Trauma Sensitive Breathwork:Embodied therapy for healing your inner child, in London UK and Online.
Approximately a 10 – 15 minute read including the following themes:
- Introduction: Rose C Jiggens – Trauma Sensitive Breathwork Therapist
- Rebirthing Breathwork and Inner Child Healing
- Breathwork for Trauma
- Breathwork: a Somatic (Embodied) Approach to Therapy
- Trauma Sensitive Breathwork Benefits
- Is Breathwork Safe or Can it be Dangerous?
- The Transformational Power of Breathwork
- Doing Breathwork Online
Trauma Sensitive Breathwork Therapist
Hello, I am Rose: a therapist and educator offering Trauma Sensitive Breathwork for healing your inner child. I am a good person to see when you want an approach that offers more than ‘just talking’. I see individual clients for sessions on Zoom and in Hackney, East London, UK.
Trauma Sensitive Breathwork is an approach I have evolved, integrating various trainings and client experience dating back to 2009. It may be suitable for you, if you are interested in breathwork and want a trauma sensitive approach. If you have an interest in breathwork and are not sure about your next steps, I hope the article below will support you with relevant information.
Rebirthing Breathwork and Inner Child Healing
I qualified as a rebirthing breathworker: breathwork therapy as a tool for psychological enquiry and emotional release, has been developing since the 1960’s. Rebirthing Breathwork was ‘birthed’ by Leonard Orr: it focuses on healing the imprints of our conception, gestation, birth and early years.
From my own rebirthing breathwork training, I remain grateful for experiencing the profound impact of a birth story on a clients life. I also remain grateful for the following stepped approach to healing and transformation:
- Tell the truth about what is happening in the present.
- Use your breath to ‘lift the hatch’ and find imprints of the past in your body.
- Integrate what you find, shaping a reality of your choosing with affirmations.
In a rebirthing breathwork process, those 3 steps would typically take place in a 1 hour lie down ‘breathe’ – using loud music and intensive breathing patterns catalysing a process of some kind. This approach has a valid place in many peoples healing journeys, however our understanding of trauma has evolved since breathwork was first developed. We now know intense process work can overwhelm an already dysregulated nervous system and you might want to consider a trauma sensitive approach.
As the renowned trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk says ‘The Body Keeps the Score‘ and to heal we sometimes need more than just talking; engaging our whole breath can still offer a direct line of enquiry bringing us close to whatever ‘scores’ our bodies hold. However using trauma specific tools and approaches – e.g. regulation first, attachment aware, orienting, titration and pendulation – means our breath can unfurl and deepen when it feels safe to do so. Read on to understand more about this approach to breathwork.
Breathwork for Trauma
I still base my work on the essential steps of my rebirthing breathwork training. However through experience and training in trauma specific skills, here is the bare bones of my approach to a trauma sensitive breathwork session:
1. Tell the truth about what’s happening in the present: before moving to breathwork or inner child healing, we need first to establish if this tool is appropriate to your situation, through a thorough exploration of what’s happening in the present. If wounds from the past are what need attention, then breathwork can be a good step.
At other times breathwork could be inappropriate or – even harmful – when looking to an individuals childhood glosses over other current causes of distress. For example when someone faces systemic oppression in the present “tell me about your childhood” can grossly miss the point. Telling the truth about what’s happening in the present includes assessing if breathwork is the right approach for a situation.
2. Use your breath to ‘lift the hatch’ and find imprints of the past in your body: in rebirthing and holotropic breathwork, the breathing patterns used are often intensive, they tend to speed up and catalyse a process. In a trauma sensitive approach to breathwork, titration is a way of approaching the impact of difficult events by learning to slow down. Little by little, we come alongside our survival responses (more on those in embodied therapy below) by following our breath down without forcing or changing it.
Building regulation in our nervous system is what allows us to move closer to our vulnerable or protective inner child parts, letting them know “you have all the time you need to process what happened”. Parts refer to places that have split off from our conscious awareness, because we didn’t have someone to support us in a moment when we experienced something overwhelming. The voices of these parts needs to be heard: a titrated approach allows our breath to unfurl through our bodies when it feels safe enough for all our parts to do so.
3. Integrate what you find, shaping a reality of your choosing with affirmations: the impacts of trauma often mean we cannot recognise and move towards safety and the good things around us. Our nervous systems become attuned to noticing threat and foregrounding painful memories, that’s why in my work I take a regulation first approach.
