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The History of Breathwork: A Journey Through Time and Cultures



Breathwork, the conscious control and manipulation of the breath, is an ancient practice that spans across continents and civilizations. From the meditative practices of Tibet to the shamanic rituals of South America, breathwork has been used for thousands of years as a tool for healing, spiritual awakening, and personal transformation. 


But breathwork has recently experienced a surge in popularity ever since the Covid pandemic drove many into depression and mental health lows for the first time in their lives. This article delves into the rich history of breathwork, exploring its roots in various cultures, including China, Japan, Tibet, South America, and among Native American tribes.


Breathwork in Ancient China: Qigong and Taoism


In China, the practice of breath control is deeply intertwined with the philosophy and practice of Qigong, an ancient system of coordinated body-posture, movement, breathing, and meditation. Qigong, which means "cultivating energy," is rooted in Taoist traditions and has been practiced for over 4,000 years.


Qigong emphasizes the cultivation and balancing of "Qi" (or "Chi"), the vital life force believed to flow through all living things. Breath is seen as a primary vehicle for moving and balancing Qi within the body. Ancient Taoist texts, such as the "Tao Te Ching" by Laozi, highlight the importance of breath control in achieving harmony with the Tao, the fundamental nature of the universe.


One notable form of Qigong is "Baduanjin," or "Eight Pieces of Brocade," a series of eight movements designed to improve health and longevity. Each movement is synchronized with specific breathing techniques to enhance the flow of Qi. Practitioners believe that through the disciplined practice of Qigong, they can attain physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual enlightenment.


Check out the Qi expert Lee Holden explaining a bit about what the Qi is all about.


Japan: Zen Buddhism and the Practice of Zazen


In Japan, the practice of breath control is integral to Zen Buddhism, particularly through the practice of Zazen, or seated meditation. Zen Buddhism, which emerged in China as Chan Buddhism before spreading to Japan, places a strong emphasis on meditation as a means of attaining enlightenment.


Zazen involves sitting in a specific posture and focusing on the breath to calm the mind and enter a state of deep meditation. Practitioners typically count their breaths or simply observe the natural flow of inhalation and exhalation. The goal is to transcend ordinary consciousness and experience "Satori," a profound realization of one's true nature.


A famous Zen master, Dogen Zenji, who founded the Soto school of Zen in the 13th century, wrote extensively about the importance of breath in meditation. In his seminal work, "Shobogenzo," Dogen described how proper breath control can help practitioners achieve a state of stillness and insight.





Tibet: The Yogic Practice of Tummo 


In the high mountains of Tibet, breathwork is an essential component of Tantric Buddhism and its associated yogic practices. Tibetan monks and yogis have developed advanced techniques to harness the power of the breath for both physical and spiritual purposes.

One of the most renowned Tibetan breathwork practices is "Tummo," also known as the "Inner Fire" meditation.


Tummo involves a combination of breath control, visualization, and specific body postures to generate intense heat within the body. This practice is not only a testament to the power of breath but also a means of demonstrating mastery over the physical body. The famed "Tummo monks" are known to meditate in the snow, drying wet sheets wrapped around their bodies using only the heat generated by their breath.


This particular breathwork is not generally taught to foreigners and often kept within the Tibetan community. However, one particular monk named Lama Thubten Yeshe, was appointed by the Dalai Lama to teach Tibetan Buddhism to foreigners in Nepal after the Tibetan government fled from the Chinese in 1959. His book, The Bliss of Inner Fire, is a great starting point for anyone  interested in starting their journey into Tummo.





South America: Shamanic Breathwork and Ayahuasca Rituals


In the highlands of South America, indigenous cultures have used breathwork as part of their shamanic traditions. Shamanic breathwork is often used to enter altered states of consciousness, communicate with the spirit world, and facilitate healing.


One prominent example is the use of breathwork in Ayahuasca ceremonies. Ayahuasca, a powerful entheogenic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant, is used by Amazonian tribes for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Shamans, known as curanderos or ayahuasqueros, guide participants through the Ayahuasca experience, often using breathwork to help them navigate the intense visions and emotions that arise during the ceremony.


Breathwork techniques in these ceremonies may include rhythmic breathing, chanting, and intentional sighing to enhance the effects of Ayahuasca and facilitate a deeper connection with the spiritual realm. Participants often report profound experiences of healing, insight, and transformation.


Native American Cultures: The Sacred Breath in Rituals and Healing


Among Native American tribes across North America, breath has always held a sacred significance. Many tribes incorporate breathwork into their rituals, dances, and healing practices, viewing it as a powerful tool for connecting with the Great Spirit and the natural world.


