From its mystical origins to its rediscovery period in the 1960s and 1970s, rebirthing has come a long way. Some would even say rebirthing has finally come out of infancy. After four decades of being sidelined and misrepresented, it is finally taking its rightful place as a valid and effective healing and psychotherapeutic modality.
Rebirthing is, in fact, just one of the terms that fall under the label of “breathwork”. Others include conscious connected breathing, holotropic breathwork, sacred breath renewal, spiritual air purification, emotional release counselling and transformational breathing. Even though these terms have been used interchangeably, there are major differences between each of these styles. The one common thread that unites them all is a specific breathing technique. The Baghavad Gita refers to the process as “sacrificing the incoming breath to the outgoing breath and sacrificing the outgoing breath to the incoming breath in order to attain trance”. Apart from this common feature of connecting the inhale to the exhale and then the exhale to the inhale without a gap in between, the emphasis and end result can differ dramatically.
The diversity of approaches is a direct reflection of the major differences in the evolution process of what are viewed as the two original foundations of rebirthing. These two original Western forms of rebirthing breathwork and holotropic breathwork have formed the foundation of what has become the Art and Science of Breath. Rebirthing was named by its founder, Leonard Orr, who developed it after a decade of experimentation with spiritual purification techniques in the USA. At about the same time in what was then Czechoslovakia, the next foundation of rebirthing breathwork, holotropic breathwork, was discovered by Dr Stanislav Grof. He developed this technique as a result of a government-endorsed study of the effects of LSD on the psyche.
Two gentlemen, pioneers from opposite ends of the globe, using totally different disciplines and with totally different backgrounds, at approximately the same time in history, stumbled on what is actually universal and doesn’t belong to any particular science, religion or spiritual philosophy. Very simply, the time was ripe in our collective evolution to receive this gift from the universe. Pretty dramatic for a breathing technique, you may think. But this is not some run-of-the-mill breathing technique you learn from a book. It’s something you have to be taken through by an experienced professional to fully experience and understand.
Conscious controlled breathing
Conscious controlled breathing has always been viewed as the key to our unconscious mind, higher states of awareness and cleansing of the bodymind. From Buddhist breath awareness meditations and qi gong exercises to the 101 ways of pranayama of the yogis, breath is and has always been a major focus in the spiritual philosophies that have given us practical keys to a spiritual experience.
Anyone who is guided to breathe energetically using full lung capacity, connecting the inhale with the exhale for approximately 60-90 minutes, by an experienced practitioner will automatically have a powerful, perception-changing experience. People who have never meditated in their life can have a powerful spiritual experience in their first session without having learnt and practised the technique beforehand. When this breathing method is combined with various cutting-edge psychodynamic techniques such as voice dialogue and inner child work, you have a psychotherapeutic modality like no other. When you use these techniques 60 minutes or so into the breathing session, you end up working on a much deeper and more influential level. Instead of working with memories from the age of four onwards (which is, on average, the age individuals can consciously remember without using a regression technique), you can easily go back to memories from the first few months or years of life to birth and in-utero memories. This is because this breathing technique, used proficiently, can break down the deeper defences in between the conscious and unconscious mind. These early times are when most of our personality started to form. It’s when we made decisions that run our decision-making processes and actions, all the way through our adult lives.
Marie, 35, came to see me complaining of a general dissatisfaction with her life. She was a very successful businesswoman in a long-term relationship yet felt strongly that something was missing from her life. As is often the case in therapy, the presenting problem was only a portion of what was truly happening in her life. In her first rebirthing session, a lot of anger and profound grief came to the surface. After 70 minutes using the connected breathing, I used a mental processing technique to bring understanding and awareness to the emotional release she had just experienced. We went straight back to her birth. She saw an image of her father’s disappointed face in the delivery room. Marie was a girl. Being in the sensitive, near-psychic state we are all born in, she sensed her dad was hoping for a boy. This meant he experienced a moment of letdown. That was all it took. Marie sensed her father’s disappointment and decided because she was female she was not loved and not important. On some level, she blamed herself, her femaleness, for this “perceived” lack of love. In that one angry moment she disowned her female essence and it split off from her being. This essential part of her soul, which forms the foundation of the healthy functioning of the female sexual organs, reproductive system and her overall femininity, was lost.
