Monday, 30 September 2013

Prenatal Traumas and the Healing Power of the Breath

We took our first real and independent breath immediately after birth. When working with conscious breathing – why should then issues coming up which have to do with prenatal experiences in which breathing did not even exist? The second question I want to discuss in this article is how conscious breathing can help with healing these early wounds.
When working with clients, I notice how many problems and distortions stem from traumatization dating back to the time before birth. We can imagine traumatizations like chains. When we had a situation of shock similar situations later on bring up this shock, not in all details but with the same patterns of sensations and feelings. This is what we call retraumatization. After the original traumatic experience, by repeating the experience in similar form retraumatization after retraumatization is lined up on a trauma chain. 

The last link of the chain is an actual experience in which we notice unpleasant symptoms or feelings which do not seem appropriate to the present situation. We get enormously angry at something which later on would seem like mere nothing. We get a diffuse fear and do not know why. We react defensively towards someone without any reason on the outside.
When we find back to the first and original experience of the trauma along this chain, and only when we find back to this event and not to a later retraumatization, we can experience a deep going healing which will help to dissolve the reoccurring symptoms and feelings. This is why we often have to go back to the prenatal phase of our lives when we want to cope with a problem at its root.

In the prenatal phase of our development, there are especially many crucial events. An organism which has very little inner organization and strength is highly vulnerable in any difficult situation. Survival is permanently at risk and there are only a few simple strategies to cope with such threats. The well-known fight-flight response as a reactive pattern of the sympathetic nervous system requires an organism which is able to act independently and free in time and space. In case of threatened survival, the embryo cannot run or fight, it can only withdraw by contracting every part which can contract and by switching to emergency programs with a minimum supply of energy (“primal withdrawal”). We will later discuss how this reactive pattern can or should be treated in breathwork.

In addition to that, the embryo as tiny and rather instable being reacts especially sensitive to the different disturbing influences from inside and from outside. “Peanuts” in the view of the grownups like a collapse of the mother or a fight with the father can be experienced as catastrophes by the tiny embryo.

The Theory of Cellular Memory

In the therapeutic work, the breath is always an important support and this can happen in two ways. In our clinical experiences, we can often observe that conscious breathing leads to remembering events dating far back beyond birth. Obviously, during intensified breathing the cellular memory is opened up. It releases recalls from the earliest stages of our development. So we can access memories which are not (or not mainly) saved and coded in the cortex. We know from brain research that a large part of our memory and especially the conditionings of fear are stored in the areas of our brain which are not accessibly by consciousness.

These forms of storage seem to correspond with the cellular memory. We can assume that even single cell organisms must have the capacity to safe memories in order to be able to survive. So we can imagine that for instance the egg cell right after conception has passed on its memory database to all the following cells which develop in the subsequent cell divisions. So all cells of the organism will dispose of this information when the organism develops and expands. 

Probably, the transmission of information works selectively so that not every new cell contains the information in the same strength and calibration. This would explain why certain experiences of fears from the prenatal phase can be felt in certain areas of the grown up body (as contraction, pressure, tension etc.) while other parts are free from these sensations. 

Scientific research in the area of epigenetics has shown how the mechanisms of cellular memory work. It has already shed light on the proceedings of storing and transmitting information on the cellular level. This fascinating area of biological research gains more and more public attention and gives a strong support for considering many diseases and psychological disorders as caused by early, prenatal and even transgenerational traumatization. Basically, it shows that we are only weakly determined by our genes but that the circumstances in which we started our lives and grew up determine our fate to a high degree.

The Evocative Function of Breathing

How does engaging in conscious breathing open up the cellular memory? It could be that the specific ability to remember and the accessibility of the cellular memory we can experience during a breathing process have to do with the deepened state of relaxation. When turning inside by giving the full attention to the breathing, a trance like state is entered. By abandoning the linear logical thought process, the associative abilities of our brain become more active and deliver memories connected with emotions, especially with fear. 

Another possible explanation is that memories come up as a consequence of the metabolic changes in the body as they happen due to the intensifying of the breathing. As we accompany these processes with our awareness, different systems of storage could start to cooperate. Thus, complexes of sensations which can be felt as rather amorphous and ambiguous on the physical level, could reveal their contents which is linked to an early trauma. This meaningful content sometimes comes in form of images, sometimes of felt ideas or any other form of intuitive knowledge.

Another explanation relates to the scientifically proven fact that stress the mother has to deal with during pregnancy can reduce the oxygen supply for the embryo. This will cause anxiety and stress in the unborn child. The attention directed towards the breathing in a session can bring up the memory about the lack of oxygen in dramatic situations of the prenatal phase. For breathing is the successor of the umbilical cord as oxygen supplier.

Here we are on the ground of assumptions rather than secure knowledge as these connections have not yet found a comprehensive theoretical explanation as far as I know. Maybe all these and/or other circumstances we do not yet know work together to allow the often stunningly deep insights we encounter during conscious breathing processes.

The Metaphorical Function of Breathing

This is the evocative side we can see as support by the breath to climb to the depths of our souls. Yet conscious breathing does not just serve for awakening of memories but also for integrating the issues which arise from layers of our lives far beyond conscious remembrance.

For this we use the metaphorical power of breathing. Breathing is the metabolic process closest to us as it is permanently active on and can be observed consciously at any time. By experiencing our breathing we experience the self-organization of our bodies, or, as seen from another perspective, the flow of life itself which develops its healing power throughout ourselves. We experience that we are alive and that it is this power of life which keeps us alive.

When we have to deal with unpleasant and burdening experiences in our lives it always helps to become aware of the breath which reminds us of life moving on, as terrible the present situation might be. We realize that there is a life force which moves on while we are entangled in some drama. This power drives us whether we are aware of it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is with us when we enter the drama, and it is with us when we find a way out of it. The breath is always flowing with all these motions of the waves of life. So breathing can become a carrier with the symbolic power for life itself which is stronger than our consciousness and mightier as the control we like to exercise upon our lives.

Trust in life does not mean anything else than acknowledging that it is this power which carries our lives and which leads us on despite all the turbulences and distortions which cause our suffering. As the Arabic saying goes: “The dog is barking and the caravan moves on.” All the terrible and dreadful experiences have their place in this process. They are part of the caravan although it cannot be stopped by them. The moving caravan is the symbol for the flow of life power, which is portrayed in the self-realization of the organism we can perceive in our breathing at any moment.

The Symbolic Healing Power of Breathing

By taking this symbolic power of breathing with us when healing prenatal traumas, we can use it to reconnect to trusting life while the client is feeling despair, hopelessness, emptiness, and pain. “Feel with your breathing how the power of life carries you, with all these feelings which are there now.” By this, the facilitator can remind of the power of the flow of life which offers trust, until eventually the fearful and burdening feelings have resided and given way for a deepened trust, connected with inner safety.

When working with a lost twin, the breath is an indispensable help. At some point of the inner work, the client reaches back to the moment when this first companion in life died and vanished. Here he will experience very intense and deep feelings of pain and despair which seemingly come to no end. The feeling of loss and incomprehension can be immensely huge. 

The facilitator will encourage to accept all the feelings as terrible as they might be, and at the same time to feel the flow of the breath which guides trough this experience, as the constant and reliable power of life. At some point in time, the experiencer realizes that it is this life power which allocates the fate, may it be the gravest of all. For one twin it means an all too early leave, for the other a life to an end much later on. By accepting this major power which distributes fates without any influence from our side, it becomes easier to let go of guilt feelings which are often connected with going on in life in the face of a close companion dying. 

