Yoga is huge, meditation has gone mainstream and there’s more interest in energetic healing,” observes in-demand, California-based breathwork teacher Ashley Neese. “As you go deeper into these facets of healing and cut through the layers, there’s one foundation. That essence is breathwork.” While scientific study into the modality is still in its infancy, practitioners of yoga and Chinese medicine have long argued that respiration influences mind, body and spirit. With the renewed uptake in yoga and meditation, as a way to not only manage anxiety but also to promote clarity in daily lives, it seems natural that people are turning their attention to the elemental question of how we breathe and what happens when we alter patterns of respiration.
For Neese, who’s qualified and trained in hatha yoga, reiki and somatic therapy, her progression to teaching breathwork was driven by a deep interest in its community potential. “The physical aspects of what I was learning appealed to me less than the work we did with the breath,” she recalls. “While yoga has a strong body element and meditation has a mind aspect, breathwork connects the two more fully, and can be tried without special equipment or clothes in a learning environment. In my sessions, everyone sits in a circle and says what is on their mind and how they’ve been feeling. Breathing is a great way to open up to community.”
Taking into account this group aspect and as a natural extension of yoga and meditation, breathwork surely has a place in spas and health clubs.
How it works
In a typical class, Neese shows participants how altering the rate of inhalation and exhalation can affect the way we think and how it reduces stress by grounding the nervous system. These are techniques valued among her on-the-go clients who have invariably tried other types of therapies yet still have difficulty quietening the mind and releasing stagnant energy.
On a basic level, the inhalation is linked to the sympathetic nervous system, its primary focus to stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight response. “We need this part of the nervous system to power us through the day but, for many, the issue is that they’re in this mode for much of the day so there’s no chance for the body to recalibrate,” explains Neese.
“Exhalation, on the other hand, feeds into the parasympathetic nervous system, which then supports activities that take place when the body is at rest. This is when we repair and restore. I don’t have a strict formula when it comes to teaching – my approach is organic – but often I find that there’s a focus on slowing and deepening exhalation to aid people’s rest-and-digest processes.”
While the science may not yet be widely accepted, recent studies including those at Trinity College Dublin reveal that the way we breathe directly affects the chemistry of our brains. As lead author, Michael Melnychuk, reports: “When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again can’t focus. There’s a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer. This study has shown that our attention is influenced by our breath, rising and falling with the cycle of respiration. By focusing on and regulating breathing, you can optimise your attention level.”
Over in the US, Drs Richard P Brown and Patricia L Gerbarg, elaborate further on ways of breathing. They say: “Changing the patterns of breathing makes it possible to restore balance to the stress response systems, calm an agitated mind, relieve symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, improve physical health and endurance, elevate performance, and enhance relationships.”
The life force
Fast becoming an authority on the subject, with a book called How to Breathe: 25 practices for calm, joy and resilience, due to be published in April 2019, Neese suggests that all the pieces are there to prove the benefits of breathwork. “Whether it’s pranayama from the ayurvedic system or chi from Chinese medicine, the idea of breath as our life force has existed for years, with these classical cultures making the connection between the energy, breath and spirit,” she says. “I’ve studied their history and witnessed their practical application in today’s world. It’s logical that we can open up areas of static energy in the body through breathing. And when you see 70-year-olds who’ve been practising for years, you just can’t argue with their levels of vitality.”
As a teacher, she offers private sessions and group classes in studios, lifestyle shops and corporate settings as well as longer four-day retreats in spas. Her public classes vary in price from US$55-US$175 (€48-€153, £43-£137) per person depending on length of class while retreats, again open to the public, start from US$2,500 (€2,191, £1,950). With an average of 30 in a public class, Neese uses somatic touch, a form of body-focused mediation that involves her guiding participants to use their own hands to access their body.
“We think of our respiratory system at the front of our bodies but I often guide people to the sides and back,” she says. “Although you physically can’t touch your diaphragm, I can direct people to a related part of the sternum, creating an intention and body memory, which helps them to shift their breathing practice. This is something they can continue at home.” Along with guided techniques to activate and regulate the nervous system, there’s a chance for people to talk about their intentions.
Clients come to manage stress, access their intuition, unleash their creativity, improve emotional intelligence or because they’re suffering trauma. Neese has seen how breathwork can be an entry point into deeper layers of emotions that practitioners need to manage effectively. “Anxiety can be a manifestation of trauma or abuse experienced by people in their earlier lives so practitioners have to be careful about reigniting this level of emotion and sending clients back out into the world,” advises Neese. “There has to be a safe container in which to work through trauma. Ideally, you’d want a small group committed to meeting regularly over six months – once a week. In this scenario, my session would widen out to include therapy-type counselling and somatic meditation. I’ve taught many corporate classes and nine times out of 10, there will be one or two executives who find emotional stress coming out, rooted in their past.”
When experience is essential
Although Neese has not taught in a gym, she sees no reasons why breathwork classes should not be offered especially if yoga or meditation is already available. She has colleagues who work specifically with high-performance athletes. For spas – Neese has previously run retreats at California’s Two Bunch Palms – she says that “classes can be focused on relaxation, connection to self, creativity or intuition.”
As a note of caution, she recommends gym and spa owners seek out practitioners who have a grounding in energy medicine, yoga and breathwork. “There are so many different schools and lineages of energy medicine so it’s important to find teachers with more than a day’s worth of breathwork training,” she says. “Look for someone who has taught plenty of breath-specific modalities.”
One of breathwork’s great advantages is that it’s suited to 45-minute classes through to extensive retreats. It’s also great for self-practice at home or groups. Neese hopes that breathwork is shared with as many people as possible for its accessible and life-changing possibilities.