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The Art of Bioenergetic Breathing

A potent tool for personal growth and transformation

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by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

Breathing is a potent tool for the stimulation of personal growth and transformation. This article discusses the what and the how of a specific breathing therapy called bioenergetic breathing or round breathing. For the why of breathing, you can read this more poetic essay, The Anatomy of Vitality.

The shoulders of giants

Someone tells you to “take a deep breath.” There’s more to it than you think. It’s the tip of an iceberg most people have never seen or heard of.

For more than a decade now, I have been practicing, teaching and exploring an unusual form of therapeutic breathing. It is known as “bioenergetic breathing,” and has its origins in the bodywork philosophies that emerged originally from Alexander Lowen’s interpretations of Reich and Jung.1 Interestingly, the same breathing style is called “round” breathing by the Chinese in the context of qigong, and has deep roots in that culture, although in a much different way.

So when I teach this kind of breathing, I stand on the shoulders of giants. I learned about bioenergetic breathing from Joanne Peterson and Drs. Jock McKeen and Bennet Wong at Gabriola Island’s renowned Haven Institute for Professional Training. What I teach today is an adaptation of what I am still learning whenever I visit Gabriola.

No therapy at all

What I enjoy most about this form of “therapy” is that it is no therapy at all, but simply a kind of education. I do not have the conceit of the healer when I do this work. I am more of a coach. And it’s easy.

Although I offer many suggestions while “coaching” a breathing session, this is not because anyone ever breathes incorrectly. Every kind of breathing is intrinsically expressive of the individual, and potentially useful. My job is to encourage new and unfamiliar breathing – to stimulate altered states, and to use deep breath to reveal personal habits, limitations and resistance to full experience of life.

Breathing with your body

Bioenergetic breathing is basically just fast, deep breathing. It emphasizes inhalation, which is assertive and full. It does not pause at the top or the bottom of the breath, forming a smooth sine wave. The mouth and throat are open wide,2 removed from the path of the breath, never shaping or controlling the movement of air. Most people attempt to breathe predominantly with their mouth, nose and throat. In fact, it is the body that breathes, and the upper respiratory tract is simply an obstacle course.

In a typical bioenergetic breathing session, you might work up to a vigorous pace of breathing in the space of a minute or two, continue for five to ten minutes, and then wind down again.

How fast is fast? “Fast” is roughly double to triple your normal resting respiratory rate — about the same as if you’d just been exercising. Depth is more important than speed. Go as fast as you reasonably can while still actually taking and expelling a good chest-full of air. Don’t cut corners off the amplitude of the breath just to get greater speed. The overall effect is pretty vigorous, but it doesn’t have to be ridiculous. If you were to breathe like this in front of someone, but act otherwise normal, they would say, “Wow, hey, what’s up? You been running or something? Doing some kind of deep breathing exercise?” It’s an eyebrow-raising pace, not a “call 911” pace. 😉

And what’s the point of all this breathing?

Breathing is stimulating. It induces heightened and altered states of awareness and sensation. For more information about the deeper philosophy of breathing, read The Anatomy of Vitality. But I suggest that you just try it first … I think that you’ll like it.

And there may even be some valuable biological benefits, such as an anti-inflammatory effect.3 But the hope of such effects has never been my rationale for practicing this kind of breathing. Still, the potential is certainly there.

The surprising challenges of deep breathing

For something so simple, bioenergetic breathing proves to be a surprising challenge for nearly everyone. Most struggle, experiencing fear, frustration or apathy. Obviously, the challenge isn’t technical — it’s just heavy breathing. So what is it that gives people such trouble?

The challenge is emotional. Shallow breathing is the norm in our society. In fact, it is typical of most aging biological organisms. Shallow breath constitutes a comfort zone that we are reluctant to leave. Breathing hard stirs up interesting and alarming sensations, and we humans have an enormous repertoire of tactics for controlling and limiting the experience so that it is a little less boat-rocking.