This experience set in motion a stream of life experiences that supported her original perception and thus life decisions. Over the years, she found more “evidence” that male energy was more favoured and slowly became more active and aggressive (traditionally more masculine attributes) in the world. By her early thirties she had severe menstrual problems and complained of being perceived as cold and hard by those close to her. After de-conditioning these early decisions and retrieving the lost part of her soul using another technique, Marie’s being, and hence life, started to change profoundly.
By the time she came in for her next session she was vibrant. A new, soft, female energy had entered her. A gentle expression graced her face where she once harboured a frown. She shared that she did not experience the usual pain she had become accustomed to with her period and was already making changes to her work schedule to allow her more time to appreciate life. All these changes came about automatically and naturally as a result of the session three weeks earlier. She did not have to do anything else apart from this, as the change to her inner reality at this level readjusted her external world accordingly.
This is an example of the potency of rebirthing breathwork. The breathing technique breaks down the “defences”, enabling you to go right back to such early memories and heal them on both mental and emotional levels. The emotional release is the real “gold” in the sessions. Many people in life can tell you why they are the way they are, why they have certain issues. Perhaps they worked out they had an absent father, a mother who did not show her love, too many siblings to get all their needs met and so forth, but their life stays the same and they still feel the same way.
Unless you go back to the first few times you made the decision that, for example, you weren’t good enough, and release the emotional energy behind it, your life will not change much. And this is where rebirthing breathwork comes in. You are able to go back to emotional-level memory almost every time if you are guided by a trained and experienced professional. When you release the emotional energy charge behind these negative beliefs, they have no power to influence your life.
People experience the technique differently due to the variety of other practices out there that fall under the guise of rebirthing breathwork. This is because there are major distinctions between the gentle, nasal-breathing, pranayama-style integrative sessions and the more intense, energetic, mouth-breathing, rebirthing-style cathartic sessions.
The main differences in using the connected breath fall into three categories. First, whether the breathing session is done breathing through the nose, the mouth or a mix of the two. Second, whether it is done with the emphasis on slow, gentle breaths using only about 20 per cent extra lung capacity or with a relatively quick and energetic pace, using full lung capacity, filling the lungs all the way up to the top. Third, the length of the breathing session, which can vary between 20 and 120 minutes.
Nasal breathing is using a connected breath only through the nose. Due to the structure of the nasal cavaties, the main bulk of prana (the energy we breathe along with oxygen) is directed to and thus stimulates the third eye/higher mental chakra and the crown/spiritual chakra. Our awareness shifts into these aspects of our being and their corresponding planes. What then happens is all the stresses, pains and conflicts of the physical body and plane are transcended. We rise up above our issues. Unfortunately, transcending our issues does not actually mean dealing with them on a deep and permanent level. It’s like meditation — anyone can shut themselves off in a room and meditate and bliss out for a while. But when it’s time to come back out of the room and into the world, our partner, parents, workplace, boss and so on are still there and we get plugged straight back into the same issues. Nothing has been transformed.
When, on the other hand, we breathe connectedly, only through the mouth, the main bulk of prana goes down into our lower chakras. These chakras house all the emotions of fear, anger, sadness and the shame that binds them. We don’t end up transcending our pains and stresses; we go deeply into them. To truly heal past traumas and their associated emotions we must feel them. This is why mouth breathing sessions are transformative in nature. When you let yourself feel these past hurts at this level, the stored emotional energy is released and the actual foundation of energy that’s behind who you are changes/lightens permanently.
The reason this shift occurs at such a profound level is because one of the lower chakras that’s opened up is your physical body chakra. Your physical body is where all your old, painful childhood memories and their associated emotions are held, which means these memories are released at the points where they are anchored to your physical vehicle. Rebirthing breathwork gives us a whole new appreciation of memory (especially body and cellular memory), the unconscious and the depth of trauma to the bodymind that occurs during a soul’s passing through various life experiences.
