Breathing is our life force, quite literally: we’re alive until we cease to breathe. And we have the ability to harness that life force energy on purpose, through breathing exercises called breathwork. As Madison Margolin puts it in a recent piece for MUD\WTR, the breath “...connects us to the deepest part of ourselves.” She goes on to write that the spiritual aspects of breath “are obvious in the etymology of the word in various languages: In Latin, for instance, the word for breath and spirit is the same—spiritus. In Hebrew, there's a common root between the words for soul—neshama—and for breath—neshima. Breath can serve as a vehicle to carry us through everything from a jog, to a yoga class, to a panic attack to labor.”
Almost like magic, the way we breathe can instantly change the way we feel, and the way our bodies function. Deep, slow breaths can intercept a panic attack—and sometimes even slow down the heart. Rapid, panicked breaths can cause stress hormones to increase through the body, and even cause hyperventilation.
Breathing exercises like breathwork have been gaining popularity in recent years, and according to IDEA Health and Fitness Association, they are entering the mainstream. But tapping into the breath on purpose through particular breathing sequences (a.k.a. breathwork) is something people have been doing for not hundreds but thousands of years in cultures all around the world.
Some breathing exercises can inspire creative insights and bring you into an altered state of consciousness, not unlike what is brought on through micro—and sometimes macro—dosing psychedelics. Other breathwork techniques can help to regulate the nervous system, settle the mind-body and bring a sense of calm.
When your yoga teacher starts going off on the power of prana, or breath (synonymous with life force in Hindu), teaching you how to plug one nostril at a time with your thumb or ring finger (nadi shodhana or alternate nostril breathing), counting out that four-part “square” or “box” breathing exercise (sama vritti) or another pranayama technique they love, they are actually paraphrasing texts written thousands of years ago in ancient India that detail these breathwork practices.
These are works like the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Hatha Yoga Pradipika—all of which form the basis for what we now know as yoga. But the yoga of today is a far stretch from the yoga of Patanjali and the old school yogis. Yogic practices in these ancient texts had very little to do with moving the body into shapes, increasing flexibility or strengthening up—and everything to do with harnessing, controlling, and working with the breath.
Ancient cultures from all parts of the world have worked purposefully with the breath for healing, well-being, spiritual connection and consciousness expansion. In India, these breathing exercises just so happen to be documented in writing, allowing modern breathwork practitioners to practice exactly the same things people were practicing thousands of years ago via pranayama.
Stanislav Grof, M.D.—the world-renowned psychiatrist who, with his late wife Christina Grof, developed the breath-based therapy technique holotropic breathwork in 1973 while staying as a scholar-in-residence at Esalen Institute on the cliffs overlooking the ocean in Big Sur, California. My husband and I were interviewing him for a short documentary capturing behind-the-scenes moments with speakers and attendees of the 6-day Psychedelic Science Conference, commissioned by MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), a co-sponsor of the conference (which will recur in Denver in June 2023).
In an accent that echoed his origins in Czechoslovakia, Grof began a monotone recounting of his 60 years of research into non-ordinary states of consciousness, and pioneering work in transpersonal psychology and the course of history that made possible his understanding and research into consciousness—from “hunters and gatherers to our modern cities.” He spoke about the moment in time when we are living, and how vital consciousness exploration is in this context as the Earth is in peril due to much of humanity’s lack of awareness and perspective.
Behind him the cityscape with all of its angles stood still, as though listening patiently, and the Bay Bridge arced over the flickering water of the San Francisco Bay under the summer sun. He shared a little about holotropic breathwork, and how it shares roots with ancient practices from around the world—and how indigenous cultures have known expanded consciousness practices like breathwork, as well as plant medicines, for millennia.
In our interview, and also during his talk at the conference titled “Psychedelics and the Future of Humanity”, Grof spoke about how in the last 100 years, with “population explosion and the escalation of industrial productivity, unbelievable pollution and increase of violence” the human species has gotten itself into serious trouble. We are facing a global crisis, and “very likely to take a few other species with us,” he said.
