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  • Andy Murphy

The Difference Between Breath Awareness, Breath Control & Breathwork

It's time to know the difference so all can be utilised to their fullest potential


Trying to reduce all breathing exercises down to a single modality is like trying to reduce all yoga practices down to just one ‘yoga’, or all car models down to just one ‘car’, or all cuisines down to just one ‘food’. It’s not that simple, and neither is the breath.

Breathing exercises could be as different as Italian, Indian, and Japanese food (to stay with this metaphor) but terming all breathing practices as one ‘breathing exercise’ is like grouping all three of these cuisines together and calling them ‘food’.


That’s another reason why I am inspired to write this book as I love Italian, Indian, and Japanese food alike, but I also love knowing the difference between each one so I know that when I order an Indian takeout I know a nice spicy madras is on its way, or when I order an Italian I know that I can have a margarita pizza, or when I’m feeling extra fancy on those special occasions I know that when I order Japanese food I’ll get some sushi.


The idea that breathing exercises are all ‘breathwork’ is changing slowly but it’s still the general perception that people hold so depending on what that person thinks about breathwork will determine how they feel about it. That’s why I feel it’s an important time to differentiate between these three modalities so you can get clear on how each one is most commonly used so you can decide when and how you’d like to use each one if you feel inspired to do so. After all, knowledge creates choice and having choice is what could be considered as ultimate freedom.


Every body is different

Everybody is different, as is every body, so breathing exercises aren’t a one-size-fits-all kind of a thing. Having the menu open and available everyday allows us to choose what we need when we need it.

It’s easy to see the difference between each yoga practice, each car model, and each plate of food but the breath is seemingly the same every time that we breathe. However, when we break the breath down, we can see that there are four key parts:

  1. Inhale

  2. The pause at the top of the inhale

  3. Exhale

  4. The pause at the bottom of the exhale

Breath awareness, breath control, and breathwork are defined by which area, if any, is focused on during these four stages.


For example, breath awareness is simply observing all four stages of the breath moving in and out without changing or controlling any part in particular. The goal is to simply become aware of how the breath is moving from moment to moment.

These breathing exercises are super attainable. It doesn’t matter where you’re at in your life, what physical condition you’re in, where you are in the world, or if you’re under this stress or that stress, all it takes is for you to breathe, and you’re doing that anyway.


Breath control is focusing on one stage more so than the others. Soma Breath, for example, focuses on holding the out-breath (exhaling fully and then holding no breath), so within this technique, a strong focus is on stage 4 — the pause at the bottom of the exhale.

Another form of breath control is rhythmical breathing which is typically breathed through a number of different rounds (40 breaths per round for example) and then pausing to hold the breath either in or out. Soma Breath, Tummo, and the Wim Hoff method have this as a key component in their breathwork practices.


Breathwork is a mix of the two above. During breathwork sessions, the goal is to be conscious/aware of the breath (breath awareness) and to keep it connected with no pauses between the inhale and the exhale (breath control). This encourages maximum relaxation, with the goal being to achieve a state where it feels like the breath is breathing you. So, there is an element of ‘losing’ control as opposed to staying in control (breathing in a specific rhythm).

Breathing in this way has the possibility of releasing repressed emotions and past traumatic events (more on this in a moment) whilst experiencing altered states of consciousness.

Changing the breathing pattern is often encouraged, as is where the breath is focused in the body, plus its speed and depth as a way to help the breather let go of control and just be breathed by the breath.


Due to the duration of these breathwork sessions (1-3 hours) and the chemical shifts that happen in the body plus the potential for shifts in consciousness that may be reached, these sessions are incredibly powerful.


As you can see, they are all very different. So, let’s start at the beginning.


Breath awareness

Breath awareness is perhaps most accredited as a Buddhist practice (Anapana) where one watches the breath meticulously as it comes in and as it goes out, focusing on the areas around the nose (inside and outside), the lips, and the throat and watching for any sensations that arise. It’s typically done without force or judgement of how the breath is moving (deep/shallow, fast/slow, hard/soft etc..) but rather to be aware of how the breath is moving through you from moment to moment.


The breath can reflect what we’re feeling on an experientially level. If we are feeling calm and relaxed, for example, our breath is normally soft and slow. If we are feeling uptight and anxious, our breath is normally fast and erratic.


Sometimes our thoughts blur what we’re truly feeling but we can use breath awareness exercises to check in with our emotional well-being and to observe our inner state. The breath is a wonderful tool to check what’s happening on the inside on a moment-to-moment basis.

For something as simple as becoming aware of the breath, however, it’s often one of the hardest things to do. As an experiment, close your eyes and try to breathe 100 breaths (in and out) with pure awareness. Whenever your mind starts to wander or if you lose focus at any point start again from 0 and continue up to 100.