Put simply, greater agency comes from a nervous system that is freer to make choices aligned with present reality. Trauma specific skills include support with ‘orienting’ our senses towards good things. Pendulation helps the anxious places in our body connect with more resourced places. A felt sense of trust emerges from the body as the foundation of any affirmations we may use.
Breathwork: a Somatic (Embodied) Approach to Therapy
The Polyvagal theory of Dr. Stephen Porges offers a powerful working hypothesis for healing the impact of adverse experiences, used by many forms of somatic therapy (here is a short summary video from Deb Dana). The physiology of our body responds to threat in ways that can save our life: our body will pause, assess a situation and initiate self protective responses such as fight, flight or freeze. These physiological changes are surivial oriented and rarely under our conscious control.
Survival physiology develops when our bodies don’t have chance to recover from stressful situations, perhaps because they are ongoing or there is no one around to soothe us. This impacts the working relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our nervous system; amongst other changes our physiology becomes locked into patterns of threat response which compromise our ability to accurately asses the present.
Survival physiology may result from difficult stories we can recall. There may also be early events we can’t recall so that we need support to join up the dots: e.g. transgenerational trauma, in utero shocks, early medical interventions, the unavailability of a caregiver due to temporary circumstances, emotional neglect that is difficult to pin down, stressors and economic impacts on a community.
Our stories are important in regards to sense making of the difficult things we have experienced, however our stories alone may sometimes not be enough to help us heal. The underlying survival physiology needs to be addressed in order for us to be able to identify and move towards good things around us, and have the capacity to encompass inevitable challenges.
In Trauma Sensitive Breathwork we tell the story of the present and watch what unfolds through sensations, feelings, images, posture and breath. Tracking our breath with our awareness we can start to identify places of resource; being supported to rest silently with places where the breath doesn’t move, can give them time and space to unfurl. I use a parts approach which recognises that there are no bad parts, only adaptive survival places from the past that have become maladaptive in regards to the present. All of you is welcome and everything we encounter served you in some way at some time in the past.
In my experience, Trauma Sensitive Breathwork works well when just enough regulation is already present to support it. When there is not enough regulation to support Trauma Sensitive Breathwork (or any other area of my work) I suggest starting with TEB: Transforming Touch® a somatic therapy. In TEB we use a 7 point touch protocol (it can also be done intentionally and without touch), directly addressing and supporting the systems of the body involved in survival physiology. Our priority is building a felt sense of trust in your body by increasing nervous system regulation.
I may with your permission, include elements of TEB in Trauma Sensitive Breathwork or other areas of my practice. However for some, this innovative approach to supporting the healing of developmental trauma is the best primary approach. If this approach is speaking to you, please hop over to TEB: Transforming Touch® – A Somatic Therapy.
Trauma Sensitive Breathwork Benefits
As I began to become more trauma aware, at first I was devastated to understand that a practice I was engaged in could be capable of causing harm (more on that below in is breathwork dangerous?). I wondered whether to abandon breathwork altogether and train in something else.
I had a pivotal moment however, watching Dr Bessel van der Kolk talk with Dr. Pat Ogden in the webinar series How the Body Keeps the Score: Intensive Trauma Treatment Course. They were talking about the breath and Ogden expressed that it doesn’t have a central place in methods of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, the modality she founded.
At this point van der Kolk places his hand on his chest and says ‘I place my attention on my breath and instantly feel calm [pp]’. Ogden goes on to talk about childhood difficulty with breathing and medical interventions and says breath isn’t a resource for her at all [pp]. Integrative approaches to therapy and healing, recognise that every individual has complex bodily, relational, family and cultural histories – along with unique needs in the present. For some breath can be a resource towards which they are drawn – a pull emerging organically from the unique matrix of their experiences.
Watching van der Kolk gave me permission to trust more deeply how my own breathwork journey had resourced me personally. It further reminded me of the many clients I had supported through breathwork and the benefits they had gained too (for their own words see some of the testimonials below!). Around the same time reading Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven inspired me to develop trauma sensitive ways of approaching breathwork.
Like mindfulness, Trauma Sensitive Breathwork devotes time and attention to developing interoception: your brains perception of your inner state. Sensitivity to interoception has been shown to “determine our capacity to regulate our emotions and our subsequent susceptibilty to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.” For more on the growing evidence base read Interoception: The Hidden Sense That Shapes Wellbeing from The Guardian August 2021.
The limits of Trauma Sensitive Breathwork practice, is that it is not yet an accredited or evidence based discipline; therefore it is not possible for me to offer an evidence based assessment of its benefits to you. However through ongoing CPD I continue to integrate the latest evidenced based approaches to healing trauma into my work.
