Breathwork is a cyclic breathing technique that allows the participants to access their unconscious negative emotions and thinking about themselves and the world – usually imprinted by some fearful or traumatic event(s) in the vulnerably innocent period of childhood. A crucial fact to be acknowledged is that the adult brain that reads this text, right now, is far different from the developing, easily influenced, and thus vulnerable, mind of the child. Let us not forget that the child mind is the only organ that is not fully developed at birth.
So, how are these unconscious negative thoughts created and stored in the brain? A good starting point for us in order to understand this process is to observe the kind of breath we take when we get a fright.
Usually, we breathe in sharply and then hold our breath at the top. What happens in those moments is that our primal brain (reptilian/survival brain) takes over through the fear response (flight/fight/freeze), and our adrenal system kicks in and floods our body with adrenaline and other hormones that cause our muscular system to become stronger. Generally, we become more alert – taken by a sense of urgency or anxiety – although, sometimes we can also become numb – taken by a sense of sleepiness or freeze.
Our cognitive brain (limbic and neocortex brain) is put on hold; our focus is on survival. Being focused on survival numbs all other senses in the body, i.e. we could lose a finger and still keep running. The senses still function properly, sending messages to the brain, informing it about everything, but some of the information is partitioned by the mind. That means that the primal brain keeps available, at the moment, only the information that it deems necessary in order for the person to survive, to overcome the problem, the confrontation, or the threat, e.g. the car coming from the opposite lane, the fight with our partner, the family lunch on Sunday and of course… the tiger hunting our ancestors, not that long ago. The rest of the information received by the sensory system is stored and compartmentalized for possible processing and use at a later point. All the feelings, sensations and emotional energy that come up during this process are suppressed for the sake of ‘survival’. The primal brain’s only concern is: “Eat or be eaten”.
Of course, the optimum state of the human condition is balance – a condition where the least amount of energy is being used by the body. The body wants to come back into balance – its natural state – as soon as possible. Therefore, after the ‘threat’ passes, the adrenal system starts producing melatonin, oxytocin and other relaxing hormones: The process of healing begins.
Unfortunately, sometimes things don’t turn out this way. The primal brain cannot tell the difference between a real danger and an imaginary one, that is, between the fear caused by actually being threatened and the fear caused by imagining that threat. Hence, the primal brain believes that re-visiting this experience means re-living the trauma: re-living all those feelings, sensations and emotional energy we had to suppress in order to survive, and along with them, all the associated thoughts about ourselves and the world, i.e. it’s my fault, I’m stupid, he/she is bad, this is not safe, I shouldn’t have done/said that etc.
The main reason we don’t want to revisit a traumatic situation is because every uncomfortable or threatening situation engenders fear. As a rule, fear is the most common type of emotional energy that is suppressed during any threatening incident, in order for humans to survive. Yet, fear is also the biggest paper tiger; the biggest illusion of the human mind.
It’s human nature to want to avoid the things that make us feel uncomfortable. The only problem is that all the underlying (fearful) thoughts still remain, unexpressed in our unconscious minds: hidden but very powerful. We think we are making conscious choices, but, in reality, it’s our unconscious thoughts and the attached emotional energy that actually steers our thought process. To better depict that, think of people with phobias and how irrational their behaviour can seem to the conscious mind. Even on a much more subtle level, it is always our suppressed, unconscious thoughts and feelings that drive our behaviour – in many complex ways. For example, we gradually refrain from driving a car; we prefer taking a taxi, instead. Still, we clearly can’t seem to make any connection with the terrible accident we saw down the road, when we were 5 years old. So we just believe that not driving is a conscious choice, that we just like taking a taxi, save ourselves from the trouble of parking, from other expenses etc. And maybe it’s not even that old accident we once happened to witness; in fact, it could be anything, an unconscious fear, some unexpressed emotions that actually make the choice for us.
What Breathwork does is that it uses the same primal reptilian brain technology to access those unconscious uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. We use our breath to access the survival system, re-activate and express any emotional energy and unconscious thoughts associated, in a safe and loving way. We dig out any negative seed thought and make room for loving thoughts about ourselves and the world.
Breathwork is inspired by the Rebirthing technique – originated from Leonard Orr in the US, back in the 1970s – a technique which has been expanded upon by many practitioners and numerous scientific studies. The basic research focus has been on the process through which the breath functions as a trauma release mechanism. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Breathwork is now classed as a mind-body complementary health practice – also enjoying a degree of recognition as a form of psychotherapy – in both Europe and Australia/New Zealand.