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