In my early twenties I experienced a horrendous breakup. It was the rip your heart out, stomp on it kind of heartache. I couldn't eat or sleep. I appreciated any comfort that my friends or truly ANYONE could offer me. Out of desperation, I decided to talk to a spiritual intuitive for exactly that, comfort. I was weak, fragile, and so very sad. Her perspective covered me in a warm blanket, allowing me to relax. I glossed over one of her suggestions. She said I should try breathwork as a healing therapy. She said it would help me process my grief and the grief I inherited from my mother. "Breathing? BORE TOWN. Not my thing," I thought. "And grief I inherited? What does that mean?" I would often hold my breath during workouts and ignore the "remember to breathe" reminders. Needless to say, I disregarded the intuitive's comment at the time.
My grieving process coincided with chiropractic school. I'm a covert geek, so most of my spare time in chiropractic school was spent learning techniques that were not taught to us in the school's curriculum. After class one evening, I was introduced to a breathing biofeedback technique. Immediately, I recalled the intuitive's words about breath-work.
In the breathing technique, the chiropractor observes the patient's breathing pattern instead of using their hands to asses the movement of the patient's body. The goal is to help induce the most efficient breathing pattern in the patient since the breath underlies every physiological function at the most basic and vital level. Greater breathing efficiency translates to a less stressed nervous system leaving more room for adaptability; thus, meeting a primary goal of chiropractic.
Each time the club met, the instructor introduced studies to us linking breathing to a variety of health markers including greater life expectancy, decreased stress, decreased inflammation in the body, and even epigenetic changes at the cellular level. Whenever any instructor mentioned breath, the vagus nerve, or lung capacity, I listened intently. Soon, it became common knowledge to me that the parasympathetic nervous system (calming system in the body) activates the vagus nerve (responsible for calming the body) by intentional deep breathing. I leaned into breathing even more.
I paid attention to my breathing patterns at rest and while stressed. My breath was noticeably different depending on my emotional state or activity. It would expand throughout my entire pelvic cavity when my mind was calm, and it felt short and shallow when I was hyper-focused, multi-tasking, taking a test, or processing negative emotions. The people around me were no different. Our modern-day default breathing is located high in the chest cavity. It is superficial and stressed instead of deep and complete. Talk about a different type of pandemic...
Over the next few years as a working chiropractor, I integrated the biofeedback breathing analysis technique into the background of my patient visits. The importance of proper breathing continued to rear its head, but I had yet to commit to any formal breathing therapy.
The Healing Power of Breath
In many cultures, the word spirit and breath come from the same root. Breathing exercises are a large part of many spiritual and religious communities as a way to commune, heal, and reach enlightenment. Unfortunately, America seems to lack community and vulnerability in its culture. America innovates technology and obsesses over the external and surface-level aspects of getting life 'right', yet it lacks tools that help develop greater inner psychological understanding of self and its community.
It is time we acknowledge the rich emotional world and trauma that lies within all of us and normalize healing in a community. "The Body Keeps The Score," by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. packs in science and personal stories highlighting the impact unprocessed emotional trauma leaves on the body and brain.
When emotions get stuck in the body, people respond to their environment from a place of hurt, fear, or defensiveness. This pattern can persist until the emotion is processed and released.
Healing allows people to reclaim parts of their spirit that fractioned off during traumatic or stressful events. Breathwork is a powerful way to tap into our subconscious and complex inside world.
Popular authors Dr. Joe Dispenza and Michael Pollan write about the health benefits breathing has on the mind and body. They both note that particular breathing styles have the ability to release the active psychedelic chemical DMT (N-dimethyltryptamine) from the lungs into the brain. DMT is the active chemical in psychedelics such as LSD or ayahuasca and has the ability to introduce the mind to new circuitry and ways of thinking, thus feeling. This is significant in the discussion of mental health and healing. Healing trauma, PTSD, and even physical manifestations of disease have been documented results by those who have experienced the DMT through breathwork or professional guided psychedelic treatment.
Breathing therapies continue to gain ground in the therapeutic realm. Wim Hoff and psychiatrists Christina and Stanislav Grof are a few of the most well known names in breathwork today. Wim Hoff is the founder of his own breathing method aimed at transforming people's suffering into appreciation of the present moment. Christina and Stanislav Grof developed Holotropic breathwork in the 1970s to achieve non-ordinary states of consciousness (without using drugs) as a potential therapeutic tool.
Shamanic breathwork is arguably where breathwork originated. Shamanic breathwork is known as a powerful transformational journey that inspires individuals to 'Awaken the Shamen Within' and reconnect to who they truly are. Old wounds fade and dysfunctional patterns are released and transformed.
My Shamanic Breathwork Experience
A friend of mine invited me to a shamanic breathing session one Saturday morning. I knew quite a bit about breathwork but hadn't actually experienced it, so I was quite eager to attend. We sat in an intimate circle with the other six participants when we arrived. There is a vulnerability in just existing together in a small group setting. I felt a bit nervous but remained open to the experience.
The woman who led the session introduced herself and explained the process. We would be lying down with the lights off surrounded by loud music and some intermittent drumming. She said the music was chosen specifically to match the vibrations of different energy centers in the body. We were instructed to cycle a specific diaphragmatic breath throughout the entire session to help activate our inner world. The breathing and music combination allows the music's vibrations to penetrate the body so that healing can occur. She gave us permission to let our bodies unwind and do whatever the heck they wanted such as dance, yell, cry, lay, or nothing. She asked us to remain open and not to be surprised if we "journey" or receive visions or visitations.
The music began. It was LOUD! I began cycling the breath. It was cold, one nostril felt plugged. It was difficult to remain focused. After a few minutes, I remember trying to see or feel something big, something profound. I let go of trying. Soon I felt in rhythm and began to focus on my body's sensations.
I felt intense vibrations through my belly, above and below my navel. My pinky fingers felt lit up from my pinky nails, through my arms, to my chest. The sensations followed the exact path of the heart meridian that I knew existed in acupuncture. The vibrations intensified as the music continued. I felt a heavy vibration above my knees. I didn't see anything or anyone in particular, but I kept hearing truths in my head. "Keep using your voice. Not everyone will like it, but it's yours for a reason." "STOP the noise. STOP the fear. Be selective of what you let in, or it can steal your peace." I felt a profound knowing that we are all on a continuum, and an essential key to life is in the grounded use of our voice. It was as if I had all of the answers to the matrix.
The music changed tracks, chanting filled my body, and I burst into tears. There was no filter in whether I chose to cry or not. It was automatic. For a second I came into my body and felt self-conscious about others around me, but the music was so loud I knew I was in my own world.
The music began to fade and drumming brought me back into my body, back into the room. I started writing and drawing about my experience. I scribbled from a stream of consciousness. It felt effortless and therapeutic. I sat in a rare state of tranquility. My mind buzzed in peace and relaxation. We shared our experience with the group. It was beautiful.
Try It Yourself!
If you desire greater connection, find yourself plateauing with your therapist or feel stuck in a dysfunctional pattern, give breathwork a try! You might just let go of the past, stop ruminating on the future, and start living in the present. What's the worst that could happen? Self-awareness, relaxation, and personal growth are potential side-effects I dare you to experience.