The most popular forms of breathwork involve hyperventilation known as “holotropic breathing”. This is a technique that involves periods of heavy, exaggerated breathing, sometimes using the whole body. The hyperventilation is then followed by a period of either holding the breath, or of slow and controlled breathing.
People find that this intense bodily activation can bring on altered states of consciousness, and many people engage in breathwork in order to feel euphoria and joy.
However, breathwork can also bring up traumatic experiences. Just like with psychedelics, intense hyperventilation can cause people to revisit past memories or encounter their shadow sides. Some people say they have even witnessed their own birth trauma during holotropic breathwork!
Being able to confront your trauma in a very safe environment with a safe method can be very healing. And breathwork is mostly safe – unless you have a heart condition, suffer from seizures, or have a history of aneurisms.
Breathing techniques are certainly not new – the breath is absolutely central to the ancient art of yoga, and breathing is considered by yoga practitioners to be a fundamental part of its health benefits.
Breathwork was initially used in Western medicine as a part of psychotherapy. Therapists would get patients with anxiety disorders to hyperventilate, to induce a fake panic attack. They would then help their patients work through the panic, and show them that they were in no physical danger.
This kind of therapy is known as “exposure” therapy, because patients are being exposed to their biggest fear, but in a safe and controlled context. It’s something like getting an arachnophobe to hold a harmless tarantula.
Preliminary research has shown that people who engage in holotropic breathwork as a part of psychotherapy could see reductions in anxiety, and improvements in self-esteem. Even when people take part in breathwork without any additional therapy, they can potentially see improvements in personality traits like sociability and self-awareness, and reductions in obsessiveness.
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