer from are a result of the fight-or-flight response. Hyper-vigilance, sweating, feeling on edge, heart palpitations, lack of restful sleep and so forth are all reactions signalling that our primal defence system has kicked in because it senses danger or something that is a threat around the corner.

It is fear of our emotions and the fear itself that triggers this fight-or-flight response. Unfortunately, the temptation is to avoid your true fear and find a simple overnight solution or blame your anxiety (or depression) on some mysterious unknown cause and choose a lifestyle of medication, avoidance and mental illness. By contrast, deal with the fear and fear of emotions, and the mechanism rests. No more anxiety symptoms, no need for medication or long-term therapy, just a need to let yourself in on your deeper emotions.

 

Real change

Many people believe they don’t have any of these emotions running their lives. That, though, is usually the power of an unconscious denial mechanism. An example is a gentleman who spent years and thousands of dollars on various treatments, therapies and workshops. This man presented for therapy because he was unable to manage his anger and to have a healthy long-term relationship. He regularly experienced intense anger at people on the footpath who did not respect his space or move out of his way. He also had the same degree of anger triggered while driving with other cars cutting in front of him. When asked about his relationship with his mother, he spoke of a “great” relationship with a few frustrations here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary.

It took only a few sessions to uncover how he actually experienced his mum as smothering and overprotective and how he wanted to push her away in anger when he was young because she did not respect his space and give him room to move and be himself. The anger released from him was very strong. While the anger was leaving him gradually through breathwork sessions, so too was his reaction to people not giving him space on the roads and footpaths.

This is the power of the unconscious defence barriers between conscious and unconscious. Years of mental-level, talking-style-therapy and seminar-style workshops could not resolve what a few sessions of coming into contact with, and feeling, pent up, deeply buried emotions accomplished. Our denial mechanism is very powerful. How many people do you know who view their childhood through rosy-coloured spectacles and suffer from a major emotional disorder such as depression, anxiety or anger issues? Let’s face it, nearly all of us, because if you are human you have the same unconscious denial mechanism. This is why we are describing cathartic breathwork as the future of therapy.

Healing of issues does not lie in analysis and using your mind to managing or control surface-level symptoms. Real resolution lies in dealing with the root cause once and for all. This style of breathwork results in displacing the defence barriers that stop us from feeling, hence releasing emotional-level memory. Mental-level memory can be accessed through hypnosis and effective psychotherapy. We are talking about the emotional-level memory, which is very different from simply remembering. Emotional-level memory means you are able to recall the emotions and re-experience them, and so heal them.

Case study: emotional-level memory

Here’s an example of the importance of emotional-level memory regression. A woman was suffering from marriage issues that were causing her immense stress and drastically affecting her quality of life. She had constantly felt she was not emotionally supported by her husband, often became “frustrated” with him and their sex life was suffering. She felt she had been working on herself for the past two decades and working on her marriage for many years.

Through previous therapy she had discovered she felt “not good enough” for her father when she was young and felt she had not been nurtured enough by her mother, and so experienced disconnection from her. She believed she had forgiven them both and understood they had done the best they could and she had a good relationship with them. She could not understand why she still had so many issues in her marriage, especially as it had started very well and she felt now she deserved happiness after all her inner work.

In the first session of cathartic breathwork she went back to a womb memory where she remembered sensing her father wanting a son. As a result, the feeling of not being wanted and the grief that came with this became trapped in her system even as a foetus. She decided that to be loved by her dad she had to be a boy, so decided to over-balance towards her masculine side and disown her female sexual essence by shutting it down. She experienced a massive amount of anger and grief in the session over this and started the final frontier of releasing the earliest foundation of her beliefs around not being good enough for men, while also dealing with the genuine cause of her feeling that she was out of touch with her femininity and sexuality.

In the same session she went into the anger she had towards her mother. As she went deeper into the anger, she uncovered the grief she held down with the anger (easier to feel the anger than the pain) around her experience of not being nurtured as much as she needed to be as a child or in a love language she understood. This anger and sadness maintained the belief “I do not deserve love and support” charged and alive in her unconscious mind, producing this reality in her external world by not letting in love and support or sabotaging the love and support of those around her.

This woman was convinced she had dealt with her mum and dad issues, which could have been behind her present-day relationship issues. It took cathartic-style breathwork to uncover what was missing in her healing: the feeling. To heal it, we need to feel it.

 

Handle with care

I must emphasise to people: do not try this at home. You definitely need a well-trained, experienced professional with you to undergo this process. The breathing pattern needs to be done in a specific manner, at a specific speed, depth and intensity for it to have the effect of dissolving the defence barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind. Even with a trained professional, some people will go through intense physical reactions such as tetany (involuntary cramping of muscles) and going “unconscious” (a “zonking-out” type of sleep). If a person does not go through to the other side of these phases they may feel “half-baked”, meaning a layer of an old emotion is half in and half out of the system. This would leave the person feeling worse than before.

 

A guide to simple breathwork

If you do wish to experience a subtle version of the defence-displacing ability of the connected breathing technique, do the following. Think of what you would like in your life. Close your eyes and imagine being in the future reality where you have that thing in your life. Now take 5–10 slow and deep connected breaths, through the nose only, perfectly connecting inhale with exhale and ask yourself: “Since I do not have this in my life, I feel …?” You will think of or experience an emotion. Now ask yourself: “Since I don’t have this in my life, I make it mean that I am …?” You will most likely have a negative thought about yourself. Important: in each instance, trust what comes to mind first. Do not sugar-coat it. You now have the main emotion you need to feel and the main unconscious negative personal belief about yourself you need to deal with.

A dis-ease is anything not really working. A dis-ease is there to get us in touch with the emotions and beliefs that caused the disease in the first place. The dis-ease of not having that thing in your life just got you in touch with the main emotion and belief that is stopping you from having that. This is just a subtle version of the defence-displacing power of the connected breath. To take it further and deal with the rest, you need a facilitator.


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The WellBeing Team