Breathwork and something called pranayama, or yogic control over the prana or energy in the breath, is a key part of the traditional system of yoga and even if you don’t do yoga, breath work by itself is one of the most practical and quickest ways to tap into parts of your brain nervous system that are normally out of your control, or not under conscious control.
And as it turns out, it’s not fluffy stuff, it has tons of research for proof of how it can bust stress, aid in recovery from buried trauma, help recover from chronic anxiety and panic attacks.
If you don’t have any of those issues it is also one of my favourite ways to hit the ‘reset’ button, and re-energize after a stressful day or week and release tension that you don’t even realize you are holding onto until it’s gone!
Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, and leading brain researcher, sums up why breath work is so powerful. It is the one physical thing in our bodies that we can access easily that links what he refers to as our ‘bottom up’ processes in the brain or autonomic processes and those processes in the brain that are under our voluntary control called “top-down” processes. The breath is the link between the ‘bottom up and top down’ uncounnsouc and conscious processes in the brain.
Various styles of breath work span an entire spectrum of uses and effects on the nervous system, on one end of the spectrum you have breathing to relieve stress and induce calm (such as the healing breath) and on the other end, you have specific breathing to produce a catharsis and intense emotional release, such as something called Holotropic breath work also known as rebirthing therapy and transformational breathing.
Holotropic Breathwork also uses music as a catalyst to access deep emotion and unconscious thoughts, feelings and emotions and tensions along with deep circular breathing. This practice was coined and studied by Dr. Stansilov Groff in the 1960’s as a powerful therapeutic tool and this is the practice I am going to focus on in this video.
A question I have had from my doctor colleges in the past about some forms of circular breathing or holotropic breath work, is about something called hyperventilation syndrome. This is where the carbon dioxide levels decrease in the blood and can cause constriction of blood vessels, including those in the brain and the heart in extreme very rare cases. In milder forms of hyperventilation, feelings of dizziness, agitation and strong emotions, tingling in the hands and feet, and muscle spasms can happen, which are harmless in most people. If you have severe asthma or any heart issues you should always do breath work under the coaching a qualified practitioner to be on the safe side. But the good news is that there are no reported cases of heart attacks, stroke or other serious ill effects from breathwork reported in the research literature, so appears to be quite safe in general for most healthy people.
THere is one theory about the difference between circular or holotropic breathwork and hyperventilation syndrome, in the extreme medical sense, where very low levels of CO2 in the blood and brain lead to a deceased drive to breath in again. This could be because in the technique of circular breathing, you inhale consciously right at the end of the exhale, without waiting for your carbon dioxide levels to rise above a certain level first, avoiding some of the negative effects of hyperventilation syndrome.
Another theory is in clinical hyperventilation syndrome (HVS), there is lots of Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activation or fight or flight mode activation vs. much less sympathetic activation in breath work if its done right and with a qualified coach.
Based on preliminary research, both HVS and breath work may actually activate similar regions of brain and lead to mild decreases in CO2 and increases in O2 and activation of parasympathetic dominance to reach altered states without ingesting any substances— pretty cool stuff!
Studies have now shown that Holotropic breath work actually improves hRV or heart rate variability and state anxiety level, which both are known to significantly decrease the chance of ever having a heart attack or stroke!
Speaking of substance induced trance like states, Dr. Stanislof Groff, one of the modern pioneers of breath work actually started to experiment with breath work after working with LSD became illegal in the 1960s. He started off using LSD in his research to help people to process trauma and help the brain integrate painful or really emotional memories, buried memories and also to gain access to intuition and creativity in altered states of consciousness. What he found was that he could help people reach similar states without any drugs using specific breath work.
In fact, if I look at a brain EEG recording of brainwaves when someone is doing holotropic breath work, the delta and theta patterns are similar to the shamanic state of consciousness, in other words, the trance-like state where slow waves dominate the brain wave patterns. One study also found that when someone was in this breathwork induced trance state and they had an emotional experience, flashback or accessing emotional past memories or working through strong emotions, their brain EEG pattern changed to show ‘bursts’ of higher voltage, related to emotionally intense subjective experiences they report.
Another question I get about this type of stimulating breath work is can it cause a panic attack? In most cases, even in people who have had a panic attack in the past, the answer is no. If you start to feel breathless or like you can’t catch your breath during a circular breath work session, it means that you need to relax the breath more and not force it, and you can simply stop anytime it becomes too overwhelming. But feeling breathless is not a usual experience with this type of breath work even for people who suffer with physical symptoms of anxiety in daily life.
I can tell you from personal experience with this practice as well as the research evidence that it can be extremely powerful and it is one of my favourite mind body practices, especially when it is done with a skilled facilitator to coach you properly throughout a session and provide support if you need it. I was recently at Bali Spirit Festival and was able to take part in an amazing breathwork workshop with our friend Christabel Zamor, founder of Breath of Bliss, and for anyone new to breath work I highly recommend checking out her retreats.