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  • helizabethcaney8

Questioning the way breathwork is taught and monetised in the wellness industry.








I like the majority of yoga instructors you will probably come across teach breathwork in my classes, however this has changed drastically over recent years, especially from how I was originally taught.


The manipulation, control and focus on the breath is an intrinsic part of yoga, known as pranayama (sanskrit for 'breath control') it is said to 'clear the physical and emotional obstacles in our body to free the flow of prana - life energy.' (1)


Recently there has been a huge surge in the interest of practicing, teaching and 'selling' breathwork and many bodies of thought have emerged about how beneficial it can be for overall health.

I readily admit that when breathwork is taught and practiced from an informed, critically aware and knowledgeable stand point, it can have huge benefits but like everything it can have negative effects, which I fail to see spoken about.


I am in no way a scientist or medical practitioner, but I have studied the body, it's processes and movement for more than a decade so I believe my view has some sort of grounding, and I feel there needs to be more conversations about this rapidly growing and commodified practice often referred to as a form of 'treatment'.


In this piece I aim to question the way in which breathwork is taught within yoga and in wellness, how it is promoted and whether that's ethical, trustworthy or otherwise.


Firstly in order to back my thoughts I feel it is important to describe the physiology of breathing, I realise everyone knows this but by detailing it in this context I feel it shows many ways in which controlling and manipulating the breath, and the ways in which it is spoken about, promoted and taught, is lacking informed reflection and perhaps isn't as 'healing' and honest as it's portrayed to be.


In a very simple way breathing can be described as the the movement of air in and out of the lungs, allowing for the delivery oxygen to internal tissues and cells where it is needed, and allows for the removal of CO2. Made up of three different elements; inhalation, exhalation and retention, each of these elements is completely individual to our anatomy and unique to our biology and many individual factors, here are a few:


  • Lung capacity

  • Tidal volume

  • Carbon dioxide tolerance

  • Oxygen debt

  •  Energy demand : also varies both between different movements and between different individuals doing the same movements.

  • Conditions such as (COPD), asthma, Bronchitis, pulmonary hypertension, occupational lung diseases.

  • The unique shape, volume and health of our: Nose, Mouth, Throat (pharynx), Voice box (larynx), Windpipe (trachea), Airways (bronchi), Lungs. 



While we can consciously make an effort to inhale and exhale, breathing is an automatic reflex that is controlled by our nervous system. There are obviously variations in this rhythmical process e.g. sneezing, coughing, yawning, retention, hyper ventilation etc, again all of which serve a purpose.

So all in all this is an extremely reductionist run down of the process of breathing to illustrate how many different components of the breath there are and how it is completely individual and unique for us all.


Given this fact I feel it is equally important to list some popular breathing practices used in yoga and in wellness practices, the final four are those which I've been advertised in the past week :


  • Anulom vilom 'Alternate Nostril Breathing'

  • Ujjayi Pranayama 'Ocean Breath'

  • Bhramari Pranayama 'Humming Bee Breath'

  • Holotropic breath : claimed to access altered states of consciousness. The purpose is to obtain enlightenment of some kind.

  • Rebirthing breath : claimed to aid personal growth by releasing past traumas on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels.

  • Butekyo method : mouth taping claimed to give you more energy, deepen your sleep, boost your immunity, lower your blood pressure and even improve your appearance.

  • Wim Hof method: claimed to help develop mastery over nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems. 


The way in which breathwork is traditionally taught in yoga is very rigid; using certain counts to inhale, exhale or retain the breath, different types of breath for different movements e.g. an inhale on a chest opener, a forward fold on a exhale, or the prescribed breath pattern in sun salutations.


Do any of these practices allow for individual needs? I don't believe so, therefore is it appropriate to teach them in group classes, I think that's a question for us all that needs to be taken very seriously.


For example in class of say 10 students, all seemingly able bodied and have consented to disclosing any health factors that the instructor may need to be aware of, how are we to comprehend their internal factors that they may be unaware of e.g. their unique heart rate which effects their energy demand, some may need to breath faster, some slower, some may not need to alter the breath at all, yet we are instructing everyone in the same way to hugely manipulate their breath in ways that may be very damaging for their bodies and mental health (and possibly combining it with some bullshit rhetoric like 'inhale peace, exhale fear').

Furthermore throughout the course of a class there will be transitions between stillness and movement, how are we to also guide the individual on how their body will naturally respond to that change in homeostasis?


