How simple breathing techniques can be healing
Tune in to your breathing for a moment. It’s amazing how something so simple and elemental, something we do all the time and usually unconsciously — breathing in and out — can be so powerful. But when we take in the life force of air, we are accessing a powerful tool that we can use to enhance our health and wellbeing.
Breathing techniques are an integral part of many therapeutic practices. Conscious breathing has a therapeutic effect on the whole body and can be a tool for spiritual growth, self-help and psychotherapy as well as healing from injury. The techniques might vary depending on the tradition they arise within (from yoga to Pilates, from rebirthing to meditation) but they all have a common thread: they aim to align the body’s physical, mental and spiritual health through the breath.
Breathwork is both ancient and modern, and is a simple, safe and gentle means to access both inner and outer health in body, mind and spirit.
Meditation and conscious breathing
Breathing is the basis of most meditation techniques and is practised through bringing one’s awareness to the sensations of breathing in and breathing out. Feeling the breath entering and leaving the body brings you back “into your body” and this can relieve you of anxiety, stress and a sense of busy-ness.
Most meditative breathing techniques are based around the tradition of the yogic pranayama, which is essentially feeling the physical sensation of air moving in and out of the nostrils. This focused attention allows the mind to let go of everything but the act of breathing, which in turn brings you into contact with the present moment.
One common Buddhist meditation technique is to feel the breath moving through the body, not just in and out of the nose but also through the throat, lungs and belly. This leads to a state of calm; all mental concerns are set aside in contemplation of this subtle, gentle physical sensation. Another technique used in meditation involves consciously breathing into the belly then the chest, and out from the belly then the chest. The act of concentrating on such a simple physical activity produces a state of calm that is attainable anywhere, any time.
In meditative breathwork, the most important thing to remain mindful of is: not to mind! That is, don’t hold onto the idea that you’re not supposed to be thinking. If thoughts arise, and they will, simply allow them to arise and let them go. Don’t try to “not think”. Just let the thoughts drift through your consciousness like clouds in the sky and then let them disperse again — and always return your focus to the breath.
There are several techniques common to the many and varied traditions of breathwork. These are subtle mental exercises that you might already practise without realising it. That’s the beauty of breathing — we all know how to do it; we just don’t use it to its full potential.
Counting the breaths is a sure way to focus the mind and calm the body, especially for people who haven’t practised breathwork before. Start by sitting comfortably, then focus on the breath in your belly, chest or nose. Calmly listen to and feel your breathing for a moment. When you are conscious of your breathing pattern, mentally count each in-breath, noticing how this pattern gradually slows as you relax. When you’ve counted to 10, begin again at one. There is no object in this exercise but counting the breath, yet it yields a sense of calm and a peaceful, centred state of mind afterwards.
When your mind is calm and able to focus effectively on the breath, you may practise following the breath as it travels through your body. Without trying to change how the breath feels within you, simply allow your mind to drift with the breath through your body. Follow the progress of the in-breath, notice the space or pause at the end of each in-breath, and follow the progress of the out-breath. There is no thought involved; you are simply allowing your mind to follow the breath.
Centring is the deep grounding or calming space we go to in mind and body when we practise breathwork. When mindfulness of the breath is established, your breathing becomes more and more subtle — each breath becomes light, slow and tranquil. Your body becomes calm and ceases to feel tired; you cross the threshold into conscious awareness, transcending our chaotic world and just being — much like an animal in the wild or a newborn baby. You’ll notice your breathing will become gradually slower and shallower, until it almost seems like you’ve stopped breathing. Don’t be alarmed: your body will unconsciously do what it needs to, just as it does when you’re asleep or concentrating on something else. Your mind, however, will be free from mental hindrances — desire, anger, drowsiness, restlessness and doubt — and become joyfully centred in a peaceful space.
Observing the breath happens when you enter a space of deep insight meditation, as practised in Eastern Indian vipassana. The calming effect of breathwork leads to a presence of mind unlike any other, where you are at ease with life as it is in the moment, regardless of worldly concerns, past experiences or future plans. Commonly seen as a goal of meditation, the practice of observing is actually quite easy; all it involves is simply being conscious of the breath through any of the above techniques. This is because observing from this calm and serene place is reliant on being in the moment — there is no need to get anywhere, no learning or experience necessary. It happens in the now and, when it does, it’s vast and all-encompassing.