He paraphrased Albert Einstein who said you cannot solve the problems using the same type of thinking that got you into trouble in the first place, and shared why he believes altered states of consciousness, and consciousness expansion, will be key to humanity’s future—breathwork being one of the avenues to get there.
Holotropic breathwork uses fast-paced breathing exercises repeated over the course of an hour or two, paired with music and bodywork with the aim of releasing emotional or mental blocks. You reach a state of near-hyperventilation, guided by a practitioner, which brings you into a non-ordinary state of consciousness.
The 2017 conference included a breathwork series for guests to experience the altered states of awareness and heightened bodily sensations that the practice of holotropic breathwork can induce, guided by Grof and/or those who trained with him. My experience of holotropic breathwork sent a pleasant tingling down my arms and legs that made me think of fairydust. Ideas for writing projects, paintings flashed through my mind at times, and wild insights echoed in and out of my awareness. I could feel that I was part of a vast, cosmic network of life and a sense of peace. It felt like my breathing had tapped me in with all breathing beings—not just animals, but the water, the sky, even the rocks and the larger Earth seemed to breathe with me, and I could feel that we were in this experience of life together.
A couple of participants had to leave the room to take a pause from the intensity of the work, and one experienced a dizzy spell that soon passed. Overall, when people shared at the end of the holotropic breathwork session, there were common themes of interconnectedness and increased creativity. Some had difficult emotions or memories arise, and others experienced feelings of well-being and possibility.
Leonard Orr of Rebirthing Breathwork, also found breathing techniques in the ’70s. For him, they arrived in a hot tub. In the warm water, he started playing with his breathing patterns and found that by breathing in certain sequences he experienced a non-ordinary state of consciousness (presumably not unlike those of holotropic breathwork). As he deepened his exploration of the practice through experiments and research, he noticed that memories, images, emotions and body sensations began to surface and were more easy to acknowledge and, at times, resolve.
Rebirthing Breathwork uses nasal breathing and, unlike holotropic breathwork, it is practiced without external stimuli like music. The guide, called a “rebirther” prompts the practitioner throughout the session.
“Conscious Energy Breathing is the most natural healing ability of all,” Orr is quoted as saying, on the Rebirthing Breathwork website. “Most Rebirthing Breathwork sessions are physical, emotional, and spiritual. We can relax out of any kind of intense emotion or physical sensation when we have this simple powerful skill of conscious breathing.”
Breathing Exercises for Birthing
The Lamaze Method, the belly breathing exercise still commonly practiced by birthing circles today, emerged around the 1960s, popularized in the United States by Marjorie Karmel after she gave birth to her first baby in France with Dr. Fernand Lamaze. With Elisabeth Bing, Karmel co-founded the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis (ASPO) in 1960, now known as Lamaze International.
While Lamaze is relatively new, women have been using the breath to bring new life into the world since time immemorial, by way of ancient birthing breath practices passed down through midwives and wise women.
While much of the ancient birthing breath practices was passed word-of-mouth down through generations, in ancient Greece and Rome, there is some documentation relating to breathing. An ancient Greek physician, Soranus of Ephesus lived and worked in Greece and Rome between the second half of the 1st century CE and the middle of the 2nd century CE. He wrote roughly 20 medical books, including a manual for midwives called Gynaecology, which includes language around breathing indicating that the midwife should direct a birthing mother to breathe from the stomach without screaming and to breath downward while straining.
Whether you’re looking to support yourself through labor, expand your consciousness, delve into your emotions, or just hope to calm your nerves, breathwork has your back. It has the natural potential to support and alter our bodies and minds—and it’s been with humanity for a long time, practiced in cultures around the globe for various purposes, from healing, to birthing, to rituals and rites. You can learn some simple, calming breathwork practices and start implementing this age-old method. You can also read about why MUD\WTR starts every all-hands team meeting with breathwork.
April M. Short is a journalist, editor, yoga teacher and feminine rites practitioner. She's helped co-found multiple psychedelics-focused media outlets and her writing is published in the San Francisco Chronicle, LA Yoga, Salon, The Conversation and many others. Follow her yoga and ritual work on Instagram: @AprilClarkYoga.
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