I have also noticed recently a shift in the way in which breathwork is described and promoted as a therapeutic/scientific/'healing' measure, here are various claims from the teaching and practice of breathwork I have seen in recent adverts:

 

  • 'Balance the hemispheres of your brain'

  • 'Release years of emotional baggage'

  • 'Dissolve pain'

  • 'Discover and align with your core truth and deeper mission'

  • 'Detoxify your body'

  • 'You will only really know yourself once you experience Breathwork

  • 'Trauma can be expelled through breathwork' 


With these fantastical claims it's easy to see why breathwork has become so popular in recent years, it can do anything and everything apparently. But with these constant ever expanding claims is there the research and truthful backing behind is it, or are people misguiding and monatising off individuals vulnerabilities, which I believe can also be said for the off shoots of yoga portrayed in a very similar way to breathwork e.g. yoga therapy, somatic healing, re-birthing, but that's a whole other subject.


A very interesting article in The Guardian in 2020 by Nic Fleming describes how 'Current gaps in the scientific evidence base is readily filled by those with books and classes to sell. Extraordinary claims that breathing techniques can treat serious diseases and improve performance in various ways are based on preliminary findings, small studies and research that shows only associations.


The claims on Wim Hof’s website, for example, that his method “is linked to reducing symptoms of diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease" are unsupported by high-quality research.


Many people undoubtedly benefit from breathing exercises. However, overblown claims about these powers are frustrating for scientists who believe they do have potential for more widespread use, but that this should be supported by good-quality research and trials. “It is likely there will be uses for breathing techniques in a variety of medical settings,” says Thomas. “However, it’s not a magic bullet. “There are a lot of people peddling snake oil. What one has to do is look at these claims with a skeptical eye, and do proper scientific studies to show whether or not it works. If you are just generally worried about your health, it won’t do you any harm. Just don’t expect it to turn your life around.” (3)



I think it is important to point out the benefits of breathwork have certainly expanded in recent years, however in the practice of yoga the benefits of breathwork are and have always been largely spoken about, and I argue is perhaps where most of the rhetoric that is used today has stemmed from, due to the constant exotification and cultural appropriation of yoga.



From this I also feel it is important to take into account that the instructing and teaching of the ancient practice of yoga began 5,000 or so years ago when the body was considered more as a spiritual vessel, the anatomy and physiology of it being a 'superficial sheath' or 'kosha' (within yoga philosophy, it is said that our bodies are actually made up of various body layers; the physical, life force, mental, wisdom, bliss body) therefore the physiology of breath and the mechanics of the individual body weren't necessarily taken into account.




(image via https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/koshas)



Should we therefore not be questioning these ancient claims if we are using them in a way to publicize, sell and instruct people?


For example in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the oldest texts on Hatha yoga, it is said that: “All diseases are eradicated by the proper practice of pranayama. All diseases can arise through improper practice. (2)


This a hugely bold statement which I challenge resolutely.



In conclusion I believe Magnus Ringberg puts it perfectly 'ultimately, every body has its own individual capacity and unique energy demands and physiology that are impossible for another person to comprehend. Therefore, instructing another person in the control of their breath during active yoga practices seems inadvisable. To impose a specific breathing pattern on a perfectly tuned human physiology may lead to imperfection. We can have a mindful awareness of our breathing pattern without feeling the need to control our breath, and this can still be considered yoga.' (4)


How we like to practice on our own is our own experiment, but as teachers I believe we have a responsibility when we impose a method on other people. Should we make assumptions about bodily requirements and impose the perfect breathing pattern on someone else? And on top of that using 'fluffy'/ pseudo science claims (that we may have seen on social media, or the internet or been taught in a course we undertook that was deemed as unquestionable and correct?)


Could it be that a perfect pattern for your individual requirements is ultimately defined by a teacher/breathwork coach/facilitator/instructor? Can that ever be appropriate or is it leaning toward the 'guru complex' where maybe even without being fully realising it we are using control over people and using our 'title' as a yoga instructor or breathwork facilitator as some kind of (self proclaimed) authority.


Yoga is a breath centered practice, but maybe we should consider approaching it from a place of mindful observation without needing to control and direct it? And as for those breathwork specific classes and workshops, they may be informative but may have alot of hot air in them too (pun intended).



Do you practice or teach breathwork?




What are your thoughts?




Hannah x







References:














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