Is Breathwork suitable for everyone?
Written by Gunnel Minett
Breathwork is the generic term for modern holistic healing techniques that use the breath to increase physical and mental wellbeing. They derive mainly from two techniques developed in California in the 1960s and 70s – Rebirthing, by Leonard Orr and Holotropic Breathwork by Dr Stanislav Grof. Since then a number of breath-related therapies have derived from these two techniques, in all parts of the world. Despite their simplicity (a guided change in the breathing pattern for Rebirthing and a ‘spontaneous’ breathing pattern initiated by music for Holotropic Breathwork) they are able to create major physical and mental transformation and trigger life-changing experiences.
The origin of Rebirthing
The Rebirthing technique is mainly the result of one person’s search for mindchanging techniques. To begin with Orr, who comes from a fundamentalist Christian background, spent considerable time in search of a deeper meaning in life. Part of his search consisted of exposing his body for extreme conditions (such as spending long periods in a sauna or hot bath tub). During these experiments he became aware of spontaneous changes in his breathing pattern that seemed to trigger changes in the brain which he interpreted as a form of mystical experience. He found that it was possible to copy the breathing pattern and use it systematically to achieve these mind-changing experiences at will. Initially Orr experimented on a group of friends. They spent long hours in hot or cold water, and whole days in a sleeping bag (attempting to re-create a womb like environment) etc. The reactions were often strong and not just life-changing but also sometimes close to life-threatening. Since none of them had any formal qualifications to deal with such strong reactions, they had to improvise and assist each other as best they could. Of course compared with drug-oriented attitudes of the 60’s hippie era, Orr’s techniques were comparatively both milder and safer.
The origin of Holotropic Breathwork
The development of Holotropic Breathwork is in some respects similar to Rebirthing. During the 60’s when LSD was tried in psychotherapy Grof (who is a psychiatrist) conducted extensive research in this field. Similar to Orr he noticed the spontaneous changes in the breathing pattern in people taking the drug. When LSD had been declared illegal, Grof continued to experiment with the breathing pattern he had observed in his patients and developed Holotropic Breathwork in which loud music replaced drugs to initiate a change in the breathing pattern. Unlike Orr, Grof has developed substantive theories of the experiences he has observed and has become one of the founders of transpersonal psychotherapy (which accepts spiritual and transcendent states of consciousness).
First development phase
Because Rebirthing was developed as part of a faith-based personal quest it has been left with a much weaker theoretical framework (Orr has no formal qualifications in psychology). Despite clear indications from the very beginning that Rebirthing is a form of deep psychotherapy the original focus was on finding a deeper meaning in life. Instead of developing a new form of psychotherapy the efforts were focused on forming a new faith-based community where the original group took the role of spiritual leaders. The need for formal qualifications in psychotherapy to deal with clients was never recognised (probably out of simple ignorance or lack of interest in this aspect). Ten Rebirthing sessions was regarded as sufficient to qualify as a Rebirther (practitioner). Practitioners were ‘certified’ by the teacher or other practitioners who intuitively decided if a person was ready to start working with clients. Supervision and/or basic knowledge of psychology were not regarded as necessary requirements.
Faith most important
Faith in the technique and trust in the teachers was more important for a qualification than conventional studies. Teaching was done in a guru style i.e. the teacher was assumed to have ‘mastered’ the technique and questioning of the teaching was a sign of weakness in the pupil rather than the teacher. The concept of ‘thought is creative’ became a central aspect and was to be understood literally. The combination of breathing sessions and affirmation (a technique to repeat/affirm positive statements in order to change certain thought patterns) was regarded as a ‘cure-all’ for everything from low self esteem to serious illness. Physical and mental wellbeing was assumed to be the automatic result. Consequently, Rebirthing got a reputation similar to that of snake oil: a cure for every known ailment (as well as removing stains and polishing shoes). There wasn’t anybody alive that would not benefit from Rebirthing. As long as you could breathe you could do Rebirthing. Orr took his own belief in the technique to the ultimate level and began to claim that Rebirthing even leads to physical immortality.
Even if Rebirthing never was intended as a form of psychotherapy, it has a profound impact on the psyche. From the very beginning people started to bring up psychological issues in their sessions and consequently Rebirthing has always been used as a form of psychotherapy. Orr developed his own set of explanations as to how to deal with this. He called them his ‘five biggies’ (1.birth trauma, 2.parental disapproval, 3.specific trauma, 4.unconscious death urge, 5.past lives).
Birth trauma had a central role in his theories (hence the name Rebirthing) based on the observation that many people seemed to re-experience their own birth in Rebirthing sessions. The Rebirthing experiences were often extremely intense and could be life-changing spiritual moments. To have such experiences can leave a person feeling very lost and vulnerable. It may make the person want or even need to make major changes in their lives. (“How can I go on living as if nothing has happened when I have such a strong sense of everything being different?”) Many left relationships, and/or jobs and moved away to start new lives. This need to change contributed to the formation of a worldwide ‘Rebirthing family’ (with many cult-like aspects). Many training courses also included learning to ‘create’ money, friends, health etc through the help of affirmations rather than conventional work.
Lack of support
If intense inner experiences (such as those created by Rebirthing) are not handled properly they may do more damage than good. Just as with recreational drugs, they may leave the person confused, bewildered and even psychotic. Given that these types of intense experiences were not common in West before the hippie period in the 60’s, little was known in the West how to handle such experiences. Grof’s main focus was to develop such theories and create a ‘Transpersonal psychotherapy’. He also formed a ‘Spiritual Emergence’ network, aimed at assisting people with strong (spontaneous or induced) transpersonal experiences as an alternative to conventional psychiatric treatment.