Some common avoidance behaviours that I’ve observed over the years include chain yawning, squirming, blowing and hissing, wheezing, dry throat, aches and pains that magically pop out of nowhere, an attack of silliness, giggles or ticklishness, and so on. As they attempt to proceed, most people will experience anxiety, frustration or (most problematic) a suspiciously intense apathy. As a coach, “the fade” is the most difficult of all avoidance tactics to navigate, and it happens to be my own favourite reaction to breathing: when the going gets tough, I get sleepy and tune out.

Shallow breath constitutes a comfort zone that we are reluctant to leave.

Getting past these defenses is so surprisingly difficult that most people need coaching. As a breathing coach, I can spot all your tricks, keep you breathing clearly, and encourage you to actually experience all of the new sensations – instead of developing a sudden, intense interest in something else.

Parasthesia, tetany and tremors, oh my! Transient physiological consequences of deep breathing

The challenge is complicated by the fact that bioenergetic breathing tends to cause three harmless but potentially alarming side-effects: parasthesia, tetany, and tremors.

Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, it is kind of exciting. This is powerful stuff. But these experiences really are harmless, and they tend to go away with practice. I myself went through them and came out the other side many years ago.

Parasthesia simply means “altered sensation,” usually in the form of tingling that starts around the mouth, at the fingertips and in the toes. As it advances and spreads, it is usually accompanied by tetany — sustained but mild contraction of muscles. The hands and feet tend to “claw up,” and your lips will feel like you’ve just been to the dentist! This is different than spasm, and it is more stiff than painful. It wears off quickly. Finally, tremors may sweep through the body erratically, perhaps favouring a specific limb or side, but this too passes rapidly — and should actually be indulged when it occurs. Let yourself shake. Be free!

These symptoms are produced by an altered mind-body state, both physiological and psychological. The tetany is a consequence of some changes in blood chemistry. The tingling is the sensation of qi — when your hands are tingling fiercely with qi, it feels like you are holding balls of fire. It’s a very distinctive sensation, and a privilege to experience. I often explain to people that martial arts and yoga practitioners may study for their entire lives without knowing the sensation of qi, simply because they don’t breathe enough.

The tendency to tremor is a “letting go.” We are all hanging on tightly to so very much, including our own bodies. The breathing shakes us loose. I advise you not to try to stop it.

I must emphasize again that all of these side-effects are temporary. Bioenergetic breathing is not the same as hyperventilation.4 It is not dangerous in any way. (There is one huge exception to that statement: holding your breath underwater after hyperventilating is crazy dangerous: see “shallow water blackout.”) Any sensation you experience during breathing will go away as you slow down and stop.

Soul diving!

You might become emotional during bioenergetic breathing.

Most people feel like crying. Feeling sad and frustrated are the most common reactions to breathing. But many also feel like they want to hit something (hint: try a pillow!), and virtually any other kind of emotional experience is possible for different people, or for the same person in different sessions.

Sadness and anger are the two great unexpressed emotions in our society. Most of us have deep wells of them. Bioenergetic breathing can be a handy way to deliberately induce cathartic crying jags. Indeed, some people notice that they cry every time they breathe like this, prompting the question, “What else is there? When will I be done crying?”

The answer is, “When you’re done.” If you’ve been holding back sadness for thirty years, expect it to take a while. But trust me: there is something beyond all the crying. And that is what this work is all about. It’s soul diving.

Possibilities

Go to it. Slow down and stop if you get alarmed. Call me if you have questions or you want a coach. There are no rules, but many possibilities. I’ll leave you with a few of those …


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.

Appendix: Difficulty breathing?

