The History of Breathwork: Origins of this Ancient Healing Practice

Key points
  • Ancient Roots: Breathwork’s journey spans millennia, from yogic pranayama practices to shamanic rituals. 
  • Modern Breakthroughs: The 1960s saw the rise of Holotropic and Rebirthing techniques, shaping today’s breathwork practices.
  • Beyond Tradition: Pioneers like Wim Hof and Patrick McKeown continue to evolve breathwork.

From ancient yogic practices in India to shamanic rituals in South America, breathwork has touched lives across cultures and continents for thousands of years . In this article, we’ll embark on a journey through the history of breathwork, exploring the origins and evolution of breathing practices. We’ll uncover ancient techniques used by shamans and delve into the 1960s discoveries that laid the foundation for modern breathwork practices. We’ll even explore the evolutionary reasons why breathwork might be more important than ever.

Breathwork has fascinated people for thousands of years, crossing borders and traditions. Its profound effects on relaxation and self discovery have even been recorded in ancient texts. From yoga practices in India to Taoism in China, the art of breathwork has played a role in humanity’s pursuit of balance, inner peace and spiritual enlightenment; and more recently improved mental and physical health. Let’s delve into the roots of breathwork to discover where and how it originated, and uncover timeless wisdom that shapes our understanding of this transformative practice.

The History of Pranayama and Ancient Breathwork Practices in India

In India, breathwork is an integral part of the ancient yogic practices. The origin of Breathworks roots are seeded in Ayurvedic tradition dating back to a millennia ago, when yogis developed 49 different conscious breathing practices, each for a different state of mind. The historic practice of pranayama, encompasses a range of breathing exercises, and is believed to cleanse both body and mind while fostering equilibrium and unity. Through breathwork, the ancient yogis sought insights into themselves and the cosmos.

How Alternate Nostril Pranayama Harmonizes Your Brain

Breathwork and Taoist Traditions in Ancient China

In China, breathwork manifested through practices, like qigong and tai chi. These Taoist disciplines incorporate breathing methods aimed at promoting wellbeing, energy flow and longevity. By harnessing the power of the breath, individuals aim to establish a bond between the body and mind accessing the life force that courses through them.

History of Breathwork Practices in Indigenous Societies

Shamanic communities across continents like South America, Africa and Australia have embraced breathwork as a means for healing, spiritual evolution and heightened consciousness. For centuries Australian aboriginals have played the didgeridoo, an instrument requiring good lung capacity and mastery of circular breathing. In these traditions breathing is seen as a gateway to states of awareness and connection, and addressing physical and emotional ailments. Engaging in these societies, breathing has functioned as a type of somatic therapy guiding individuals on profound journeys of self discovery.

‘Phren’ and Breathwork in Ancient Greece

Even in ancient Greece, the practice of pranayama was known. Breathwork held significant importance as evident from references in various literary works. The Greek philosopher Aristotle recognised the relationship between breath and spirit, underscoring the value of breathing exercises for physical and mental wellness. In Greek the term “phren” had a meaning referring to both the mind and the diaphragm. This showcases the Greeks’ recognition of the link between well being and breathing.

Breathwork in the Bible

In the Bible, there are several references to breath and spirit, which suggest that conscious breathing was considered a spiritual practice in ancient times. For example, in the book of Genesis, God breathes life into Adam, and in the New Testament, Jesus breathes on his disciples to give them the Holy Spirit.

The Birth of Modern Breathing Practices: Holotropic Breathwork

Breathwork is an ancient tradition that has evolved significantly. Although its beginnings can be traced back to ancient Eastern customs, the popular methods we use today such as Holotropic and Rebirthing Breathwork were mainly developed in the 60s and 70s ‘self-awareness’ eras, as a form of spiritual awakening and healing modality. These generations found that they could experience altered states of consciousness using just the power of their breath.  

Stan Grof, a Czech psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was the father of modern breathwork with the creation of the Holotropic Breathwork technique in the 1950s. Grof developed his research by looking into non-ordinary states of consciousness. 

The origins of holotropic breathwork can be traced back to Grof’s work with LSD-assisted psychotherapy in the 1950s and 1960s. Grof felt that psychoanalysis and talk therapy didn’t fully address certain mental health issues. He looked for new avenues and began exploring LSD-assisted therapy as a way to reach deeper levels of the unconscious mind, potentially promoting healing and even spiritual awakenings.

