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In the last couple of decades, wellness practices such as meditation and yoga have become all the rage, and in our fast-paced and competitive world, we all could definitely use some help staying grounded and present. With anxiety on the rise, anything that allows us to better regulate our nervous systems is a welcome addition to our self-care routines.
Although these trends may feel exotic or new, many originate in the wisdom traditions of various millenarian cultures. We can imagine people in the Himalayas, unbothered by the pressures of modernity, observing and emulating the natural rhythms of nature. Furthermore, wisdom traditions also teach us a basic truth regarding wellness: Being healthy and happy is never an exclusively individual endeavor, but a collective one.
A person cannot be truly healthy and happy unless we are all healthy and happy, and by healing and transforming ourselves, we can also transform the world around us.
Well-being, at its core, is about being better embedded in harmonious and reciprocal relationships with ourselves and the living world around us. As creatives and entrepreneurs, finding ways to ward off stress and stay grounded can prevent burnout and prove essential in the long run. And what better resource to harness than something as immediate and available as our own breath?
According to Dr. Nitin Ron, an associate professor of pediatrics at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, the manipulation of breath — pranayama, the Sanskrit name given to the techniques rooted in the yogic traditions of southern Asia — is meant to emulate nature.
The art of pranayama, as developed and taught by Indian sages such as Patanjali, who wrote the seminal Yoga Sutras, is based on the conscious manipulation of breath in order to achieve different states of being: activation, concentration, alertness or relaxation. Once we develop an awareness of the mind-body continuum, and how interrelated our physical and mental states are, it’s like we are getting to know ourselves for the first time, gaining a heightened sense of agency and control over lives. If you have ever attended a yoga class, you have likely practiced some pranayama.
While pranayama might be thousands of years old, other popular breathwork techniques are quite recent. Developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof, holotropic breathwork owes more to the psychedelic movement of the sixties and seventies than it does to ancient breathing techniques. According to Marc B. Aixalà, a breathwork practitioner and trainer with the Grof Transpersonal Training, holotropic breathwork was developed, first and foremost, as a complement to psychedelic therapy.
Not long after Grof’s experiments with LSD psychotherapy, the institutional backlash over the perceived excesses of the counterculture movement rendered psychedelic therapy and research illegal for decades to come. Without the possibility to continue working with substances, they turned their attention to the breath, developing the framework that is taught today.
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While pranayama has very specific techniques meant to elicit specific states of being, holotropic breathwork is more open-ended. The instructions given to the participants are usually simple: Start breathing faster and deeper than usual, without pauses between the inhale and the exhale. Keep breathing until something changes or the breath acquires its own rhythm. (Note: There are considerations regarding holotropic breathwork that should be understood, such as the risk of hyperventilation.)
Holotropic breathwork exemplifies many of the contextual factors that make these sorts of modalities powerful: the environment, the quality of the connection between the person and the caretaker, the presence of other participants who allow themselves to be vulnerable and be witnessed in that vulnerability. Prioritizing a breathwork practice can help us stay grounded in our own power, aligned with our own body, mind and spirit.
This is where creatives and entrepreneurs can benefit from breathwork, by being inspired and better connected to ourselves and the primordial breath of life. When we are inspired and connected to ourselves, it is easier to feel connected to others, making it easier to build community.
As you read these lines, stop for a moment to notice your breath. Most of us tend to default to rapid, shallow breathing patterns that are conducive to anxiety and stress. In our fast-paced world, where we are constantly under some sort of pressure, we tend to breathe as if we were facing imminent danger, very rarely remembering to draw long, deep inhales that reach all the way to the bottom of our stomach, helping us feel relaxed.
While breathwork is a practice we can do on our own in the long run, it might be a good idea to learn some basic techniques from a qualified and reputable teacher, ideally in an open class setting. Remember it isn’t only about the teacher or the teaching, but also about community. Learning and practicing with like-minded people can be a great way not only to learn something new, but also to find support and encouragement from others. Furthermore, regularity and structure are important aspects of learning anything new: Attending scheduled classes is an easy way to stick to a routine, at least until it becomes an effortless, natural part of our day-to-day.
For now, let me guide you through a short exercise. First, find a comfortable spot and sit down. Take a few natural breaths, inhaling and exhaling at your regular pace. Once you feel relaxed, start timing your inhalation and exhalation cycles, with a pause in between where you hold your breath. As a suggestion, consider starting with the following cycle: 5 seconds inhalation, 5 seconds retention, 5 seconds exhalation, 5 seconds retention, and repeat. Try it for 5 or 10 minutes, and once you are comfortable, you can experiment with the length of the inhalation, retention and exhalation cycles.
Although the effects on your nervous system can be tangible after just a few minutes, it is important to be patient. Keep up with your practice and soon, you will feel much more relaxed and energized. And, perhaps, you will even make a few new friends along the way.