You might soon realise that getting to 20 breaths is difficult. Sometimes even 10 breaths requires an extremely strong determination. It might sound like the easiest task to do but staying fully present is something only a few have mastered, especially when the mind is more active than normal, which for most of us nowadays, it is.


Breath awareness exercises are a great tool to use to check in to our emotional state. The breath is also very presencing. If a part of our awareness remains on our breath we remain present, if we remain present we can move with the unfolding truth as it is. Breath awareness exercises allow us to do just that.

In the beginning it might be easier with eyes closed and sitting (or standing) quietly but over time you can practice breath awareness while you’re walking, eating, and even speaking.


Breath awareness exercises:

  1. Anapana (the Buddhist practice mentioned above)

  2. Meditation

Breath control

As I mentioned earlier, breath control is focusing on one of the four stages of the breath more so than the others. Soma Breath, for example, focuses on holding the out-breath as part of their technique so we could say that one of their breath control components is focused mostly on stage 4 — the pause at the bottom of the exhale.

Other techniques focus on holding a full breath in instead of a full breath out and that is also another breath control exercise. Some other techniques and pranayama exercises put focus on breathing rhythmically while others focus on breathing into one nostril before switching to the other nostril (each of these will be explained at the end of each chapter). There are so many different subtleties in all the different areas of breath control practices so these a just a few examples to give you an idea.


The importance of breath control

Understanding how too much oxygen can be damaging for you and not the more common idea that it’s always good (more on this in the next chapter) helps us to see why breath control is so important. A part of this comes from our understanding of how taking fewer breaths per minute has huge benefits for our health, our well-being, and our longevity.


Below is a table highlighting these effects.


20 breaths per minute x 60 = 1,200 x 24 hours = 28,800 per day

Effect: High, consistent stress levels in all areas of life


15 breaths per minute x 60 = 900 x 24 hours = 21,600 per day (the average person’s breath count)

Effect: Medium levels of stress consistently throughout the day. Alert, sharp mind.


10 breaths per minute x 60 = 600 x 24 hours = 14,400 per day

Effect: Calm, collective, peaceful, balanced. Stronger resistance from emotional and mental stressors.


5 breaths per minute x 60 = 300 x 24 hours = 7,200 per day

Effect: Consistent meditative mind, optimal awareness.


In today’s world, most people are taking 15 — 20 breaths per minute. This causes the part of the nervous system (the sympathetic nervous system) to turn on which controls the fight or flight response.


When we need this kind of alertness and stress to save our lives, it’s incredibly helpful. But when we operate at this level of stress for a sustained period of time in everyday life, we can burn out at best and create heart failure at worst. This is the direct link that stress has on the human body and how the breath plays a vital role in either raising stress levels or lowering them.


That’s why breath awareness exercises are fundamental in learning how we are breathing, what our breathing patterns are (without judgement), and then learning breath control techniques to help us re-balance ourselves if we need it.


Breath control techniques:

  1. Soma Breath

  2. Wim Hof Method

  3. Tummo

  4. Butekyo

  5. Pranayama exercises such as Alternate Nostril Breathing


The rise of breathwork

Modern-day breathwork, as it’s known today, has been around for about 60 years and was pioneered by Stanislav and Christina Grof in the 1970s through their modality – Holotropic breathwork. It was inspired after the rise of LSD and the illegality thereafter. These heightened states of consciousness that LSD evoked were known by the ancient yogis of old with their discoveries of pranayama, but LSD brought it to people that didn’t have access to high altitude mountains or long ancestral lines that could show them the way. That’s what was so life-changing about it.


Much like LSD inspired a generation to find a way to experience altered states of consciousness without taking drugs, so it was the same for our ancestors of old. Plant medicines were said to bring on altered states of consciousness (like they do today) but for some reason, there seems to have been a shortage where the medicine ran dry. Whether real or mythicised, this shortage is what has been said to be the catalyst for our ancestors to find ways to naturally come to those altered states, which they found through breathing exercises.

As breathing exercises started to become more well-known and the health benefits started to become more recognised, so the rise of other modalities started to form. The incredible popularity in Yoga practices in the 21st century has opened up pranayama exercises to millions of people all over the world, along with breathwork practitioners such as Stanislav Grof (Holotropic), Leonard Orr (Re-birthing), Giten Tonkov (BBTRS), Jim Leonard (Vivation) Buteyko, Wim Hof, Patrick McKeown, Dan Brule, Niraj Naik (Soma Breath) and more recently from journalist James Nestor with his brilliant new book – Breath: A New Science of a Lost Art. Together, they all take enormous credit for making breathing exercises easily accessible, heart-opening, educational, and healing.


It’s no wonder that at a time where the connection to ourselves, to each other, and to the natural world around us are thinning, both plant medicines and breathwork are becoming more and more popular.

