Just a month before the pandemic hit, I was lying on a yoga mat at a retreat, with eyes closed, learning about controlling the pace, tempo, and pattern of my breath. This was my first introduction to breathwork, also known as conscious or controlled breathing. Often paired with yoga and various forms of meditation, or simply as an alternative to either, breathwork is a practice that involves breathing exercises and techniques performed in a conscious, systemic way. It’s an ancient art that is rooted in Eastern spiritual traditions, though most of the techniques used come from the “consciousness-raising era” of the 1960s and 1970s.
According to Google Trends, more and more people around the world are turning to breathwork for wellness support. Research has shown that breathwork supports the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. With benefits including improved sleep and relaxation, increased lung capacity, emotional regulation, and energy, as well as a stronger lymphatic and immune system, sharper focus and attention, and increased endorphins (the happy hormone). At times used in the treatment of chronic pain and mental health conditions, one 2019 study even found that holotropic breathwork can serve as psychotherapeutic support toward healing trauma.
In light of all the above, how can breathwork specifically cater to women’s wellness? Tara Cabion, a certified breathwork practitioner, has found that some of the greatest challenges faced by the women present to her include depression, anxiety, stress, performance, and hormonal changes which result in exhaustion, linking this to the various roles and identities they juggle daily.
Whether it’s maintaining professional responsibilities, managing households, raising children, or caring for family, friends, and relationships, women are often preoccupied with continuously tending to others. According to Tara, breathwork is one way of tipping that outpour back into the self.
She explains, “When women’s own needs are not being met, they become disconnected from their femininity, the divine feminine that gives them their power. Breathwork is then used to connect; women can tap into their divine femininity and come back into alignment because the breath allows one to stop, pause, reflect and reconnect with self to understand what they actually need.”
If this type of reconnection sounds interesting to you, here are some of the breathwork practices you can begin to explore.
Holotropic breathwork literally means “moving toward wholeness,” which is derived from the Greek “holo” meaning “whole,” and “trepein,” meaning “moving in the direction of something.” This form of breathwork uses a combination of accelerated breathing and evocative music within a particular set and setting. It is practiced while lying on a mat with the eyes closed, and using your own breath and the music to move into an altered state of consciousness. The goal of holotropic breathwork is to draw on your individual psyche and inner healer to guide your process during that particular time and space. And while there may be recurring themes, each session is likely to be unique.
Designed by Dr. Judith Kravitz during the 1970s, transformational breathwork is a self-empowering technique that creates high-frequency energy from an increase in oxygen intake. Practiced with an open mouth, there are no pauses between the inhale and the exhale. Instead, you draw your breath into the diaphragm and completely relax at the exhale. The goal of this form of breathwork is to raise any low-vibrational energy patterns and in so doing, feel more in control, decrease your stress levels, and experience a deeper connection to yourself as well as the world around you.
The Wim Hof Method is a fairly new technique that was developed by extreme athlete Wim Hof, popularly known as the “The Iceman.” This nickname follows after a series of intense physical feats such as standing in a container covered by ice cubes for prolonged periods of time. His method has three layers: exposure to freezing cold temperatures, controlled hyperventilation (breathing), and commitment. The breathwork here involves thirty power breaths, a deep inhale, and then holding the breath for as long as is comfortable before the exhale. This is followed by a deep inhale for 10 to 15 seconds, hold, and exhale. This process is repeated up to three more times. The goal of the Wim Hof Method is to increase physical and mental wellness, with scientific studies backing its benefits.
Shamanic breathwork is a modern form of ancient circular breathing techniques that was developed by Linda Star Wolf in the 1990s. It entails ceremonies that are focused on creating a safe, sacred space through various rituals. Sacred herbs are burned while invocations are offered, individuals lie down and call upon what is most sacred to them as a way to surrender to the Shaman within before they are invited to engage in rhythmic breathing and a chakra-attuned musical drumming journey. The goal of shamanic breathwork is to honor ancient shamanic lineages and thus awaken your inner healer in order to heal old wounds and dysfunctional patterns.
Ultimately, there are many other forms of breathwork, including clarity, biodynamic, integrative, vivation, rebirthing, pranayama, and zen yoga. And while the practice boasts many benefits for physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing, part of tending to said wellbeing is to consult your medical practitioner before attempting any form of breathwork on your own, and to practice with a certified practitioner should you decide to explore this form of healing.