Breathwork uses controlled breathing to attain some broad or largely undefined benefit, typically involving a higher level of awareness or mental resiliency. There have been at least a dozen subsets of breathwork, including one that piggybacked on the primal therapy craze of the 1970s by claiming that specific inhaling and exhaling methods could remove the residue of suppressed memories from our earliest years.
In the interest of saving time and sanity, we will look at just three of the other breathwork types: holotropic, shamanic, and vivation.
The goal of holotropic breathwork is to access altered states of consciousness for the purpose of vanquishing trauma from past lives. So if it’s your present life giving you problems, this is not for you. The technique was developed by Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, who first used LSD in the sessions, but switched to hyperventilation when the drug was outlawed.
Grof calls his idea “a powerful approach to self-exploration and healing that integrates insights from modern consciousness research…and Eastern spiritual practices and mystical traditions.” So subjects get the best of both New Age Words: The appeal to ancient authority and modern pseudoscience.
This is usually done in group sessions, which Grof says, “activate the natural inner healing process of the individual’s psyche, bringing him or her a set of internal experiences.” Put another way, when air flow is restricted, crazy stuff happens. Rather than the brain begging for oxygen, however, Grof says the subject is tapping into wisdom and energies that were accessed by ancient yogis.
Before the breathwork session begin, each person in the group tells something about their life. Then everyone lays on a mat while listening to music and breathing quickly and deeply. Finally, they make a mandala of it. Show-and-tell, a sleeping mat, drawing pictures, I think he stole this from my Kindergarten teacher.
Now we’ll examine a Grof disciple, Linda Star Wolf, who started Venus Rising Shamanic Breathwork. As if that’s not enough mysticism for one advanced soul, she’s also director of the University for Shamanic Psychospritual Studies. The school’s website describes it as “the only Shamanic Psychospiritual University in the world!” I’ll bet.
Star Wolf says her technique incorporates not just breathing methods, but also “sound healing through chakra-attuned music, energetic bodywork, soul return and extraction, and shamanic art. Journeyers enter an altered state of consciousness that creates a connection with spirit guides, and they receive visions about their sacred purpose.”
Like Grof, Star Wolf emphasizes the combination of ancient and avant garde: “Shamanic Breathwork blends the timeless wisdom of traditions with the emerging paradigm methods of healing and teaching.” New Age proponents often proclaim their love for the old ways, yet they don’t ride to the sessions on a donkey or accept payment in the form of two bartered pounds of butter.
A Wiccan spin is put on this breathwork, which probably appeals to those seeking out someone calling herself Linda Star Wolf. The ceremony begins by creating putative sacred space using sage and cedar. Then a shaman directs animal and deity power to the subject, and this is followed by a drummer who goes on for longer than Iron Butterfly’s did. At some point, the subject is said to enter a trance, which Star Wolf oxymoronically describes as a “naturally altered” state. Past lives are reviewed, with grief, fear, and anger magically zapped. For unexplained reasons, persons who have had their life’s problems completely and irrevocably exorcised return for future sessions.
Next, we have vivation, which is touted as a meditation that, like shamanic breathwork, will “permanently resolve any kind of negative emotion, trauma or stress.” The only state I am aware that does this is death.
Again we see Doublemint Pleasure in New Age form: “Vivation can trace its roots to the ancient sciences of Indian Kriya and Tantra Yoga, as well as modern breathwork.” Vivation attempts to distinguish itself from other breathwork methods by emphasizing the do it yourself approach. No Eastern holy man or esoteric priestess is necessary to guide your cosmic way.
Vivation creator Jim Leonard claims that emotions are “just physical patterns of energy in the body,” and that our true self is eternally blissful. If your sister dies, your best friend moves, and you’re unexpectedly fired, all on the same day, your true self is still awash in oceans of ecstasy.
Leonard explains, “When we experience negativity, it is not the feeling itself, but our block or resistance to that feeling. By letting go of our resistance, the natural flow of our emotions expands our sense of self and we experience the joy, bliss and unconditional love that is our birthright.”
The first step in vivation is to adjust the speed and volume of your breathing, as this will regulate the intensity of your feelings. Then you chill out completely. This is followed by “scanning your body and locating the most prominent feeling,” which in my case is bafflement over how this is supposed to work. Next, embrace fear, anger, sadness. This leads to the final step where, since you’ve dealt with your emotional baggage, you do whatever you want. I recommend a truncated version where you start with that and skip the first four steps.