When my good friend recently started as a breathwork facilitator, she asked me if I wanted to have a session with her. I wasn't really sure what that meant—was it different from meditation or pranayama in yoga class? To be honest, focused breathing for an hour or longer sounded like it might be tedious. But I was in for a surprise.
WTF Is "Breathwork"?
In my facilitator's light and airy house fully smudged with sage, we sat down and she explained to me that breathwork is essentially about clearing out stuck or stagnant energy to promote healing and positive states of mind like joy, creativity and inspiration. We practiced a rhythmic breathing pattern, taking a sharp breath through the mouth down into the belly, and then the same into the chest, and exhaling. She said I'd start by doing that for about seven minutes, and we'd go from there.
But before we proceeded, she cautiously asked me how far I wanted her to push me. That sounded scary. She explained that breathwork also involves letting out loud, primal screams to help expel the energy that needs a way out of the body, but that some people are so stuck in their throat chakra that they're unable to let out so much as a weak whimper. I told her I was open to her pushing me as far as her intuition guided her to.
My facilitator had me lie down on a blanket and hold a rock from the ocean in each hand. She placed a soft lavender pillow over my eyes. Then she guided me into the rhythmic breathing we had practiced. As I continued to breathe on my own, she dabbed essential oils around my neck, jawline and forehead.
Within minutes, I started to feel my hands and wrists tensing up like crazy, to the point where apparently my hands looked like twisted lobster claws. I could feel it, but it was completely involuntary! At almost exactly seven minutes, I felt tingling and pressure on the tops of my thighs. My facilitator had me pause from the rhythmic breathing and replace it with slow, deep breaths. When I did this, my shoulders started to roll back and felt as if they were pinned to the floor.
I know what you're thinking—was I spooked that my body seemed possessed? Actually, no. Since I knew, trusted and felt comfortable with my facilitator, and she was continually checking in with me, I felt like I was in good hands. She asked me if I was ready to scream. I said yes, and she gently covered my mouth with a soft cloth and told me to let it out. I had no problem screaming my heart out, luckily.
Afterwards, I continued the deep breathing for a few moments before returning to the rhythmic breathing. I did feel some of the tension in my hands, wrists and shoulders ease up, but they were still involuntarily tight. We cycled through the breathwork once or twice more, culminating in another scream. Slowly, my body was loosening up.
Once we were finished, my facilitator stepped away to give me space and make me some tea. She said to take as much time as I needed, and once I was ready, to turn to my left side into a fetal position until I felt compelled to sit up.
When I opened my eyes, she said that they looked wider and brighter than before. I did feel light and breezy. But mostly I was fascinated that the breathwork actually did seem to cause some bizarre physiological reactions.
I asked her what just happened. According to her teacher, practitioners and facilitators are encouraged not to assign meaning to another person's experience during breathwork, since tapping into your own intuition to figure out what your mind and body need is part of the self-healing process. She did give me some vague interpretations, though. One of them was that she sensed that I had a lot of power and energy in my hands, and that perhaps I should find a way to harness it.
I felt relaxed and curious for the rest of the day—but for the next two days I felt vulnerable and depressed! I knew from having reiki before that this was normal, and so I just let myself walk through it. My facilitator said this: "[Breathwork] can have that effect as it is a detox of your energy system. There is also a thing called a healing hangover. Whenever you get an intense energy work it can happen. It's a good thing in the end, but it can feel like a lot especially when you aren't sure where it's coming from. Drink lots of water and be easy on yourself."
But What Does It All Mean?
Not gonna lie—I still have no idea what my lobster claws, pinned-down shoulders, and tingling thighs were trying to tell me, energetically speaking. I'm sure that deep thought and meditation could shed more light on it for me, but I'm still pretty casual when it comes to energy work.
From a medical perspective, rapid and deep breathing may oxygenate the body and "cause numbness, tingling, muscle twitching or spasms if more severe," as Dr. Jeffrey Egler, MD told Well and Good. So the physiological reactions really weren't that weird, but they did make me feel more attuned to my body and more conscious of my areas of tension. And the apparent emotional purge that happened afterwards is proof enough to me that breathwork has healing potential.
If you believe in the power of yoga, meditation, earthing and more obscure energy healing practices like reiki, breathwork is a great tool to have in the old wellness arsenal. But don't try this at home. Definitely do it with an experienced or certified practitioner or facilitator. And if there are any questions in your mind, or if you're pregnant or have any health conditions, absolutely talk to your doctor before getting in on this breathwork action.