We go to school to acquire academic knowledge and practical, job related skills. I believe that therapy, like school, is a learning experience. It’s not something we do to “fix” whatever is broken inside us. Rather, it’s a highly effective way to learn the skill of living well.

Breathwork is one of the most effective experiential therapies I know for developing the ability to engage fully and freely with life, and to shape that life in ways that are enriching and enjoyable.

What is Breathwork?

Breathwork is the conscious use of breathing for physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Breathing is an integral part of yoga, meditation and other centuries old Eastern practices. In the West, in the 20th century, mental health professionals and others began using breathing techniques to explore emotional and psychological issues. This type of breathwork goes by many names – Holotropic, Vivation, Radiance, Transformational, Clarity breathwork. The form I have practiced as a therapist for nearly twenty years is Rebirthing.

Rebirthing, founded in the late 60’s by Leonard Orr, uses a breathwork technique called Conscious Connected Breathing. In Rebirthing a deep inhale filling the lungs from diaphragm to collar bones is followed by an uncontrolled exhale, like a sigh. The breather’s normal pace speeds up a little due to the elimination of the natural pauses at the top or bottom of the breathing cycle but, other than that, they follow their own rhythm. The session lasts about an hour.

People generally come to breathwork for help with emotional, relational or psychological problems – the same reasons they seek out counseling or psychotherapy. Rebirthing, therefore, is usually supported by some form of talk therapy either before or after the session. This can prime the client for their breathwork or help them ground the experience in cognitive understanding afterwards.  Focused bodywork or energy work may also be used.

In other forms of breathwork, the approach and some of the adjunct techniques vary – some use intense body work, loud music, or movement. Some are done solely in groups, others in one to one sessions with a therapist. Some emphasize hyperventilation, others eschew it.

What happens in a Breathwork session?

When people surrender into conscious breathing, awareness expands rapidly to the point where consciousness changes. The breather is aware of their surroundings at all times, but their focus is inward and that inner experience is limitless and infinitely varied. It contains anything from coursing waves of energy to dream like visual experiences, emotions of all kinds, memories (including the memory of birth, from which Rebirthing gets its name) to profound insights and clarifications.

The rebirthing experience, like the breathing that brings it about, is a cycle. It starts with the focus on breathing in a circular or connected manner. This produces a build-up of energy which can take the form of physical sensations – many pleasant, some uncomfortable. It can manifest as mounting emotional intensity – fear, anger, joy, sadness…I once had a client laugh non-stop for forty-five minutes. This build up can be accompanied by memories.  In my many years in practice, I’ve never encountered a memory (other than the memory of birth) that had been suppressed.

The difference is that, in breathwork, a memory is more than an intellectual recalling of events. It’s a whole package – event, emotion, belief system – all together in a multi-dimensional experience grounded in the body. It’s not painless. Going this deep into ourselves with awareness can be emotionally uncomfortable and we can try to push it away. This shows in changing breathing patterns. The breathwork therapist’s job is to keep their client focused on their breathing.

The next phase is the climax, when the intensity reaches its peak. This is the point of acceptance and letting go. Like a circle that needs to be closed, the breather re-experiences the event fully instead of pushing it away. This is when the past loses its grip on our life.

The final phase of the cycle is completion. Breathing eases, the body is totally relaxed, and the breather is at peace. This is a phase of bliss, of tingling sensation, of love and contentment. This is the state of Radical Awareness, a mystical spiritual state of union with life itself.

Over time, as more of our old patterns, memories and emotions are resolved, we discover a growing freedom of choice in how to react to events and people, a growing ability to consciously shape our own life. And shaping life is often more about letting go than acquiring. Letting go of expectations, needs, and of beliefs about how life should be.

And the result? Life comes to us “…abundantly, extravagantly, pressed down and running over.” (Daniel O’Leary, Travelling Light). Whether life is loud or quiet, simple or complex, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are fully engaged with every moment of it.