Breathwork for Ayahuasca. Part 1: The Ceremony

Breathwork for Ayahuasca

Are you thinking of working with Ayahuasca for the first time? Well, I’m here to help you navigate the experience, breath by breath.

In this article I’ll reveal how the numerous benefits of breathwork can be an invaluable tool and healing resource during an Ayahuasca ceremony, supporting you in a multitude of ways as you venture down this deeply transformational, and oftentimes challenging path.

For many people, working with plant medicine is an undertaking that conjures up as much fear and trepidation as it does anticipation. It can be exciting and intimidating in equal measure. 

So, whether you are new to Ayahuasca or consider yourself a seasoned ‘plant medicine person’, let’s dive right in and uncover how the simple act of breathing consciously can become a powerful ally during ceremony.

This article is Part 1 of a 3-part series, and in it we will explore the simple yet potent breathwork techniques that will help you enter into a state of being where you are more open to ‘the medicine’. It’s powerful to be able to offer yourself to the spirit of Ayahuasca with an attitude of trust and surrender. We are also going to discover how your breath can help you stay anchored as your experience unfolds. 

In Part 2 we focus on the importance of proper preparation for ceremony and look at how breathwork can be used for purification purposes, as well as post ceremony integration of the teachings and lessons received, the new awareness, and new states of being. 

In Part 3 we delve into the breathwork methods and calming yin yoga poses and embodiment techniques that are helpful to use immediately prior to ceremony to help you be present, open your body, stabilise your mind, and which will help bring you into your heart.

New to breathwork? You might like to check out this great article: Getting Started With Breathwork – A Beginner’s Guide.

a man lying on the floor with another man on his chest

We never know what the Ayahuasca healing journey will look or feel like, or exactly what it will entail. It might involve deep physical purging, an ecstatic experience of merging with the divine, full spectrum psychedelia, the confronting experience of ego death, a good hard look in the mirror, or a paradigm dissolving and fantastical journey to other realms where you meet and interact with mystical higher dimensional teacher beings, or a combination of all – only the medicine knows that.

Ayahuasca Breathwork: Dealing With Fears in the Lead Up

Dealing with unknowns and letting go of control can be very difficult for many folks, and for this reason fear and anxiety can arise in the days leading up to the ceremony, as well as whilst waiting for the ceremony to begin, or whilst waiting for the medicine to take effect. 

Breathwork is a potent tool that we can use to transmute our fear

The specific breathwork techniques, which I will go into below, activate something we all naturally have access to. It’s called ‘The Relaxation Response’ and we can use our breath to turn it on through stimulation of the Vagus Nerve and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). 

When we activate the PNS through breathwork, it causes the body and mind to relax – lowering heart rate, breathing rate, brain activity, reducing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and increasing endorphins and oxytocin, the feel good, heart opening, relaxation and love hormones – it’s powerful stuff!

Use Conscious Breathing to Calm Pre-Ceremony Jitters

Use Conscious Breathing to Calm Pre-Ceremony Jitters

When we are feeling nervous, anxious, or feeling stressed, the tendency is to breathe ‘high, short, and shallow’ (into the chest) all of which activates further feelings of stress by stimulating the Sympathetic Nervous System aka our survival reaction or Fight or Flight Reflex. In this scenario we are commonly and unconsciously over-breathing in other words breathing faster than we should and breathing shallowly. Sometimes we even breath holding without realising it, as well as breathing in and out through our mouth, rather than nose. 

So rather than doing this and adding fuel to the fire, and making matters worse, we want to breathe in an opposite manner, which means breathing….low, deep, and slow.

Pre-Ceremony Breathing Techniques

4 Top Breathing Techniques to Try Before an Ayahuasca Ceremony

Here are my top 4 breathing technique recommendations. Each of them will help you relax into the unknown whilst you are waiting for the medicine to be served and for the ceremony to start. 

