-by Dan Brulé
Breathwork is the art and science of applying breath awareness exercises and conscious breathing techniques as a bridge, a force, and a tool for health, growth, and change—in spirit, mind, and body.
Breathwork is a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. It is an intuitive art, a healing art, a creative art, a revolutionary and evolutionary art. It represents the cutting edge of the human potential movement.
In one form or another, breathwork is used in almost every holistic-health and alternative-care program. It represents the cream of the crop of self improvement and personal growth methods. It can be found at the cutting edge of the human potential movement, and at the heart of the world peace movement.
Breathing is the language of the soul. You can communicate with the breath, and you can turn to it for information. And you can actually learn to breathe from the breath itself! It is literally a source of inspiration, and the key to peace and power, oneness and wholeness.
In every moment, the breath is nourishing us. It is continuously working to keep us alive. It is working to help us to move and to function. It gives us the power to think and to create. And in every moment, it is reflecting and expressing the truth of our being. It reveals our state of our health and the level of our consciousness.
Breathwork awakens pure life-force energy—creative energy, healing energy. You can consciously use this energy in any way you choose. You can use it to generate luminous thoughts, ecstatic emotions, and pure pleasure. You can use it to fuel gentle and loving behaviors, and to motivate creative and productive actions.
Breathwork strengthens our ability to change our focus and to re-direct our creative life energy. Consciousness is a light. And we can use breathing to brighten that light.
Breathwork can be used in health and fitness, sports, the martial arts, and in the creative and performing arts. It can be used in business, bodywork, psychotherapy, or in spiritual counseling.
It can be used to clear your head, calm your nerves, settle your stomach, or open your heart. It can be used to warm you up or cool you off. It can be used to wake you up or calm you down. It can be used to enhance sexual pleasure, or to heal sexual abuse.
You can use it to relax or energize yourself. You can use it to dissolve pain or to reduce stress. It can be used to fuel your passion or to change your behavior. You can use it to access the unconscious mind, or open you to altered states of consciousness. It can be used in meditation or behavior modification.
What we learn and practice in a breathwork session has immediate and permanent benefits that apply to every level and facet of our lives. The principles we apply in a breathwork session have profound benefits when applied in our every day lives.
If you are an artist, you will be more inspired. If you are a healer, you will be more potent. If you are a business woman, you will be more successful. If you are a teacher, you will be more creative. If you are a policeman, you will be more effective.
It is not an exaggeration to say that it can enhance or improve anything about you, and it can empower practically everything you do!
The Power and Potential of Breathwork
Our breathing is affected by temperature, and the clothing we wear. It is affected by sights, smells, and feelings. It is affected by our emotions and our energy, and by other people’s emotions and energy. Breathing is affected by what we think, what we eat, how we sit, stand, or carry ourselves.
Breathing patterns are like fingerprints. Every physiological, chemical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual state has a corresponding or associated breathing pattern or quality.
The way you breathe when you are listening to music is different than the way you breathe when you are solving a math problem. The way you breathe when you are peaceful and calm is different than the way you breathe when you are upset or anxious. The way you breathe when you are angry or afraid is different than the way you breathe when you are confident and happy.
But which comes first: the chicken or the egg? What we think, how we feel, and what we do, is directly affected by how we breathe. That was an ancient yogic secret. They noticed that when their physical, emotional, or mental state changed, their breathing pattern changed too. And they discovered that by regulating and controlling their breathing, they could regulate and control those changing states.
With breathwork, you can cope better in difficult situations. With practice, you can accomplish the same things that great yogis and Taoist masters can. You can control the function of your immune system, your endocrine system, your cardio- vascular, digestive, and nervous system, by mastering the art of breathwork.
With over 35 years of practice, I can say that there seems to be no limit to what is possible with the spirit of breath as our guide and our ally!
The “Breath” in Breathwork
Breathing has two levels: the outer breath and the inner breath. The outer breath is air: oxygen and carbon dioxide. The inner breath refers to energy. This subtle element in the air is often called “spirit,” or “the breath within the breath.” And for me, this element is the most exciting, fascinating, and the most important level of breathwork.
You will notice that I often use the same term to refer to different aspects or elements in breathing. When I refer to the breath, I may be talking about the incoming air or oxygen (O2). I may be talking about the outgoing air or carbon dioxide (CO2).
Sometimes I may refer to it as “breath-energy” (chi, ki, prana, spirit, life force, etc.). Sometimes, the breath is referred to as light or love, or some other spiritual quality, or even to life itself. But I’m not alone in this. Many ancient cultures use the same word for “life,” “breath,” “spirit,” “air,” or “energy.”
There are many levels of Breathwork: physiological, emotional, psychological, energetic, spiritual, inter-personal, transpersonal, social. Each of these levels have sub-levels. For example, the physical level has three levels of its own: getting breath into and out of the lungs; getting breath into and out of the blood; getting breath into and out of the cells.
On the physical level, the first step, getting air in and out of the lungs involves muscular, anatomical, structural conditions and dynamics. And a lot of work can be done with these elements to increase lung volume and respiratory capacity. Many studies prove that the greater your lung capacity is, the longer you will live, and the healthier you will be.
The average person reaches peak respiratory capacity between the ages of 26 and 28. And from then on, for every decade of life, they loose 12% to 17% of their lung capacity. So, unless you are doing something to maintain or increase your respiratory capacity, by the time you are 60 years old, you will have lost more than half of your vital capacity. This is completely preventable with simple regular breathing exercises, that is, with breathwork.
Breathwork can mean strengthening, toning and coordinating the breathing muscles to improve ventilation. But getting air in and out of the lungs is not enough. No matter how much you huff and puff, it does your body no good unless the oxygen gets from the lungs into your bloodstream.
This second step in respiration depends on the partial pressures of gases, the infusion of blood vessels in and around the lungs, and of course, cardio-vascular health. Our blood needs to be nearly saturated with oxygen if it is to supply life to all the tissues and organs and systems of the body, and the trillions of cells that make it up.
In fact, unless you have some kind of pathological condition or disease, your blood is already 96% to 98% saturated with oxygen. So, for the average person, there’s really not much room for improvement there.
The third step on the physiological level is the vital step: that is getting oxygen from the bloodstream into the cells. And as it turns out, carbon dioxide is a key to that critical transfer of oxygen from the blood to the cells. CO2 is a volatile acid, and so by increasing or decreasing breathing, you can affect the critical pH (acid- base) balance in the body.
There is a lot of hype and misunderstanding about deep breathing: for example that you can “super-oxygenate” your cells through deep rapid breathing.
In fact, hyperventilation can actually reduce the supply of oxygen to your cells, because in the process of “over-breathing,” you blow off too much carbon dioxide. And among other things, this causes constriction of the micro-vessels, which prevents blood flow to the tissues and cells.
Anyone can reduce the supply of blood, and therefore oxygen, to the brain by 40% in just one minute, by hyperventilating. Deep rapid breathing is good up to a point, but beyond that point, you can actually starve your body of oxygen.
Having said that, it’s important to realize that your body is not the only part of you that depends on the breath for health and life. We are multi-dimensional beings, made up of spirit, mind, and body.
The breath is a door. It is the rainbow bridge! The breath connects the mind to the body. It connects the conscious mind to the unconscious and “super conscious” mind. It connects us to the earth and to heaven.
Everyone is sucking off the same bubble of air that surrounds this planet. The breath connects us to nature and to each other in the most intimate way; and it connects us all to our source, to our creator in the most direct way.
The breath is visible and invisible. It is fuel. It is nourishment. It is intelligent. It sustains us. It is alive. It is life itself. It is living in you, it is living around you, and it is living through you. You are not only living your life: your life is living you!
Breath is the most ordinary thing, and it is the most extraordinary thing! Breathing is so simple, so basic, and so ordinary, that we tend to underestimate it, we tend to overlook it. We take it for granted, and we generally give it no thought at all.
And yet, we can make conscious use of it. We can turn to it as a friend, as a guide, as an ally, as a force, a tool. And that is precisely what breathwork is about.
The Practice of Breathwork
Breathing is such a primary function and basic system in the body. And it is the only one that is both involuntary and voluntary. It takes care of itself, and yet we can take it over at any time. That cannot be an evolutionary accident.
Nature is inviting us to explore the possibilities! And playing with the possibilities can be great fun as well as profoundly healing. You can apply breathwork in many interesting and beautiful ways.
Breathwork consists of various awareness, relaxation, and energy exercises, techniques and meditations. Breathwork involves both internal and external stillness and movements.
Breathwork can be practiced lying down (on your back, on your stomach or on either side). It can be practiced while sitting comfortably in a chair. It can be practiced sitting on the floor, in the classic cross-legged yoga pose.
Breathwork can be practiced alone, in pairs, and in three’s; it can be practiced in small groups or in large groups. It can be practiced in a clinical context or in a recreational setting. It can be practiced in private or in public, at home, at work, in nature, or in sacred places.
Breathwork can be practiced before, during, or after any other activity or event. It is not religion and it is not therapy. It is an intuitive practice, a creative art, a simple and unique way of approaching life.
Breathwork can take the form of a guided session or a self-directed process. One common form of breathwork involves a series of one-on-one sessions lasting from 30 minutes to 3 hours.
In this case, a coach or facilitator guides a process of inner exploration using the breath as a tool, a force, or a bridge to health, growth, and change in spirit, mind, or body.
There are many schools and styles of breathwork. Some training programs are four weeks long and some are four years long. In many countries, it has been accepted by the medical community and has been adopted as a therapeutic modality, covered by medical insurance.
Today there is a worldwide movement to train, certify and license professional breathworkers. And there is a plan to control and regulate breathworkers in the same way that psychologists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, chiropractors, counselors, naturopaths, and social workers are controlled and regulated by state or other authorities.
In my opinion, this is both good and not so good! It is good that the medical community recognizes the power and potential of conscious breathing to aid in disease prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery. For too long, breathwork was seen as a “flaky new age fringe” phenomenon.
But in order to make breathwork more acceptable, respectable, palatable, or more appealing to mainstream authorities, it is being stripped of its most unique and transformative elements. In order to standardize or professionalize the practice, it must be watered down and gutted of its most profound and liberating aspects.
And so I question the value of confining breathwork to the medical-therapeutic world, or forcing it to conform to the rigid ethics and standards of any old and failing models. And I have challenged some members of the medical community who feel that they have a right or a duty to regulate the practice of breathwork.
I do not want breathwork to end up being just another version of the same old thing. Breathwork is unique. It evolved because the standard therapeutic model was not helping us to reach our ultimate potential.
I don’t want to see breathwork held captive by the psychotherapy community. And I will not support them in regulating it or controlling it. In fact, I will not support any individual or any group, no matter how good their intentions are, if they aim to dictate to others what must be done or what cannot happen in the breathwork community, at a breathing seminar, or during a breathing session.
The greatest leaps and the most advances in breathwork took place in the early days when there were no signposts to guide us, no rules to memorize, no policies in place, no instructions to follow, no experts to turn to, and no dogmas to obey.
The community was made up of ordinary people, who were extraordinary in that they dared to trust their intuition, to listen to the voice of their spirit, to rely on their own internal authority, to follow their heart. And we supported and trained everyone who came to us to do the same thing. It was called empowerment.
I believe that the breathwork relationship is a sacred one. There has been a lot of debate about the ethics of the client-therapist relationship in breathwork. But terms like “client” and “therapist” are merely convenient social references. And yet, some breathworkers actually treat the people who come to them as if they were their “patients!”
Many professional therapists and I am sad to say, some so-called breathworkers, are “compassionate for the cash in it.” They put on a role or an air. They assume a position of power and authority, and then they relate to their clients on this basis, in this artificial way.
Genuine breathworkers are different. They may happen to be doctors or therapists, or professional counselors, and so on; but in the practice of breathwork, they are nothing more than caring people who have derived great personal benefit from the process, and feel confident enough to share it with others.
The best relationship between a coach (facilitator, teacher, etc) and a breather (student, client, etc.) is simply one of loving friendship. I think that the “contact improvisation” movement in dance is a beautiful model for relating in breathwork.
Good breathworkers trust the sacred process of those they work with. They are not afraid to surrender to the spontaneous movement of spirit. They are conscious and aware, sensitive and intuitive. They are open and available. They are willing to flow with the energy of the moment.
Breathworkers choose the highest thought in every moment, and they encourage others to do the same. They don’t turn to a rule book or default to a dogma: they follow the prompting of their heart. In fact, we must even be willing to forget about doing breathwork itself, even as we are in the middle of practicing it!
There is a risk in making breathwork into a “thing” that people “do.” That’s what happened in the “primal scream” movement. People experienced real healing when they were allowed to spontaneously scream during therapy. But then it became an artificial technique that people began to “do.” And soon, it lost its natural healing power and genuine therapeutic value.
Natural healing and loving responses can be stifled when we are busy forcing ourselves and others to do what we think is “good” and “right.” To me, ethics in breathwork are simple: be open, be available, be honest, be real, and be present. And in each moment of power and choice, if you really think and feel that you must “do” something, ask: “What would love do?”
The Guest House – By Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Each morning, a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture;
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the pain, the shame, the malice,
Meet them all at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes.
Because each guest has been sent
As a guide from beyond.