Festival season kicks off in just over a month with Wanderlust Snowshoe! Practice with your favorite teachers, explore the great outdoors, and explore new frontiers in wellness like breathwork. Learn more about Wanderlust festivals here.
Can you heal yourself simply through breathing? It’s looking like the answer is yes. Breathwork, a practice that many of us may know little about, is flooding yoga class schedules, wellness regimes, and, yup, Wanderlust festivals. So what is this practice all about?
Well, the word “breathwork” is an umbrella term for various practices that combine conscious control with breathing. Each practice is meant to serve its own purpose, but in general, breathwork helps users gain a sense of self-awareness to release anxiety and trauma. In general, a breathwork practice helps users gain a sense of self-awareness that allows for healing, restoration, and ever-expanding perspectives. Specifically, this includes the cumulative release of anxiety and trauma, a rest of the nervous system, and building the inner musculature to live in ever more consistent flow states.
Sound magical? Yeah, it sort of is. I walked into my first breathwork class on a rare, rainy Los Angeles eve at Wanderlust Hollywood. The room was dark and cool, the energy calm. Yogis who had just finished a Vinyasa flow class grabbed a few more props from the wall: an extra blanket, maybe a bolster, essentially anything to get comfortable.
My class was with breathwork and meditation teacher, Scott Schwenk. Knowing I would be writing a piece on the topic, I interviewed Scott before taking the more “practical” approach to the practice.
“The breath is not the work, it’s a tool to make the work easier,” Scott tells me toward the beginning of our discussion, and I can tell that this piece of knowledge is going to come in handy. Breathwork isn’t necessarily about changing your body by adding anything that will make you feel better; it’s certainly not about external influence. It’s about clearing out existing the energy to press the metaphorical reset button and purify the body.
“[Breathwork] is like shaking an etch-a-sketch after finishing with a drawing. You’re harmonizing the energies physically, emotionally, mentally, and beyond, bringing the entire being back to neutral as a way of living truly and deeply in flow with the present moment rather than dragging the undigested noise of past experience into every situation.”
Here’s how it works: When we experience trauma—even smaller forms of trauma, such as a disappointing date after a bad breakup, or a negative experience with a foreign city—we create “imprints” or toxic energy memories within the body. Breathwork mixes up the energy and creates space for us to develop more awareness over our mind and body. We release the negativity rather than holding onto it.
“Removing noise and interference from the nervous system is the first job of breathwork,” Scott tells me. “Tensions that were once digested are released. Space is created.”
A Brief History of Organized Breathing
Breathwork has roots in Eastern practices like yoga, Tai Chi, and Buddhism, but it became a major form of therapy in the 1960s. Holotrophic Breathwork and Rebirthing Breathwork were among the first during these times. Rebirthing, which was developed by Leonard Orr and Sondra Ray, focused on the traumatizing experience of birth. Holotrophic breathwork, which was established by Dr. Stan Grof and his wife, Christina Grof, grew out of their research on consciousness and the effects of engaging psychotherapeutic processes while in the expanded state engendered by psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin. When grant money was withdrawn at the end of the 1950’s, Grof was introduced to utilizing breathing processes to open the same expanded states as the psychedelics were presenting engaging a person’s natural internal pharmacy of neurotransmitters by the powerful Indian teacher Swami Muktananda.
Scott teaches what he calls Ecstatic Breathwork, a combination of what my research shows as Biodynamic and Clarity Breathwork. Both are focused on the breath and focused on relieving trauma, releasing tension, and supporting natural healing. Specifically, biodynamic breathwork recognizes that trauma is stored in both psychological and physical ways and aims to restore balance to the body.
In Scott’s class, we lay out on mats or blankets (at the discretion of the practitioner) and get comfy/cozy to dive headfirst into the practice. Scott guides us through the basi to feel the uncomfortable feelings. When we learn to look inward, as in skillful somatic practices (transformational inner work that uses breath and body-awareness to release and digest contracted energies in the nervous system), we learn to identify our imprints. This is all good, Scott notes, but by doing breathwork, we actually let these traumas go, rather than simply naming them.
For those new to breathwork, Scott recommends arriving to class with an open and willing mind; an attitude of discovery. If you’re looking to maintain a regular breathwork practice, he encourages pairing it with other healthy habits, such as eating fresh, clean, and seasonal food and taking notice of your breath throughout the day. (He also does cryotherapy and cold showers—I may need a bit more persuasion before this one.) Another tip is to challenge yourself to see how many deep breaths you can take throughout the day. Learn to soften the muscles, drawing in as much attention as you can to the quiet spaces of your mind.
“Most people are so busy listening to their own thoughts, they continue to suffer,” Scott reminds me. “Use the breath to free up your attention.”
Regardless of where you’re at, let this process unfold. You might be surprised, or at the very least, rewarded.
Amanda Kohr is the editor at Wanderlust. You can find her exploring new highways, drinking diner coffee, and on Instagram.