A macabre dream about scuba diving led me to breathwork before I even knew what it was.
In it, a female instructor urged me to take my first dive into a murky black pool–at night, and all alone. Not only was I terrified, I wondered what the point was? It wasn’t like I was going to be able to see any tropical fish in that muck. She told me I was missing the point, I was actually there to learn how to breathe.
Confused and unconvinced, I plunged into the black water and let myself sink to the bottom. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I began to see white shapes floating around me. At this point, my dream took a sinister twist as I realized what the shapes were–human limbs and body parts. I panicked and started to hyperventilate, yet I somehow heard my teacher’s reassuring voice in my mind:
“Breathe through the fear. You have to learn to stay with this instead of trying to escape. The only way to conquer the darkness is to breathe and experience it fully.”
I woke up shaken but intrigued by the message my subconscious mind was trying to give me. I wasn’t entirely sure what the dream meant, but a few days later I came across a book about breathwork and interestingly, the author described how our breath and emotions are intricately connected.
I was amazed to discover that in order to escape from negative emotions like fear, anxiety and anger, the majority of us contract our breath to avoid having to feel them fully. This leads not only to chronic shallow breathing, but also to a state of chronic emotional numbness as we inevitably dull ourselves to both the joys and sorrows of life.
To some this may seem like a worthwhile trade-off if it means reducing pain and suffering, but unfortunately repressed emotions don’t go away–they build up in our bodies and minds as layers of stress, anxiety and tension.
Intrigued by this theory, I found a breathwork practitioner to assist me on my journey and test it out for myself. My teacher, Inge, embodied a depth of presence I’ve rarely encountered in any other human being. Her ability to hold a safe space for me was perhaps the most important factor in our sessions together.
Despite dealing with past emotions, Inge discouraged lengthy dialogue about my issues or personal problems. She warned that the mind is very tricky, and loves to get caught up in the story of what we think happened to us, the blame-game and endless analysis. Our mind can sneakily use these devices to avoid actually feeling our feelings.
So in that safe, therapeutic space, we breathed together, and allowed whatever needed to come up, to come up. Sometimes she would massage my diaphragm, back or shoulders to enable me to breathe deeper, or offer advice or encouragement.
Sometimes intense emotions would arise, and I would feel cleansed and light after their release. Other times nothing much seemed to occur during the session, but then days or weeks later the emotional energy that had been subtly shifted would seek expression, and I would safely allow it to emerge using the breathing techniques I had learned.
One of the philosophies behind breathwork is that most of our feelings are old, and when we are upset in the present it is rarely for the reason we think it is; we are simply triggering repressed emotions from our past. Of course I had heard this theory before, but I didn’t fully understand it until I experienced breathwork. I learned to tune in to my body and mind and find the subtle layers of tension there. A tight jaw or minor financial worry revealed a low-level state of anxiety or fear that had nothing to do with my life circumstances, and was instantly recognizable as one of the characteristic feelings of my childhood.
I learned first-hand that repressed emotions continue to live within us, and we carry them around with us everywhere and spend an enormous amount of energy trying to keep them under control.
As I continued to breathe and feel fully, I realized our greatest strength lies in our willingness to be vulnerable, and that freedom, authenticity and profound self-acceptance are our rewards when we are able to embrace all of ourselves, especially the darkest parts.
Sharee James is a naturopath, massage therapist and director of Ashima Journeys – a boutique tour company specializing in travel experiences to heal, inspire and renew. A passionate explorer of over 20 countries, Sharee takes great pleasure in providing wellness retreats in the Himalayas of Nepal, integrating local healing and spiritual traditions with an authentic and exciting travel experience. Check out Sharee at her website, Twitter or follow her on Facebook.
Editor: James Carpenter
Like elephant spirituality on Facebook.