The History and Origins of Breathwork

History And Origins Of Breathwork

Are you new to breathwork? Do you want to better understand where this practice came from?  You might be surprised to know that breathwork has been practised as a form of healing for centuries. Breathwork isn’t just a fad recommended by some hippy guy at your gym. From the ancient yogic practices in India, to shamanic rituals in South America, to modern day breathwork sessions around the world – breathwork has improved the lives of people across the ages. In this blog post, we’ll dive deep into exploring the history and origins of breathwork to gain perspective on how this powerful practice came about. We’ll cover old techniques used by shamans and 1960s psycho-explorers that laid the groundwork for our current-day applications of conscious breathing as a holistic therapy. You’ll even learn why you need breathwork more than ever from an evolutionary perspective. 

The ancient roots of breathwork 

The art of conscious breathing has been revered for its ability to offer deep relaxation and profound insights into one’s inner self for thousands of years and across many cultures.

In India, breathwork is an integral part of the ancient yogic practices.  Breathwork’s 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 practice of pranayama, which involves various breathing techniques, is believed to be one of the most effective ways to purify the body and mind, and to achieve a state of balance and harmony. Similarly, in China, the ancient Taoist practices of qigong and tai chi incorporate various breathing techniques to promote health, vitality and longevity.

Shamanic cultures in South America, Africa, and Australia also have a long history of using breathwork as a tool for healing and spiritual growth. Australian aboriginals have played the didgeridoo, an instrument that requires strong lungs and a special circular breathing technique, for over a thousand years. In these cultures, breathing is seen as a way to connect with the spirit world, to access deeper levels of consciousness, and to heal physical and emotional ailments. 

Even in ancient Greece, the practice of pranayama was known and valued. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about the connection between breath and spirit, and the importance of breathing exercises for physical and mental health.  In fact, in ancient Greek, the word phren refers both to the mind and to the diaphragm. This indicates the Greeks knew and valued the close relationship between mental health and the breath.

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.

Exploring the ancient roots of breathwork can help us gain a deeper understanding of the history and origins of this powerful practice. By learning from the wisdom of our ancestors, we can better appreciate the value of conscious breathing as a holistic therapy for the mind, body, and spirit.

The birth of modern breathwork: holotropic breathwork

We can trace breathwork back to ancient Eastern practices but the popular methods we use today such as Holotropic and Rebirthing Breathwork are mainly developed in the 60s and 70s self-awareness era. The love generation found that they could “get high on their own supply” using breathwork while they experimented with everything else they could get their hands on.  They also were the first generation that readily incorporated psychology into their everyday lives.  

Stan Grof, a Czech psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was the father of modern breathwork with the creation of Holotropic Breathwork in the 1950s. Grof developed his research by looking into non-ordinary states of consciousness. (You can learn more about Stan and his work on non-normal states and lessons from about ~4500 LSD sessions on Tim Ferriss’ podcast.)

The origins of holotropic breathwork can be traced back to Grof’s work with LSD-assisted psychotherapy in the 1950s and 1960s. Grof became dissatisfied with the limitation of traditional psycho-analysis in treating certain mental health disorders. He began experimenting with LSD as a way to access the unconscious mind and facilitate healing.

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When LSD was banned in the United States in 1966, Grof turned to other methods of inducing altered states of consciousness, including breathing techniques. He and his wife Christina began experimenting with various forms of breathwork, drawing on their experiences with shamanic traditions, yoga, and other spiritual practices. They found that by using a specific pattern of breathing, combined with music and other sensory stimuli, they could induce a non-ordinary state of consciousness similar to that experienced with LSD.

They called this approach “Holotropic Breathwork”, with “holotropic” meaning “moving towards wholeness.” The technique 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 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 the breathwork.

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 from the practice of holotropic breathwork.

Bathtub Epiphany: Leonard Orr + Rebirthing 

Meanwhile 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 born and from this “rebirthing” 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, and fasting. In the early 1970s, he discovered the power of breathwork while experimenting with various forms of breathing exercises.

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

Rebirthing breathwork involves lying down and performing rounds of super-ventilation (deep breaths in and out) for an extended period of time, typically accompanied by music or other sounds. The goal is to access and release blocked energy and emotions, allowing individuals to experience a sense of rebirth and renewal.

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 around the world. While some critics have raised concerns about the safety and efficacy of rebirthing, many people have reported profound experiences and lasting benefits from the practice.

