Breathwork for Healing, Integration, and Personal Growth

Here is an article by Jim Morningstar:

Breathwork as defined by the International Breathwork Training alliance <> is the art and science of teaching breath awareness and breathing techniques for enhancing the human physical, mental, emotional and spiritual condition. True wellbeing involves balance and harmony in all the components of oneʼs self. Excessive focus on one part of the self to the exclusion of others results in imbalance and dysfunction. The other side of this equation is that the fine-tuning and harmony of all aspects of the self lead to higher states of health, wellness and opens the door for subsequent growth. Healthy breathing is the thread which strings all the pearls of oneʼs self together. Letʼs look at how healthy breathing is in the mainstay of an integrative approach to personal growth.

Physical Health      

Peak performance and achieving oneʼs personal best have always involved a mastery of oneʼs breathing. Though most of us are not in training for the Olympics, our physical health and wellbeing is directly related to regulated healthy breathing habits. Since there are few activities in which we engage in more than taking an inhale and and an exhale, any dysfunction in the process gets multiplied exponentially over the years. Conversely, healthy breathing has a nurturing and energizing effect on every physical organ and body system. All forms of yoga and, in particular, hatha yoga have documented results over the centuries on how coordinating steady diaphragmatic breathing with movement (asanas) or in stillness (meditation) improves physical health (e.g., McCall, 2007), Breath coaching has become increasingly effective in sports training and general.

Emotional Wellbeing

Therapeutic breathwork has brought to the awareness of the healing community, the direct link between the ability to regulate oneʼs breathing with the experience of emotional balance. Emotional balance is that middle path between repression on the one side and lack of containment on the other. Deep or repressed feelings that have been inaccessible to cognitive therapeutic intervention have been readily accessed in therapeutic breathwork practice. This is because this technique alters the breathing rhythm to activate the sympathetic nervous system in a controlled way. While the body is beginning to engage in flight/fight/freeze activation and the attendant emotional responses, the breather is staying conscious of his or her breath control. This is the control of a surfer riding a wave rather than a dam trying to hold back a river. The breather learns to ride the wave of feelings rather than suppress or lose control. The full range of emotions – mad, sad, glad, scared and all their variations – can be experienced as a source of positive vitality and wisdom (emotional intelligence). All of the bad examples we have of repression or loss of control in the culture tend to give emotions a bad reputation. However the truth is that a life devoid of feeling is a passionless existence. Our breath can help us be safe with our feelings.

” “Inner child” work is often associated with emotional exploration. This tool is often used with therapeutic breathwork to help give certain clients permission to let feelings flow rather than be dammed up. Many give their “child self” the benefit of feelings that they do not give their “adult self.” Our goal is to have the mid brain limbic system which generates the hormones that signal emotional experienceʼs work in concert with the cerebral cortex which is the center of logical rational thinking. Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the accurate reading of oneʼs and otherʼs feeling states and the ability to use this information effectively. EI is achieved in great part by regulating oneʼs breathing appropriately during charged emotional states. I say appropriately because in some circumstances it may be appropriate to run for higher ground and breathe fast as when avoiding a flash flood verses other circumstances when slow steady breathing may be what is needed, e.g., to thread a needle with which to sew up a wounded person.

” The monitoring of breathing through all feeling states allows us to tap into the non-verbal wisdom of emotions and the richness with which they color our existence.

Mental Growth

The brain uses a disproportional amount of oxygen to the rest of our body. – It is only 3% of the bodyʼs total weight, but uses 25% of the available oxygen. The energy we expend in mental activity requires it. The clarity that comes with mental mastery opens the door to creativity. We are not trapped in thinking loops that repeat endlessly, affording us limited options for novelty and discovery. We can think in a rut and thereby live in a rut.

! We think roughly 40,000 – 50,000 thoughts a day and most of them are variations of time honored themes which we took on at an early age and just elaborated with more sophistication (e.g. “I have to hide when Daddy is angry” gets transmitted to “secretive nuclear stockpiling is imperative to defend against the hostile totalitarian regimes in the world.”). Therapeutic breathwork helps ferret out there “tap root” thoughts or “personal laws” – major negative beliefs upon which most of our attitudes and behaviors are based. One of the dictums of mental mastery is that thoughts do not change unless we change them. No one can make us think what we refuse to think. Thus we must consciously choose how we want to think or we will just run our previously programmed tape loops. The fear based tape loops often get reinforced by cultural messages which play upon our fears, e.g., “Hostile countries are planning our demise.” This is not to say we should put on rose-colored glasses in the face of evidence of aggression coming toward us. But if we are breathing easily in the face of challenge, as any good martial artist would be, we are much more resourceful in directing the energies of ourselves and others. In fact, as we populate our thinking with resourceful thoughts, we actually transform many formerly perceived “attacks” into opportunities for mutual benefit. When I hold my breath, I take a fixed position and am much less flexible in my mental emotional or physical responses.

” Affirmations are specifically designed thoughts to help lead us out of static thinking patterns often reinforced by fear. A good affirmation is a well-honored tool to help me stretch just the right amount to best facilitate more resourceful thinking and promote clear and creative thinking. I use the four Pʼs of affirmation writing to maximize the affirmationʼs power: Make the affirmation Positive, Personal, Present and Practical, and breath life into the new thoughts. The breath helps take the energy of the thought and spread it throughout the body (literally creating a new stance) and the environment (attracting new possibilities). Full easy breathing is both the facilitator of and the result of clear creative thinking – a positive feedback loop that becomes a new lease on life.

Spiritual Growth

The diaphragm has been called the “spiritual muscle” in certain ancient practices. Breath control has been a central practice of most spiritual/mystical traditions for thousands of years (Minnet, 2004). The breath is known as the “rainbow bridge” from the physical to the spiritual realms. Simple attention to a steady flow of breath can put one in an altered state making one more sensitive to who one is beyond the physical. A prominent researcher in the area of spiritual traditions, Ken Wilber (WIlber, 2006) claims that  meditation (facilitated by slow regulated breathing) is the only practice which has scientifically documented results on its positive influence on spiritual growth. The Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff said, “Without mastering breathing, nothing can be mastered.”

 As simplistic as this may sound, how long can you go just paying attention to your inhale and exhale? Most people cannot go for more than a few seconds without thoughts or sensations distracting them. If followed to its origins, the breath leads to our creative source, the spirit which initiates the “breath of life” in oneʼs body. In many languages spirit and breath are linked by the same words. e.g. nephesh in Hebrew, atman in Sanskrit, psyche in Greek. Now our minds can interpret our experience according to prescribed forms or deny our experiences readily, but it does not invalidate centuries of experience by our greatest spiritual teachers and traditions from Christian mystics to native shaman. More importantly, if you have some awareness of the workings of your mind, you will not allow fear-based thoughts to deny the eminence of your breath awareness and its ability to initiate connection to your own spirit.

” A very common phenomenon in therapeutic breathwork, after physical, emotional and mental holdings have been released, is to have openings to ones spiritual realm or higher self that transport the breather to transcendent states (Grof, 2000).
That breath is a powerful agent of healing and growth is well established. That each of us has the ability to access this power “right under our nose” is being discovered and documented in many volumes. That you have the ability to find the methods and techniques which work for you in tapping into this power is your privilege to explore.