Discover more about Grof and his work on non-ordinary states (and lessons he learnt from about ~4500 LSD sessions!)

When LSD was banned in the United States in 1966, Grof and his wife Christina turned to other methods of inducing altered states of consciousness, including a variety of breathing techniques, drawing on their experiences with shamanic traditions, yoga, martial arts and other spiritual practices.Their research revealed that specific breathing patterns, combined with music and other sensory elements, could induce altered states of consciousness resembling those experienced with LSD. This was a massive paradigm shift for modern consciousness theory, and present-day breathwork.They called this approach “Holotropic Breathwork”, with “holotropic” meaning “moving towards wholeness.”

How Holotropic Breathwork Works

Holotropic breathwork involves lying down and breathing rapidly and deeply for an extended period of time, typically accompanied by music or other sounds that help to create a trance-like state. Participants are encouraged to surrender to the experience and allow whatever thoughts, emotions, or sensations arise to be felt fully.

Holotropic breathwork is a transformational breathwork technique that draws on various spiritual and shamanic traditions, as well as modern psychology and neuroscience, to create a unique and powerful approach to healing and personal growth. It is based on the idea that the psyche has a natural capacity for self-healing and that this capacity can be activated through altered states of consciousness induced by breathwork, in the safety of a controlled therapeutic environment.

Today, holotropic breathwork is used by therapists and practitioners around the world to treat a wide range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, and more. It is also used by individuals as a tool for personal growth and self-exploration. Many people have reported profound experiences and lasting benefits, personal transformation, raising self-awareness and spiritual transformation from the practice of holotropic breathwork.

The Evolution of Breathwork in the 20th Century

In the 1970s, Leonard Orr took Grof’s methodology to another level when he created Rebirthing Breathwork. Orr came up with the idea for rebirthing while taking a warm bath and experimenting with deep breathing. During his bath, he said he experienced himself being reborn – and from this, rebirthing breathwork was born.

Orr was born in 1937 in New York City and grew up in a dysfunctional family. As a teenager, he became interested in spirituality and personal growth and began exploring a range of spiritual practices, including meditation, yoga, tai chi and fasting. In the early 1970s, he discovered the power of breathwork while experimenting with various forms of breathing exercises.

Inspired by his experiences, he started incorporating breathing techniques and began to develop his own unique approach to breathwork, which he called “rebirthing” breathwork therapy. He believed that by using specific breathing techniques, individuals could access and release repressed trauma, emotions and memories, particularly those related to birth and early childhood trauma.  

Orr’s work with rebirthing breathwork gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, and he went on to teach the technique to thousands of people worldwide. While some critics have raised concerns about the safety and efficacy of this technique, many people have reported profound experiences and lasting benefits from the practice.

How Rebirthing Breathwork Works

Rebirthing breathwork involves lying down and performing rounds of super-ventilation (deep breathing) for an extended period of time, typically accompanied by music or other sounds. This practice allows participants to access and release blocked energy, emotions and trauma, allowing individuals to experience a sense of rebirth and renewal.

Unsurprisingly, both holotropic and rebirthing breathwork emerged in the late 1960s as psychologists merged Eastern teachings with Western psychotherapeutic principles. It was thought that these sessions could elevate consciousness, address limiting beliefs and emotional blockages, and assist in coping with life’s traumas. This process helps the body restore its healthy energy flow and eliminate defense mechanisms.With Grof’s holotropic breathing techniques and Orr’s rebirthing practices, these pioneers had established the foundations of what we now understand as modern day breathwork.

The Buteyko Method: A Scientific Approach to Breathwork

Dr. Konstantin Buteyko is the creator of what we know as the Buteyko Method.The method is based on the belief that many health pissues are due to over-breathing and breathing through the mouth. This results in breathing more than necessary to oxygenate our bodies, causing harmful conditions like snoring, asthma, and anxiety.

Buteyko was a Ukrainian doctor born in a small village in Ukraine in 1923. His parents were both farmers, but he was extremely gifted and curious, resulting in his mother labelling him as “an odd boy”. His gift would go on to create one of the first holistic approaches to the human healing process.