You can use just one or try them as a combination – see what resonates for you at the time. The best part about them is how simple they are to use, and how quickly they work – you can literally feel the calming effects of these easy-to-use breathing techniques within minutes. 

The common theme with the techniques on offer is that they centre around:

  • Making the breath conscious
  • Slowing things down
  • Breathing in through the nose
  • Deepening the breath
  • Relaxation
  • Helping you to ‘let-go’

Deep Diaphragmatic Belly Breathing

The mother of all techniques that will help you breathe ‘low and slow’!

This technique involves inhaling slowly yet as deeply as possible through the nose and allowing the breath to fully expand the abdomen rather than the chest. 

By focusing on slow, low, deep breaths that fill the belly, you will activate the PNS, which induces a state of calm and relaxation. Exhalation is ideally through the nose as well. 

This method helps reduce anxiety and promotes a sense of embodiment and groundedness, which is helpful when preparing for an Ayahuasca ceremony, bringing you into the present moment rather than projecting into future ‘what ifs’ that will likely do nothing but elevate tension and making you feel worse.

Bonus Tip 1:

It can be helpful to place your hands on your belly, feel the weight and warmth of your hands, and focus on gradually relaxing your belly out into your hands as you inhale. Imagine an image of the laughing Buddha with his big belly sticking out – that’s what you are aiming for here. 

Be sure to exhale all the way out until there’s no air left in your lungs, which will make the next inhale deeper. If that doesn’t work so well for you then actually try pushing your belly actively out into your hands – providing a little resistance with your hands, as this will facilitate a deeper inhalation.

Bonus Tip 2:

Breathing in and out through the nose will cause a gas called Nitric Oxide (N.O.) to be manufactured in the paranasal sinuses. N.O. is a vasodilator as well as a bronchodilator – meaning it lowers blood pressure and opens the airways, making it easier to breathe and to relax. Result: physiological relaxation. Check out the importance of nasal breathing in my article HERE.

Bonus Tip 3:

If you are feeling ridiculously stressed, then sigh through your mouth as you exhale, making a long releasing sound something like an “ahhhhhhhh”, one that represents the act of letting go for you. There’s been a lot of research around the benefits of sighing in the past few years. It can really help and that’s the most important thing, so don’t worry or feel embarrassed about the noise you’re making. Ayahuasca ceremonies are usually very noisy affairs with some level of loud purging from participants!

Extended Exhalation Breathing

In this practice, you simply extend the length of your exhalation to be longer than your inhalation. For example, inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of six or eight. This extended exhalation signals the body to enter a parasympathetic state, calming the nervous system and triggering the relaxation response. Slowly, mentally counting the length of each breath in and out can help and calm your mind by giving it a point of focus and a job to do. By focusing on longer exhales, you can manage pre-ceremony nerves more effectively, creating a sense of peace and readiness for the transformative experience of the ceremony. 

Tip 1 – Pursed Lips Variation:

If you like you can purse your lips as you exhale to slow this part down (as though you’re blowing a kiss, or drinking through a straw), letting the air slowly and steadily trickle out through your mouth, this will slow down and extend the length and fullness of your exhalation, adding an extra layer to the relaxation effect. 

Tip 2 – Added Visualisation:

It can be helpful to use visualisation, your image generation capacity aka your ‘imagination’,  as a tool to focus and calm the mind. Imagine as you exhale that a golden thread or golden ribbon of energy is emerging from your pursed lips and mouth. See it extending out in front of you for as long as your exhalation lasts, getting longer and longer. Repeat on each exhale.

Counting the Exhalation from 1-10

A variation on the previous breathing technique for those with busy minds is to count from 1 – 10 on your exhalation – audibly but softly, like a whisper. Take a deep inhalation through your nose and then exhale, but as you do so count slowly from 1 to 10, over and over, until you run out of breath and cannot count anymore. Inhale, repeat. Keep going for anywhere from 7-10 rounds. Voila – you’ve just lengthened your exhalation and given your busy mind a task to focus on.

