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What is Breathwork? The difference between Breathing Techniques and therapeutic Breathwork

Updated: Apr 27

Different types of breathwork do different things for you. Here is your quick guide to breathing techniques vs. therapeutic Breathwork processes. 




When two people say BREATHWORK, they rarely mean the same. And that can actually cause quite a lot of confusion. It happens a lot to me that people who have done some type of breathwork before come into my sessions, both group and private, and think they know what they have signed up for, but actually they don’t. Often, because of previous breathwork experience, people tend to underestimate the power of the type of breathwork I facilitate. So I thought I will write a blog entry to set some things straight ;) 


So what actually is BREATHWORK?


In a very general sense, breathwork can refer to any type of breathing technique or practice which you consciously use to enhance your physical and/or mental and emotional wellbeing. And this is how many people who know breathing exercises from Yoga trainings and the media use the term. 


This comprises short exercise like box breathing, Yogic Pranayama, and Wim Hoff breathing as well as breathing techniques to enhance your athletic performance or your business success (Yes indeed, they exist, too :D) or to optimise your everyday breathing. I will call these Breathing Techniques in the remainder of this post. 


Since approximately the 70s, however, “Breathwork” had been used in a more specific way, first in the US and then worldwide. Breathwork used to be the name reserved for process-oriented breathing techniques with a therapeutic goal such as Holotropic Breathing, Rebirthing Breathwork and conscious connected breathing. 


To me it seems that only in the last decades, confusion and conflicting usage of the term breathwork has sprung up. Probably thanks to the internet and particularly social media and Instagram, where things tend to be a bit messy and … well let’s say: unfounded … Okay, Insta rant aside, and back to the topic:


What are these different forms of breathwork like and what are they for?

All of them influence your autonomic nervous system, your body, your emotions, your mind. And if used over time and applied in the right way, all of them can help you achieve a more balanced, more regulated nervous system and thereby life experience.


Let us take a look first at the Breathing Techniques


The first bunch, the Breathing Techniques, are quite a heterogenous group. But I think it is safe to say, that usually the practice lasts for a shorter period of time (often 5 to 15 minutes, in some cases 30 minutes), and that it is repeated rather frequently. Let’s take heart coherence breathing as an example: 


HEART COHERENCE BREATHING

The technique is simple: you inhale for 5 seconds and then you exhale for 5 seconds. And you do this for 5 minutes, three times a day, daily, over a period of month. There is other, longer and more elaborate variants, but in its most simple form, heart coherence breathing is this. Its purpose is, in a nutshell, to optimise a lot of bodily functions and to synchronise your heart rhythm and other cycles. (Read more here.)


Many of the techniques are repeated daily, some even weave throughout your day. The latter is particularly true for any practices that aim at optimising your everyday breathing for health or performance. Another commonality of these Techniques is that they can be done alone or under guidance. 


As mentioned, they have different purposes, but one common thread is that they help you balance physical and mental processes and increase awareness of yourself. 


While some of the exercises, like various Yogic breathing techniques and Wim Hoff breathing, do change your state of mind, it tends - from my experience - to be a subtle shift. So if we assume there is 7 states of mind, and 0 is our regular, everyday state of mind, and 7 is the one farthest away, then Breathing Techniques will usually take you to a 1,2 or 3 altered state of mind.


Now, let’s look at what was originally called Breathwork, i.e. process-oriented, therapeutic breathing

Not only does this type of breathwork aim at you having a therapeutic process, it also is a whole process in itself. So sessions usually go from 1 to 3 hours and they are done with guidance. (I would like to put a big fat exclamation mark here !! because I see so many people trying to avoid facilitation. But there is some things in life that simply work better if we have someone by your side.) 


You can immediately see that such a long, facilitated session is quite different already in its setup and frame from a 5-minute breathing exercise you do in your lunch break. Unfortunately, many people have started to treat process-oriented breathwork as something that you can do in your lunch break. Which in my view is a waste of its potential and in some cases even dangerous.


Because, indeed, process-oriented Breathwork has HUGE potential for personal development and self-healing. It can shift your mind from its usual state zero to a 4,5,6, and even a 7. When I told friends about my first Holotropic Breathing experience, they said: “Wow. That sounds exactly like an LSD trip!” And indeed, a few years later, when I worked with Psilocybin (Psychedelic Mushrooms) for the first time, I could realise for myself that the state altering qualities of breathwork are almost as strong as those of psychedelics.


It is important to realise though that it is not the breathing alone that induces the shift. Instead, the setting and the whole process matter for the result. My first holotropic breathing experience was part of a 2-day workshop under good facilitation. So the intensity and strength of the experience was also aided by that.


What is the purpose of a therapeutic Breathwork process?

Let’s take one of my own Breathwork Sessions as an example, simply because I know them best.


SINA’S BREATHWORK SESSIONS

The whole process usually lasts around 2 hours, the Breathing part itself is 45-60 minutes. The purpose is to help you get closer to your authentic self. You can release stuck emotions and even stuck trauma energy (the energetic charge that gets stuck in our bodies when we experience a threat and cannot process and integrate the experience) from your body. The process allows you to integrate past experiences, make sense of them and sometimes even get to a place of acceptance around what happened and what is. The process also helps to produce mental clarity and deeper insights into one’s current situation. It tends to harmonise emotions and help us feel at peace, and compassionate and loving with ourselves.


All of this sounds pretty deep and pretty big, no? And indeed, it is. And that is why in my view you need a facilitator to do process-oriented Breathwork. Only with a facilitator can you go that deep and only with a facilitator can you safely explore the full potential of a Breathwork process.


If you are curious to try it, join one of my upcoming Breathwork Voyages or book a 1:1 session.


I hope my descriptions and examples helped you get a better idea of what Breathwork is and how different types of breathwork differ. If you have questions, please contact me!


In my 4-session course “Befriending Your Nervous System” we work with both Breathing Techniques and mind-altering Breathwork. So if you are curious to experience the whole spectrum of breathwork and get to know yourself better, join us.

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