Introduction to Breathwork
What do yoga, meditation, and forest bathing have in common? The breath.
The breath is the foundation of every mindfulness practice. It is the tool that’s always with us, accessible at any time for calm, balance, and presence of mind. The amazing thing is that anybody—regardless of age, ability, location, or beliefs—can utilize breathwork to better navigate life. It just requires practice and attention. In essence, breathwork is breathing practiced with mindfulness. It’s that simple.
Because of its accessibility and effectiveness, breathwork is quickly on the rise in the wellness field. Over the last decade, it has become an increasingly popular method of natural healing for anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and chronic physical pain. It is also a practical tool for amplifying creativity, tapping into inner wisdom, and expanding consciousness. With science-backed breath labs set up at Stanford University and apps like Spire that detect your respiration rate throughout the day, it’s clear that breathwork is reaching far beyond yoga and meditation, carving out its own space in the world.
Breathing is easy to take for granted because it’s automatic. It’s also easy to write off breathwork and think, “That’s too simple—it won’t work for me.” Simple as it is, adopting a breath practice helps you cultivate greater health in all aspects of your life, from relationships to work to stress to grief.
I came to the breath the way many of us do, through meditation and yoga. I started meditating out of necessity in a drug rehab when I was twenty-one. At the time I was involved in a twelve-step program and had a sponsor who encouraged me to learn to meditate. I will never forget the intense challenge of those early days, sitting on my couch trying to quiet my mind. It was excruciating; and I quickly started seeking meditation teachers and practices to help me find peace in the midst of the chaos of early recovery.
In those tender days and months of learning how to let myself feel without numbing through drugs and alcohol, I began to learn about my breath. One of my favorite breath-focused meditation practices was to simply count 1-2-3-4 on the inhale and 4-3-2-1 on the exhale. This was the only thing that helped my mind settle, even for a few seconds. And it was in those seconds that I eventually started the very lengthy process of learning how to regulate my emotions without the need for substances.
When I got out of rehab I went back to college to study printmaking, and after graduating I moved to San Francisco to pursue an MFA in socially engaged art. After graduate school I began teaching art and traveling for exhibitions and lectures. While I was living as an artist, I kept up with my breathing and meditation practices, albeit in a very imperfect way. I would have months of rigorous practice followed by months of no practice at all. It took me years to learn to be consistent despite the suggestions from my teachers and nearly every book I read on meditation. In my late twenties, I began to develop a deeper practice of simply breathing and being with myself. And that’s when my life and spiritual development accelerated in tremendous ways.
During those intense years of personal discovery and study, I found myself drawn to different schools of Buddhism and various branches of Hatha yoga, and I eventually found my way into studying energy medicine, medical intuition, neuroscience, and somatic psychotherapy.
While living in Berlin on a grant from the Danish Arts Council, I created a blog about how I was changing my life through meditation, yoga, and eating whole foods. I started the project as a way to process and understand my own transition, but within six months I had friends asking me to coach them through their own lifestyle struggles; I realized my struggles were not unique and that the tools I was using could be made available to anyone. Before I knew it, I felt the call to move to Los Angeles and start a holistic health practice.
I arrived in Los Angeles with one friend and a big dream of supporting people in their work to inhabit their bodies. At the time I didn’t know exactly how it would unfold, but for the first time in what seemed like forever, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I jumped into a yoga teacher training course with one of my dearest teachers, Tony Giuliano, and after completing it I began teaching in studios across the city. Within a year I realized that I was less interested in teaching asana (yoga postures) and more interested in teaching about the breath.
What I loved about the breath was that it was more accessible than yoga poses and traditional meditation practices. It felt really modern and fresh to me, despite the fact that many breathing practices had been around for thousands of years. What I also loved about the breath was that it was a very direct way to work with my body while also working with my emotions and spirit. It was the ultimate integrative remedy.
I decided to take the plunge and scale down my offerings to focus solely on the deeper aspects of breathwork after studying the breath with a few other teachers from various backgrounds. Narrowing the scope of my practice was one of the smartest personal and business decisions I’ve ever made. It allowed me to dive much deeper than I could go while juggling so many aspects of my previous holistic health practice. I also recognized that, if I wanted to become an expert in this space, I would have to devote more of my time and energy to it. The beauty of this work is that there is always more to learn, and narrowing in gave me room to expand into the depths of what is possible with the breath.
As my teaching and client practice grew, I began developing my own unique breathing practices for clients born out of their specific needs. Many of my clients didn’t relate to the language or mythology around more classical breath practices. I realized that breathwork as a healing technology needed a major update to make it accessible in the modern world. From getting a better night’s sleep, to reducing anxiety, to setting boundaries, the practices in How to Breathe
will help you develop a consistent practice of being with yourself.
Being a full-time breathwork teacher for the last several years, and creating my own practices and methodology for working with the breath, has given me the courage to take the next step in my growth and write this book. Truth be told, I wrote my first book in elementary school and have had an affinity for the power books have to change our lives since my days of winning summer reading contests at the local library.
People often ask me why I teach breathwork and what breathwork means to me. While there are many reasons, all of which you will discover as you read the pages of this book, it really comes down to a desire to fully inhabit my body, and my passion for supporting others to do the same. I spent so many years of my life disassociating, checking out, and numbing (even after I stopped drinking and using drugs) that I realized my deepest desire was to feel present within myself, to feel anchored to the earth, to be able to self-regulate, and to know deeply that I had the ability to trust my inner wisdom. After years of creating safe spaces for my clients to explore their breath and bodies and all that comes with it, I want to share with you the practices that are changing our lives.
This book will introduce you to the foundations of breathwork and my methodology. It outlines the scientific-supported benefits; explains how the breath relates to emotions, the stress response, and resilience; and presents the best ways to engage in breathwork. From there, you will discover twenty-five breathing practices for everyday situations that are easy to integrate into modern life, including breathwork for anxiety, relaxation, energy, and more. Each practice features an introduction explaining the origin, benefits, and purpose of the breathwork, followed by step-by-step instructions and post practice notes.
Copyright © 2019 by Ashley Neese. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.