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How the Breath Can Heal
On holotropic breathing, Kabbalah, and the state of just being
I have been lazy about breathwork. Over the years, regular breath work has done wonders for my sense of self and facilitated early forays into the unconscious. When I regularly engage in focused breathwork, my body feels like it’s operating at its maximum as the practice loosens the dominance of the rational mind and fosters a deeper connection with the body. No matter what is happening, I am present when I return to my breath.
For several years now, I have followed a modified version of Wim Hof breathwork whereby I breathe deeply and circularly for 35 breaths and then go into a breath hold. After each breath hold, which tends to get longer as my rational mind releases, I return to circular breathing. This method enabled my first real experience in the unconscious, which I wrote about at length.
Curiously, I didn’t go deeper with breathwork until last weekend when I attended my first holotropic breathwork journey. Holotropic breathwork is the modern form of an ancient practice codified in the 1970s by Dr. Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof. They were using psychedelics as a psychotherapeutic tool until they were outlawed. This intense form of breathwork took the place of psychedelics to help clients release trauma. Holotropic breathwork and its various spinoffs are integral to the current boom in psychedelics. Many psychedelic guides worldwide offer breathwork as preparation for the journeys themselves.
When my wife said that our neighbor was offering a monthly breathwork gathering, the timing felt strangely perfect since I have recently gone back to my breathwork practice in conjugation with a new writing project focused on Kabbalah.
The ancient breath
In the Jewish mystical tradition, the breath animates our consciousness. Three different Hebrew words in the Torah mean or refer to the soul (nefesh, ruach, and neshama), and all are variations of words that mean “breath.” In Genesis 2:7 the Torah says that “the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the human became a living creature.”
In his book, The Path of Primordial Light, the Kabbalist scholar and teacher Zvi Ish-Shalom explores the vital connection between Kabbalah and the breath. He writes, “there are two main ingredients to the breathing process. The first is the in-breath. As the breath flows in through our nostrils or mouth and fills our lungs, it animates our body with life. The second ingredient is the out-breath. As the breath is released from our system, our life force is released with it. Whenever we take a conscious breath, we automatically shift our awareness away from the thinking mind to the here and now, the only “place” where presence can be found. At the same time, by becoming conscious of our breath, we are becoming more aware of the substance and spirit of consciousness itself, the breath of life.”
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The Kabbalah, Ish-Shalom notes, correlates human beings to a Torah scroll. The Kabbalah is famously cryptic and complex, so bear with me as we explore this idea. The blank parchment of formlessness parallels the empty spaces and gaps between the breath. The breath itself is the ink that animates the individual letter of the scroll, which is our body. Articulating our breath into speech enables the formation of the words of the scroll.
Something as simple as taking a conscious breath can be a powerful way to shift our experience from one that is lost in thought to one that is more an expression of the totality of the human scroll that we are. This helps us become more grounded and connected to the union of formlessness and form, of the infinite and finite. As the spirit that animates our consciousness in each moment, the breath is the life force not only of our individual experience but of creation itself. In other words, the breath is one of the most remarkably powerful aspects of what makes us human.
We should become aware, Ish-Shalom writes, of the energetic vibrations of the letters and words and the animating light that permeates them. He writes, “the journey of vastness is the experience of the spaces between the breath and between the words—it is the blank parchment, the spacious infinite source of the breath of life and of all creation.”
Return to the breath
I wasn’t terribly nervous ahead of my first holotropic session. I arrived at my neighbor’s house with a friend to find five other people sitting on yoga mats amidst a heap of blankets and pillows. Our guide began the session by explaining how we should breathe. On the in-breath, we would fill our stomachs and diaphragm, while on the out-breath, we would simply release. Like water falling over a waterfall, she explained. There would be no pauses between inhales and exhales.
If uncomfortable sensations came up in the body or mind, the best thing to do was keep breathing. Getting the most out of the exercise meant taking a similar approach to psychedelics. Surrender to what comes through from the body and try not to recoil from anything uncomfortable. The specific type of breathwork, which she called conscious connected breathing, was facilitated with meditative and tribal music to help enter an altered state.
We began on our feet with blindfolds over our eyes. After a few minutes of breathing, we made our way to lying down. Then the real work started. We were breathing circularly without end. At first, it felt good to breathe deeply and let go of everyday thoughts. I lost track of time and space, but my ego mind was still holding on. At some point the muscles in my hands and forearms began to tense up. It felt like I had frozen claws for hands. We were warned that this was a common response called tetany and the best response was to keep breathing through it.
This was one of the most challenging aspects of the session as the feeling would engage my rational mind, which was desperately looking for something to hold on to as my body took over. I came to terms with the strange sensation as we moved toward the first of three breath holds. The session ended with an incredible release of physical emotion, leaving me wanting to hug myself. I received deep insights into my psyche, which I will explore in later pieces. The session delivered me to a state of just being, which is arguably the most fleeting feeling we have in our ego driven society. The next day, my body felt like I had shed a physical skin. I was alive and invigorated.
According to the Hebrew mystics, everything that occurs in the human realm has a cosmic parallel. Our earthly breathing reflects a cosmic process and can be traced back to the primordial roots of existence, to the act of creation itself. We are empowered with a deceptively simple tool that can enable access to the sources of existence and our unconscious.
Programming note: I have a couple of pieces in the pipeline concerning dreams and the Kabbalah. As always, I happy to have you here with me on this journey. Have a great week.