Somatic Breathwork: The Healing Power of an Ancient Practice

If you call 911, what does the dispatcher say? Take a deep breath. If you go into an important meeting, what do you do? If you’re like most, you take a deep breath as you reach for the door handle.

We don’t tend to think much about the breath in our day-to-day lives, especially regarding something we need to work on. The breath just occurs from the autonomic nervous system, so it’s counterintuitive.

But taking the breath for granted would be a mistake, as you’ll see.

We didn’t use to consider the food we ate or how much we exercised back in the day either. At least not until we realized how we move our body and what we put into it are essential to physical and mental wellbeing. Today, most of us couldn’t imagine returning to a lifestyle of fast food, instant coffee, and being inactive.

Similarly, we’re now discovering the extraordinary power of the breath. Breathing, which every animal, insect, and plant shares, is perhaps our most vital system. Inhaling gives us life by extracting energy from the interaction of food and oxygen. Exhaling flushes out the waste product of this process, carbon dioxide.

Yet the breath does far more than keep us alive.

It directly affects our physical, mental, and emotional health and wellbeing. And unlike other bodily functions, such as digesting food, breathing is unique in that it can be practiced intentionally. Specific breathing patterns can change our internal feelings and alter our emotional state.

Our breath and our emotions are connected. Our breathing and our mind are connected. When strong emotions come up, we know our breath is affected. Breath is the body’s wisdom, reminding us how we’re doing at any moment.

Our ancestors knew all of this. They revered the breath for channeling life force energy. The Chinese Tao believed that the breath could kill us or heal us. The Hindus considered breath and spirit as one and practiced breathing for physical and mental health. The Buddhists valued breathing for longevity and for altering consciousness.

Somehow, all of this inherited wisdom has been lost until now.

Human Beings Everywhere Are Hurting

We live in a time-starved, technologically-driven, distraction-based society that expects us to be on all the time, whether we want to or not. But this new normal is not making us happier. Given our instant access to everyone we know, all the world’s knowledge, and unlimited forms of entertainment, you’d think we’d be euphoric, or at least more glad. So why aren’t we?

“We live in an amazing, amazing world, and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots… They’ve got their phone—they’re like, “euh, it won’t….” Give it a second! It’s going to space!… Is the speed of light too slow for you?” — Louis C.K.

According to the World Health Organization, anxiety is the most common mental health issue worldwide, and depression is the most significant cause of disability globally. Many of us self-medicate to cope with painful feelings. In the U.S., about 30% of women take anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication, and men are not far behind.

A recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey found that 63% of young adults suffer significant symptoms of anxiety and depression. Additionally, the CDC has declared sleep disorders a public health epidemic. We’re more connected than ever, yet we feel more alone. How can that be?

This is not a U.S. problem; this is a global problem.

It’s Time to Live Better

It’s time we learn how to live better, more peacefully, within and without, and more sustainably at home and work. There are things we can do in our own lives.

One of those things is creating a daily practice of somatic breathwork. Somatic breathwork is a sophisticated and therapeutic method of full, conscious breathing that allows your body and mind to get more oxygen using the best of ancient and modern breathing practices.

Somatic breathwork is a fancy way of saying breathing related to the soma or the body.“Somatic” comes from the Greek sōmatikos, meaning “of the body.” Breathing consciously has many benefits, and unlike medication, it won’t cause gigantism, shrink your testicles, or cause your hair to fall out.

“The mind and the breath are the king and queen of human consciousness.” - Leonard D. Orr

The Healing Power of Somatic Breathwork

Contemporary research across disciplines shows that how we inhale and exhale significantly impacts our overall wellbeing. Most crucially, the breath can be transformationally healing.

Unfortunately, psychological wounding and emotional scars are an inevitable part of childhood. Worse, unless they are processed and actively released, the wounds of our youth remain embedded in the body, or soma, indefinitely. They continue to cause maladaptive patterns of relating to life, as Bessel van Der Kolk made clear in his groundbreaking book The Body Keeps the Score.

But childhood wounding is not the only source of injury. Emotional pain, such as grief, sorrow, and loneliness, is a part of daily life. Unless we allow these emotions to move through us and dissolve freely, they get layered onto what Eckhart Tolle calls the emotional pain body.

Over time, this layering of emotions dampens the body’s normal flow of energy or prana. This stresses the body and nervous system unnecessarily, thus keeping us in a continual state of vigilance. Such emotional holding patterns underlie many of the aches, pains, injuries, and illnesses we suffer. When grief is suppressed, a learned behavior, layers of grief eventually emerge as anxiety.

Thankfully, the story of trauma doesn’t end there. Emerging research suggests that anxiety, depression, and stress (among other things) can be positively impacted by breathing.

How Breathwork Heals

Transformational healing occurs when emotional wounds are addressed at their root. Somatic breathwork brings conscious awareness to the places where our body has contracted around painful emotions that have yet to be processed.

When we breathe intentionally, the parasympathetic nervous system signals the mind to turn off the fight, flight, and freeze response and turn on rest and digest, allowing the body to relax. Trapped emotions and tension are released when the mind and body can remain relaxed for some time.

