🜁 Breathwork 🜁
pranayama, holotropic, rebirthing,
the wim hof method & soma breath
The Breath has played a primary role throughout human history – especially when it comes to staying alive! The words ‘Spirit’ and ‘Breath’ actually share the same roots throughout languages, with the Latin word ‘spirare’ (spirit) meaning ‘to breathe’. This meaningful liaison between spirit and breath is of no surprise, since breathing techniques have played a central role in many ancient cultures, traditions and religions, including Taoism, Qigong, Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoga, Christianity, Shamanism, and martial arts.
Our breath is our life force, and harnessing it has led humankind into the depth of self-discovery, healing and transformation. The breath is many things. It is the path into the subconscious realms of the mind. Working the breath properly and consciously is therefore of vital importance to our experience of life. It is the connection between the outer world and the inner world. It is the bridge between the Body and the Mind. It is Energy.
Whether you are aware of it or not, you are breathing at all times. Conscious Breathing is an umbrella term for methods that direct your awareness to your breath. When your mind is fixed on the breathing process, you can improve the process itself, building better habits. It also encourages mindfulness, a first step towards meditation.
On a physical level, conscious breathing will impact multiple areas:
- Respiratory System
- Digestive System
- Circulatory/Cardiac System
- Endocrine System
- Nervous System
Breathwork is exactly what it sounds like. It is the process of working the breath, consciously, in an effort to impact the deeper areas of your Self. By deeper areas, I am referring especially to the nervous system and the endocrine (hormonal) system, and therefore the Mind, since our thoughts are governed by these hormonal and nervous energies – our physiology.
Consciously working the breath is also a way of tapping into our Energetic System, or Emotional system. Your breath creates energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and your emotions are streams of data from all the bodily systems, entering your brain as electrical signals, electromagnetic signals, chemical waves, pressure waves etc… (Dr. Alan Watkins). Changing the way you breathe will inevitably alter your biochemistry (oxygen, carbon dioxide, pH…), in turn affecting your ATP (energy) and any blocked energies, experienced as emotions.
Due to the excessive emotional stresses we experience in our modern day ‘rat race’, which to no surprise lead to high levels of anxiety and depression, it is no wonder breathwork has gained in popularity. Working with the breath has been quite transformative personally, and I can’t compare it to any other experience I’ve had through my personal practice. After having extensively practised Pranayama (Yogic breathing), modern Breathwork (Holotropic, Rebirthing) and fusions of the two (SOMA Breath & the Wim Hof Method), I’ve decided to break them down.
In the Yoga tradition, Pranayama is the ancient science and practice of manipulating the body’s life force, or subtle energy (prana), through harnessing the power of the breath. Pranayama can be translated as ‘Controlling the Breath’ as well as ‘Extending and Expanding the Energy/Breath’.
More appropriately it is the capacity to absorb and direct prana, consciously controlling this vital energy.
In the beginning, we explore the effects of changing our inhalations and exhalations, by bringing our awareness to them, and extending them. Exploring rhythmic breathing is the foundation of pranayama practice. Later we begin to slowly introduce breath retentions, known as kumbhaka. Pranayama can actually be defined as the Retention itself, being the container in which heightened awareness and ‘magic’ happens, as the prana intensifies and is directed towards a specific purpose.
Pranayama is the beginning of working with the subtle energies in the body, and directing your attention to them. Directing the mind to become aware of the subtle activities is the beginning of Yoga – of union between the body and the mind.
There are a multitude of different techniques and ways to apply them, some having a calming and relaxing effect, others a more balanced and harmonising effect on all levels, whilst others can be outright explosive and energising. It is a timeless and ultimately liberating practice and science. If you wish to explore Pranayama techniques in detail, or talk about the subject, feel free to reach out to me here.
