It is no exaggeration to say that breathwork changed my life. In that most perfect, random-seeming, but completely synchronous way, I arrived at a time and place, open and curious with no expectation, and was delivered my life’s work. Where to begin? The story starts on a plane. I was travelling to Ubud, Bali, for a breathwork retreat. I had no idea what that entailed at the time, but I’d met the retreat facilitators at a conference we were both speaking at, was intrigued by their presentation, and knew intuitively that I needed to be there, so I signed up.
I had always used breath in yoga and meditation and knew its integral role in these modalities. There was a lot of talk in therapeutic communities about how breathwork was transforming lives through the somatic release of trauma, and I was intrigued by how to harness something as available and accessible as breath to work with the intractable problems of trauma and anxiety that plague so many people.
I was reading Michael Pollan’s book on non-ordinary states ‘How to Change Your Mind,’ while travelling, as I had an interest in the resurgence of plant medicines and breathwork into mainstream mental health treatment. While some clinical trials are underway in Australia using psilocybin and MDMA to treat resistant depression, PTSD, and anxiety, Australian legislation was and is some distance from reclassifying these drugs. In the US and Europe, there is now a significant body of Government-supported, peer-reviewed research, and clinical trials on the efficacy of psychedelics, and Pollan’s book (among others) clearly showed breathwork as the non-pharmacological solution to the relief from the suffering of a range of mental health conditions.
My experience on retreat – a week of structured breathwork journeys – unearthed, shifted, released and integrated trauma in ways that were beyond my comprehension. I knew after the dramatic transition of my wellbeing, wholeness, and worldview that this was a modality I had to train in and share with as many people as possible.
Breath, or pranayama as it’s known in Sanskrit, has always been an integral part of preventative and restorative medicine across cultures, recorded by all civilisations in one form or another. Prana means life force or breath sustaining the body. Ayama translates as extend or draw out; together, pranayama is using the breath to nourish and extend life.
Millions of words have been written on breathing and breathwork, with a current resurgence in interest and exploration of a contemporary approach to breathwork. This practice has one foot in the science and evidence-based world, and another in the spiritual and ineffable. I straddle this nexus in all my work and find that understanding breathwork and its potential for integrating trauma and the side effects of calm, connection and contentment happen when people understand what breathwork does and how it does it.
As humans, we frequently are oblivious to our breath, and the pillar of wellness that it represents. It has a critical relationship with our autonomic nervous system (ANS), our heart, lungs, organs, and hormones. The breathwork process is a non-pharmacological, endogenous way of inducing non-ordinary states that involve connected breathing (using inhalation and a long exhalation without a break, like circular breathing) over a sustained period, plus sonic elements such as drumming, music, and soundwaves to enhance and induce the experience change.
A breathwork journey will start with the facilitator explaining what will happen, creating the vital frame for the set and setting process. Once the client or group is ready, they lie down or sit up in a comfortable position and begin breathing in a deep, connected breathing pattern for up to an hour, sometimes longer. Music and rhythm are an integral part of a breathwork journey. The conscious curation of a structured narrative arc of sound for the participant enables the distinct stages of entry, deepening, release, return, and integration to occur.
Music is intricately connected to our neurological and limbic systems, and powerfully activates emotional and mental states, and stored memories, when coupled with conscious connected breathing.
During the session, participants can experience a range of emotions, movements, and sensations as the body undertakes a process of somatic release, triggered by the breath. All expressions are encouraged as part of the conscious and unconscious stored trauma being accessed and released. Afterward, the breathwork journey is integrated with journaling and discussion with the facilitator.
Breathwork is a perfect companion to the counselling and therapy process. It assists and supports clients as they access deeply locked traumatic experiences that are often difficult to articulate. The practices work together to elicit insight and new ways of being and feeling in our bodies and in our relationships.