What Is Breathwork and Why Is Everyone Talking About It? We Asked an Expert

Author: Simon Quill

It was about a decade ago that Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman”, first introduced his breathing techniques to a global audience. He claimed you could accomplish incredible feats by developing command over your body through your breathing. The results seemed to defy belief – Hof has attained roughly two dozen world records by completing marvellous feats of physical endurance in conditions that would kill others. The scientific community had no choice but to investigate his claims. And they discovered that through controlling your breath you can control your nervous system. We’re only now starting to get a better idea of what that means and the many ways in which working with your breath can help you. 

I sat down with Jean Rossouw, a qualified breathwork practitioner, to discuss the work he does. Jean found breathwork while living in the States. The turning point came when he attended a workshop on holotropic breathwork. “It was an eye-opening experience because you have a sitter and a breather. After lunch, we switched roles and I became the sitter, the one who monitors the breather, and I saw what was happening around me. I saw my two friends rolling around in their sweat, tearing at their clothes, almost naked. And I realised that wow, this is real, this is very powerful. I realised that with the breath, you can create an expanded state of consciousness where you access the subconscious and heal in that manner. Breathing is the one tool we have to control our nervous system. Breath is the key to so many things. Stress, anxiety, and even diseases that develop through stress.”  

So, what exactly is breathwork?

“You can look at it like a big topic like fitness or yoga. It can be many things. Essentially, breathwork is the use of breath awareness and conscious breathing for the purposes of healing, growth and transformation in mind, body and spirit. 

“You can categorise it into three different areas. Dr Ela Manga, the founder of Breathwork Africa, calls it the ART of breathwork. It consists of Breath Awareness, Breath Regulation and Breath Transformation. Breath Awareness is watching it, like in meditation. Breath Regulation involves yogi breathing techniques – anything you do to regulate your nervous system – warming up, cooling down, energising, relaxing or balancing your nervous system. And Breath Transformation would be any kind of conscious connected or circular breathing, such as holotropic breathwork or rebirthing, shamanic or clarity breathwork. Essentially it’s connecting the breaths with inhales and exhales and no pauses.” 

Tell me more about the conscious connected breathwork…

“It’s very powerful and can be transformational in many ways. When you have a session of conscious connected breathwork, you can go into an expanded state of consciousness. And then you heal on a cellular level. By doing the guided breathing techniques, it physically opens up your nervous system. Subconscious emotions and thoughts can come to the surface through those openings, while you’re in a safe space such as a studio with an experienced facilitator.”

“You give your body the opportunity to release and you create a state of mind, of being, where you go into your subconscious. Any aspect of your subconscious that has the strongest emotional charge on that day, those aspects come to the fore and you acknowledge that and let it go. For example, say you have trauma from 10 years ago and you still haven’t dealt with it, but it’s still there and vibrating in your subconscious. Our conditioning in the West is that when you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist, but that’s nonsense. It’s still there and vibrating and it can be triggered by certain events. The conscious breathwork will allow your body and your conscious mind to feel it and really acknowledge that hurt or pain. From there, it gets transferred back to life-force energy and then it can release from your body and then you feel lighter.”   

“It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are. When you start opening up and breathing in the lower spaces, your diaphragm starts to move and releases tension, energy starts to move, feelings that were suppressed start to come up, and your overall well being improves.” 

Beyond what you’ve just mentioned, what are the other benefits?

“There are so many benefits on a physical, mental and spiritual level. Physically, for example, when it comes to conscious connected breathwork, you bring awareness to your lower breathing spaces in your belly and rib cage. You bring oxygen into your cells and you alkalize your body. That’s very good for you. 

“Mentally, you feel emotions that you have traditionally suppressed. You feel your shadow side. It’s energy in motion and you start to deal with it, whether it’s joy or anger or tears – it’s all welcome. From that space, on a spiritual level, you drop into an authentic heart space and start to move away from your mind. You start to deal with your space from a really unique and authentic viewpoint, and from there you also start to feel your connection with the universe and all that is. All boundaries start to disappear.” 

How can you explain those effects?

“Well, when you control your breath, you control your nervous system. It’s either the parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system – stress or relaxation – that’s activated. Every single inhale, your heart rate goes up. Every single exhale your heart rate goes down. It’s this wave that’s constantly going. Once you know that you can control your nervous system with your breath then you can control your thoughts and responses to situations in a much better way. Once you feel that or understand it, then you start to understand the transformational side to the breathwork too. 

“That’s where we activate more intensity in the beginning of the journey, but your body is in a safe space. All of those stressful things can come up and loosens up all this information and stuck energy in your body, but you’re actually in a safe space to acknowledge it in a calm and mature way. When you see it, it’s not a fear response anymore, it’s like OK I accept this. And then it becomes more relaxing towards the end of the journey. There’s more and more science coming out about this but essentially there’s a temporary change in the chemical structure of your body. Your PH levels start to change, and with that you start to change your vibration and your brain starts to tune into a different frequency. You tap into your subconscious and beyond!”

Are there any long-term benefits?

“Yes, especially when dealing with repressed traumas. It really allows you to release baggage and let go of emotions that don’t serve you anymore. People often feel lighter after a session and, as strange as it sounds, more spacious inside. 

“A couple of days afterwards, it will start to filter into your consciousness as you integrate it. It has the potential to form new neural pathways, similar to psychedelics. So it grants you new perspectives and allows you to let go of outdated beliefs. You get more clarity, clarity on your path and on obstacles that prevent you from taking the path that feels right for you. It’s connecting with authenticity and seeing behind the mask you create for yourself and hide behind.” 

What daily techniques can people do at home?

“Firstly, to become aware of your breath at different times of day. Notice when you’re holding your breath, then take a nice and deep inhale, and release with a big sigh. When you let go with a big sigh, your nervous system does a little recovery loop back to balance. 

“A nice and easy technique that I always give students would be coherent breathing, or balanced breath. Ideally you want to breathe five seconds in, five out. Let your lower breathing spaces move, like your belly. One hand on your belly button, other hand on your heart. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your nose or mouth. Slowly. If you do this for five minutes a day, it’s proven scientifically that your blood pressure, and many other body metrics, goes into balance. It’s a really solid technique. You can do it while you talk to people, while you listen. If five seconds is too much, you can start with three in, three out. Or four in, four out until five. So it’s very easy to remember and super beneficial as it calms down your nervous system.”

For those who want to explore conscious connected breathwork, online sessions can work but in-studio sessions are best. Jean’s studio, Bodhi Breathwork, is based in Hout Bay and offers classes and one-on-one sessions. 

Breathwork Africa runs training schools and classes in Johannesburg and also has practitioners in Limpopo, Free State and the Western Cape. 

Insight timer is valuable for all three types of breathwork. 

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