Not surprisingly, both these forms of breathwork came about in the late 1960s when psychology experts melded learnings from the east with western psychotherapeutic insights. It was believed that these sessions would help people reach higher consciousness while overcoming limiting beliefs and help people deal with life’s traumas. Grof’s technique also included guided meditations and relaxation music during a session. With Grofs’s Holotropic Breathwork and Leonard Orr’s Rebirthing Breathwork, the pioneers had established the foundations of what we now understand as breathwork.

Konstantin Buteyko “rediscovers” nose breathing 

Dr. Konstantin Buteyko created what’s now known as the Buteyko Method. The method is based on the belief that many health problems are due to over-breathing and mouth breathing. Essentially, breathing more than the amount necessary to oxygenate our bodies causes harmful conditions like snoring, asthma, and anxiety.. 

Konstantin Buteyko was a Ukrainian doctor who lived from 1923 to 2003. He was born in a small village in Ukraine, where his mother often told people, “I gave birth to a very odd boy.” Buteyko’s parents were farmers, but he was extremely gifted and curious.  

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 on health. He literally tested different breathing patterns on himself and found that breathing rapidly increased his blood pressure, while breathing slowly through the 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. This observation led him to test what he learned by experimenting on himself with great success.  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 as well. 

The Buteyko Method involves breathing exercises to reduce the amount of air one inhales and exhales, 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 recognized as a viable complementary therapy for respiratory conditions. Hundreds of experts in the medical field studied his techniques and found them to be extremely effective for things such as asthma, snoring, sleep apnea, allergies, COPD, anxiety, and more. 

Throughout his life, Buteyko was committed to sharing his knowledge of the Buteyko Method with others. He was persecuted heavily for his work and often received death threats and personal attacks in Russia and Siberia.  Eventually, he escaped to teach the method to thousands of people, and his legacy continues to live on today.

The evolution of how we breathe 

In the 19th century, George Catlin, an adventurer and researcher, travelled across the Americas.  He wrote about his observations of the native Americans in his aptly named book, “The Breath of Life.” He noted that the traditional men and women had perfectly straight teeth, strong jaws, and always breathed through their noses.  He attributed the native Americans’ great health and vigour 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. 

As humans evolved, our faces underwent certain changes that facilitated breathing. The human skull, for example, became more vertical and our jaws became shorter and flatter over time. The flattening of the face, in particular, made it easier for us to breathe through the mouth. In fact, modern humans tend to breathe more through their mouths than our ancient ancestors, which has been attributed to several factors. One of the most common reasons is chronic nasal congestion, which forces people to breathe through their mouths. In addition, allergies and other respiratory issues may also contribute to the shift towards mouth breathing. These factors, along with other environmental and genetic factors, have played a role in shaping the way humans breathe today.

Breathwork explodes 

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

Today’s most well known breath pioneer is Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman”, a Dutch extreme athlete and motivational speaker who has gained fame for his ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures and his unique breathing method. The Wim Hof Method involves a specific pattern of breathing exercises, along with cold exposure and meditation. Hof claims that his method can improve physical and mental health, increase energy levels, and reduce stress and anxiety. He may just be right… Wim ran a half marathon above the Arctic Circle without shoes or pants, swam under ice for 66 metres, climbed the highest mountains in the world wearing only shorts, and ran a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking water!

Another key player in the world of modern 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 well-being. 

In addition to these key players, there are many other practitioners and teachers in the world of modern breathwork, each with their own unique approach and perspective. Some focus on using breathwork as a tool for meditation and spiritual growth, while others emphasise its potential for improving physical health and fitness. Regardless of the specific approach, the underlying goal of modern breathwork is to harness the power of conscious breathing to promote healing, growth, and transformation.

Curious? Try breathwork now!

Breathwork is an ancient practice that has evolved over the centuries. It started in ancient cultures as an everyday and spiritual practice, and then moved into modern times with Dr. Stan Grof, Leonard Orr, Dr. Buteyko and onward to Wim Hoff and Patrick McKeown. Each of them contributed to the development of what we now recognize as breathwork today. Nowadays, many people are using breathwork in various forms to support their overall health and well-being – from physical healing to mental clarity. Understanding the history and purpose of breathwork helps us to appreciate just how far this practice has come. With this knowledge, you can reap its benefits too – if you’re curious then take some time to learn more about all the ways breathwork has changed our lives on the Breathless blog.
Audrey is a Surfer, Bad-ass Adventure Mom and Breathless Breathwork Instructor. Audrey runs a creative media marketer, copywriter, project manager company and hosts amazing surfing retreats for moms.

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