Humming Breath (Bhramari Pranayama)

This yogic technique involves inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling with a gentle humming sound, similar to the buzzing sound that a bee makes. The vibrations from the humming stimulate the vagus nerve, promoting parasympathetic activity and reducing stress. Practising Bhramari Pranayama can help alleviate anxiety and foster a tranquil mindset, making it easier to embrace the uncertainties of the ayahuasca ceremony with an open heart and a calm spirit. The sound you can aim for is a gentle “mmmmmm” sound.

It Takes Courage

It Takes Courage

Sitting with fear and revisiting the roots of trauma may be a part of the Ayahuasca healing journey for you. It takes great courage and a Lion’s Heart to do this work, and this is why it’s often referred to as “The Hero’s Journey”. 

Although the very thought of this may be overwhelming, if you are brave and willing to deeply look at yourself and your life, have an earnest longing for healing and resolution, alongside the dedication to prepare properly and approach Ayahuasca with an attitude of respect (demonstrated through correct preparation), you can work with this profound medicine*. 

It can however often feel like hard work which is why it’s referred to as doing the ‘work’. However, wherever the road takes you, you will always have the grounding and restorative action of conscious breathing to support, anchor, and comfort you. 

If you are keen to learn more about making your breathing conscious so that it is a tool (and also a life skill) that works for you, rather than against you, you can learn more about breathwork and find amazing and FREE resources to use and get started here

*It is important to go through a medical check to see if you have any conditions (physical or psychological) that may prevent you from safely working with Ayahuasca. The reputable centres overseas where this work is legal in Peru, Costa Rica and other South American countries will all have thorough medical intake processes to ensure that is the case.

Doing Trauma Release

Do Some Trauma Release Before You Work With Ayahuasca

I would highly recommend attending a Breakthrough Breathwork Ceremony or two either in person or online before delving into plant medicine work. It can really help to lighten the load by giving you access to trapped emotions, traumas and emotional blocks, helping to integrate and release what is no longer serving your journey. You can read more about the role of breathwork in trauma release HERE.

Using Conscious Breathing as an Anchor Point

Using Conscious Breathing as an Anchor Point

Sometimes the breath is the only familiar thing we have left to anchor us in a deep ceremony – it can seem like the only remaining constant – and for that reason going into the ceremony already having an established breathwork, meditation or yoga practice can be super helpful. 

Whether you do or you don’t, working with an intention to be aware and mindful of your breath can also turn the simple act of breathing into a powerful anchor point, and a way of embodied ‘moving through’ psychedelia, tough lessons and experiences, and a means of transmutation when things get wild. You can also use any of the techniques described above that you find helpful. 

To use your breath as an anchor point during the ceremony, be mindful whenever possible of the way you are breathing. You have the ability to alter your breathing patterns by bringing your awareness to your breath. 

Bring your hands onto your belly and direct your breath to come into your abdomen, breathing low and slow. Extend your exhalations to gain a feeling of slowing down, and to calm your body and nervous system. Breathe through your nose if possible to activate this calming process.

Start Your Breathwork Journey Before You Go

Starting to work with breathwork before you go off to work with Ayahuasca will only benefit you in terms of your preparation, holding yourself during the ceremony, as well as integrating your experiences afterwards, and so I highly recommend getting some breathing skills under your belt. 

Check out this great article on How to Get Started With Breathwork – A Beginner Guide here.

The best ways to start to build a breathwork practice are through:: 

Trusting the Medicine, Trusting the Process

When proper preparation, setting and safety are in place, all there is to do is trust, let go, and be willing and open, breathing consciously through the always ultimately magical experience of working with a master plant teacher. 

The medicine knows your name, your history, your traumas, your unspoken dreams, your blocks. She knows exactly who you are, where you come from, what you have come to resolve, how much you can handle, and she has a specific plan for exactly how you are going to get there. 