The second major distinction is the rate and depth of breathing. For most beginners, slow and gentle connected breathing (usually called intuitive breathing) builds only a moderate amount of energy in the bodymind. Alternatively, faster, energetic breathing using the full lung capacity, bringing the air all the way to the top of the lungs, results in a much greater buildup of transformational energy in the bodymind, opening up the chakras and energy bodies much more readily and profoundly. This enables a much deeper and more powerful cleansing to take place.
The third major distinction is the length of the breathing session. A full emotional energy cycle, I find, takes about 45 to 90 minutes, with the average being about 70 minutes. A full emotional energy cycle is the length of time it takes to go from activating deeply buried memories to bringing them to the surface and releasing them as much as is possible in the one sitting.
Four levels of experience
In addition to the different styles of rebirthing breathwork there are four levels of experience one can have in the actual session. This is usually determined by the focus of the rebirthing breathwork therapist. For example, those practitioners who are more focused on the spiritual realms will create a space for their client to have a more spiritual experience. Alternatively, if the practitioner focuses on emotional issues and the more therapeutic type of rebirthing breathwork, they will in turn create a space for their client to have a more emotionally cathartic and psychotherapeutic session. Many rebirthing breathworkers maintain a good balance between these approaches.
There are four levels of experience in a rebirthing breathwork session, with one or two levels usually pronounced. Even though every session is unique, I will try to give you an idea of some of the more common experiences one can have. On a physical level, as energy builds in the bodymind (as a result of the breathing technique), tingling, vibrating, currents and waves of energy are felt throughout the whole being. This energy concentrates in the areas of the bodymind where healing is necessary. The muscles and organs that are holding onto old painful memories and their accompanying emotions soon start to become heavy, numb, tense or cramped. This is the beginning of the release of the old trauma from the bodymind. Cold and/or hot flushes can be felt as energy starts to free up and move. As the energy starts to manifest like this on the physical level, the emotions that were held by the muscles and organs start to flow and people usually feel old grief and despair, fear and anger. Sometimes, because these emotions are so intense and painful, even before they start to come to the surface a person may experience falling unconscious as their defence system tries to shut them down. This is the same dynamic that occurs during severe physical traumas such as car accidents and is just one of the many reasons you need an experienced and well-trained professional to take you through a thorough rebirthing breathwork session.
Sometimes, the memories on a mental level start to make themselves known spontaneously. If not, they are brought to the surface by the experienced rebirthing breathworker, using various mental processing techniques. If we can reconnect with a specific incident in our past when we decided some negative, limiting belief about ourselves and began to behave in a certain way, we set in motion a very deep level of change. This results in a shift in not only the energy of who we are being but also in an automatic change to our attitudes, confidence and self-esteem. We then start to attract different quality life circumstances and experiences. This is why it’s so important to combine mental level healing techniques with the breathing technique. It takes the healing to a whole new level. Becoming aware of the self-sentencing beliefs such as “I am not good enough”, “I am not lovable”, “There is something wrong with me” or “I am bad and therefore don’t deserve love” is really half of the rebirthing session. Without this, the breathwork session is not integrated and people can feel unclear about what they got out of it, even though they had a powerful experience.
On a spiritual level, the experiences are infinite. More common ones include experiencing your subtle bodies. This technique gives people an experience of what, for most, is a theory. People actually feel what are known as etheric and astral bodies to different degrees. Some feel a surging of life energy so strong the energy bodies become more real than the physical body. Some experience sensation outside the perimeters of their physical body. A lot of people have waking dreams and visions of symbols or past lifetimes. Others feel an expansion of their energy and can actually feel their aura as a presence, while other people have profound experiences of various chakras. Depending on the experience and depth of clarity of their rebirthing breathworker, some people have a chance to complete with deceased loved ones and even get in touch with their guide or guardian angel. The list goes on. What basically happens is the veils between the physical body and the energy bodies (the material and spiritual planes of existence) dissolve. The 60-90 minutes of connected energetic breathing in a classic rebirthing breathwork session enables spirituality to become an experience, not a concept.
Jaan Jerabek is the founding member of the Australian Association for Professional Rebirthers and the founder of Transformative Education.