“Active breathing” is the main breathwork technique in Pilates, with the purpose of accessing the deepest abdominal muscles through the breath and creating support and protection for the lumbar, or lower, spine. Active breathing is done by inhaling through the nose, dropping the belly down, while breathing deep into the rib cage. The breath is then exhaled as the belly continues to drop down and expel all the air from the lungs.
Correct breathing is an important part of tai chi, where the key is the storing and delivering of energy — focusing energy and power and directing it with intention.
Tai chi breathing generally involves inhaling (storing energy) while thinking of taking life energy (oxygen) into your body. When you exhale in tai chi, you deliver your mindful intent, or force. This is common to most tai chi movements since they are, in essence, alternating opening and closing movements and focusing on allowing the body to move naturally and consciously.
Pranayama are the breathing exercises of yoga. The ancient author Patanjali, the “Father of yoga”, defined pranayama as “the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention”. Pranayama is generally only practised after attaining a yoga asana (pose) with perfection, focus and contemplation.
The word “pranayama” consists of two parts. Prana is energy; the body becomes self-energising. Ayama means stretch, breadth, extension, length, regulation, restraint and control and thus describes the action of pranayama — extending the breath.
In yoga, pranayama breathwork is therefore a conduit activity: it connects you to the self-energising force that is the principle of life and consciousness. It is ultimately healing, in every dimension of an individual’s physical and personal life.
Rebirthing breathwork uses the breath to relieve your body and mind of unwanted traumas, suffering and issues from this life and from past lives. While you hold in your mind the issue that you want to resolve, the rebirth breathworker will guide you through a pattern of breathing techniques designed to use and move its energy.
The goals of rebirthing breathwork are to calm the mind, dissolve stress, detoxify the body, release disempowering patterns of behaviour and clear unwanted thoughts, beliefs and emotions. The breathwork itself can be a physically demanding, even exhausting experience; crying, coughing and deep emotional expression are common during rebirthing. It’s advisable to rest before a rebirthing session, and not eat for a few hours prior, so the body isn’t working on digestion too. It can be quite a “workout”, but you will certainly feel more alive after a rebirthing session.
Conscious breathing is a practice that enables our conscious and subconscious minds to work together as one, overcoming negative programming and transcending “brain chatter”, while healing the body physiologically through attentive breathing.
Conscious breath meditation allows you to become aware of your breathing without controlling it; integrating conscious mind and subconscious mind. This is done through relaxing and watching the body breathe. Attention is given to the fact that breathing happens without you doing anything. Let your subconscious mind control your breathing, but pay conscious attention to it; simply be consciously aware of the breath, while letting it happen effortlessly.
This technique integrates insights from modern spiritual practices, psychological research, anthropology, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual practices and mystical traditions of the world. “Holotropic” literally means “moving toward wholeness”; the word derives from the Greek holos (whole) and trepein (moving in the direction of something).
The breathwork itself is simple, combining accelerated breathing with evocative music in a calming setting. With eyes closed and lying on a mat, you use the breath and the music to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This state activates your brain’s natural inner healing processes and creative discussion with the therapist follows — to share, examine and integrate the experience and issues raised.
Vivation uses “circular breathing” to heal through the physical pleasure of breathing; it also allows for permanent resolution of emotions and physical sensations such as pain or trauma. Circular breathing is the most natural way to breathe, yet most of us inhibit breathing patterns unconsciously due to emotional suppression and mental distraction. Vivation seeks to heal the circular motion of the breath and circulate healing energy throughout the body.
“Breath of fire” is a Kundalini breathwork technique for increasing energy, focus and vitality. It’s a rapid, rhythmic and continuous breath that sounds like powerful sniffing. The breaths are short and sharp and powered by the diaphragm, with the solar plexus being pushed inwards towards the spine with each out-breath.
It’s done by first taking a couple of long, deep breaths, then inhaling. As you exhale, pull the solar plexus (above the navel) in towards the spine — the exhaled air should make a forceful sniffing sound. Immediately take another deep breath and exhale the same way. There should be no pauses between the breaths — this is a rapid-breathing exercise that energises with its lively rhythm. As with any exercise, begin with short experiments and stop if it’s at all uncomfortable or painful.
Rebecca Fitzgibbon is a feature writer based in Tasmania; she is a practitioner of yoga, meditation, ecstatic dance, trance dance and magick. E: email@example.com.