Benefits and Approaches to Breathwork (And How Steam Therapy Can Enhance Your Practice)
A recent round-up of 2018 health trends declared that breathwork is “an advanced alternative to meditation.” This statement got us wondering. Exactly what is breathwork, how does it help the mind and body, and—considering how steam bathing can improve the respiratory system—what role might steam therapy play if you practice this technique?
According to Shape Magazine, “With a few techniques and a little know-how, [breathwork] can have some seriously impressive results. We're talking mood-enhancing, body-benefiting, and even career-boosting consequences.”
What is it, then, exactly?
All living creatures breathe—it’s a necessary, though generally unconscious, function of living. But by bringing various therapeutic techniques and conscious control to the act of breathing, breathwork can switch off the active mind and tap into blocked energy and emotions. By drawing upon Eastern practices such as yoga and Tai Chi, while incorporating Western psychotherapy techniques, breathwork helps us access other levels of our being. Some practitioners of breathwork incorporate different stimuli along with breathing exercises to help this process, including talk therapy, music, art, and movement.
In simpler terms, breathwork involves the conscious control of breathing to enhance an individual’s mental, emotional, or physical state. It is touted as a transformational technique and a method of healing that works best when practiced several times a week.
Benefits of Breathwork
According to one breathwork consultant on her Pushing Beauty blog, “Breathwork can release unresolved emotional pain, recharge your creative battery, detox your nervous system, and nourish your soul.” It is particularly helpful for individuals who are physically or emotionally blocked in their approach to living. The Power of Breath Institute points out that “how a person breathes reflects how a person lives and responds to their life,” while “open, relaxed breathing is crucial to recovering from the long-term effects of stress-related living as well as offering new response patterns to the specific effects of disease, imbalance, and trauma.”
In today’s overly stressed environment, with individuals often doubting their own potential through negative social energy or personal issues, it is even more critical to find methodologies that help us transcend our own limitations. For many, breathwork has proven particularly effective.
Here are some of the possible benefits of this practice:
- Provides a shortcut to a meditative state
- Releases trauma and post-traumatic stress
- Relieves depression and anxiety
- Provides a safe outlet for repressed anger, grief, and sadness
- Provides personal and spiritual insight
- Helps with eating or sleeping disorders
- Increases vitality and energy
- Reduces daily stress
- Helps with chronic pain
- Improves emotional stamina
- Can help combat addiction
The History of Breathwork
Breathwork is not a new concept. In fact, every single one of the martial arts, warrior, and mystic traditions use the breath in some significant manner. If you’ve taken a yoga or Tai Chi class, you’ve probably come across some variation of the practice. It has deep roots in Buddhism, as well as many other Eastern cultures.
But serious focus on breathwork as a stand-alone therapy only began during the 1960s and 70s, as part of the New Age conscious-raising culture that borrowed from Eastern practices and brought them to the West. Some modalities emphasized the benefits of self-awareness and inner peace. Others would recommend breathwork to help alter an individual’s state of consciousness and even bring about a hallucinogenic state. Shape Magazine says that “it's not uncommon for participants to have an intense or even psychedelic experience” when they embark on this practice.
The combination of ancient breathing techniques with modern psychotherapy has been shown to improve a patient’s overall therapy experience. According to MindBodySpiritNYC, “While psychotherapy can be extremely effective, it has also been shown to have some serious limitations. The human brain operates at about five percent conscious awareness. This means that ninety-five percent of what is actually controlling our lives, decisions, perceptions, behaviors, hang-ups, and addictions are subconscious—literally invisible to us. Therefore, even with the psychological understanding and insight that traditional psychotherapy can facilitate, fundamental changes can remain elusive.” By tapping into that unexplored territory of our being, breathwork can enhance traditional psychotherapy.
The field of breathwork continues to evolve. And it’s clearly growing in popularity. Shape Magazine cites breathwork expert Dan Brulé, who uses the practice with Olympians, Navy SEALs, and business executives to help them attain the edge they need to succeed in such high-powered endeavors.
Do I Need to Work With a Professional?
Many sources talk about the fact that, if done without supervision, breathwork can lead to severe distress, including hyperventilation and even seizures. For this reason, it is best to work at the start with a professional, often referred to as a breathworker. Breathwork sessions can be two hours in length, which is not something a novice can undertake on their own. The Good Therapy website lists several organizations worldwide that perform research on and train both participants and practitioners of this therapy.
There are different varieties of breathwork. Many share such techniques as continuous circular breathing, done using clear, full breaths without pausing or twenty connected breaths, done through the nose rather than typical “mouth breathing.” Here are just a few of the types:
- Holotropic Breathwork is used to achieve wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. It is often practiced in groups and can include sharing and support.
- Vivation, also known as Rebirthing Breathwork, or Conscious Energy Breathing is intended to help individuals release blockages of body and mind and harks back to the 1960s when Leonard Orr proposed that everyone had experienced trauma during birth and that breathwork would help them transcend that suppressed ordeal.
- Clarity Breathwork, which addresses anything that might be hindering the healthy flow of energy and breathing, includes intuitive counseling, somatic exploration, and circular breathing.
- Biodynamic Breathwork includes breath, movement, sound, touch, emotion, and meditation.
How Can Steam Therapy Contribute to Breathwork?
As noted in an earlier blog post, Why Steam Rooms Should Be a Regular Part of Your Wellness Lifestyle, “A session in a steam room works on multiple levels to help clear your nasal passages and lungs. Steam is a natural expectorant, and researchers have found steam therapy can help relieve asthma and upper respiratory issues. Steam can open up restricted airways and dislodge mucus and phlegm that may be obstructing normal breathing patterns.”
Clearly, to fully benefit from breathwork, it is critical to remove and prevent anything that would interfere with the breathing process. A regular steam shower will do this—to say nothing of giving you an optimal environment to continue the practice of breathwork once you are proficient enough to do so on your own.
Have you already tried breathwork or are you considering doing so? We’d love to hear more about your experiences in this therapy!