The Lakota Sioux, for example, practice the "Inipi" or sweat lodge ceremony, which involves intense breathwork in a confined, steamy environment. Participants enter a dome-shaped structure and sit around hot stones while the shaman pours water over the stones to create steam. The ceremony includes prayers, chanting, and focused breathing to purify the body, mind, and spirit.


The Navajo people have a healing tradition known as "Hózhó," which means balance and beauty. Breathwork is often a part of their healing rituals, where the breath is used to restore harmony and health. During these ceremonies, the medicine person may use specific breathing techniques to draw in healing energies and expel negative influences.


And of course the Mandan tribe was known for pinching their baby’s mouths shut to force them to breathe through their nose. For the Mandan, the way one breathed could sap the body of energy and bring old age at a much more rapid pace than usual. They even tied adult’s heads to their beds to prevent them from snoring.


George Catlin wrote all about the Mandan in his book, Shut Your Mouth Save Your Life.


Modern Day Breath Discoveries: The Buteyko Method


Constantin Buteyko, a Soviet-era Ukrainian doctor, made significant contributions to the field of respiratory health through the development of the Buteyko Breathing Method. This technique, which emerged in the 1950s, aims to address a variety of chronic health issues by focusing on the optimization of breathing patterns. Buteyko’s journey into respiratory science began with his own health struggles, which led him to explore how breathing impacts overall well-being.


The Buteyko Breathing Method is based on the premise that many modern individuals engage in chronic hyperventilation, or over-breathing. Buteyko theorized that this over-breathing could lead to a decrease in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the blood, resulting in various health problems. While CO2 is often viewed negatively due to its association with suffocation, it actually plays a crucial role in regulating the body's pH and ensuring the efficient delivery of oxygen to tissues.


The cornerstone of the Buteyko Method is the Control Pause, a simple breath-holding exercise used to measure one's tolerance to CO2. A low Control Pause indicates a tendency to over-breathe, and the Buteyko exercises are designed to gradually increase this pause. The exercises typically involve nasal breathing, breath-holding, and relaxation techniques aimed at reducing the overall volume of air taken in per breath.


The goal is to retrain the respiratory system to adopt a more natural, efficient breathing pattern.


Buteyko's method gained traction initially within the Soviet Union, particularly for its reported benefits in treating asthma. Patients practicing the Buteyko Method often reported fewer asthma attacks, reduced reliance on medication, and an overall improvement in their quality of life. Despite initial skepticism from the medical community, these positive outcomes contributed to the method's growing credibility.


Today, the Buteyko Breathing Method has a global following, with practitioners and trainers advocating its use for a variety of conditions beyond asthma, including anxiety, sleep apnea, and even sports performance. The method's holistic approach to breathing aligns with broader wellness trends, emphasizing the importance of mindful and deliberate practices in everyday life.


The enduring appeal of Buteyko's work lies in its simplicity and accessibility. Unlike many medical treatments, the Buteyko Method doesn't require expensive equipment or medications. Instead, it empowers individuals to take control of their health through something as fundamental as their breath. This democratization of wellness, coupled with the method's emphasis on scientific principles, ensures that Buteyko's legacy continues to breathe new life into respiratory health practices worldwide.


The Universal Language of Breath


The history of breathwork is a testament to the universal recognition of the breath as a vital and transformative force. Despite the diversity of cultural expressions, the underlying principles of breathwork remain remarkably consistent: the breath is a bridge between the physical and the spiritual, a tool for healing and self-awareness, and a means of connecting with the larger universe.


From the disciplined practice of Qigong in China to the meditative stillness of Zazen in Japan, from the fiery breaths of Tibetan yogis to the shamanic journeys of South America, and the sacred rituals of Native American tribes, breathwork has been a cornerstone of human spiritual practice for millennia. It is a reminder that, regardless of cultural differences, we all share the same fundamental life force—the breath.


In today's world, breathwork continues to evolve, integrating ancient wisdom with modern scientific understanding. Practices such as Holotropic Breathwork, developed by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, combine controlled breathing with evocative music to access non-ordinary states of consciousness for healing and personal growth. Similarly, the popularity of mindfulness and meditation practices in the West has brought renewed attention to the power of breath.


As we navigate the complexities of modern life, the art of breathwork offers an accessible path to inner peace, resilience, and transformation. By honoring and practicing the wisdom of our ancestors, we can reconnect with the essential rhythm of life and discover the profound potential of our own breath.


Want to learn more about breathwork? Join one of our upcoming instructor trainings to dive deep into the world of breath. We offer online and in-person trainings.

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