Deliberate breathing retrains the body and mind to live in a relaxed state of unlabored breathing or eupnea—in other words, calm yet alert becomes our default way of being. From this relaxed state, we can let sorrow be sorrow, hurt be hurt, and grief be grief. Feeling painful feelings allows them to move through us and vanish into the ether.

One of the great qualities of breathwork is that you don’t have to practice for months to experience change. You will notice the calming effects immediately, not someday. However, lasting, transformational healing will likely take more time.

Why Do We Suppress Emotions Such As Grief?

Publicly expressing grief is unacceptable, especially for men who are taught that crying is a sign of weakness and failure. Displays of other emotions, such as anger, are more tolerated.

People will understand why you are angry if you yell at your phone. But if you cry in front of someone, you will quickly wipe away your tears and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” The other person won’t know what to say or do because they’ve never permitted themselves to grieve, either. In an attempt to be helpful, they may say, “Don’t worry, people get laid off all the time,” as if this will make you feel better. Or they may avoid you altogether. So on top of the pain of grieving, you will be alone in your sorrow.

On an episode of Six Feet Under, a show on HBO, the main character witnesses a family grieving and sobbing over a casket while traveling abroad. Later, at his father’s funeral, no one cries or displays any emotions.

When it’s his turn to pay his respects, he says, “I refuse to sanitize this anymore…He was our father! You can pump him full of chemicals, you can put makeup on him, and you can prop him up for a nap in the slumber room, but the fact remains that the only father we’re ever gonna have is gone! Forever. And that sucks. But it’s a goddamn part of life, and you can’t really accept it without getting your hands dirty. Well, I do accept it, and I intend to honor the old bastard by letting the whole world see how fucked up and shitty I feel that he’s dead! Goddamnit!”

Permitting ourselves to feel and express our emotions and feelings is one way we can honor ourselves and exercise our ability to live honestly and authentically.

How Do You Practice Somatic Breathing?

Breathing purposefully harnesses one of the body’s most basic yet effective, harmonizing, and integrative mechanisms, the human respiratory system. Every one of us breathes.

Somatic breathwork affects us on two levels, similar to how meditation works. On a more surface level, intentional breathing relaxes the body and calms the nervous system. But the effects are temporary. On a deeper level, breathing heals the layers of trauma stored in our bodies. The results of healing are permanent. Both are necessary for holistic wellbeing. If you wish to heal trauma, you may find it helpful to work with a skilled practitioner in an individual or group setting.

Breathing exercises can be done standing, sitting, or lying down, where the breath is intentionally engaged in a conscious and deliberate yet relaxed manner. You can breathe in and out through the nose or mouth without pausing between inhaling and exhaling. Breathing through the nose is preferred because it’s the natural way all mammals breathe, including humans.

Conscious breathing releases physical tension and surface-level stress. Over time, as you learn to breathe diaphragmatically and relax the exhale, your breathing can dissolve deeper layers of physical contraction and mental and emotional holding patterns. Relaxed, open breathing activates energy that helps to reveal, release and integrate physical, mental, and emotional patterns that no longer serve you.

“A daily conscious breathing practice creates space for your presence, where your intuitive self can emerge and truly flourish.” - Kris Franken

The following conscious breathing exercises are direct, experiential, easy to learn, and gentle enough to engage in any situation. They have been used for centuries and continue to be one of the most effective tools for holistic healing. They complement, enhance, and dovetail beautifully with almost every therapeutic tool, modality, or technique.

Once you learn to use the breath as a tool, you will have it for life.

Breathing Practices

Somatic Breathing. The diaphragm is the large muscle responsible for breathing. During inhalation, the diaphragm contracts, and the rib cage expands. During exhalation, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles of the ribs relax.

1. Whether on the floor or in a chair, sit alert and relaxed with your back free of the backrest.
2. Now, put your hands on the sides of your ribs (if you can). Make sure your hands are on the side ribs, not the hips.
3. Next, as you inhale (preferably through the nose), breathe into the sides of your ribs, so they expand out to the side. Not out front, but out to the side.
4. As you exhale, sit taller. Inhale and expand your ribs wider, exhale and sit taller.
5. You can drop your hands, but keep imagining they are still there as you continue breathing.

4-7-8 Breath. The 4-7-8 breath, popularized by Andrew Weil, is a traditional yoga practice. Yoga was founded initially as a form of breathing. In contrast, the poses (or asanas) we practice today have been around only for about one hundred years.

Practicing breathwork before meditation releases bodily tension and surface-level agitation for more profound meditative absorption. As you breathe, pay attention to the movement of air in and out of your lungs. The 4-7-8 breath is also incredibly effective before or after a challenging situation.

How to practice the 4-7-8 breath:

1. Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale for a count of eight.
2. Practice breathing for 5-10 minutes or until the tension in your body and mind releases and you feel more relaxed.

Keep Breathing

The ability to alter our neurochemistry through breathing has profound implications.

You can now activate your parasympathetic nervous system, relax deeply, and strengthen the mind-body connection with a simple yet powerful tool. And because you carry the breath with you, breathing consciously can be done anytime, anywhere.

If you’re alive, you can benefit from somatic breathwork—the only people who won’t are those who don’t practice. Just like taking mindfulness breaks, you can take breathing breaks. As Max Strom says, “Some doors only open from the inside. Breath is a way of accessing that door. Keep breathing.”