What the medicine requires from you is commitment to the journey, your presence and a heartfelt yet softly held intention. We have two pertinent sayings “The only way out is through” and “You’ll never be given more than you can handle” both of which in my experience are true.

Ayahuasca is a potent and powerful teacher, and one that can take us into the depths of our trauma and fear, the ecstasy of expansion, the pain of ego dissolution, and into other dimensions and worlds yet unknown. One of the best breathing techniques I can offer you to deal with this situation is Heart Coherence, and we will explore this in Part 3 of this series.

Not Ready for Ayahuasca Yet? Try Psychedelic Breathing Instead

Can breathwork serve as a gateway to the psychedelic experience sans plant medicine? Absolutely. Enter psychedelic breathing. 

At its core, psychedelic breathing encompasses a range of breathwork techniques aimed at facilitating altered states of consciousness, often described as being resonant with or similar to that of Ayahuasca ceremonies. 

These practices serve as tools for personal growth and therapeutic intervention, particularly if you’re seeking to overcome negativity and trauma.

Psychedelic breathwork techniques such as Breakthrough Breathwork, Holotropic Breathwork, Rebirthing and Shamanic Breathwork function as an intensified form of mindfulness and meditation. Frequently involving rapid breathing over extended durations,  they can guide you toward a heightened awareness of your emotional blockages and inner self. You can read my article for deeper insights on these HERE .

These styles of Psychedelic Breathwork  are designed to access the subconscious in order to release blockages in the system as well potentially liberating the body’s natural DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) which is also called ‘the spirit molecule’ because of its involvement in mystical experiences, and our access to higher states and realms. 

DMT is a part of the Ayahuasca experience, so think of using your breath to access the heights of spiritual and mystical experiences, without the trip to South America! 

Johannes Egberts, Breathwork Pioneer, Published Research Co-Author and Founder of Breathless Expeditions says styles such as Breakthrough Breathwork and Holotropic Breathwork are akin to “blowing the roof off” as they “work through activation of the sympathetic nervous system to clear blockages in the body and mind, bringing subconscious experiences to the surface, removing physical, emotional, and mental debris and toxicity; and providing a path for self-discovery and spiritual awakening. These techniques are also safe, all-natural, and empower us to be our own healer’s.” 

Much like working with plants such as Ayahuasca, he says that it’s possible to do a vast amount of personal and spiritual work in just one ceremony, clearing away years of emotional baggage, as well as accessing higher states of being, feeling a deeper sense of connection to self, to others, and to all that is.

The Wrap on Breathwork & Ayahuasca

The Wrap on Breathwork & Ayahuasca

In conclusion, breathwork serves as an invaluable anchor point, ally, and resource for those preparing to work with Ayahuasca. Techniques such as deep diaphragmatic belly breathing, extended exhalation breathing, and Bhramari Pranayama are not only simple and effective but also work quickly to calm the mind and body. 

By engaging in these practices, you’ll be able to cultivate a sense of inner peace and readiness, allowing you to approach the medicine and the ceremony with greater confidence and openness – and you’ll have a tool for regulating your nervous system whenever it’s possible in ceremony, by breathing consciously. 

Moreover, the act of conscious breathing can really help you to open up and surrender into the experience, help you foster a deeper connection with yourself and the transformative journey that lies ahead for you. 

Embracing the breath as a tool for relaxation and presence can profoundly enhance your Ayahuasca experience, turning nervousness into a gateway for profound personal growth and healing.

Recommended Centres for Ayahuasca:

The Temple of The Way of Light in Peru 

Soltara Healing Centre in Peru and Costa Rica

Please make sure you choose a centre wisely, safety and the care and guidance of highly experienced well trained facilitators is important.

Anya is a yoga & IRest meditation teacher, breathwork instructor, divemaster and writer, ocean lover and solo adventurer.

She thrives on change and transformation, and spends part of her year working and living in the Amazon with indigenous doctors, learning about their system of healing, and helping to facilitate transformational retreats.

Breathless Journal