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I don't call the work that I do with breathing "breathwork." "Breathwork" seems to be a term that's been co-opted by practitioners of a specific type of breathing. Often, "breathwork" practices involve hyperventilation for long periods, emotional catharsis, crying, passing out, and other dramatic experiences.

I received a marketing email recently from a well-known person inviting me to a "breathwork" practice to help process the challenging times that we continue to be in. I've heard from some folks that "breathwork" is very helpful for them, and I do not mean to discount any person's experience. However, I have also spent a lot of time in my life in circles and communities in which large, expressive, phenomenological experiences were common, encouraged, and even required at times.

An intention of these practices is catharsis. Catharsis, from Ancient Greek kartharsis, meaning "purification" or "cleansing", the idea being that through this process the unwanted memory, emotion, experience is taken away from you, and you will no longer be burdened by its remnants. The trouble is, that no magical ceremony, breathing practice, prayer, experience can remove anything from your psyche.

Yes, we have been through a difficult several years, individually and collectively. Some of us have had, and continue to have, to carry a larger burden of the suffering. There are groups who are oppressed, hurt more than others. And as humans we really do prefer not to have to experience pain — can't we just wash it all away?

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. There is nothing that anyone can do to remove from you the suffering that you have experienced. Having an ecstatic experience, a good cry, hitting or destroying something might feel good in the moment, but will not turn back the hands of time so that you will be as you were before the pain. Sometimes these big experiences further ingrain the emotions that the person was hoping to expel. Catharsis is not universally beneficial for trauma survivors.

There is some research showing that psychedelics used with the help of a trained guide can be helpful in integrating the psyche. However, there are also psychedelic experiences that are not helpful — it's not always a good idea.

Psychedelics are out of my scope of practice. "Breathwork," however, is within my scope of practice and experience. In the same way that altered states from psychedelics can change the state of mind, so can breathing. However, breathing isn't regulated like access to these drugs, and many people are playing with this without proper training, understanding, even respect. The unintended negative consequences of some of these breathing practices are something that I have experienced, and have heard from many clients. Stories of tetany (hands or feet cramping), panic attacks, or having to sleep for very long periods afterward are common.

Tetany can happen for many reasons, but when hyperventilating, it is the very low levels of CO2 in the blood that interfere with the required actions of calcium. This can, as stated above, result in muscles cramps in extremities, but can extend to the throat causing an inability to breathe. It can also result in convulsions or serious pain.

Panic attacks happen often enough in the world without our needing to bring them on (un)intentionally. Having a panic attack can feel like a heart attack, and people who are having them often feel as though they are dying — it can be terrifying.

When people who are suffering come to a "breathwork" practice that claims to help us process difficult memories or emotions, there is an expectation that they will be safe. The feelings that can arise during the practice can, however, leave people feeling untethered, unsafe, and even re-traumatised.

There are many people who should not be practicing "breathwork." The list of contraindications from the email I received today are:

  • Pregnancy or trying to become pregnant

  • Coronavirus or flu-like symptoms

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Angina

  • Heart attack

  • High blood pressure

  • Glaucoma

  • Retinal detachment

  • Osteoporosis

  • Recent injury or surgery

  • Any conditions for which you take regular medications

  • History of panic attacks, psychosis

  • Severe mental illnesses

  • Seizure disorders

  • Family history of aneurisms

Strong breathing practices like "breathwork" are powerful. Powerful things can be dangerous, and need to be respected. "Breathwork" is also limited. You cannot unravel the complexities of trauma on psyche and soma with just breathing practices. It takes years of depth work, learning new patterns, building safety back into your experience of the world. Breathing may be a part of that journey, but it is not a shortcut.

The breathing practices that I teach are about integration, not separation and catharsis. By retraining functional breathing patterns, we can be aware of how the psyche is influencing breathing in our daily lives, how our breathing can be a signal from the unconscious self, and how our breathing habits can be influencing our psyche — both in help and less helpful ways.

To process what's happened to us, we need to delve deeply into the patterns we've developed, and make quiet, conscious decisions about where we go from here. Let's do the work we need to with the breath, and ditch the "breathwork".

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