Transformational breathing is an active form of meditation whereby the breath is manipulated mechanically at a rapid rate. Instead of starting out slowly with the intention of calming your body and mind through the breath—as one does when practicing yoga or meditation—transformational breathing starts with fast breathing to elicit a bodily response.
How Does Transformational Breathing Work?
Practicing transformational breathwork can bring up muscle twitches, tension in unexpected places, and other sensations that may initially feel similar to a panic attack. It’s helpful to think of this type of breathing as a magnet that, on inhale, attracts tensions, anxieties, or held emotions. Then, on exhale, releases these stagnant thoughts and feelings.
“When we inhale, we receive. When we exhale, we release,” says Aimée Derbes, a licensed acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese medicine who offers transformational breathing sessions via Zoom.
How Does Transformational Breathwork Help?
Over time, this practice can change the autonomic nervous system (made up of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems) by altering either the amount of oxygen we inhale or the amount of carbon dioxide we exhale. While everyone’s experience with transformational breathing is different, Derbes notes that many people notice they are more connected to their bodies and have a greater awareness of what’s emotionally present. Transformational breathing can be beneficial for those exhausted by trauma as the practice can wake up and retrieve life force energy.
In his book Breath, James Nestor describes how a significant drop in carbon dioxide will alter the pH of blood, activating the limbic system, which is involved in emotions and arousal. This may explain why people feel pronounced emotions such as anger, sadness, or joy during transformational breathing sessions. Extended stimulation of the limbic system could signal to the body that it is dying, which may cause the “rebirthing” experience some report with breathwork. Nestor also suggests that decreased blood flow to the brain is likely the cause of the psychedelic states and hallucinations some experience.
[Read: “The Psychedelic Touch.”]
My experiences with breathwork have thus far focused on meditation and yoga, where I focused on being present in the moment with the goal to calm my mind and body. As I tried to relax, I was aware of my breath, without trying to alter it. However, no matter how hard I tried to silence myself, I could not get my overactive mind to a serene and peaceful state where I could engage fully with these practices. The more I tried to follow the teacher’s detailed instructions, the harder it was for me to sit still and just “be.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Gauri Khurana, who has done transformational breathing sessions with Derbes, notes that it may be effective for people like me because it’s an active form of meditation, whereby we manipulate our breath mechanically.
How to Start a Transformational Breathing Practice
Interested in exploring this practice? Derbes suggests following these simple steps:
- Lie on your back and place your bands on your lower belly.
- Engage in a two-part inhale, first filling the lower belly, and then the chest.
- Exhale rapidly through the mouth, making a loud “Ha!” sound.
- Continue this process for approximately 45 minutes.
While a full session should average around 45 minutes, Derbes suggests starting in 20-minute increments. Even five or ten minutes of transformational breathing can produce benefits.
The ideal way to learn transformational breathing is with a skilled practitioner in a group or individual setting. Sessions can be virtual or in person: use this guide to find a practitioner near you, or check your local yoga studios to see if they offer breathwork classes.
Please note: Practicing transformational breathing may lead to strong physical sensations and/or emotional release, and is not currently recommended for people who are pregnant (unless you have already discussed it with a medical doctor) or have epilepsy; retinal detachment; glaucoma; high blood pressure not controlled by medication; cardiovascular disease; severe osteoporosis; a neurological condition; or a family history of aneurysms or strokes.
For more on breathwork, explore how the way you breathe changes memory and perception.