The following piece originally appeared as “Deep Breaths” in the Spring 2022 issue of Tracy Anderson Magazine, available now for digital download and print orders.
As light and airy as breathwork is sometimes depicted, my experience with this tool and facilitating it, as founder of the non-profit Black Girls Breathing, tells a different story. Breathwork is for trauma care—for finally addressing the triggers and narratives stored in the depths of your nervous system that may have been unknowingly stored for some time. While the immediate effects of the breath address stress and anxiety, the deeper work unearths all the energetic “gunk” that has kept someone feeling stuck or has started to impact them physically.
When I’m facilitating, my goal is for participants to use breathwork to form better relationships with their body and self. When they can listen to their bodies, truly listen to the intel of their body in every situation and environment, then their relationship to life will also begin to shift.
For those new to breathwork, it’s important to remember that breathing is innate. It’s something everyone’s body does naturally. Breathwork is simply the practice of focusing on how to intentionally connect to the breath and deepen those inhales and exhales. And with any tool, and to encourage strengthening that relationship to self, I encourage adapting breathwork to individual body and needs and ask questions like:
- When you inhale, can you feel when your lungs feel full?
- When you exhale, can you feel the depletion of your lungs as your stomach caves in and hugs your ribs?
- How much focus can you put on your body while you breathe?
- When you tune into your body and your breath, which area in your body feels congested? Which area feels heavy or unsettled?
As you make these observations, do so without judgment. Offer yourself compassion as you check in to see where your body could use some loving kindness with each inhale.
Since we each have varying lung capacities and come from different backgrounds, I’ve learned not to teach “counting the breath.” What tends to happen with breathwork techniques that encourage inhaling for a certain count and exhaling for a specific count is that right-brained individuals tend to move outside of their body and become very focused on why their lungs are full on the second count instead of the fourth, and how they’ve depleted their lungs by the fourth count instead of the eighth. The intention to connect to the body has now had the opposite effect.
Understanding that other thoughts may arise as you begin to breathe is a normal occurrence as well. Gently thank your mind and brain for doing its job, then gently return your focus to the breath.
Breathwork in the Real World
The breath is a great grounding tool in the present moment as well. When you’re moving into new chapters in life, your mind—in doing its job—will try to forecast the future. The feelings of uncertainty and anxiety around pending events take us out of the body and out of the current moment. After experiencing collective grief these past few years, “all you have is the present moment” rings even more true for us.
Tapping into a breathwork pattern that can help ground you in the moment is an incredibly mindful tool to help you practice “taking it one day at a time.” I want to note how important self-compassion is as well. Breathwork is a practice, a process. Similar to life’s ebbs and flows, it’s an opportunity to dive deeper into the self. You discover things you may have thought you “got over” or didn’t know existed. How can you let the information draw more curiosity instead of harsh critique?
What I love about the breath is that this tool is empowering for one’s individual healing journey. Once you’ve learned a breathwork pattern, you don’t necessarily need a facilitator to guide you through it. Whether you’re at your desk before a big meeting, in the car while stuck in traffic, or having a rough moment while navigating grief—the breath is available to you at all times.
“For those new to breathwork, it’s important to remember that breathing is innate.”
I’ve personally used breathwork to support myself through various chapters of transition: leaving my corporate job and starting my first company, healing from narcissistic abuse, navigating the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, and experiencing both sudden and expected grief.
Breathwork didn’t magically erase the real pain, hurt, heartbreak, and uncertainty in those transitional chapters. But it did help me witness myself in those moments, and honor all that was showing up emotionally and in my body and mind at the time. It helped me get through. And frankly, that is why we learn these tools—not to evade the very real chapters and situations we experience in this lifetime, but to equip ourselves with a spiritual and mental toolbox we can use when those real-life challenges arise.