HOLOTROPIC BREATHWORK & REBIRTHING
Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist now 90 years old, has a Masters Degree in Psychiatry and a PhD in Medicine. He used to work with LSD as a form of psychedelic therapy, but after its illegalisation in the 1960s, Grof replaced the psychoactive with breathing techniques. Together with his wife Christina Grof, an author, teacher, artist, and psychotherapist, they created Holotropic Breathwork (from the Greek holos, which means ‘whole’, and trepein, which translates to ”progressing toward something”). The main focus of this type of breathwork is to rewire the brain, encouraging emotional release, increased levels of self awareness, character improvement and spiritual exploration. Some reports suggest that this type of therapy can be used to treat a wide range of psychological and existential life issues. Intense and dynamic music also plays a central role in Holotropic Breathwork, eventually quieting down after its culmination. Sessions can last several hours, ending with some form of creative expression such as a mandala drawing, and a discussion of the experience, which are important for its full processing. Overall, it is important to note that this style of breathwork is used as a tool in psycho-therapy/psychiatry, and due to its intense effects on the practitioner’s emotional and psychological state, some experts recommend it be used in conjunction with ongoing therapy.
Leonard D. Orr, after having practiced breathwork on his own throughout the 1960s, experienced his own birth in a bath tub! He then eventually began to guide group sessions in the 70s, helping people find relaxation and peace through the release of pain, tension and trauma. This led the psychotherapist into creating Rebirthing. Similar to Holotropic Breathwork, these sessions involve rapid breathing for a period of 15 – 45 minutes, but the music does not play as much of a central role, and is generally soothing. The technique is relatively safe, but some more intense adaptations of it can be potentially dangerous. There is one unfortunate account of the death of a young girl after the technique was done in a forced manner during a private session. Orr passed away in 2019, and the RBI (Rebirthing Breathwork International) continues his legacy by hosting sessions, education, workshops and trainings.
So how do these two techniques work?
I have grouped these 2 breathwork techniques together since although the overall intention may differ slightly, the breathing technique is pretty much identical, using deeper and accelerated breathing – hyperventilating. Hyperventilation can be defined as breathing faster than you normally would, as you do during heightened states of stress or when in pain for example. Common symptoms are dizziness, muscle cramping (tetany), tingling, numbness and changes in body temperature. The ‘T-rex hands’ or ‘Lobster claws’ effect is a common response, where your hand muscles begin to tighten, and the guide may come along and lightly flatten your hand back out again, and gently whisper ‘just breathe though it’.
When you breathe faster, you release carbon dioxide at a faster rate, leading to a state of respiratory alkalosis and vaso-constriction, reducing blood flow to the brain. Grof believed that at least some visual and introspective experiences were triggered by having less oxygen to the brain.
James Nestor, in his popular book Breath, outlines that over-breathing for even just a few minutes, can decrease brain blood flow by 40% – an incredible amount. The areas most affected by this govern functions such as visual processing, body sensory information, memory, the experience of time and the sense of self. Disturbances in these areas can lead to hallucinations, including out-of-body experiences and waking dreams. Nestor also informs that the alkaline state of the blood from fast breathing (respiratory alkalosis) will send distress signals specifically to the limbic system connected to our emotions and sense of arousal. A sustained alkaline state may trick the more primitive limbic system into thinking the body is dying, accounting for the many ‘near-death’ and ”rebirth’ experiences during Holotropic and Rebirthing Breathwork sessions.
My Experience and Advice
These styles of breathwork are incredibly powerful. It is not out of the usual to find yourself or others in a session to start laughing, crying, or sometimes screaming uncontrollably. Entering deep dimensions of the psyche, it is possible to experience liberating and psychedelic states, as well as out of body experiences. Due to the power and potential of these techniques, it is paramount to practice them (and any other breathing techniques for that matter) with a qualified guide/therapist.
If you are interested in trying out these techniques, a Rebirthing retreat with a qualified Instructor will give you a taste of what to expect – and maybe even release some emotions. If you are interested in working on past trauma or other deeply rooted issues, a qualified guide with knowledge of the Mind and Psyche (such as a psychologist) and trained in Holotropic Breathwork will be a better option.