The best theories available at the time were found in the Indian Yoga theories. They explain the awakening of Kundalini (a dormant ‘life energy’ that can be activated through yogic practices and lead to powerful mind-altering experiences). Yoga teaching emphasises the need for a gradual preparation of the body and mind before the Kundalini energy is activated. The Yoga postures are in effect designed to prepare the body and mind for an increase in Kundalini. If the preparation is insufficient the experiences may be overwhelming and even cause temporary psychological breakdown. But even if Yoga theory offered good support for Rebirthing, the cautions advocated by Yoga teachers were mainly ignored.
With the increase in safety awareness during the 80’s, it became more and more obvious that Rebirthing was not suitable for everybody. Changes were needed to improve on the technique. This lead to a number of newer generations of breathwork based on the original technique but within different theoretical structures. One way to mark the distance from the original Rebirthing technique has been the name change with Breathwork becoming the generic term.
One of the first things to be introduced was screening of clients before they were enrolled in workshops and trainings. A basic requirement for safety in having transpersonal experiences is a sufficiently strong ego. That is to say that the person needs to be mentally stable enough to be able to handle the intense experiences without losing their sense of self. Another obvious requirement is to make sure that the person is physically fit and not on medication that may influence the session. The automatic healing power has been toned down, in particular in regard to physical problems, partly because legislation in many countries has limited the claims that can be made without proper evidence. The newer versions of breathwork no longer see the technique as a universal quick fix for body and mind. On the contrary – a better comparison is surgery. It is not enough to cut open the patient. The success of an operation depend on knowledge of what to do in order to fix the actual problem once the body has been cut open.
The psycho-therapeutical aspect has been recognised and emphasised and a theoretical framework has been added to help the practitioner deal with the psychological issues that emerge as part of the process. In some places this has meant a requirement for formal training as part of a longer programme (usually 1- 5 years) unless the practitioner already is a qualified psychotherapist. Some practitioners have gone in a different direction and do breathwork as part of more general self-improvement techniques. Then the technique is usually practiced in milder versions and the initial screening for suitability is more rigorous to avoid strong reactions that may overwhelm the client. Many practitioners also work in cooperation with other medical professionals. In this form, Breathwork has been shown to be an excellent way of treating drug addiction when used in combination with conventional psychotherapy.
Contributions from neuroscience
Since Rebirthing and Holotropic Breathwork first emerged in the 70’s neuroscience has taken huge steps forward in understanding how the mind works. Evolutionary psychology and consciousness studies have emerged as two new scientific fields. Both work to improve the understanding of the body/mind connection as well as consciousness itself. This has offered detailed explanations of how and why breathwork has such a profound impact on our psyche. From seeing the brain as an on/off machine operating on electrical impulses, science has moved on and found that the brain is more like a ‘super-gland’ or a biological processor that deals with ‘chemical information’ rather than electricity. As changes in the breathing pattern mean changes in the body’s chemicals, explanations as to how and why breathwork works can be found here. Breathwork has great potential to become a central part of psychotherapy and holistic health programmes. In a similar way that psycho-pharmaceutical drugs are tailored to work in cooperation with the body’s own mechanisms, the increased understanding of the human psyche also offers better ways of tailoring the breathwork sessions. Simply using affirmations is now regarded as too primitive and has now been replaced by a proper psycho-therapeutical approach.
Modern neuroscience has also helped to explain the ancient Yoga theories. The chakra system (‘energy points’ situated along the spine that are said to influence a person’s physical, mental and emotional states) corresponds well with the major glands. The dormant Kundalini can be compared with the decrease of brain activity from childhood to adulthood. The Indian concept of ‘Prana’ (life energy) is used to explain a kind of driving force that permeates everything in our universe). It is said to be involved in breathing, but is more energy in the air than the air itself. All this has resonance with unified field theories in modern physics.
Breathwork has come a long way from the rather wild explorations in the 70’s. Still not all practitioners have moved with this development. There are still practitioners and schools that teach the original faith-based Rebirthing technique. So anyone interested in Breathwork, should make sure they know exactly what version of Breathwork the practitioner is offering and how it matches one’s expectations before trying it. To have life-changing experiences is not a dangerous thing in itself. But it is important to make sure that it is achieved in a safe way. A responsible breathworker will be familiar with the potential outcome of their technique and qualified to deal with it in a positive and constructive way. This will include an initial assessment to establish if breathwork is the best way forward for each client. It will probably also include a range of techniques with the view to design the breathwork session to meet each client’s particular needs. The practitioner will be well qualified to discuss the issues that are brought up, be prepared to work together with other medical professionals and refer to other forms of therapy if necessary. To have the right guide, for what can be a fascinating inner journey, is definitely the best guarantee to make sure that one arrives at a desired destination.
Key words: Breathwork, Psychotherapy, Spiritual, Rebirthing, Holotropic, Neuroscience, Yoga, Grof, Orr,
© Gunnel Minett, June 2008
About the author: Gunnel Minett is a psychologist, author and breathworker. Her books, Shri Haidakhan Wale Baba (1984), Breath & Spirit (1994) and Exhale (2004) have been translated into several languages.