Breathwork - what is it and how does it work?
Woo tried and tested breathwork in order to find out what it's all about...
image Jonas McIlwain
words Sophie Wilkinson
What is breathwork?
Breathwork refers to a whole range of breathing exercises designed to improve wellbeing, be it mental, spiritual or physical. The evidence for its impacts seems to suggest that by breathing out for longer than we breathe in, we increase our HRV or heart rate variability, and this
And I tried and tested it so I can tell you what it’s all like.
The type of breath work my facilitator, March, has trained in, is called conscious connected breath work. This derives from a practice called Holotropic breath work.
Holotropic breath work
Holotropic breath work started in the 1970s by, March explains “This guy Stanislav Grof.” The story goes that, even though early proponents of LSD had used it in experiments exploring the treatment of anxiety, depression, psychosomatic diseases and addiction, it was soon seen by authorities as a dangerous narcotic worth banning. On the hunt for a different way to reach altered states, improve physical and mental health, Grof considered breathing in two main ways. Hylotropic is the traditional, I’m walking down the street and breathing, but Holotropic is about using breath to reach a non-ordinary state of consciousness.
Breath, after all, is powerful. As well as being the way in which our bodies admit air, and therefore vital oxygen into our very beings, it’s a reflexive function (i.e. it doesn’t need us to consciously decide to do in order for us to do) but it’s one that we can halt at any point.
The problem with modern life, though, is we hold our breath too much. “When you’re stressed and anxious - or even when we use our phones - we tend to hold our breath and when we hold our breath we suppress our breath and suppress our feelings and that’s called an incomplete stress cycle. So by practicing this breath work technique you’re able to complete that stress cycle by connecting the breath.”
He continues to explain that; “Breathwork is the method by which we process emotional experiences, so by breathing we are able to access all of those incomplete stress cycles so therefore with this breath work technique it’s not abnormal to feel a rise of old stagnant energies which might be sitting in the body physical sensations arise with old emotions.”
Without wanting to encourage too much expectation, March explains he’s seen clients who have emerged from breath work feeling angry, feeling less pain, ready to let it all out. “It’s blown my mind, breathwork - pun not intended - it’s literally right beneath our nose and we can access it at any time, we can do literally a minute’s session just before a meeting if you’re nervous and it will calm you down and it’s just amazing the power and capacity it has if known how to use it. It’s not rocket science it’s so simple and easy to use.”
March clarifies that, rather than it being something you can just whip out when feeling stressed, it’s like lifting weights at the gym in order to improve, say, upper body strength - you do longer sessions in order to build a foundation for you to rely on in future. With that, we begin the session.
You can access March's online studio on his website.
Is breathwork meditation?
I lie down on a yoga mat, arms by my side, knees bent and feet flat on the mat. I close my eyes and March spends the next 45 minutes telling me how to breathe. While I expected this to be something like meditation, breathwork is far more about the presence of focus. Instead of clearing my mind to think on nothingness - and pretend I’m a functionless amoeba rather than a human living in a world brimming with constant distraction and stimulation that of course comes tumbling into my mind the moment I’m asked to clear it - the key is to focus on one of my primary functions - my breath. He counts me in to inhale and exhale at different rates. Sometimes I’m breathing in for 4 seconds, sometimes for 8, all the time March guiding me like a sherpa through the mists of my lungs. We listen to atmospheric electronica.
At first, I start seeing behind my eyelids all kaleidoscopic yellow and purple shapes, which soon transform into ice-white and blue crystals. Then I begin to feel sharp pains, one by one, at the top of my spine, the tip of my right shoulder blade and then - most bizarrely - on the sinus under my right eye. It’s like something’s wriggling out of there. My heartbeat is pulsating in my throat, thumping so loudly I can hear each ventricle echoing in turn. All the while, March is timing my breath.
Towards the end of the session, March lights a stick of palo santo, and I slowly open my eyes. I need a really big wee. Once I come back from that, we discuss more how the breathwork has impacted me. He asks that I not drink too much or smoke this evening, as my body will still be processing the meditation. The pains I felt, he explains, are all pressure points, so areas where energy can be released from. I’m pretty sure they’re also bits that my osteopath is due to click into place - save for the sinus area.
I head out into the blazing sunshine and check my WhatsApps - 23 messages across three group chats. I cycle home with traffic hurtling besides me. I respond to emails and jump on two work meetings, I attend an online conference on gender-based violence. I go to dinner where the staff treat me with all the reluctance a Year 9 class gives a supply teacher trying to run a sex-ed class. I get wasted on three drinks, it’s so sticky and hot and I can’t sleep until 2am.
Normally, a day like this could stress me out, putting my nerves to the surface of my skin, but I feel relaxed, roaming through it with little anxiety. I can’t say for sure that it’s the impact of the breathwork, which boils down to the act of taking air into my lungs and pushing it out at steady rates for an extended period of time...or whether it’s the impact of having started the day thinking about me and my relationship with the atmosphere around me rather than whatever overwhelm of death, destruction and cancellations my social news feeds deliver each morning. Either way, breathwork chilled me out, made me feel better, and got me mindful, weeks later, of how I do hold my breath, and that maybe sometimes it’s better to let go.
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