The Wim Hof Method
Now it’s time to brave the cold! Wim Hof, or the ‘Iceman’, has grown internationally known since he started breaking world records and allowed scientists to analyse his physiology and effects of his method. It is difficult to ignore his ideas after hearing about his remarkable life and achievements, including:
- Climbing mount Everest (altitude of 7,400 metres) in sandals (at first) and shorts
- Running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle, barefoot and wearing only shorts
- Running a full marathon through the Namib Desert without drinking water
- Swimming underneath thick layers of ice for more than 200 feet
- Standing packed in ice for hours without dropping core body temperature
Is he some genetic freak? Or could his method really work? Let’s look into the method and the science.
The Technique / Method
The WHM consists of 3 pillars:
- Cold Exposure
- Power of the Mind
Wim Hof Breathing
The breathwork is what I was drawn to initially, and after practising his technique for several weeks, it was the cold showers and ice baths which had the most effect on me, probably because I already use this style of breathing in my daily practice. But that’s a different subject for another article. The breathing itself is very similar to bellows breathing (bhastrika) in Pranayama, followed by EMPTY and FULL retentions (bahya & antara kumbhaka). Long retentions with the lungs empty has been proven to have a cascade of health benefits when executed properly. These include strengthening red blood cells and increasing oxygen carrying capacity and creating new blood vessels, enhancing blood flow to organs.
Another impressive feature of the Method is it’s ability to voluntarily control the nervous system’s autonomic response and immune response, helping soothe the symptoms of chronic inflammation. This could potentially be a non-invasive treatment for those suffering from auto-immune disorders.
As I said I was already used to this style of breathing, but Wim Hof’s instructions of ‘Get the air in your body through whichever the hole’ (mouth or nose), and ‘don’t overthink it just ‘breathe motherf*ckers’ was new to me. Without the traditional Pranayama guidance of an upright cross legged seated posture, energy locks (bandhas) and seals (mudras), the instructions were simple and clear. A few minutes in and the sensations felt were tingly, warm, electrical, and a bit of a shock – very similar to those felt during a Rebirthing or Holotropic session. My head definitely felt much more airy and spacious, waking it up and giving it some good house cleaning. For some people there just isn’t a better way to start off the day, especially with a cold shower afterwards!
Having less of an esoteric approach to it than other breathing practices, this method is more accessible for society. You’ve just got to breathe for a few minutes and then hold. And take the dam cold shower! One thing that is for certain is that the Wim Hof Method has helped millions and is still spreading quickly. Backed up by science, it is enabling people to soothe and overcome modern mental and physical illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue and inflammation. Personally I’ve never held my breath out (lungs empty) for as long as I have done during a Wim Hof session.
For more information on the WHM, visit the official website here.
You are much stronger than you think!
Now here’s another fascinating one. SOMA Breath uses a combination of Pranayama techniques, guided meditation, visualisation and brainwave entrainment music to offer a peak human experience. Niraj Naik, the founder, created this fusion to help achieve the optimum balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide for your body, enabling you to experience a consistent flow of energy, increased productivity, happier moods, emotional stability and a resilience to stress.
On a spiritual level, SOMA Breath is designed to help you ‘manifest’ and attract your desires and intentions into life, as well as reach elevated states of consciousness and deep meditation. That’s quite a claim!
Niraj had an interesting story too. As a pharmacist in London, he was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, an autoimmune condition for which he was only given the options of invasive treatment and pharmacological drugs. So he looked into alternative treatment, leading him towards breathing techniques, retentions, AUM chanting, and saunas. He is now in full remission and is continually developing SOMA Breath and the community, now spreading rapidly in all corners of the world.
