My name is Jeremy Youst, and I bring four decades of experience and a wealth of knowledge in the field of Somatic Breathwork Therapy. I have dedicated myself to empowering individuals and groups and integrating the most effective and clinically sound psychological, emotional, and somatic healing techniques. Serving as a board member of the Global Professional Breathwork Alliance for more than 18 years, I actively contributed to establishing international ethical and professional standards for breathwork practitioners.
In the discipline of psychotherapeutic healing, somatic therapies live as some of the most potent and dynamic modalities that are finally being recognized as indispensable tools to help people with anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, trauma, complex trauma, and PTSD. Integral to this field of working with the body is the rising field of Conscious Breathing or Breathwork.
Introduction to Breathwork
The roots of conscious breathing go back thousands of years. First, within indigenous peoples all over the world, then in India and Tibet, and then for many decades during the 20th century in Europe (Ilse Middendorf, Wilhelm Reich, etc.), followed by the ’60s (Stanislov Grof, Leonard Orr, Vivation, etc.) in the United States. This field seems to fall into three (overlapping) categories naturally:
- Yoga pranayama, mindfulness, or breath control
- Breath awareness and exercises for better athletic performance, e.g., Wim Hof
- Breathwork as therapy, e.g., Somatic Breath Therapy, Therapeutic Breathwork, Transformational Breathwork, etc.
I will primarily refer to the third form in this article and use breathwork.
If you are new to breathwork, you might ask, “How is it possible, through the simple invitation of consciousness into this normal body function of human respiration, that the breath can encourage healing? Specifically, the awareness, release, and integration of past trauma to return to wholeness. What exact mechanisms are at play here, and how do you intervene on another person’s behalf to guide and empower them to have long-lasting change in their lives?
How Does Breathwork Work? The Simple Answer
Conscious (therapeutic) breathwork is a specific body-mind therapy that utilizes conscious, connected breathing and other breath techniques to cultivate body awareness (embodiment), emotional awareness (clearing and regulation), relief of stress and anxiety (parasympathetic stimulation), improvements in mental clarity and presence (oxygenation and prana), and greater spiritual and interpersonal connection (love). Even more significantly, therapeutic breathwork can be used to help people heal and integrate the subconscious (stuck) memories associated with trauma, childhood neglect and abuse, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), replacing the charged memories with neutral ones, leading to a healthier state of being.
In the course of a therapeutic breathwork session, the operational components are:
- the establishment of safety
- an acceptable intervention and touch
- clear intention-setting
- opening up of the breath with an increased flow of air/prana
- permission to make sounds or movements that support emotional release
- connection with guidance
- wind-down time for passive review and integration
This is all accomplished with an attentive, experienced breathwork practitioner who knows how to guide the necessary energetic and emotional activations that align with the spirit of breath and the client’s best interest.
Sounds simple, and in some ways it is. The key here, however, is that you are doing the breathing. You are the agent of empowerment in this process, which is vastly different than the orientation of our current medical system. Once you learn (usually 3-6 sessions) to develop an open, healthy breath without pauses, a skilled presence is all you need. Your body naturally knows the next layer of trauma to peel away. Now, for those willing to dive deeper into some of the underlying components of how breathwork works, please read on.
The Evolutionary Human Components of Breathwork
“Everything breathes: breathing is the inspiration of life within all living forms of reality. Within the unified field, all matter is in a continual state of particle exchange. In humans, breathing is a natural, self-regulating, biological function that anchors awareness, engages life, and integrates body-mind functioning in time and space.” – 16 Principles of Somatic Breath Healing, Jeremy Youst
After years of guiding individuals in the healing of trauma, complex trauma, and PTSD, I believe that the inner impact and outer expression of human trauma, along with the resultant personality effects, are evidence of a deeper, incomplete cycle of growth that is irrevocably tied to the soul. Essentially, trauma is an evolutionary soul-growth cycle that has yet to complete itself. In other words, to set yourself free and fully heal the residual charge of traumatic memories, you must take a higher perspective and be willing to explore the possibility that there are underlying, soul-level issues that set up these painful experiences in the first place.
During the early part of my breathwork training, guidance introduced an idea of what trauma might be with regard to a higher perspective; they called it “Soul Propellant.”
Soul Propellant is the spiritual fuel that ultimately drives you to face the human growth cycles of separation, death, and rebirth to use them to achieve higher states of awareness, integration, and soul progression.
Although complex and often with little societal support, this undertaking to face your trauma history is a powerful journey available to all. It can take you from blame and shame to empowerment and self-responsibility. But here’s the key: regardless of how willing or not you may be to take this healing journey, you must do the breathing in breathwork. Conscious breathing is a choice to heal; it is not something someone else is doing to you.
As mentioned, the primary catalytic element in breathwork is the increase of prana, which can only occur when you decide to breathe fuller and faster than usual. No one can force more prana upon you; you must choose it yourself. Also, in light of the possibility your trauma is part of a more considerable soul-level experience, your choice to activate prana might just be the key to your self-empowerment.
What does all this mean in terms of Breathwork Therapy?
First, it means at the deepest level, therapeutic breathwork is founded upon a collaborative movement or flow of universal, intelligent, and interconnected energy that tends toward wholeness, especially where breath is concerned. Second, it means we, as healers and breathworkers, must humble ourselves to the reciprocal nature of interconnectivity by getting to know how it moves in our bodies and our breath. Third, it means we must humble ourselves to embrace the “playing field” upon which these relational interventions are taking place, a field of healing intelligence I call Body-Breathing Interactive-Intelligence.
A Few Cautionary Words About the Role of the Practitioner
However, one of the challenges in breathwork I have witnessed over the years is the increased transparency (through breathwork activation) of the energetic interchange between client and therapist. In other words, what is taking place in the client also includes the energetic awareness of what is presented within the therapist, even if unconscious. This means that the therapist must have done a sufficient amount of work on themselves – they must walk the talk, not get unconsciously drawn into and thereby influence what is arising for the client. As an integral part of avoiding this, a breathwork practitioner must frequently breathe with their client and align with the spirit of breath just enough to ensure a safe and sufficient degree of resonance and harmonic alignment with the flow of the session.
Ultimately, through the cycle of several breath therapy sessions, once the somatic and energetic roots of the arising traumatic memories have been severed, the associated mental, emotional, and physical effects eventually die out on their own. These might be, for example, the judgments against self and others, the moods of hopelessness and depression, or the fatalistic beliefs about life. Over time, most breathwork clients begin to feel lighter and less stuck, more balanced and clear-headed, more accessible to communicate and relate with others, and with an increased ability to be more grounded and spiritually connected.
I hope that attempting to answer the question, “How does breathwork work?” through knowledge, observation, and theoretical discussion will also stimulate others to add their ideas and theories. I hope it will encourage more observational and scientific research to reveal underlying processes. Wholehearted breathwork therapy offers safe, balanced, and relationally held integration as well as the possibility of freeing yourself from whatever holds you back.