Fast forward to today there are around 50 different breathing techniques now being shared and practiced around the world, with millions of people now aware of their benefits.


“In its essence the breath is simple. But by its very nature, it’s infinite.

Infinite simplified is the joy of sharing breathwork”

Breath‘work’

With work still being synonymous for many people as something that’s hard, laborious, far too time-consuming, and that ‘thing we have to do in order to get by’, the idea of breath ‘work’ has often been less than desirable. Breathwork, through no fault of anyone, in particular, has become the umbrella term for every kind of breath practice there is but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

This is one of the big reasons why I want to bring awareness to all the different types of breathing practices there are, what sets them apart from one another, and what each one’s purpose and intentions are so it can bring the breath into a place of better understanding so its healing potential can be experienced.

Then hopefully ‘breathing’ can feel less like ‘work’ and more like something we do because we enjoy it, like eating breakfast, for example.

Breathwork sessions

Breathwork sessions are often held in groups by a facilitator and their assistants. This is to support the breathers breathe through any difficult situations that may arise and for helping them to feel safe and avoiding overwhelming situations.

As I mentioned earlier, breathwork sessions are typically designed between 1–3 hours long. This is to go beyond the mind, to ‘lose’ control, and to put the nervous system under enough stress while raising oxygen levels to create expanded/altered states of consciousness. In these highly altered states, huge traumatic releases have been recorded with some incredible results.


How?

When the nervous system is under so much stress there is a threshold in what it can hold and what it can’t. There’s a saturation point. As the saturation point is reached there’s really nothing stopping things that are stuck deep in the subconscious mind to come to the surface.

That’s what I mean when I say to go beyond the mind; to “lose control” (to go beyond the limits of our control) so we are out of our minds. This is key to releasing blocked emotions. It’s the sense of being in control that causes us to replay old patterns without are realising that we’re doing it.


Osho meditations (if you’re familiar with those) are designed for a similar purpose.


If they’re guided in a safe and nurturing environment it can be one of the most transformational experiences a person can go through.


There are many modalities of breathwork, and each modality is driven by a different intention. Below are a few of the most popular:


· Holotropic breathwork – focuses on achieving altered states of consciousness and integrating the experience through artwork at the end of each session.

· Re-birthing – looks to regress; to relive your birth.

· Vivation – the art of finding pleasure within a breathing session

· Shamanic Breathwork – journeys to connect with spirit guides, power animals, and soul retrieval.

· BBTRS (Bio-Dynamic Breathwork & Trauma Release Sessions) – focuses on releasing trauma in the body.


Some precaution

The breathwork journeys that I mentioned above are incredibly important and have helped many people release trauma, work through blockages, and find wonder and awe in the beauty of life. But because of their potency, they can’t be done every day.

An easy way to think of them is in comparing running a marathon to going for a morning jog. A morning jog can be done everyday; running a marathon might be done every once in a while.

The danger in jumping straight into a breathwork journey is that some people’s nervous systems might not be ready for it (imagine the morning jogger suddenly running a marathon), so this can cause more trauma as the persons nervous system hasn’t yet learned how to cope with such large amounts of stress.

A visual example of this would be to imagine a coke bottle that has been shaken up. Some people can open the cap and release all of their stored, blocked emotions freely and explosively and feel lighter and better because of it. Other people, however, can’t and although there are things in place to support these processes (sitters, assistants, experienced breathers, sharing circles etc…) it can still feel overwhelming if the cap on the coke bottle can’t open, and the shaken gas inside has to settle somewhere. I must say that this is very rare, but on occasion, it does still happen, so it needs to be taken into consideration.


Contraindications

Breathwork comes with a list of contraindications for people who should not practice this type of breathwork. People with epilepsy, severe mental conditions, bipolar, schizophrenia, diabetes, heart problems, pregnant women, and any other types of severe health conditions should be consulted by a doctor before embarking on a journey.

If you’re in doubt of a good way to build up to this level of intensity, practise breath awareness and breath control exercises first and then explore all of the options further down the line once you feel more comfortable.


The path ahead

There’s no right or wrong path when considering which, if any, modality you want to choose. That’s the whole point. The invitation is to find out which feels good for you and for your body, where you find the most connection, and how best to integrate that among the few thousand breaths you take every day.


Whether you go for the meditative approach and choose to watch your breath just like the Buddha did all those thousands of years ago. Or if you want to dive into a training to learn all about breath control, rhythmical breathing, and pranayama exercises to feel more vital and alive through techniques such as the Wim Hoff Method or Soma Breath. Or if you’re ready to find your spirit guides and power animals or breathe your way through trauma in one of the incredible breathwork modalities that are on offer, it doesn’t really matter. Switch it up, try as many as you want, combine forces if you like. The breath is ever-evolving, so, why shouldn’t we be? The joy comes from being with the breath and that’s experienced through all areas of breathing exercises.

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