Trust in life is restored, deepened and enriched by a new dimension which indicates that life is a permanent process of giving and receiving, giving and receiving from individual life and from chances in life. As in any breath: Giving from one’s own and receiving the other, as a steady ongoing process which embraces and transcends every single life.

Primal withdrawal in breathwork

As long as strong emotions like anger expressed by kicking and screaming or sadness expressed by intense crying prevail during a breathwork session, the client deals with issues from perinatal or postnatal experiences. Intense breathing which comes with these strong emotions indicates that events from the childhood are processed. Withheld emotional energy which had to be suppressed rises to the surface and seeks its physical expression.
Minimising the breathing by contracting the breathing muscles is a sign for primal withdrawal and for re-experiencing prenatal traumatization. In case the facilitator motivates the breather in such a situation to intensify the breathing, the prenatal trauma cannot be accessed. The energy will move away from the early event and stuff from later experiences of retraumatization can come up. The breather can feel relieved but the symptoms related to the prenatal trauma will come back. Methods of breathwork focused on intense breathing alone thus cannot access or heal prenatal traumas characterized by primal withdrawal. Even worse, such approaches can reinforce the inner protection mechanisms against re-experiencing the trauma contents.

Instead, the facilitator should accept the shallow breathing pattern and carefully help the client to feel the contractions in all detail and allow the withdrawal come fully into the present moment. It is also useful to let the body of the breather go into the posture of withdrawal. By breathing gently into the tensions and by suggesting feeling the breathing as a source of trust and of the ongoing energy of life, the contractions can slowly resolve. Sometimes the client gets images, feelings or even words which indicate the event that has come up. Following this information, the therapist can deepen the healing experience. Often, it is helpful to explain the context of the prenatal experience after the breathing process so the client is able to integrate the outcomes of the session. Cognitive understanding of what has happened in the session as well in one’s own history is valuable for a sustainable integration which also needs the consent of the mind.

Recommended reading:
Arthur Janov, Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives. Nti Upstream 2011

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Cathartic Breathing and its Limitations

Some schools in breathwork focus on creating intense emotional experiences as a way of healing. This article looks at the value and the limitations of this approach.

Why does intense breathing cause intense feelings? 

One explanation for the dramatic results that can often be achieved through intensive breathing can be found in the fear centre of our brain: the amygdale. This small organ with the size of an almond seed situated deep down in our brain is developed in the third month of pregnancy and works as an accurate storage of all events, which have caused fear and emotional overwhelm throughout our lives. It works totally unconsciously and has no reference to time. This means that the amygdale stores the memory of a barking dog, which I perceived as dangerous at the age of one without taking a note about the time. So the same fear with the same intensity as I had experienced it in early childhood is produced when meeting a barking dog in an adult age. 

The task of the amygdale is to react within very short time to sensory data coming from outside, which indicate a dangerous situation. This is why the connection from the ears to the amygdale is extremely short: a signal that is coming in from the ears needs to jump over only three synapses to reach the alarm centre in the brain, and these three jumps do not need more than eight milliseconds. 

After that, the amygdale is able to set off the complex stress reaction immediately by activating other brain centres, mainly the hypothalamus. Thus an overall change in the whole body including intense breathing is triggered and all the body’s resources for fight or flight are mobilized so we can face challenges in an effective way.

Intense Breathing and Fear

In a Breathwork session, we usually start with relaxing the body. It is important for the client to let go of obvious muscular tensions, so that the breath can start to flow easier and deeper as usual. Then the breathing can be intensified by will and encouragement up to a point, where the amygdale is reminded of danger in which this form of breathing had appeared spontaneously in any former time of the history of the person. So the amygdale starts the stress reaction in the body similar to a past traumatic experience. The client experiences strange body sensations, bizarre movements and intense feelings of fear, anger or sadness up to the point of cathartic release.

The amygdale also connects to the other memory storages in the upper regions of our brain, the cortex. The connection is mediated by the hippocampus, which is our unconscious organizer for conscious memories. In this way, sensual memories from the past are activated and can be experienced as images, sounds or body sensations which come along with the intense feelings created by the amygdale. Past situations of traumatizing power arise, can be faced consciously until we are ready to integrate them.

We can understand the fact that memories come up often far beyond the range of our conscious memory storage, because the memory capacity of the amygdale reaches back to the early times of pregnancy. The visual impressions that come with it may not always be accurate, as they are formed by the associative cortex under the governance of the hippocampus. Their production does not follow a strict rule and principle. Yet it can provide a lot of relevant details. Our brain does not work like a historical scientist who clearly separates facts and fiction but more like a poet who creates images with complex meanings. (This is the place where the false memory syndrome comes in.)
The memories from the fear storage are provided in a different format, which is simple and accurate. This information is far from being complete or objective. It is like a database with very few parameters and it focuses on detecting dangerous signals in the environment quickly and precisely. When I got hit by a red car years ago, the same colour in a tiny spot in my vision can trigger the original panic reaction.

Just bringing up the fearful information would not help to heal them. On the contrary, it would intensify and strengthen them in the sense of retraumatisation. But the relaxed state, in which the body receives the traumatic memories, and the safety, which is provided by the therapist, help to integrate the memory. Integration means that the fear which is stored in the amygdale is strongly linked to a time frame from the higher regions of the brain so that we are able to allocated the fear far back in the past and to experience the present as safe and trustworthy.

Here, another important centre of the brain comes into play, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is our agent for reality check and responsibility. It matures during adolescence. The PFC is able to quiet our fearful amygdale when we bring old memories to consciousness. It says, that old experience was very frightening for us, but now we are grown up and we are no more in danger. (This is called a top-down-control.) But the PFC needs calm circumstances, because when anxiety prevails, its reasoning is set aside by the alarm centres.

One client of mine came to a breathwork session because she felt highly disturbed after a breathing session in a group where the person who was assisting her, became unsafe during the process and could not give her the support she would have needed to integrate the emotions that came up. So she needed careful attention and relaxed breathing to work through and integrate this disturbing experience.

When the right circumstances are provided, the client experiences the intensity of the emotion and feels safe enough to face it and to cope with it. She stays consciously focussed on the breathing, so she cannot be totally overwhelmed by the emotion as in the traumatic situation of the past. The therapist is present and aware of the needs of the client, encourages the client to experience the feelings and to stay aware of the breathing. He serves as a grounding anchor and a connection bridge to present reality. 

In case that daily life provides another situation, which could trigger the pattern of fear which came up in the session, it is much less likely that the fear will arise as intense as before and after some time, it will happen that the person can stay calm and does not even think of being afraid.

Limitations of Catharsis

Cathartic breathing has some limitations we should be aware of when using it as a therapeutic method. One limit is that strong emotions from past trauma can arise too quickly for the organism to integrate them. This brings the danger of overstretching and damaging a fragile ego structure and cause severe desintegration and decompensation resulting in psychosis. So persons with a fragile personality structure and a weak social background should not be guided into intense breathing sessions. They have to become acquainted with their body and their breath in the first place. When they have learned to feel grounded in their bodies and to relax with their outbreath, then they can slowly be lead to towards increasing the volume of the inhalation.

