Breathwork: The Inner Switch

another way to help integrate ayahuasca“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Next time you feel upset, check your breathing. Chances are, you’re not. ‘Email apnea’ – holding your breath while opening emails—is a widespread affliction that extends to texting and checking incoming caller IDs. (Again, check it out yourself.) The automatic response to modern life seems to be to contract our breathing. No wonder we live in a state of chronic stress. Most of us breathe in a fashion that is tight, constricted, and high in the chest, locked in by tension in the shoulders, neck and jaw.

This is not how we’re designed to function. If you watch a baby breathe, you’ll see her belly rise and fall in full, rhythmic fashion, unconstricted by any holding or tension. Virtually all of us lose this capacity somewhere in childhood, when we discover the unconscious strategy of minimizing the breath to clamp down on painful feelings. As this pattern locks in, we increasingly lose access to our emotional experience and our bodily sensations.

This self-protective mechanism is effective in reducing the amount of rage or grief we might feel in a difficult situation. But overall, it’s a destructive strategy. Shallow breathing from the chest triggers the sympathetic nervous system, creating and perpetuating tension and anxiety.

Breathwork is key to unlocking this kind of chronically restricted functioning. As the only autonomic body function humans can control, breath offers a unique bridge to our physiology, linked as it is to other autonomic functions like digestion and circulation. Breath is the doorway to working with anxiety, stress, blood pressure, and sleep, as well as clarity, calm, and full access to the emotional and spiritual realms.

For all these reasons, breathwork is a tremendously powerful integration practice. Ayahuasca stimulates body, spirit, emotions, mind. Breathwork naturally integrates these aspects of our being, helping us tune into the continuing flow of consciousness that runs through all our experiences. And conscious breathing is one of the most important things you can do in ceremony to help you navigate through rough patches. The more you practice it in daily life, the easier it is to find when you really need it.

Emotional and Spiritual Aspects

“There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then there’s another way; a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity.” — Rumi

Breath, by definition, is always in the present moment, just like our bodies. Think about this. Your awareness can be anywhere from last Christmas to Timbuktu, but your bodies and breath are always right here, right now. When you connect with your breath, you connect with your body, and when you are in your body, you connect with your emotions. It’s a seamless flow—breath, body, emotion. Cut it off anywhere along the line, and you get the driven-ness of modern life, and chronic confusion regarding what you feel and need in any given moment.

Breath is a key tool in meditation—but this means conscious, relaxed breath, not the shallow, tense gasping we tend towards. Most profoundly, breathwork can shift one’s emotions, from anxiously grasping for security to naturally turning inside for comfort – the comfort that comes with each conscious breath. Full breath balances the nervous system in a way that is calming, fulfilling, and deeply centering. From this place, we can deal with our emotions in a conscious way.

Basic Breathing Exercises

1. Your Baseline Breath: Right now, without changing a thing, tune into your body and notice your breathing pattern. How deeply does the breath enter? What moves in your body with each breath — belly, navel area, lower rib cage, chest? The whole chest, or part of it? Use your hand to trace a line around the area that seems to move with the breath, noting how large or how limited this area is. Finally, check for any sense of movement along the sides of your rib cage and your back.

2. Belly Breathing: If you’re one of the few remaining natural breathers, congratulations! If not, try this: Sitting up with a supported back, or lying on your back with knees drawn up (which can be easier at first), start to cultivate the easy, free flow of breath in your relaxed body. As you breathe in, let your belly rise (you might have to ‘wake up’ the muscles at first by pushing your stomach out). As you breathe out, let the belly fall. Relax more and more deeply, feeling the sensations in your body. Notice the gentle rhythm of your breath and let your body soften, feeling its full weight as it sinks into the support beneath.

3. Deepening into Flow: It can help to place one hand on your chest and another on your belly, as both the weight and warmth provide a focal point. Spend a while like this, inviting breath into the belly with the inhalation by receiving the inhalation into your abdomen, softening all the muscles. Then … on the outbreath, let go, allowing the air to leave naturally and effortlessly, as the ribs and belly soften and fall back in. You’re aiming for an easy, free flow of breath along the entire front of the body, chest to belly and beyond. Imagine an open, continuous stream of air flowing from your nasal passage to your diaphragm, and back out through your nose again. You might use your hands to guide the flow, gliding in an easy, elliptical motion. This is complete diaphragmatic breathing.

4. Full Release: The biggest difficulty for many people is how the inhale rushes in before the exhale fully completes. This habitual pattern is both a metaphor, and an actual driver of the very common feeling of never having enough time or space for oneself. To remedy this, practice noticing and fully inhabiting the feeling of fullness at the top of the inhale … and the feeling of emptiness/release at the bottom of the exhale. It’s a small thing, not even a pause, but this kind of subtle adjustment can make a big difference.

Tips for Working with the Breath

• Slow down. Breathwork is a meditative practice that can’t be done in a hurry. Set a timer if you need, to give yourself time to explore.

• Most people breath 12-18 breaths per minute. Try reducing to 10 cycles per minute–—inhaling three seconds, exhaling three seconds, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. The counting alone can be calming.

• Feelings can rise up unexpectedly in breathwork. Treat them as long-contracted emotions that are now emerging. Welcome them, embrace them, take care of them—and don’t stop breathing.

• Because it’s common to carry day stress into one’s sleep, it’s good to practice gentle belly breathing when falling asleep, or even upon waking in the middle of the night.

• Consider a few sessions with a breathworker or ‘breath facilitator.’ Look for Full Wave Breathing, Integrative or Transformational Breathwork. (Holotropic or Rebirthing breathwork are different modalities that evoke altered states of consciousness—powerful and fascinating work, but their aim is not to reshape the patterns of daily breathing.)

• Unwinding old patterning takes time and consistent effort. If you can do a few minutes of breath from the belly several times a day—maybe morning, evening, and once in between—you’ll be on your way. And remember to turn to it in stressful situations, so the breath can start to unwire reactive patterns. Breathwork is an amazing tool to draw upon; a powerful, natural, free, readily available source of comfort reconnecting you to the inside.

More Resources

Breathing blog:

Comprehensive article on different types of breathwork:

Transformational Breathworkers in action:

Conscious Breathing, Gay Hendricks: