Learning to breathe sounds almost like a paradox, and yet it’s a skill that most of us could benefit from. Through conscious breathing, it’s possible to find inner piece, transformational experiences and interconnectedness.
There are a multitude of different ways to breathe, from gentle yogic practices, to the more intense shamanic methods.
At the most basic level of understanding, it involves voluntarily inducing a state of hyperventilation. By repeatedly breathing with vigorous intensity, altered states can be reached.
So why would anyone do this? Shamanic breath-work is an indigenous practice that dates back thousands of years - said to benefit the holy triad of mind, body and spirit - and in this article we explore some of the ways in which it does this.
What exactly is Shamanic Breathwork?
Often described as a powerful healing modality, breath-work is possibly one of the quickest ways to step out of our mind’s way and reconnect with ourselves by dropping into the body. The process is highly experiential and the wisdom and healing gained from such sessions is rooted in each persons unique inner world.
Shamanic breath-work honours and blends the timeless wisdom of ancient traditions with the emerging new paradigm methods of healing and teaching. In this sense, it functions as a bridge between the past and future, utilising the best of both worlds in holistically transforming body, mind, heart, soul and spirit.
In the past, the local shaman was sought out in much the same way as a physician, counsellor or minister is today. The healer (shaman), attempted to restore balance to others by performing sacred rites or ceremonies including prayer, songs, breath-work and vision quests.
The Shamanic breath-work methodology is said to inspire the seeker to awaken the shaman within, reconnecting them with their own inner healer, and leading them along the path of reclaiming their wildness.
“Wildness reminds us of what it is to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from”. – Terry Tempest Williams
How does it benefit the mind?
As the individual uses the power of deep connected breathing to create a natural, altered dream-like state, the ego defences are released and the journey can unfold in a variety of magical ways.
Re-birthing is a common occurrence - where it is believed that one can allow themselves to release any emotional baggage or trauma that occurred during birth.
The life review experience is another anecdotal effect, where one relives or reviews their lifetime experiences. Others may experience a struggle to be released from the negative forces of the psyche, or even being in touch with the divine.
Although there are commonalities, the experience is simply something that cannot be known until it is tried and tested and is highly personal and unique to each individual. Old patterns of dysfunction are said to be brought to the surface, with the potential for addictions to be transformed during this process.
In terms of the purely physical benefit, results are often immediate. Breathing deeply activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases your heart rate and blood pressure, creating a sense of calm.
In today's world of chronic stress, our bodies are used to releasing a surge of hormones under the fight or flight response, which puts us in a prolonged state of hypervigilance. Learning how to breathe can reset the system and help us to relax a turbulent mind.
Recent studies show that breath-work has the potential to treat a variety of mental states, including depression, anxiety and PTSD.
By entering into a deeper state of mind, you have the potential to release yourself from the grip of your current mental state.
Dr Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, and leading brain researcher, explains that breath-work is a physical tool for linking our ‘bottom up processes’ in the brain (unconscious processes), with our ‘top down’ (conscious) processes. Bringing the hidden aspects of ourselves into the light.
How does it benefit the spirit?
Once transported into an altered state, many recipients mention being able to remember trapped emotions and traumas, as well as awakening their future selves. Although there is not yet any scientific evidence of this, as there is a high possibility that it involves breaching new paradigms, the anecdotal bank seems to rapidly be increasing.
Whilst some are transported to floating states of bliss, others may experience releasing years of pent up anger, guilt, sadness grief and frustration. It’s also possible to enter into phases of ecstasy or a deep sense of knowing. No two shamanic breath-work journeys are ever the same.
By removing the ego, we are able to connect to ourselves and the essence of the universe at large. Many people experience spiritual awakenings, or attunements to their inner-being. Holotropic therapy (intense breathing practices akin to shamanic breath-work), has its roots in LSD therapy but is considered the drug-free equivalent.
Alongside chakra-attuned music and body or energy work, one may recover lost soul parts, or release unwanted energies, lightening the load on the spirit.
Empowerment brings wholeness and healing back into life, which in turn brings healing into the lives of loved ones and the world at large. Post session, there should be a focus on integrating these experiences, through highly skilled processing with professional guidance.
How do you achieve altered states of consciousness with breath-work?
The process begins by establishing a safe and sacred space. Traditionally, a calm and quiet area, preferably near nature, is ‘smudged’ (cleansed) using sage, cedar and sweet grass while offering prayerful invocations.
Individuals lie down, focusing on the intention to surrender to the experience, often calling upon the help of spirit guides, power animals or higher powers. As the drumming begins, journeyers are invited to connect with rhythmic breathing for up to one to two hours.
Music, chanting and group energy all act in synergy to enhance the effects. And as in any ceremonial rite of passage, the guide is a focal point of healing: picking apart any perceived energetic disturbances, like a spirited surgery.
Qualified practitioners undergo rigorous training in order to be able to hold such spaces, including practical examinations and completing a dissertation on the topic.
Sometimes you’ll be asked to creatively express your experience after a session, usually by drawing a mandala or beginning the integration process through sharing with the group. The reflection is not meant to be directly interpreted, but you may be asked to elaborate on certain aspects.
This improves your psychological and spiritual development by activating your natural capacity for healing, it brings about improved self-awareness and, as found in some recent studies, may help to make positive changes to temperament and development of character.
If you’d like to try this intriguing technique, seek out a trained facilitator, particularly those with a background in psychology, therapy or healthcare.
Although it is considered a low risk therapy, having a licensed and certified facilitator is the best choice. Despite never really being able to know what to expect, it’s best to do your research and be prepared before letting go, and allowing the mystical, metaphysical and magical to unfold.