The other limitation can be found in the learning abilities of the amygdale. We know about the mechanism of extinction from classical conditioning as researched by Iwan Pawlow a hundred years ago. For a person who is exposed to frightening signals over a period of time without anything dangerous happening, the signal loses its scaring character. When we hear a car alarm going off every two minutes, we stop to listen to it. 

Similarly, after some experiences with intense breathing, the amygdale stops to get anxious when the breathing rhythm intensifies and the pauses of relaxation are omitted. It has learned with the help of the prefrontal cortex, that there is no real danger in the situation. So the client has learned to integrate her fears to a certain degree and has strengthened the top-down control to tame the lower emotional centre to fire off unnecessarily all the time. 

We observe that most clients who come to breathwork sessions on a regular basis, reach a level where they can breathe strongly and intensely in a connected rhythm without producing intense emotional responses or outbreaks. Their system gets adjusted to the “strange” breathing pattern. This does not mean that all their traumas are healed, but that their body including their brain has managed to cope with the intensified breathing pattern and is ready to move on from that level. 

At this point, the method of cathartic breathing has reached its purpose and needs to be changed. Working with relaxing the breathing combined with a full volume can provide deeper levels of healing. Still, not all issues and causes of suffering can be eliminated by conscious breathing. We need complementary approaches to access these ailments. This can be emotional level breathing, systemic breathing, interactive breathing or any other approach in complementary breathwork, which opens the door to the different levels of our soul other than by cathartic breathing.

The drama-resolution-cycle

Some therapists and some clients become disappointed at the point when cathartic breathing fails to produce remarkable and sensational results. 

As we know from wave theories, even the strongest waves cool down and disappear after some time. When the client and the therapist associate therapeutic success with high waves, they think after a smooth and quiet session, that something essential is missing. When dramatic breakthroughs are considered as the core of therapy. intensity as such is the marker for success, and the lack of intensity the sign of failure. 

The therapist will transfer his concept to the client whether it is shared verbally or not. Both, therapist and client become addicted to a drama-resolution-cycle: a drama is needed to obtain freedom so dramas have to be created to gain the benefit from the feeling of resolution. This is like seeking the experience that we never feel as good as after recovering from a severe disease. But it would not be considered as normal to acquire intense illnesses for the sake of the nice feeling after recovery.
If the therapist feels stressed for delivering dramatic results, she will look for new means of producing such. There are several tools to provide a high level of excitement and dramatic tension, mainly with interventions on the physical level. Applying pressure on certain points of the body will inevitably produce strong emotional reactions.  

Some breathworkers claim that more breathing is better breathing. So they motivate their clients for intense breathing and assume automatically that less intense breathing indicates psychological resistance. More breathing is equated with more life energy and this is stated like a dogma. 
But those therapists do not consider that the level of energy which the body can take from our breathing metabolism does not depend on the quantity of air taken in but on the ability of the body to take in the oxygen. Simple measurements can show that strong and rapid breathing takes more energy from the body as it adds to it.

So the question is whether any further healing can happen under such manipulative and ideological circumstances. Healing cannot be measured by the quantity of dopamine in the brain, which is likely to be high at the end of a cathartic session. Becoming addicted to emotional arousal is bound to create more suffering and to deepen neurotic patterns. When therapy turns into a sportive exercise, it would be better to tell the client to do an hour of running instead of the session which would probably give him the same or even a healthier result.

Good breathing is relaxed breathing

In many cases of therapy, catharsis is useful to open up the blocks, which are in the way of gaining more relaxation. So it is an episode on the way. Learning to intensify the breathing is needed and can be used up to a certain point, which is different for each person. When this point is missed, the deepening of relaxation is blocked and the craving for tension becomes an addictive pattern.
Therapy should result in weakening and dissolving patterns of dysfunctional behaviour, in reducing underlying fears and in enlarging the areas for relaxation in daily life. A healthy life can have its intense aspects and times but they should not arise from stress, fear or craving but should be associated with joy and pleasure, as the playful side of relaxation.

A good breathing pattern is a sign of a healed body-mind-system. In my view a good breathing pattern can be measured by the amount of relaxation in the breathing muscles and not by the quantity of air flowing in and out. A relaxed breathing rhythm is flexible and can adjust to different situations, calming down to slow breathing when the circumstances are pleasant and free of challenge, and speeding up when things need to be done. It provides the minimum of breathing activity which is needed to fulfil the actual demands of reality.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Pre-Trans-Fallacy

With this concept, Ken Wilber has formulated an important tool for differentiation. When we build up a stage model for the evolution of consciousness, it can be arranged roughly in three phases:
Prerational – rational – transrational, or: prepersonal – personal – transpersonal, or: promodern – modern – postmodern.

•    Prerational means that experience is mainly directed by images, emotions and fantasies.
•    In the rational phase, logical and symbolic thinking together with verbal language takes over the dominance in conceiving and interpreting the world.
•    The transrational realm, experiential elements like intuition, spirituality and mystics join in.

In my model of the evolution of consciousness (which will be published as English e-book by the end of the year), the prerational level is strongly developed in tribal consciousness. The rational level can be found in the center of the fourth, the materialistic stage, exactly in the middle of the seven steps. The transrational level is fully developed on the seventh, the holistic stage.

A pre-trans-fallacy happens when either a prerational experience is taken as transrational or a transrational experience is taken as a prerational one. This misinterpretation can happen in two ways: internally or externally. Subjectively I can mix up an experience, when I am for instance in a regressive state but when I believe to have experienced a supreme spiritual opening. An intersubjective mix up happens when a psychiatrist declares someone with an intense spiritual experience as lunatic or when a psychoanalyst diagnoses this state as a childish fantasy of oneness.

In therapy

When working with sensitive and early traumatized persons, we often encounter such fallacies. Either clients report special experiences which are bizarre for the mainstream reality or they find such experiences during an inner travel or in deep relaxation in a therapy session. It is important to attribute these experiences in the right way in order to avoid the fixation of distortions. Issues which come from the prerational level have to be worked through and resolved in therapy, because otherwise they stabilize unwanted symptoms.

When these issues belong to the transrational level, they can serve as resource. Additionally it has to be taken into account that there can be a mix of aspects in one set of experiences so that one aspect has to be treated therapeutically and the can be used in a transrational way. Find an example further on in this text.

Similarities and differences of „pre“ and „trans“

Such confusion can arise also due to the fact that there are similarities between the two realms. The prerational as well as the transrational area is structured visually rather than verbally and directed by the right brain hemisphere. In the first years of life, this halve of the brain dominates, and in states of expanded consciousness we also can notice a strong activity in this part of the brain which processes information mainly as images. This visual content is representing objects on the pre-level, while it appears more complex and abstract on the trans-level. While the former does not use logics but is strongly influenced by emotions, the latter is based on non-linear logics and systemic thinking and perception.

A further distinctive feature for the subjective experience of these diverging states: transpersonal experiences are free of suffering and anxiety. They feel like expansion. Spiritual longing as an example, the intense wish for inner freedom, contains a confusion when it is experienced painfully: There is something I need, and I am missing it. This is a childish wish which covers a frustration from childhood. When this longing just expresses the urge for enlargement, it can be attributed to the transpersonal area. So, as long as neediness is contained in an experience, it indicates a disappointment from early childhood dressed up as spiritual revelation. In case of traumatization, the mechanism of dissociation provides for the access to realms of experience which resemble those of mystics in many aspects but are just symbolizing a dissociative detachment from reality.

Further characteristics of the transpersonal realm: It is free of ego (not selfish and self-fixated). It is empathic, free of fear and growth oriented. From this state, it is easy to switch to the rational level when necessary. So a transrational experience can be left without greater difficulties.

It is possible to describe such an experience in detail without dogmatization and missionary pressure. Inner and outer perceptions are clearly differentiated and not mixed up like in psychotic states. The person can communicate explicitly which part of the experience is internal and which is external.

In such a state, people interact with positive regard and tolerance. They have a sense of responsibility for themselves and for others. There is trust to other people as well as the confidence to accept help when problems about categorizing the experiences arise.

In history, it happened a lot of times that transpersonal mystics were fought and prosecuted by the organized religions which are basically rooted in a prerational perception of reality. Examples are St. Francis, Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross who had to face resistance to their mystical insights and were banned from teaching. Others like the visionary Giordano Bruno were treated even more cruelly and ended their lives on the stake.

Superstition and fortune telling

On the other hand, superstition which is based on the prerational perception of reality has often been offered and sold as transpersonal wisdom. In this context, we can define esotericism as an either planned or unconscious pre-trans-fallacy. Typically, tribal practices are propagated as redeemer for problems of the modern world. As long as these methods cause no harm and no cheating, it is not condemnable to use them. The problems of our inner and outer experiences and its numerous connections are often so complex that we desperately search for help wherever we can find it when we cannot move on with the means of the rational and scientific world. There are archaic practices which have been around since the stone ages but we should not overestimate them even when they are popped up in a modern fashion. They as well cannot offer the all healing powers, but work in one case and fail in another.

The abduction of romanticism consists in glorifying the past. What has happened earlier in history is automatically better because what we have now is bad. We overlook in this view that the glorification of the past is basically a glorification of our childhood which we use as a cover for the wounds and fears of this time in our lives. We transfer the image of a sound childhood onto history. Thus we build up a great expectation that the wisdom of tribal societies could solve the problems in the far more complex actual world. For sure, we need this wisdom as well as all the other forms of wisdom from all traditions and ages but none of them offers the one and only true method.

And in all cases which use the poking of fears (by so called “fortune”-tellers), which sell useless charlatanry and cheat and betray people by wrong assurances, so in all cases in which prerational hopes are evoked manipulatively with the means of rational calculation, civil society as well as jurisdiction has to become active with adequate sanctions. The best immunization against the seductions into the prerational realm consists in considering and realizing our issues from childhood, the fears and unfulfilled longings. Then we are no longer prone to mix up what belongs to our childhood and what offers the paths to the future of our inner development.

The sceptics

Between the pres and the trans, there is an ample space for the sceptics. They mistrust both sides and easily fall for the same fallacy. In case they do not have any experiences on the transpersonal level, they judge every spiritual insight as a breakthrough of prerational rubbish. In their view, anything which cannot be presented rationally is primitive and useless for modern society. Thus, sceptics tend to a certain kind of arrogance: We know what is true and sound and everything outside this area can just be differentiated in the degree of naivety or stupidity. 

E.g., they see the integral philosopher Ken Wilber as esoteric and mystic. According to the definition formulated above, he cannot be both, only if he is accused of a permanent mix of pre and trans which also sounds quite absurd. It is likely that a purely rational view cannot note a difference between alchemy and spirituality, as both elude a fierce academic and scientific test. In their attitude, the sceptical fanatics resemble the persecutors of witches at the end of medieval times who wanted to eradicate any form of irrationality and targeted especially on premodern healers and midwives. The accusation of sorcery contained a fear of special, that is transpersonal powers which yet, as being attributed to the devil could only come from a prerational sphere. 

Lines of conflict

The example of the persecution of witches indicates that especially at the turn from one step of the evolution of consciousness to the next, problems of identity can arise which often cause the eruption of violence. In any case, at such points of transition (fulcrums according to Ken Wilber) typical conflicts come up. Historically, this was the time when the medieval world which was governed by prerational belief systems was replaced by the modern scientific model. In other regions of the world, e.g. in the Islamic or Hinduistic areas, these conflicts still rampage. The Western world though, comes to the exit of the materialistic stage of consciousness which is closely connected to the rational scientific world view and faces a similar potential of conflict yet hopefully with sufficient different means of conflict resolution.

Internally or psychologically, cultural changes resemble identity conflicts as they occur for instance in the school-age up to puberty in the transition period from a prerational to a rational stage. Also on the threshold to a spiritual opening, questions about one’s own identity can arise. In those phases, the orientation swings between the wish for an old and well-known safety and the urge to a new but insecure freedom.

Depending on how these phases were experienced, fixations can happen. Someone who has encountered a lot of problems and emotional difficulties during the prerational phase can find stability and safety in rationality. From the attachment research we know that such fixations can happen very early. In such a case, the whole sphere of prerationality is seen as a threat which has to be fought off with all cognitive means. The transrational spheres get depreciated, as with a lack of experience, their similarities to the prerational patterns are noticeable and activate the same scenario of menace. In these cases we also confuse a stable I with a finished or an armored I.

When someone who has shut off his/her painful past deeply inside but proceeds from the level of rationality to transpersonality by attending meditations courses or following other spiritual methods, or by experiencing deep revelations during a breathwork session, then there is a danger to intellectualize the experiences in this area while the unresolved emotional problems still linger in the unconsciousness. Then we have the type of a passionate meditator who just finds silence and relaxation in meditation while in daily social life personality deficits come up which he/she can suppress with the help of wisdom and depth gained in meditation. Ken Wilber says in an interview: “A deranged emotional life cannot be healed by Zen the same as it cannot heal a broken bone.”

Another conflict happens when someone has a transpersonal experience but cannot integrate it as either a prepersonal traumatization is activated along with it or because society pathologizes the experience and labels it as psychotic or schizotypic. 

Spiritual crisis

On the way to inner expansion, concussion and crisis can happen as the existing safety structures of the psyche which are based on fixated patterns and neurosis get weakened and the new structures are not yet established. So symptoms can come up which resemble psychotic states and can easily be mixed up with them. In this context, Stanislav Grof has coined the expression of spiritual crisis and has formed a Spiritual Emergency Network, so that people who go through such a crisis can receive competent help and do not have to be hospitalized in mental institutions.

At the turning points of the inner development, old emotional patterns can be reactivated while new perspectives open up. This leads to a strong sense of insecurity and confusion. On the other hand, these phases offer a good chance to work up the prerational issues therapeutically. For the spiritual opening provides for new resources to support the emotional work.


The power inherent in the evolution of consciousness motivates to transcend the limitations of the rational ego. We want to proceed in our growth and set ourselves free from the constrictions we have adopted during our history. We do not search for inner freedom because we are driven by childish wishful thinking for a paradise, but because we want to find our inner being. We have a vague idea of it which does not leave us alone until we have found our home in the huge whole. We can master the challenges of this transcendence only when our ego is stable enough. Otherwise, we will get thrown back to our prepersonal issues with every step in the new direction. We only can let go of a stable and strong ego.


Overview: Pre-Trans-Fallacies

Short form Short description Examples
Pre ⇒ Trans Prerational experiences are mistaken for transpersonal experiences. Esoterics, romanticism, refusal of intellectuality and rationality
Trans ⇒ Pre Transrational experiences are mistaken for prepersonal experiences. Science, psychoanalysis, atheism, overestimation of intellectuality and rationality

Short form Subjective perspective Intersubjective perspective
Pre ⇒ Trans A regressive or dissociative experience is experienced as spiritual. The experience gets naively overestimated by worshipping the person.
Trans ⇒ Pre A spiritual experience is experienced as distorting and irritating (cf. spiritual crisis). The experience gets pathologized, the person is declared as insane.

Short form Subjective symptoms Objective attributes
Pre ⇒ Trans Suffering from a transpersonal experience, anxiety Inauthenticity, discrepancy between talk and action
Trans ⇒ Pre Distortion, experience cannot be integrated, cannot find its proper place in the inner world. Intact ego, insecurity in terms of spirituality, difficulties in conceptualizing

Short form Therapeutical mistake Adequate therapeutical consequence
Pre ⇒ Trans The traumatic part (the dissociation) of the experience is overlooked. Positive counter transference The traumatic part of the experience is treated in therapy.
Trans ⇒ Pre A traumatic aspect (a dissociation) is projected onto the experience. Negative counter transference The experience is used as resource.

Grof, S. & Grof, C.: Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. (1989)
Wilber K.: Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution (1995)

Friday, 12 April 2013

Psoas Muscles and Trauma Healing

shutterstock 309794093
In case you have never studied anatomics, you probably would not know it: the group of muscles called Psoas. They connect the upper torso with the pelvis and are located on the lower side of the back. They are responsible for a lot of tasks: Walking upright, even shoulders, position of the legs and the spine. We usually use them not only unconsciously, but we also notice tensions in that area only indirectly: They affect the diaphragm, are communicated to the torso and can cause pain in the upper back and the shoulder area.

The psoas muscles form a connection between breathing and body posture. This is illustrated by the fact that in our evolution, walking on the ground and breathing have developed at the same time. So exercising in a relaxed way with the psoas muscles leads to a more dynamic pelvis and a liberated breathing rhythm as well as to a stable grounded body feeling.

From the Tibetian tradition we learn that the psoas muscles are the ultimate source of the ego. Working with it, can confront with issues like clinging to something and fixation.

The interesting discovery of the body worker and trauma therapist David Berceli is that these muscles play an important role in storing as well as in healing trauma."The psoas muscles are considered the fight/flight muscles of the human species. These primitive muscles stand guard like sentinels protecting the center of gravity of the human body located just in front of the 3rd vertebrae of the sacrum (S3). These muscles connect the back with the pelvis and the legs. During any traumatic experience, the psoas muscles contract. To heal from physical trauma contractions, this deep set of muscles must let go of their protective tension and return to a relaxed state. It has been generally accepted that after particularly tens, stressing or traumatic experiences, people could get a massage, take a hot bath or do some exercises, and that will resolve their trauma and restore their body back to a healthy state. However, this is not the case when it comes to traumatic tension in the psoas muscles. The body’s ability to let go of the tension in these muscles has been diminished due to our socialization process.

It often is the case that contracted and even damaged psoas muscles create tremendous lower back pains. This is very common among sexual abuse survivors. What is often overlooked is when the psoas muscles contract and pull the body forward, they cause secondary muscle contractions as the body tries to compensate for this forward pull. The erector spinae muscles will also pull the body backwards in an attempt to keep it upright. These two opposite tensions will actually begin to compress the lumbar spine as they pull the lower vertebrae together, creating a spinal compression that can be damaging over a prolonged period of time. If held long enough in this tension, this pull will eventually cause secondary shoulder and neck pain as well. 

The diaphragm muscle also adds to the tension in this area. The psoas muscle overlaps the iliacus and diaphragm muscles along the spine. Together, they form a linking system of the torso, pelvis and legs. Since this is such a strategic area of protection, the largest number of sympathetic nerves (fight or flight nerves) are also found in this area of the body.
This trembling [of an animal after having survived intense danger] is the natural process of the body discharging the excess energy simultaneously as it is being created in the body.

As humans, we possess the same mechanism. However, to our detriment, we have inhibited or deadened it. As an example, when we get nervous or overexcited, we deliberately try not to shake so as not to appear weak or afraid. This ego control places the body and mind into a conflict. The body wants to shake to discharge the excess energy, but the mind refuses to let it do so. The mind usually wins and the body must then find another way of dealing with this hyper-aroused charge. The way it deals with it is by contracting the muscles and containing this excess charge. The muscles in the body contract and hold onto the excess charge until they are allowed to release it at a later time. If they do not get that opportunity, the contracted muscles then produce a chronic state of tension in the body. Herein lays one of the root causes of PTSD. If the muscles contracted during trauma do not release this high charge shortly after the trauma, they will continue to try to do so at a later date as a way of restoring the body to a restful state.

Post traumatic reactions are cause by the residual undischarged excitement generated in the time of the event. If this high state of aroused energy is prevented from being discharged in the body, it remains trapped in a bio-neural-physical loop that causes a repetition compulsion behavior. Until the body shakes out this tension, the body will continue to repeat this chronic tension pattern of protection and defense. A major component to a successful recovery from trauma is to activate the person’s natural release mechanism that signals the body to return to a state of rest and recuperation. 

For all humans, after the trauma is over, the nervous system should naturally activate itself and begin to shake out any residual chemicals or tension remaining from the traumatic episode. This shaking sends a signal to the brain informing it that the danger has subsided and it should turn off its alert status. If the nervous system does not activate itself, the body continues to remain in a kind of short circuit loop with the brain continuing to believe it is still in danger and therefore continuing to command the body to stay in a state of readiness and alert."

(David Berceli: Trauma Releasing Exercises. Book Sourge 2005, 14; 16)

Humans all around the globe react equally to traumatic experiences  - a neurologically caused shaking from light to strong, always starting with the legs, the lower back and the pelvis area. Special exercises developed by David Berceli first resolve the actual or chronic tensions in the psoas muscles, which we cannot command by will. So these exercises are designed to let the shaking come automatically from inside. Thus, the deeply stored tensions in the psoas muscles will open up and relax.

Further sources and information on exercises:

Monday, 11 March 2013

Internal Communication

Health means that we live a life free of distortions inside of ourselves. When we fall ill we notice an irritation in the relationship with ourselves. The disease irritates us in our internal unity. The body presents itself as a troublemaker instead of working frictionless, as if it would oppose us like an unruly child. We encourage it, blame it or lament, depending on the occasion – and at the same time we are the ones who are addressed and we are the medium in which the whole discourse occurs.

We are our body and experience ourselves as different from it because we can take a position from which we can relate to it. So there is a relationship inside an identity. For the position from which we start the relationship is contained in this body-mind-identity which we are. Where there is relationship, there is communication. The peculiarity of this communication is the identity in which it lives from this difference.

We are communicating organisms, and as we are the partners of this communication as well as the communication itself, and as we can be conscious of that, we are also a reflective organism, an organism able to relate to itself. This comes especially up when we are ill. We cannot lead our lives as we had planned; we have to stay in bed instead of going on a nice Sunday excursion. The identity breaks up which had been there before. In addition to the suffering which is part of the illness comes the suffering from the suffering.

We suffer from the distortion of the internal communication and our inability to cure it. By this, we tend to confuse our internal levels of communication which further more unsettles us. For we tend to distance ourselves from our bodies (sometimes even, when the disease is very grave, we can be disgusted at our bodies, or when the disease takes too much time we can become ashamed). The body we are becomes an object, and we are looking for help from the outside to correct that object.

For being able to feel safe again we need the promise of a successful healing. In our regions, the doctor is the authority for such a promise. Due to his/her experience and education he can articulate a prognosis which is comforting us (in case it is positive or harmless). Simply such a comfort can add to the healing because restlessness and tension blocks the inner healing powers. When the diagnosis is negative, the uncertainty grows.

For the communicative confusions grows the more speaker take part. Sometimes we wander from one doctor to the next, and everyone of them says something different. Then we are looking for complementary remedies which differ even more in their diagnosis and healing modalities.

Before getting lost in the turmoil of saving efforts offered by this complex world we should take a hold and realize: We are a communicative body-mind-being, and communication means to listen as much as to speak. Then we see that we have talked all the time, that we listened to voices from outside but never from our inner and intimate communication partner, our body, and especially from those parts which make themselves noticeable due to the illness. By our refusal to listen we enforce the distortion and are surprised not to regain our health.

Let us not augment the uncertainty which arises inside as a consequence of the disease, let us not panic but let us stay open to communication. Then we can start to listen to our bodies. What is it it wants to tell us, what is it missing, what does it need, what should I change? When this important information does not reach us our bodies do not feel understood and react accordingly. The basis of communication we build up by starting to listen can be an important part of the healing.

We are beings equipped with the means for using the internal channels of communication. This is what we should do whether we feel healthy or ill. For the more we train the language of our bodies the easier it will be available for us to open the inner ways towards healing.

Meditation is a way of training our inner communication. Again and again we can feel our breath in daily life. When we notice that the hustle and bustle of daily life starts to over roll us, it is helpful to withdraw to ourselves and take a time to feel: What does the body need to come to rest? By this, we can regain our inner harmony which is the best foundation for the health of our bodies.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Free Will - Holy Cow Or Illusion?

“Man is created free, and is free, though he be born in chains.” This is the concept of the autonomous modern man as formulated by Friedrich Schiller. Free will is the trade mark of progressive societies and promotes the individual who is creating his own life able to do what he wants without any limitations from outside – authorities or social expectations.

On the Dispute Around Free Will

Yet there is massive doubt about the existence of free will which comes mainly from the world of natural science. Any process in nature which includes man takes place in a chain of cause and effect without any interruption. When such a chain is not evident it becomes the object of research till the gap is filled. One event causes the next, and free will is not needed in the observation and description of the processes (although its existence in talking about it would be the product of a causal chain at least). In addition to that, some of today’s prominent brain researchers like to state that free will is just an imagination of higher brain centers, mainly the prefrontal cortex. It labels decisions which are made up by deeper and unconsciously working systems as decisions from free will, “long” after the choice has been made. Basically, we do not know why we decide but name our decisions as free after it has been made.

From another corner, spiritual teachers and traditions like Advaita argue against free will with another argument: The all knowing and all controlling divine intelligence has created every event in the universe up to the tiniest detail, so everything is already determined whatever has happened so far and will happen in the future. Similar to the insights of modern brain research, free will is an illusion and self deception.

So free will is under attack from the supporters of natural sciences as well as from the devotees of teachings from the East. Should we leave the question to the scholars and students in the academic or spiritual fields? It does not seem irrelevant for our self-concept and for our image of other people whether our will is free or not.

On the Biography of Will

When we consider our upbringing, we might realize that at some point in time consciousness about our own free will arose. As a newborn baby, we had other troubles to handle – building up the first contacts and care about our safety and basic nurturing. We were so much part of a development guided by biological processes without knowledge of alternatives. Of course, we discovered quite early that our behavior had an impact on our environment. Later, this impression became stronger, and as soon as we could master the word “No!” and the sentence “I do not want!” we were clear about our own will.

As grownups, it is obvious: We can decide what we want – whether we take the red or the green apples from the shelf, whether we take a car or public transportation, whether we are friendly towards someone else or not. Yet, are these decisions as free as they seem to us? Who is it really who decides for the green or the red apples? Our previous experiences, our expectations, the momentary state of hunger, the placement of the product in the shop, … Is it really my choice to be friendly to a person with whom I just had a conflict? But what is in the way when I am free in fact?

As mentioned above, brain research has stated that the conscious decision making center is located in the prefrontal cortex. It is the last step of the process of decision, when everything is clear already. Procedures running deeply in the unconsciousness make the decision after surveying the pros and cons, and the neocortex gives its final consent as if it would say; „Well, I have no idea why just this decision came about, but I can herewith state that the whole thing was a thoroughly rational and conscious decision and I can name all the relevant reasons for it.”

So we never know and cannot even know whether the reasons for a certain decision we have in our mind are really those which have actually lead to the decision. Yet we act as if we were fully in control. This is why some people call humans rationalizing (inventing reasons) and not rational (reasonable) animals.

About the Necessity of Free Will

Why then is there an institution which pretends to be a free will? I think it fulfills mainly two functions: One is about having a feeling of self when we act which helps us in planning our future. Also developing creative ideas is supported when we give us the feedback of having achieved something of high value by ourselves. So we are motivated to keep on doing so. We experience ourselves as the center of our world, as the navel point around which everything turns.

The other function of an (probably illusionary) free will can be found in the social fabric, in forming groups and societies. Social interaction works only when the participants are able to hold on to rules and to apply them freely according to the relevant situation. Additionally, individual acts of free will should lead up to forming a common will. The participants always presuppose that they themselves and the others as well can use something like a free will. We feel ourselves and we make others responsible for what is done by us or them. When we make a mistake, the excuse is hardly ever that we do not have a free will but probably that we were not in full mastery of our will in the given situation.

We also assume that we can evolve and improve in our ability to choose. It supports our self-esteem to realize that we have grown in managing fears and that we have improved in certain skills, when looking back. We attribute these steps in learning to ourselves and not to anyone else or to some unconscious processes within ourselves. So the assumption of a free will is the basis of our feeling of self-esteem.

Our daily life is full of connections which do not make any sense without accepting the idea of free will. It is only on the level of wisdom that we start to understand that the free will is not just an attribute which is adhered to our being like the earlap to the ear but a function which we use under certain circumstances and which we imply in respect to other people.

On the Abdication of Free Will

We only start to declare free will as obsolete when we dive into spiritual realms. Apart from the findings of modern brain research which we might find interesting but which do not have much impact on our experience of reality, spiritual experiences can open up to deeper insights about the reality of reality. We can get a sense of how tiny we are in the huge stream of life or existence, while we like to inflate ourselves as giants with all our vanities and how much effort we invest in these endeavors. We, the origin of our life, the all creating and recreating center of our world – what a hardship, what a drag! How superfluous would it appear when we realize that we are held and carried by a power far beyond our imagination? When we start to surrender to this power independent from our will, then the idea of a free will is an unnecessary aspect which mainly serves our resistances against surrender.

So it seems indispensable that we make ourselves clear that we live on different levels of consciousness which become effective in different degrees according to the actual situation and which are growing and evolving throughout our whole lives. When we start to trust our experience, we always find an answer to the question whether there “exists” something like a free will.

As long as we are oriented to the outside in our perception, thinking and acting, oriented in past and future we suppose without question that we can use our free will. When we are totally in the moment and connected to the flow of life, we do not need a free will. Rather, we feel integrated and aligned with what happens which follows a higher intelligence. It does not need our contribution to find its optimum over and over again.

We become a sage when we have passed through the levels of reflection, when we have tasted from the waters of common sense thinking and philosophical argument, when we have understood the pros and cons concerning the idea of free will, and when we have gained some insight in the development of consciousness. Ultimately, leaving behind all illusions without disdaining or devaluating them, we can enjoy the luxury of the sage who can let go of all concepts which have proven to be illusions. Some ballast less to carry on our way …

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Breathwork and Developmental Trauma

The common understanding of trauma refers to a single experience of shock which was so terrible that the inner balance gets severely affected over a longer period of time – a traffic accident, the sudden death of a family member, a violent assault etc. Such events are called mono traumas and are connected to the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When working in therapy with such cases, it is important to resolve the shock state which is stored inside and to complete the fight/flight-reaction which was disrupted by the trauma.

When such traumatization happen frequently, for instance like abusive violations or aggressive attacks, we talk about sequential traumatization. In the therapy of such cases, the focus has to be on establishing a stable therapeutic relationship, connected with building up inner strength and a reliable access to resources before the resolution of the traumas can start. Then the work can focus on freeing the feelings which have been blocked around the traumatic situations.

The relatively new term of developmental trauma addresses ongoing experiences of neglect and frustration of needs in early childhood. It is closely connected to the extensively documented concept of attachment disorders. Unsecure attachment causes chronically malfunctions in the autonomic nervous system and interferes with the development of the brain, the hormonal system and the memory. These different forms of unsecure attachment (avoidant, ambivalent, disorganized) develop in an atmosphere of ongoing and repeated miscommunication between the child and its caretakers. This is exactly the atmosphere for creating developmental traumas.

There do not have to be single significant traumatic experiences but uncertainty, threat and distortion happen very often or constantly. Many studies have shown that traumatization caused by human relationships have a much deeper impact as traumatization by natural sources (like natural catastrophes). It seems that we humans are so strongly designed as social beings that our healthy emotional and physical development depends to a high degree on a loving and stable social environment, especially in the early phases of growing up. Developmental traumas can cause physiological, emotional, social and cognitive disabilities.

For the unborn and the baby are totally depended on the grownups for their survival. They have nothing to give in exchange for what they get except their love. Is the safeguard of this survival in danger, panic breaks out. And a baby does not have more that total defense, tensing up, freezing and inner withdrawal as mechanisms to survive the panic. The ultimate defensive reaction is rigor and numbness. When the traumatization has happened before birth, it is the only possibility of reaction. In this state, dissociations, splits in consciousness and loss of body perception happen easily. When someone has difficulties in gaining access to feelings and emotions up to palsies can have their origin in such early childhood grievances.

When this inner state of stress becomes chronified, it can be seen in slighter symptoms like a rigid gaze, deficits in concentration, disability to listen or different health problems. Trivial reasons can trigger a shock reaction: the breath is held, all irrelevant actions stop. The total awareness goes to the outer senses, especially to hearing and looking. Such symptoms can be active throughout a whole lifetime and intensify in situations of stress. These persons do not even realize that they have adopted this reactive behavior at one point in time for protecting themselves, but they assume that this is just the way they are.

A further result of this kind of traumatization is the delay, deceleration or even inhibition in developing the Social Engagement Systems resp. the smart vagus system according to the polyvagal theory. In these cases, even low degrees of stress in social situations can lead to intensive emotional reactions which impede any empathic clarification of the situation. When the stress mode passes another level, blocking is the only possibility. Socially compatible reactions are no longer accessible in this state. It is not possible to regulate the emotions, they flood the consciousness without any respect to the situation and the involved persons.

A nervous system which predominantly switches between sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system without using the newer and more intelligent vagus systems comes into deregulation and overstraining. Various health problems can result from that. The sympathetic system does not know about relaxation, and the parasympathetic system can only relax in exhaustion.

Researches in the US estimate that three million newborn babies per year are affected by developmental traumas (which are 70 % !) so that this distortion is one of the most crucial health issues in the world. This category is not yet contained in the current diagnostic classifications (DMS IV, ICD 10). So symptoms with a developmental trauma background get often wrongly diagnosed, e.g. as Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or as bipolar (manic-depressive) illness. The standard treatment is medication instead of working therapeutically on the developmental deficits.

Breathwork and Developmental Traumas

Many elements for a successful treatment of developmental traumas are part of the basic repertoire of integrative breathwork when applied with all the skills from a profound training. These elements which will be discussed in the following sections and they can be used as a checklist if there is any need of further training to work efficiently with breathwork in cases of developmental trauma.

Vegetative Regulation

Developmental traumatization causes ongoing deregulations in the whole area of the vegetative nervous system. This can lead to over activity on the one side (chronic tension and nervousness) or lack of drive and motivation (passivity, depression). Sometimes there is a constant shift between these poles. These clients cannot react in a relaxed way to challenges from the environment.

By relaxing the exhale and by strengthening the inbreath, improved vegetative regulations can be built up and trained. The breath “education” which means the restoration of the original breathing functions on the level of the vegetative nervous system consists in opening the space for the new, smart vagus when the rhythmical and regular change between sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system on a low level of arousal is established. When the breath is flowing deeply and relaxed, this is an indication of a well regulated nervous system. In this state, the skills for social engagement and the openness for inner feeling are accessible. Additionally, self-confidence and self-esteem are strengthened on the organismic level.


When we breathe consciously, we open the way for inner perception, for strengthening the inner sense and for feeling body sensations. As breathworkers, we guide the client to feel the body all the time during the breathing process, to feel sensations and emotions. With eyes closed, the attention can easily stay with the inner universe.

Dissociation is a central mechanism of traumatization which is the splitting off of the awareness from the physical level. It is as if the consciousness would emigrate to a secure place so that the threating situation to which the body is exposed can be observed from a safe distance. When the traumatization goes on, the ability to feel the body and its signals can get lost totally.

The simplest way to reconnect body and consciousness is by giving the attention to the breathing. By this, one can dive consciously into the permanent stream of the organismic process in which a lot of information comes up from the inner world and its memory. The therapeutic value lies in establishing the trust in this channel of information and to help to relieve the dissociation, the split between body and consciousness. Thus, the tendency to step out of the present experience is reduced and the awareness for the demands of the momentary situation is strengthened. To feel the breath consciously and to connect to the body by doing this is a practice which can be done anytime and everywhere.

Yet we have to be aware of dissociative flashbacks which can happen during a breathing process when it becomes difficult for the breather to keep the attention with the breathing and to slip into unconsciousness. Although this state of unconsciousness can have different reasons it is important to clear whether it has to do with tiredness or exhaustion so that the body reacts with a need for sleep to the lying position or whether it is an unconsciously directed evasion into a parasympathetic state which can be the result of an early traumatization. Especially when this drifting off happens at the point of entering a deeper level of inner experience the assumption is close at hand that it is a protective reaction to safeguard the original traumatizing experience.

Bottom-Up and Top-Down

We work „bottom-up“, when we aim at the root of the distortion and let the healing happen until it can be experienced on the “upper” level. When we work with conscious breathing, we reach deeply into the preverbal area. As soon as we focus on our breathing, we access realms of experience which took place beyond or long before the cognitive processing was possible, and which have left their traces way under the regions of language.

Working top down is secondary, yet equally important. It is less represented in breathwork. The rule is often told: Let the breath do its work, that is enough. Talking during or after the process is unnecessary and can disturb the inner process. Still, the rise of deep emotions must be balanced with the ability to integrate them. We should not neglect this aspect. Working top down means to provide a frame of understanding for what happens or what has happened. When the client is able to understand the inner experience she can relax on the cognitive level as well. It is also important to stabilize healing which has happened on the physical and emotional level by changing cognitive patterns which could inhibit the integration and consolidation of what has been healed.

Filling Up the Container

Developmental traumatization causes a permanent alert state in the organism which has to run on an emergency program. There is a lack of time and space for regeneration for mending the damages and for filling up the resources. Often not even sleep provides this function of regeneration as it is restless and disrupted. This leads to irritability, hypersensitivity and lack in stress resistance. Small incidents can cause strong emotional reactions and alterations in the mood.

Breathwork sessions should ideally lead towards a state of deep relaxation either after processes of intensive emotional discharge or after a calm and smooth course. Clients often report after a session that they never before felt as relaxed as now. This is the state in which the depleted energy containers get replenished.

To be able to relax better also in daily life with the help of mindful breathing is one of the pleasant side effects of breath therapy as well as the use of conscious breathing for coping with sleep disorders. This helps to improve the energy balance sustainably because the body gets the required amount of regenerative phases.

Anchoring in the Present

Traumatization is an experience in the past with impacts on the present moment. In the present we know that we have survived the trauma and that we are stronger and more capable than we were as children. So it is important that we keep the consciousness in the present moment when elements of the trauma experience emerge. So the original experience can be relived in a secure framework.

The breath offers an excellent way to return to the present moment again and again. As therapists, we encourage the breather to notice the flow of the breath in every moment, even when tough and dreadful memories and intense feelings come up. The breath acts as safe fundament of the re-experience of the trauma situation. We help the client to establish a bridge between the bad experience of the past and the safety in the present. This way, a new imprint in the brain is established.

Conscious breathing can easily be connected with grounding exercises which play an important role in anchoring in the present. The energetic contact to the floor strengthens the internal safety, the feeling of being carried by the huge mother earth.

Working with Catharsis

Developmental traumas create complex patterns which go back to unfinished fight-flight-reactions. When a baby is frustrated in its needs it starts to react with irritation, then with anger and with aggression and finally, when there is still no adequate response from outside, with resignation, withdrawal and blocking. In these cases, the potential of activation of the sympathetic branch cannot be completed in its natural course. It is halfway stuck. Before the aggressive energies can be expressed and outlived, they meet a massive barrier which turns into a prohibition: I am not allowed to be angry because I would lose the love of the people who care for my survival.

By intensifying and deepening the breathing, often body impulses arise to the surface which urge towards expression in order to complete unfinished cycles of aggression. So it is helpful to trust these impulses and express them so that the blocked energy can be set free. This can be connected with screaming, kicking, pushing etc. and has to take place in a very safe environment, including the therapist. She needs a deep rooted trust in the power of the feelings so she can give all the safe holding the client needs in this process. She has to act like a parent who holds the helplessly angry child with the message: Yes, you are allowed to be angry now and you are allowed to express this feeling with all its strength, and I love you with all of this feeling.

But we have to be cautious to force the breath, because accessing the sensitive trauma moments to quickly can overwhelm the client and cause retraumatization. It is crucial in time to slow down the breathing when the root of the problem is approaching so that the experience can be integrated carefully step by step.

Healing and invasive body contact

A form of traumatizing neglect can be found in the lack of body contact between the baby and its caretakers. Newborns feel contact and love mainly via the body. They perceive on this channel what a relationship they have to their most important contact persons. When this channel is not used they lack of indispensable information and they do not know whether they are wanted or not, whether they are accepted or rejected. So they feel totally unsecure in a no man’s land where there is threat and danger any time possible. This is the cause for developing a constantly active vigilance and sensitivity for the smallest sparks of contact which often get charged up with unconscious interpretations like: When I smile, my mother takes notice of me.

Breathwork is a form of body therapy, so it provides different forms of body contact. As proven scientifically already, empathic touch can ease pain, relieve stress and release happiness and attachment hormones. Touch is one of the most important ways of communication for empathy and acceptance.

When working with clients with developmental trauma who suffer from lack of touch, it is crucial to be aware of the enormous importance and significance of body contact as well as of the huge insecurity connected with it. Touching in a tiny way can have a big impact which should be perceived clearly and exactly and processed verbally. So it should be clarified again and again how the body contact is received so that any overflow or invasion of contact signals is omitted.

Mindfulness Training

Mindfulness therapy is gaining positive recognition as helpful tool with different problems, mainly stress disorders and diseases related to that. It is based on the Buddhist meditation practice which, of course, uses the awareness of the breath as one of its key methods. This is an assignment from mindfulness therapy: When learning mindfulness skills, it is usually recommended that we start practicing mindfulness of the breath, then mindfulness of the body, before moving on to mindfulness of thoughts. 

When we work with the conscious breath, we practice mindfulness therapy. We keep our attention on the breath (as therapists and as clients), observe the inflow and the outflow, whatever sensations and impulses come from inside. Thus we connect to the experience of the present moment and pay less attention to the thoughts. The world of mental constructions withdraws to the background. This is a valuable tool to be able to cope with the challenges of life more calmly and even-tempered. For someone suffering from developmental trauma, this is a considerable aid for improving one’s quality of life.

The Therapeutic Relationship

As mentioned above, developmental traumatization predominantly results from an atmosphere of unsecure attachment. So the relationship between breathworker and client has a crucial role in healing. As a client with this burden comes with an unsecure attachment pattern, it is important that the therapist can offer the specific remedy in a new form of relationship with consistency and safety which the client missed during childhood. The therapist should be able to cope with typical pendulum movements in opening and closing, in trusting and mistrusting which are common for unsecure attached clients. As soon as they notice that they are accept whether they are open or withdrawn, they can relax more in contact and start to build up a new internal model of relationship step by step.

As congruent relationship experiences have occurred very rarely in the history of these clients, they have a high expectancy in the therapist. They notice immediately when something is wrong and they react highly sensitively to that, often without mentioning. When e.g. the therapist answers the client’s question that she is not tired (because she wants to be an attentive and present companion), although she is tired, it creates mistrust in the client, which can be so subtle that not even the client is aware of it. So there is no possibility of clearing it up unless the therapist becomes aware of the change in the relationship atmosphere.

Many of the elements which are needed by clients with developmental traumas for an effective healing process are part of the basic repertoire in breath therapy. And a lot of additional learning can take place to improve the professional skill by looking more accurately at the backgrounds of the distortions and problems with which the clients come to the session. We can trust the merits and healing power of the breath and we can work together in enlarging its possibilities. For this it is important that we encounter new concepts and insights.


Laurence Heller: Healing Developmental Trauma. How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books 2012
Bessel van der Kolk: Developmental trauma disorder: Towards a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. 10.12.2012  7.1.2013, 8.1.2013
Wilfried Ehrmann: Entwicklungstraumen und Atemtherapie. In: ATMAN Zeitung 1/2013