On the last Tuesday of every month, around the world, small groups of people gather themselves into circles. They come together not to debate an issue, form a committee or follow a 12-step program, but to do what we all do every minute of the day: Breathe.
The Breathing Circle movement began in 2011 as the brain child of British breathworker Natalia Brown. What started off as a group of Natalia’s friends has, with her support, spread around the globe. Today breathing circles can be found throughout Europe and North America, in Mexico, Australia, Lebanon, the Ukraine, India and Kenya. When asked why, in just three years, her circle of friends has become a world-wide phenomenon, Brown is quick to respond.
“They’ve discovered the power of their own breath,” she explains. “Once you find out what breathing can do, you want more of it.”
When Brown talks about the power of the breath, she’s referring to the therapeutic psychological and emotional effects of breathwork. We all inhale and exhale around 20,000 times a day without paying much attention to the rise and fall of our lungs. In contrast, Breathing Circle members are acutely aware of their breathing. They focus their full attention on the movement of air into and out of their body. They also create a seamless connection between inhalation and exhalation by eliminating the natural pauses that occur in the breathing cycle. This particular form of breathwork is called conscious, connected breathing or CCB. And to anyone who has not experienced CCB, the effects are both powerful and unexpected.
“It takes you into yourself. It takes you to places you don’t go every day,” Larry Davis, a veteran of many breathwork sessions, explains. Davis suffered from depression since childhood. He tried medication, support groups and other forms of therapy with some, but limited, effect. In his 40s, he discovered breathwork.
“You experience another side of yourself,” he says. “You really experience it — the part of you that can be happy. You learn to let go of anger and loneliness. You let go of that way of thinking. It’s not easy to face it all but you grow out of it. In the breathwork, you grow out of it.”
CCB, as experienced by Davis, generally takes place either in one-to-one sessions with a breathwork therapist, or in groups such as a Breathing Circle which are facilitated by a trained breathworker.
Breathers can sit but generally they go through the session lying down. The session begins with a conscious focus on the movement of air into and out of the body. Breathers gradually eliminate the natural pauses in the breathing cycle and because of this, breathing becomes a little faster and fuller than normal. From here the breath takes on a life of its own, sometimes flowing placidly, sometimes vigorously, at times high in the chest, at others deep in the belly. The breather feels like they are being breathed, yet at the same time, they feel fully in charge of the experience. Some breathers move about, some lie perfectly still, some weep, some laugh, some do both.
It’s more difficult to describe what happens internally, where the therapeutic effects of breathwork take place. A breathwork session can contain memories, including the memory of birth. It can contain a full range of emotions as well as profound insights. Somatic sensations include waves of energy, tingling, and occasional localized pain. Breathers can experience sounds, smells and visual sensation often reminiscent of the psychedelic images popular in the 1960s and ’70s. Senses become fluid and flow into each other. Physical sensations turn into emotions, emotions transform into insights. The inner experience of CCB is unique to each breather, every time they participate in a session.
“CCB is a lot of things in one,” Natalia Brown elaborates. “It’s a spiritual practice. It’s also a psychological and emotional therapy. And you certainly feel better physically after a session.”
Breathwork has an ancient lineage, particularly in the Buddhist tradition. But modern therapeutic CCB techniques such as Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing were developed during the counterculture period in the 1950s and ’60s when the exploration of consciousness became popular in the West. Once an outlier in the field of psychotherapy, breathwork therapies have since developed their own theoretical frameworks and have grown into highly effective forms of therapy. This acceptance has happened largely without the benefit of objective scientific research. There has been, therefore, scanty objective evidence of effectiveness to back up the claims of both therapists and clients. That evidence gap is closing.
A 1997 study of Holotropic Breathwork published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychotherapy divided study participants into two groups. One group used traditional talk-based experiential therapy. The second group used regular Holotropic breathwork sessions in addition to the same talk-based therapy used by the first group. At the end of the study, the Holotropic Breathwork group showed significantly more gains in self-esteem and the management of anxiety than the group that used talk therapy without breathwork (Holms, Morris, Clance & Putney, 1997).
A 2003 study carried out in the Czech Republic examined the effect of breathwork on personality using a control group of non-breathers and a breathwork group. At the end of study the researchers described the breathers as “…significantly more able to enjoy the present moment, they are more independent of other people’s beliefs, they are more flexible in their approach towards values, they are more sensitive to their needs and feelings, they are more spontaneous, they have a higher self-esteem and show a better capacity for establishing warm interpersonal relationships” than the group using talk therapy alone (Binarova, 2003).
A partial explanation of the breathwork experience may lie in the documented effects of voluntary hyperventilation, the kind of accelerated breathing that characterizes breathwork techniques like CCB. Within 20 to 30 seconds of commencing breathwork, blood flow velocity decreases in the arteries feeding the brain while the capillaries experience an increase in pH and oxygen saturation. After eight minutes the somatic sensations enjoyed by Breathing Circle breathers begin. After 15 minutes breathers experience various forms of altered consciousness or expanded awareness. These altered states may be linked to a reduction in activity in the frontal lobes of the brain.
Larry Davis describes breathwork as enabling him to face the elements of himself that are “not easy to face.” As the frontal lobes are associated with the control and inhibition of cognition and behavior (Rhinewine, 2007), the reduction in activity could explain why breathers experience a wide range of often-painful memories and encounter full-on the belief systems that underpin so much human unhappiness.
“All those memories that surface during CCB,” Brown explains, “all those belief systems that limit our ability to take charge of our own lives, are unresolved experiences from our past.”
Events going back to womb time and birth are laid down in pre-verbal sense memory. Breathing, because it’s a sensory experience, facilitates access to life events from all periods of life, including the pre-verbal. Bringing events to the surface in a safe, controlled environment allows the breather to re-experience those events as an adult with an adult’s ability to put them into context and resolve them.
And this is where the Breathing Circle movement is taking breathwork to a new level. It is highly recommended that people initially take breathwork sessions with a qualified breathworker in a therapeutic setting. But while therapy is expensive, breathwork is something people can do for themselves. Once the technique is mastered it can be used in many different settings including breathing circles. The effect is not quite the same when practiced alone or in a group than with the undivided attention of a therapist in a private session. But the spread of the Breathing Circle movement is testimony to the fact that CCB can be a regular enhancement for anyone’s life. And all for the price of a donation to cover the cost of the venue where the Breathing Circle takes place.
Holms, S.W., Morris, R., Clance, P.R., Putney, R.T. Holotropic Breathwork: An Experimental Approach to Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy 1996, 33:114-120.
Binarova, D. The Effect of Holotropic Breathwork on Personality. Ceska a Slovenska Psychiatrie 99. 2003. No. 8, 410-414.
Rhinewine, J. et al., Holotropic Breathwork: The Potential Role of a Prolonged, Voluntary Hyperventilation Procedure as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 13, 2007, 771-776.
For a list of Breathing Circles worldwide, see www.breathingcircle.com
This article was originally published in Positive Health, Issue 216, August 2014.