Fifty people are lying on their backs with their eyes closed. Most have their mouths open and their bodies are visibly moving with the rhythm of their breath. Waves of air fill the belly and chest, and for a few, the whole body moves in synch with the flow. Some have expressions of bliss, several are crying, others look like they are fast asleep. This is Alchemy of Breath.
Journey to Ubud, Bali
In March, I travelled to Bali to become an Alchemy of Breath certified practitioner. I had been using this technique for over two years, and had already facilitated my own intimate groups close to home, but it was an emotive experience to observe and support the large numbers of ‘breathers’ in Ubud, and then to host my own session.
Before I left for Bali, I felt quite self-conscious as I explained to people that I’d be completing this training course, which I had begun the previous summer. Most people in the UK have never heard of breathwork, and the power of the breath is underestimated in our culture. The truth is - as I also say when I teach Yoga – the technique should be practiced before its efficacy or theory is believed.
Although a breathwork facilitator can set an intention and create an atmosphere for the session with their presence, guidance and music, the participants' experiences are a journey inside themselves, and are unique each time they breathe.
In the early sessions, it is often physical sensations that make the most dramatic impact. Tingling fingers, toes and lips, a building of energy, and even some discomfort may be sensed, as the body adjusts to a different way of breathing and a change in the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Breathers are encouraged to embrace and mindfully investigate this physical experience, and to allow any associated emotions to be felt. “If this part of the body could speak, what would it say to you?” is a favourite question of my teacher Anthony Abbagnano, who has developed Alchemy of Breath from over a decade of investigating breathing techniques and self-development practices around the world.
Alchemy of Breath is notably inspired by Holotropic (which means ‘a journey towards wholeness’) breathwork, as developed by the psychiatrist Dr Stanislav Grof since the 1970s. After Grof’s research into therapeutic uses for LSD in the 1960s had been halted by legal restrictions, he was inspired by ancient cultures and Shamans who used breathing techniques to take people into a ‘non-ordinary state’, where he believed self-healing of the psyche could take place.
The mental, emotional and even spiritual effects of Alchemy of Breath are difficult to define. If the breather commits fully to the technique (sessions usually last 20 minutes to an hour), they can enter an altered state of consciousness that allows them to connect with parts of themselves that are beyond their conscious mind. These experiences are often reported as; feelings of relaxation, joy, emotional and energetic release, connection to others and the universe or divine, insights, creative visions, surfacing memories, and a return to being at home in their body.
The urge to experience an altered state of consciousness is a quality inherent in mankind. The motivations are varied; to discover more about ourselves or the world around us, to seek a spiritual experience, to relax and unwind, to break habits or restrictive ways of thinking, even to momentarily escape the pain of life. People use meditation, drugs, hypnotherapy and other techniques to access a new perspective, and to move beyond the point of view of the ordinary mind.
Despite having repeatedly dabbled with Pranayama – the breath control techniques of the Indian Yogic tradition - I hadn’t experienced the intensity I found through my first session of Alchemy of Breath. The effects I have experienced are, on occasion, similar to those of my Vipassana mindfulness course, which required a 10 day period of silence and meditation for up to 10 hours a day. I’ve heard people say breathwork can have similar qualities to the journeys induced by the Amazonian plant-medicine Ayahuasca.
The strength of your breathwork experience is largely dependent on the intensity of your breath, and how willing you are to open yourself to the experience, which can involve embracing challenging emotions and delving into darker parts of the subconscious. The breather can ease their breath whenever they want to, and can hold themselves back from going into painful emotions if they wish. Yet those who begin the practice expecting a specific or profound revelation can be disappointed, as there are no encounters delivered ‘to order.’ Sometimes the experience is subtle and gentle - perhaps what you need today is more presence in your body and to embrace the present moment.
During my trip to Bali my breathwork practice took me to my deepest places yet. Whilst I experienced a release in my body and emotions, and gained insight into areas in my life that I had found challenging, it was at times deeply uncomfortable and it took time after my trip for these experiences to settle. Through breathwork deeper truths can surface, but there can be distortions, and immediate clarity and resolution aren’t guaranteed. Sometimes talk therapy or other therapeutic techniques are needed to fully integrate what has been surfaced through breathwork. Delving into the subconscious can be challenging and complex, but psychology suggests this can guide us to understand and shift underlying emotions, patterns, compulsions and limitations.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
Breathwork in Vogue
Breathwork seems to be moving into the mainstream - last year Vogue claimed “Breathing is the new yoga!” and ran an article with the headline “Why a Breathing Technique That Makes You Trip—Without Drugs—Should Be Your New Year’s Resolution”.
In recent years, science has proven that the ancient traditions of Yoga, meditation and mindfulness have incredible value for our wellbeing, and I am hopeful to see more examination of the importance of breathing and how this can benefit our physical and emotional health. A BBC programme recently covered scientific research into Wim Hof, who is known as the Iceman, because he uses breathing techniques to maintain his body temperature in freezing conditions that would otherwise be life-threatening.
Whilst my course is finished, and I am now a qualified Alchemy of Breath practitioner, it feels that my journey to understand the potential of the breath is at it’s beginning. I'll be writing more about my experiences of practicing and facilitating breathwork on this blog in the coming weeks.
"When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life.