I want you to know that not all causes of breathing difficulties are necessarily scary. In many cases, the causes are related to emotional anxiety, “emotional constipation,” mild muscular dysfunction (trigger points) in the muscles of the torso, and or simple weakness that can be fixed with exercise.5 Emotional factors can easily be addressed by the breathing techniques recommended in this article. Muscle trigger points can usually be eased by self-massage or a professional therapeutic massage, or even just a warm bath. For more information, here are some relevant articles:

But there are many causes of shortness of breath. A sudden and severe shortness of breath is often a serious symptom, of course, and you probably wouldn’t be sitting here reading this if you were gasping like a fish out of water! But some serious causes of breathing difficulties develop more slowly, and their causes can be difficult to determine. If it isn’t clear why you’re having difficulty breathing, you should seek medical care. Bioenergetic breathing may or may not be appropriate, depending — you should ask your doctor if “deep breathing exercises” are a good way of trying to help the problem or not. There’s no need to get into the “emotional release” issue! Just ask if deep breathing exercises are okay.

Here are some of the more serious yet-not-necessarily-obvious reasons why you might be struggling with breathing …

Asthma

Do you have episodes of shortness of breath along with wheezing and/or coughing? This may be the beginning of asthma. Bioenergetic breathing is probably a good fit with asthma, as asthma is often interconnected with psychological factors that can be addressed by somatoemotional release therapies.

Anemia

Are you tired all the time, and do you look pale? You may not be getting enough iron in your diet. This is more common among women.

Sarcoidosis or pulmonary hypertension

Are you tired all the time and do you have a dry cough, possibly with chest pain, and does your shortness of breath get worse when you exercise or do other physical activity?

Congestive heart failure

Are your feet and ankles swollen, and is it harder to breathe when you lie down flat? These are symptoms of congestive heart failure.

Mesothelioma

Have you worked in or around asbestos, wood dust, industrial fumes or in a coal mine? You could have occupational lung disease, such as mesothelioma.

Once again, if you’re concerned about shortness of breath, please see:

Related Reading

Notes

  1. Wong B, McKeen J. The new manual for life. PD Publishing; 1998. BACK TO TEXT
  2. And opening and holding the mouth wide open may be a challenge in itself for many people. Common jaw tension, and some of the psychological patterns coupled to it, can make it quite difficult. I have often been amazed at how little many people open their mouths even when strongly encouraged, in a safe situation, to "open wide." See the tips on jaw relaxation in Massage Therapy for Bruxism, Jaw Clenching, and TMJ Syndrome. BACK TO TEXT
  3. Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 May;111(20):7379–84. PubMed #24799686. PainSci #54137.

    In this test, volunteers were subjected to a small dose of E. Coli endotoxin, enough to make someone mildly ill. Some volunteers were trained in meditation and a breathing technique (cyclic hyperventilation followed by breath holding) before exposure — and they had fewer symptoms than the untrained group, and several biological differences related to controlling inflammation.

    BACK TO TEXT
  4. Bioenergetic breathing is technically hyperventilation — the physiology is similar — but they are not meaningfully equivalent. The context and the result are quite different. Hyperventilation strongly implies panicky and uncontrolled fast, shallow breathing. In striking contrast, bioenergetic breathing is willful and deliberate, slower and much deeper than anything that would ever be described as hyperventilation clinically, or by anyone.

    For instance, I know a nurse who heads a class 1 trauma nursing team (they deal with extreme trauma’s from all over British Columbia). She routinely witnesses, diagnoses and deals with patients who are certainly hyperventiling in the usual sense: panicked, rapid, shallow breathing. She has seen many people become convinced by the resulting tetany that they are — I am not making this up — actually dying!

    The subjective experience of bioenergetic breathing is dramatically different, and someone doing it would never be identified as a hyperventilator, anymore than someone playing golf would be mistaken for someone attacking innocent bystanders with a club. It’s all about the intention. BACK TO TEXT

  5. Padula et al showed that respiratory training can increasing breathing power, while Enright et al additionally demonstrated that it isn’t exactly easy: some real intensity and dedication is probably required. But it definitely can be done. BACK TO TEXT