Buteyko was a brilliant student and excelled in his studies. He received his medical degree in 1952 from the First Moscow Medical Institute. Buteyko himself suffered from severe hypertension and a heart condition at a young age, which led him to explore the impact of breathing and breathwork exercises. He tested different breathing patterns on himself and found that breathing rapidly increased his blood pressure, while breathing slowly through his nose improved his condition. His personal experience with respiratory issues, combined with his research, culminated in the development of the Buteyko Method.

In the 1950s, Buteyko worked as a doctor in a tuberculosis hospital. During his time there, he noticed that patients who breathed less seemed to recover faster. He cured people with asthma by teaching them only to breathe less and more slowly. Studies also indicated the effectiveness of the Buteyko method on helping children with asthma.

When LSD was banned in the United States in 1966, Grof and his wife Christina turned to other methods of inducing altered states of consciousness, including a variety of breathing techniques, drawing on their experiences with shamanic traditions, yoga, martial arts and other spiritual practices.Their research revealed that specific breathing patterns, combined with music and other sensory elements, could induce altered states of consciousness resembling those experienced with LSD. This was a massive paradigm shift for modern consciousness theory, and present-day breathwork.They called this approach “Holotropic Breathwork”, with “holotropic” meaning “moving towards wholeness.”

How the Buteyko Method Works

The basics of the Buteyko breathing technique involve breathing exercises that reduce the amount of air you inhale and exhale, leading to improved oxygenation and CO2 levels in the body. Despite initial scepticism from the medical community, the Buteyko Method gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, and is now widely accepted as an effective complementary therapy for respiratory conditions.Hundreds of experts in the medical field studied Buteyko’s techniques and found them to be extremely effective for issues such as asthma, snoring, sleep apnea, allergies, COPD, anxiety, and more. 

Despite being heavily persecuted for his work, often receiving death threats and personal attacks, he remained committed to sharing his knowledge of the Buteyko Method with others. He went on to teach the method to thousands of people, and his legacy continues to live on today in modern breathwork practices.

Buteyko Breathing Exercises in 3 Minutes

Shut Your Mouth, Save Your Life: An Evolution of How We Breath

In the 19th century, adventurer and researcher George Catlin, travelled across the Americas. He wrote about his observations of the native Americans in his aptly named book, “The Breath of Life.” He observed that traditional men and women had straight teeth, strong jaws, and consistently breathed through their noses. He credited their good health and vitality to nose breathing. They appeared to be a picture of optimal health when compared with the poor health of his mouth-breathing compatriots back in England.

Modern Pioneers and the Popularisation of Breathwork

In the past decade, breathwork has gained an enormous amount of attention and enthusiasm from people interested in healing, overcoming trauma, and improving performance, mental and physical health. “Breathwork” refers to a number of  powerful techniques that involve consciously manipulating the breath to achieve a range of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits. 

One of the modern pioneers of breathwork is Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman,” He is a renowned Dutch athlete and speaker famous for his ability to withstand extreme cold.The Wim Hof Method combines specific breathing techniques, cold exposure, and meditation, claiming to improve physical and mental health, increase energy, and reduce stress. Hof’s remarkable feats include running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, swimming under ice for 66 metres, climbing the highest mountains in the world in shorts, and running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without water.

Another key player in the world of contemporary breathwork is Patrick McKeown, an Irish author and breathing expert who has written several books on the topic, including The Oxygen Advantage. McKeown’s approach to breathwork focuses breathing to improve oxygen uptake, along with specific breath holding techniques to simulate high altitude training. McKeown’s method is said to improve athletic performance, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve overall health and wellbeing.

The Benefits of Practising Breathwork Today

Today, many people are turning to breathwork in its various forms to enhance their overall health and wellbeing, from physical healing to mental clarity to trauma release. Customised breathwork practices can be tailored to each individual, promoting overall wellness, unlocking healing potential, boosting creativity, and enhancing vitality.

Understanding the history and purpose of breathwork and its traditional methods helps us to appreciate just how far this practice has come. The history of breathwork is a testament to its enduring impact on human health and wellbeing. From ancient traditions to modern science, breathwork continues to be a powerful tool for improving physical, mental, and emotional health. By incorporating breathwork into our daily routine, we can experience a greater sense of balance, clarity, and vitality.

If you want to discover the benefits of breathwork for yourself, get started now with 7 days of breathwork practices for free.

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