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Breath work

Breath work is a practice of consciously controlling and regulating one’s breathing patterns for various purposes, such as enhancing physical, mental and emotional well-being, inducing altered states of consciousness, or achieving self-transcendence. self-transcendence is a psychological phenomenon that involves going beyond one’s personal boundaries and limitations, and experiencing a sense of connection with something greater than oneself, such as nature, humanity, spirituality or the divine. In this article, we will explore how breath work can facilitate self-transcendence by influencing the brain, the body and the mind.

The basics of breath work

Breathing is a vital function that influences both the body and the mind. Changing the ratio of outbreath to inbreath can have different effects on the psycho-physiological state of a person. In general, longer outbreaths than inbreaths can induce a state of relaxation, calmness and well-being, while shorter outbreaths than inbreaths can stimulate alertness, arousal and energy. This is because the ratio of outbreath to inbreath affects the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many bodily functions and emotions.

Some breathing techniques that involve changing the ratio of outbreath to inbreath are:

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  • 4-7-8 breathing: This technique involves inhaling for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds. This can help reduce stress, anxiety, insomnia and pain.
  • Box breathing: This technique involves inhaling for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 4 seconds, exhaling for 4 seconds, and holding the breath for 4 seconds. This can help improve focus, concentration, performance and mood.
  • Alternate nostril breathing: This technique involves inhaling through one nostril, closing it with a finger, exhaling through the other nostril, and then switching sides. This can help balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain, calm the nervous system, and enhance mental clarity.

Changing the ratio of outbreath to inbreath can also affect the brain activity and psychological state of a person. Studies have shown that slow breathing techniques (<10 breaths/minute) can increase heart rate variability (HRV) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), which are indicators of parasympathetic activity and vagal tone. Slow breathing techniques can also increase alpha power and decrease theta power in the electroencephalogram (EEG), which are associated with relaxation, awareness and emotional control. Furthermore, slow breathing techniques can activate various brain regions involved in attention, emotion regulation, memory and interoception. These changes can lead to improved psychological well-being, reduced symptoms of stress-related disorders, and enhanced cognitive and behavioural functions.

For example, a person who is in the early stages of giving up smoking may notice high levels of anxiety, giving great discomfort. One approach that can sometimes eradicate this anxiety is to practice 4-3 breathing – 4 outbreaths for 3 inbreaths. This had the effects of inducing relaxation and removing the excess energy that is causing the anxiety. Thus, a serious side effect of physical nicotine withdrawal can be alleviated with a simple breath work exercise.

Therefore, changing the ratio of outbreath to inbreath can be a simple and effective way to modulate one’s psycho-physiological state and achieve various benefits for health and performance.

Asymmetrical breathing

Asymmetrical breathing is a technique that involves inhaling and exhaling through different nostrils at different times. The basic principles of asymmetrical breathing are based on the idea that each nostril is connected to a different hemisphere of the brain, and that alternating the airflow can balance the activity of both hemispheres. Asymmetrical breathing can have various benefits, such as improving concentration, reducing stress, enhancing creativity, and promoting relaxation. To practice asymmetrical breathing, one can follow these steps:

  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
  • Use your right thumb to close your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril.
  • Hold your breath for a few seconds and then release your right nostril and close your left nostril with your right ring finger.
  • Exhale slowly through your right nostril, and then inhale through the same nostril.
  • Hold your breath for a few seconds, and then release your left nostril and close your right nostril with your right thumb.
  • Exhale slowly through your left nostril, and then inhale through the same nostril.
  • Repeat this cycle for several minutes or as long as you feel comfortable.

Asymmetrical breathing can be done at any time of the day, but it is especially effective in the morning or before going to bed. It can also be combined with other practices, such as meditation, yoga, or mindfulness. Asymmetrical breathing is a simple but powerful way to improve your mental and physical well-being by harmonizing the two sides of your brain.

Breath work and self-transcendence

One way that breath work can facilitate self-transcendence is by altering the brain activity and inducing altered states of consciousness. Studies have shown that breath work can increase the activity of the gamma waves in the brain, which are associated with higher cognitive functions, creativity, and insight. It can also decrease the activity of the default mode network (DMN), which is responsible for self-referential thoughts, rumination, and mind wandering. By modulating these brain regions, it can help one to transcend the habitual patterns of thinking and feeling and access a more expansive and integrative state of awareness.

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Another way that breath work can foster self-transcendence is by enhancing the emotional and social aspects of well-being. It can stimulate the release of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes bonding, trust, and empathy. Furthermore, it can also activate the vagus nerve, which regulates the parasympathetic nervous system and influences the heart rate variability (HRV). A higher HRV indicates a greater ability to cope with stress and emotions and a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases. By improving these physiological markers, breath work can help one to cultivate positive emotions, compassion, and altruism, which are essential for self-transcendence.

This is a valuable practice that can help one to achieve self-transcendence by altering the brain activity and enhancing the emotional and social wellbeing. By practising breath work regularly, one can experience a deeper sense of meaning, purpose, and connection in life.

Breath work practices for transcendence

There are many types of breath work practices that can facilitate self-transcendence, but some of the most common ones are:

  • holotropic breathing: This is a technique developed by Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist and researcher of altered states of consciousness. It involves breathing rapidly and deeply for an extended period of time, usually accompanied by music and guidance from a facilitator. The aim is to induce a non-ordinary state of consciousness that can reveal insights into one’s psyche, heal traumas, and awaken one’s spiritual potential.
  • Pranayama: This is a Sanskrit term that means “control of life force”. It refers to various yogic breathing exercises that are designed to balance and enhance the flow of prana (energy) in the body and mind. Pranayama can calm the nervous system, increase awareness, and prepare one for meditation. Some pranayama techniques that can induce self-transcendence are nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), bhastrika (bellows breath), and kumbhaka (breath retention).
  • Wim Hof method: This is a method created by Wim Hof, a Dutch adventurer and record holder who is known for his ability to withstand extreme cold and heat. It consists of three components: cold exposure, breathing exercises, and mindset training. The breathing exercises involve taking 30 to 40 deep breaths followed by a breath hold for as long as possible. This creates a temporary hypoxia (low oxygen) and hypercapnia (high carbon dioxide) in the body, which can trigger physiological and psychological changes that can enhance one’s health, resilience, and sense of connection.
Further reading

Here are some links that discuss breath work and transcendence in more detail:

https://www.healthline.com/health/breathwork
https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/breathwork-for-beginners
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201905/how-breathwork-benefits-the-brain-and-body
https://www.chopra.com/articles/transcendental-meditation-what-it-is-and-how-to-practice
https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-vipassana-insight-meditation/

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