Is Your Breathwork Practice Actually Helping You?

Breathwork is often touted as a healing modality, but it might depend on your own physiology and where you are in your own journey, as to how helpful it actually is. I recently took a webinar series on Traumatic Stress & The Breath with Jane Clapp and Jennifer Snowden out of curiousity to learn more. I’ve personally practiced and tried various types of breathwork including yogic breath like ujjayi and alternate nostril breathing, as well all Holotropic and Wim Hof. The more I learn, the more I want to understand how various modalities interact with my physiology to determine if they’re actually helpful for me.

I like to understand nuance because not all of our experiences are the same and when something doesn’t work for you, often in the personal development world, the blame is placed on you. This ends up causing harm and can even be retraumatizing. Personally it’s been empowering for me to understand my own physiology and it contributes to my sense of agency in knowing what to say yes or no to. I’ve had experiences doing Holotropic breathwork in which it activated all this energy in me but wouldn’t mobilize because I didn’t have capacity. I’ve also had experiences in which I dissociated and then felt shame because I thought I wasn’t trying hard enough and was told it was resistance. Some forms of more intense breathwork stir up suppressed or thwarted material and their intention is to create an experience of catharsis through which to release the suppressed material.

Catharsis isn’t actually healing for the nervous system. This is something I’ve learned over and over again from teachers in the somatic and trauma realm. Catharsis can make us feel like we’re doing big work, but healing is actually much more subtle and slow as it allows for integration. Can catharsis be helpful? If it’s able to be integrated from what I understand, then yes. But for many of us, there’s a reason why we haven’t felt the emotional material that can be brought up through some forms of breathwork. In Traumatic Stress & The Breath, Jane and Jennifer spoke about how catharsis was actually built on the concept of exorcism and purging something from you. I really loved their approach in moving away from trying to control or change the breath, at the level of the breath. Instead, it seemed they see the breath as a symptom of our physiology.

They also talked about body armouring and how our diaphragm armours when we’re in traumatic stress. Jane shared that the diaphragm is actually one of the key muscles that communicates neuroception, which is our sense of safety. So when your body is on alert because of a perceived threat, maybe you’re experiencing anxiety or hypervigilance, your body braces and just trying to use our breath to move out of that isn’t helpful for many. It actually ends up being a mind over body approach, which as I often speak about, bypasses. What they taught was that we actually need to get ourselves back into ventral vagal first (or in the terms of Dan Siegel, flip our lid back on), which then shifts our breath because it allows the diaphragm to de-armour. Jane and Jennifer taught and shared some ways to de-armour in the webinar series, which I’ve already been finding helpful. I highly recommend taking the webinar series the next time they run it to learn more!

Jane and Jennifer spoke about our relationship with the body being about fixing it, rather than listening and learning which definitely resonated with me. Many forms of breathwork seem to lead to that line of thinking in which we’re trying to fix our breathing patterns or fix our states, by using the breath. We can actually see this with all types of practices like yoga, meditation, even going to therapy. It’s about fixing rather than learning and listening.

One point that was really interesting to me, was around hyperventilation. Jennifer defined hyperventilation as breathing more than your metabolism requires in the moment, so that your CO2 levels drop. Hyperventilation is what paced breathing tends to teach us. Jennifer shared a research study that showed when we’re told to breathe at a certain pace, people will tend breathe more (hyperventilate), unless taught not to. So many of these paced forms of breathing train us to breathe more all the time. If we already have a habit of hyperventilation, which btw doesn’t have to look like the paper bag scenario, or holding our breath, that paced styles of breathwork will probably feel better but still aren’t ideal. Jennifer shared that she’s seen with people who practiced yogic types of breathwork who can breathe 3 breaths per minute and were still hyperventilating, because they were breathing off more CO2 than they could make. There’s actually a narrow range of CO2 we need for things like pH balance, electrolyte balance and more.

“When we replicate the breathing that naturally occurs with stress outside of a stressful situation this can reinforce the chemistry and the breathing pattern associated with that feeling.”

~Jennifer Snowden

If a stress physiology contributes to chronic hyperventilation, how is it helping when the practices we use further support the habit of hyperventilation? How is it helping when they’re keeping us in the same neural pathways, rather than showing our body a new physiology that supports our wellbeing? And, this really goes for any practice that we turn to. Personally, I want to use practices that support building neural pathways that don’t keep me in chronic stress. Practices that resource me and grow my capacity. Do I believe that breathwork can be supportive? Absolutely! I just feel we need to be more intentional about understanding the why behind what we’re choosing to do, so that we can make that informed decision.

I’m thinking of a video that Irene Lyons did on the 5 Stages of Neuroplastic Healing. She talked about meditation and how depending on where we are in our own healing it might not be helpful, as we’ll end up just sitting in those old neural pathways, reinforcing them. In the video Irene talks about sequencing our healing properly and that meditation is more of an advanced skill and that we require building a foundation first. Part of that foundation includes general lifestyle like food, movement, water, sleep, etc. Then there’s a need to move out of chronic survival, grow capacity and reteach our nervous system to rest. Irene shares 5 stages with mindfulness practices like meditation being the last stage. So if you struggle with meditation, maybe this is why!

This brings me to the basics and how they’re often overlooked. People want to jump to the fancy, sexy practices and I sense that’s because there’s still this seeking of quick fixes. There’s so much opportunity for consistently practicing the basics, especially when we understand why and what they’re actually doing for us.

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