In a group setting, it is quite common for a SOMA session to begin with some sort of dance-like movement or shaking, followed by AUM chanting, guided visualization/meditation, and then several rounds of breathing, depending on the level of the participants. Alternatively you can be guided from a distance by an instructor in the comfort of your own home with a decent internet connection and a pair of good headphones. Either way the experience gets you every time!
One aspect I really like about the breathing technique is its holistic approach, providing different rhythms accessible to all levels of practice. Some rhythms will calm you down (Inhale 4 Exhale 8), some will harmonise (inhale 4, exhale 4), whilst other faster rhythms are sure to wake you up. The breathing techniques are derived from Pranayama rhythmic breathing (Savitri pranayama) and breath retentions (kumbhaka), as is used in the Wim Hof’s Method, who is actually a friend of Niraj’s. Being the pharmacist that he is, Niraj uses the breathing aspects which are the most backed by science, such as heart coherence, breath retentions and toning/humming (AUM chanting).
Benefits of Retentions
Some of Niraj’s outlook on breathing, especially in daily life, is inspired by the Buteyko Method, which was developed by Konstantin Buteyko, a Ukrainian doctor, in the 1950s. Dr. Buteyko’s method uses short breath retention exercises to help control the speed and volume/depth of your breath, helping you breathe more slowly and calmly in daily life. His method targeted many disorders, especially asthma, anxiety, and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. For more information on the Buteyko Method you can visit the official website.
Furthermore, many of SOMA Breath’s health benefits stem from the effects of intermittent hypoxia, which I mentioned earlier in the Wim Hof Method. Research into these benefits has been ongoing for many years, which I shall cover in another article. However, its effects do look promising for cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, central nervous system disorders, and even in obesity and asthma, as well as stimulating nitric oxide production. Controlled hypoxia should always be brief and intermittent, and an expert guide or instructor should be approached who will cover all contra indications beforehand and guide you safely through the technique.
But overall, the music which the team offers is truly what makes the SOMA experience unforgettable. Letting yourself be guided by the counts within the transcending music – IN and OUT – into a psychedelic journey within is definitely worth a go. Whatever your intentions are, if you want to try SOMA Breath, you’re in for a great ride. It’s fusion of techniques immersed in the music will carry you to places you didn’t think possible. Some say it’s the Wim Hof Method on steroids!
Asides from Pranayama, this is my go-to practice and has been for several years now. If you want to try this out, sign up for my weekly classes by providing me with your email address:
Breathwork has gained in popularity tremendously, and it’s therefore important to spread accurate information about this powerful practice. It’s powerful because it taps into deep areas such as the nervous system, the psyche and the subconscious mind. Due to its potential for deep inner transformation, it is no doubt it has become so popular ; intense practices may seem ideal for the individual seeking a ‘quick fix’.
Working with the breath should never be forced however, and the body needs to be prepared to receive these new currents of energy, to avoid injury. If in doubt, as traditional Pranayama clearly teaches, breathwork should be practiced smoothly, progressively, with perfect control and free from any tension or agitation – ideally once the physical body is in good shape and a healthy diet has been established.
At present, there is a great deal of emphasis on ‘hyperventilating’ and ‘Power Breathing’ in modern techniques, making it easy for the practitioner to get attached to the pleasant sensations. Feeling good is a positive thing, but, with the Yoga System in mind, it’s important to remember where Breathwork/Pranayama is placed: before Meditation. Letting the physical sensations dissipate (can take some time!) and then allowing yourself to enter the vast space within through mediation is a far more beneficial practice than simply ‘mechanically’ breathing. The power and importance of the Mind should not be neglected.
‘By regulating the prana, we regulate our minds, because the two always go together. If one is controlled, the other is automatically controlled as well.’
Yoga Sutras of Panatanjali – Sutras II.50.
Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. If you want to reach out to me personally, you can find me here.
Happy Breathing !
References and Further Reading
The Wim Hof Method, by Wim Hof
Oxygen Advantage, by Patrick Mckeown
Prana and Pranayama, by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati