As the acupuncturist removed the needles from various points in my hands, ears, and feet, she told me about an exercise I should try for the next few weeks, until my next appointment.
“Paint one of your thumbnails blue,” she said. “And every time you notice your blue nail, take a long, slow breath in through your nose and a long, slow exhale through your mouth.”
At the time, I found the suggestion to be a bit unusual, to say the least. But over the course of the next few years, I learned that breathwork is an important tool in many healing modalities, from massage to yoga to natural childbirth. Practitioners use breath to help their patients relax their bodies and calm their minds, as well as for specific ailments such as fatigue. According to Andrew Weil, M.D., in his book Natural Health, Natural Medicine (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), “Breath is the master key to health and wellness, a function we can learn to regulate and develop in order to improve our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.”
Breathwork & Traditional Chinese Medicine
Lesley Tierra, a Santa Cruz, California-based acupuncturist and the author of The Herbs of Life (The Crossing, 1992), says that breathwork is an important aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
“I think breathwork has a very powerful overall effect,” Tierra says. “It helps you to change your focus and can calm your mind. The breath itself and breathing exercises are vital. In TCM, the lungs give strength to the whole body and improve immunity. The lungs and large intestine are organ pairings in TCM, and so breathwork may also help balance elimination.”
Tierra says she often recommends breathing exercises to her acupuncture patients because they can be useful for a wide range of conditions.
“Breathwork is very helpful for people who get frequent colds and flus or have any weakened lung condition, such as shortness of breath or tiredness upon exertion,” she says. “Really, it’s great for any type of long-term chronic disease. Breathwork oxygenates the body and the brain, which brings in energy.”
Tierra says that in TCM, breathwork is thought to help build blood and energy in the body. In addition to the conditions listed above, she likes breathwork for treating nervousness, indigestion, poor circulation, low energy, fatigue, and memory problems.
The breathing exercise Tierra recommends most is called alternate nostril breathing (See “Breathing exercises to try at home” below for instructions.)
“Alternate nostril breathing is specifically good for calming the mind,” she says. “It’s also excellent for stress, insomnia, depression, mood swings, and PMS.” Tierra says alternate nostril breathing can be done daily, just before bed, before meditation, or in a stressful situation.
“If you’re at work and stressed out, you can just go into the bathroom stall and do alternate nostril breathing,” she says. “This technique is great because it’s the easiest exercise to do anytime and anyplace. It purifies the nervous system.”
Tierra likes to demonstrate the breathing techniques to her patients, because she says the techniques can be tricky and it seems easier for people to learn visually.
Tierra also finds breathwork useful when she’s inserting needles during an acupuncture session.
“When I perform acupuncture, I also use the breath when inserting needles,” she says. “If I’m tonifying a patient, such as someone with low energy, I have the patient inhale as I’m putting the needles in. If I’m sedating a patient, such as someone with hypertension, I have them exhale when I insert the needles, to clear heat and eliminate.”
Breathwork for athletic performance
John Douillard, an Ayurvedic physician and the author of The 3-Season Diet (Harmony, 2000), teaches elite athletes and regular people how to breathe in a way that lets them achieve a calm state of mind they can carry with them long after their workout is over.
“Breathing is so important—we breathe 28,000 times per day,” Douillard says. “But most of us walk around breathing like rabbits all day long—we take such short, shallow breaths. This kind of breathing activates stress receptors in the lungs that trigger an emergency response.”
This emergency response, says Douillard, tells the body to burn sugar—emergency fuel—instead of fat.
“We can convince our bodies that life is not an emergency,” Douillard says. “When we breathe into the lower lobes of our lungs, we can teach ourselves how to stay calm during exercise or in a stressful situation. Then we will burn nonemergency fuel, which is fat.”
Douillard recommends nostril breathing at all times—when exercising and when at rest. He recommends that people start out with a simple nasal breathing technique while going for a walk. (See “Breathing exercises to try at home” below for instructions.)
“Most people can’t breathe through their nose during exercise,” he says. “But you should know that if you can’t, your respiratory ability isn’t good. You will need to practice.”
For moderate fitness, Douillard says that anyone can do the nasal breathing. For competitive athletes, though, he says it takes a lot of practice—but he thinks it’s definitely worth it.
“Nose breathing has so much benefit. It’s about moving prana, or chi, not just during a meditation session or yoga class, but all day,” he says. “When you leave exercise, the benefits can carry over. My goal is not to give twenty-minute stress techniques but to have the calm feelings last all day long.”
Sarah Burdge, a certified holotropic breathwork facilitator in Menlo Park, California, uses breath in a different way.
“Holotropic breathwork is a self-exploration tool that uses breath as a tool to enter a nonordinary state of consciousness (NOSC),” she says. “From an NOSC, we have more easy access to deeper levels of our psyches.”
Burdge says the emphasis of holotropic breathwork is different from other forms of breathwork in that it focuses on these nonordinary states rather than relaxation. She says there are several reasons people use holotropic breathwork.
“Many people come because they want to do a deeper level of personal work—they want to be more in touch with themselves,” she says. “A lot of people who come have more serious emotional disturbances and haven’t been able to work through their problems on a talking level. Often, these people will see a therapist in conjunction with the holotropic breathwork. Counseling can help integrate the experience and provide ongoing support.”
Burdge says that in a holotropic breathwork session, the client tries to move the highest volume of air that he or she can, breathing in deeper and faster, and staying focused on that for an extended period. It doesn’t matter whether the client breathes through the mouth or nose. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, the creator of the technique, discovered that people find the right method for themselves on an individual basis,
she says.“It’s an art to learn how to use your breath and learn how your body responds,” Burdge says. “It’s not hard to learn, but you learn by experience over time.”
The typical session varies depending on the individual, but it usually lasts for around three hours, Burdge says. Some peoples’ course of treatment takes one year; others continue to come in twice a month to help them stay in touch.
“Learning is also done in workshops,” Burdge says. “There, you work with a partner; for one session you’re breathing and for the other you’re being a support for the breathing person. We don’t recommend that people do the technique on their own. It can be very powerful and intense.”
To find a holotropic breathwork facilitator and learn more about the practice, you can visit www.holotropicbreath.com, www. breathwork.com, www.holotropic.com, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Grof has written several books on holotropic breathwork, including The Holotropic Mind: The Three Levels of Consciousness and How They Shape Our Lives (Harper Collins, 1992). Burdge says there are more than 500 holotropic breathwork facilitators worldwide.
Breathwork & massage therapy
Lisa Johnson, a certified massage therapist and yoga instructor in Boulder, Colorado, uses breathwork in conjunction with both massage and yoga.
Johnson says massage is more passive than yoga.
“In massage, I generally use the breath to help the client get in contact with their feelings—not necessarily emotionally, but to get in contact with the physical body.”
Johnson says she asks her clients to breathe into the area where she’s working. “I’m contacting an area of tension from the outside and asking them to contact it from the inside,” she says. “In areas that are tight and congested, there isn’t enough energy flow. Taking the breath there can create space and movement,’’ she explains.
“You’re making them more conscious of their tension but also giving them a tool for the future—they can learn to have control over the tension that’s there,” Johnson says.
Johnson has her clients think of the massage as if that part of the body she’s working on had lungs—such as thinking of inflating the neck on inhalation and softening and dropping it on exhalation.
“After I finish working, I ask my client to integrate the massage by taking three full-body breaths,” she says. “That way, the client can feel a sense of openness through their body, and they can’t feel the congestion that they felt before.”
Breathing in yoga, breathing out stress
Johnson, whose classes are a combination of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, has been teaching yoga for three years and studying it for nine years. She has taken courses in pranayama, the yogic practice of controlling the breath, and now incorporates breathwork into her classes.
“Generally, I first get all of my students to contact their breath by listening to the sound of the breath moving past the nostrils, to pay attention to the sensation as it fills the lungs,’’ she says. “Their belly, ribcage, and chest may begin to lift. I have them notice where their breath flows for them and where it feels constricted. I have them bring their breath into constricted areas to soften the areas.”
In beginning classes, Johnson has her students lie on their backs with their knees bent. They rest their hands on their stomachs or middle ribcages to give them a reference point to breathe against.
“When people are more advanced and have proper sitting posture, they can do it sitting up,” Johnson says. “But it’s a lot easier to learn while lying on the back. The breath then becomes a tool that you can work with consciously to calm your emotional state.”
Johnson says she prefers to do breathing exercises at the start of a class—that way, she says, her students have already made contact with their breath and they can integrate it into the rest of the class. She will also lead less detailed breathing exercises at the end of class “to bring everyone back into their bodies.”
Johnson is also aware that problems can arise in yoga if breathing is not emphasized.
“If people don’t breathe correctly in yoga, they can become very sore, because their muscles aren’t getting enough oxygen,” Johnson says. “I know this from experience because I hold intense poses while teaching and I talk at the same time, so I’m not focused on my breath. I get so sore afterward!”
Johnson also sees the breath as a way to be more in tune with your body.
“I think the breath is a way to connect to the sensations in the body,” she says. “If you’re not breathing, you’re not contacting what’s going on for you physically. One reason that people do yoga is to become more sensitized and conscious of what’s going on, on a physical level. A lot of athletes have learned to train through pain so they can continue to run, for example. Yoga and breathwork can teach them to become sensitive to their bodies again, so they won’t continue to push themselves too hard.
“Your body has so much wisdom, and it will tell you what it wants and needs. You have to develop a relationship with it and listen to it. It will guide you, but you have to learn or relearn to listen,” Johnson says.