Is Breathwork Safe or Can It Be Dangerous?
I maintain standards of best practice through a professional membership with complaints procedure through the ASIS. I have public liability and professional indemnity insurance with BGI. I have regular robust supervision with Psychotherapist DK Green along with group case consults with Austin Attachment Center and other ongoing CPD. My certification (pending completion) as a Wheel of Consent facilitator with the School of Consent, ensures my practice has the best cutting edge consent awareness.
This list give you some clues about questions to ask to ensure you see a well informed and ethical practitioner. Here are some of the risks of breathwork practice when it is not trauma sensitive or trauma informed:
The effects of hyperventilation: our brain and body chemistry rapidly changes during hyperventilation, which is caused by the kinds of intensive breathing patterns sometimes used in Holotropic or Rebirthing Breathwork.
Some side effects of hyperventilation can be depersonalisation, things feeling confused and dream like, hallucinations, blurred vision. This medical article relating to hyperventilation in anesthesia provides a good overview of the chemistry, practically speaking these side effects can leave breathwork participants in a vulnerable place.
Euphoric Dissociation: whether through breath, plant medicine or ritual: intensive processes are intended to give rise to altered states. This is not an issue in itself: altered states can offer benefits from gateways to insight through to pleasurable escape valves. Drug free gateways to euphoria can be medicine for transformation and growth: repeatedly engaging such states could point towards euphoric dissociation (a term coined by Peter Levine), a means of internally disconnecting from the painful impacts of trauma.
Do altered states ultimately help us to heal and to grow? Maybe – if they can be integrated back into our lives (more on this in breathwork for transformation below). Good questions to ask are: do I experience a “bump back to earth” or a shame hangover afterwards? Do I overstep my own boundaries (or have them crossed) during the experience? If so check out – how safe is the container? Are the experiences integrating into tangible positive changes, or are they destabilising my life?
Lack of consent awareness: another aspect of breathwork that troubles me (and you won’t find in my practice) is a lack of consent awareness. In my experience change happens in spaces where we are facilitated to listen to ourselves and remain in self consent. Particularly in the power dynamics between client and therapist – or participant and workshop leader – protocols are needed to minimise the risk of people going along with, tolerating and enduring things they don’t want to experience.
Examples of lack around self and group consent culture include: an absence of options (do it this way or not at all). No consent protocols, touch and other things happening without agreement. Difficulty being framed as ‘resistance’ and something you need to override or breakthrough, including devices being put into peoples mouths to keep them open (ok with informed consent, but I have heard of this happening non consensually). Shallow breathing being framed as ‘suboptimal breathing’ – shaming breathing patterns which may have emerged as valid survival responses related to trauma parts that desperately need our welcome.
Updating the manual: theories underpinning breathwork may contain views which are now discredited, out of date and even harmful. For example ‘wrong sex baby’ – a theory common in rebirthing breathwork – has been used in religious groups in an attempt to ‘heal’ peoples gender or sexual orientation and expression (see Pray Away documentary on Netflix). Lack of awareness around cultural appropriation, GSRD & LGBTQ inclusivity, systemic oppression (for example), are all areas that may need updating in breathwork training manuals and practice.
A self care pause …
If you have read this far then well done! Reading about the dangers of breathwork may have stirred things in you, check in with yourself to see if you need a pause – a ‘breather’! – if so you may consider:
Turning in: look away from the screen (after you have read all of this section!), place a hand on your body (on your chest or belly is a good place to begin) and notice your breath for a while, just as it is. If you have been stirred by what you read, you may want to place a comforting hand where those feelings are in your body. Alternatively, you may prefer to focus on the simple movements of your body as you breathe.
Moving out: if turning within feels challenging – trust that – right now you may be more resourced by a movement outwards. Slowly look around your your environment, is there something pleasing that draws you? It could be a splash of colour, light, an object. Or it could be a movement towards a cup of tea, a comfort break, a breath of fresh air from outside. Whatever feels pleasing to you, move towards it for a few minutes.
Hopefully see you back here when you have finished your comfort breather 🙂
The Transformational Power of Breathwork
Having made the case for more trauma sensitive forms of breathwork, I now wish to come full circle and point back towards the transformational potential of breathwork too. The altered states pointed to in the last section, can be a means by which we come to know ourselves more deeply and creatively vision our lives.
Myself as a breathwork practitioner, I like to take time to make sure certain foundation stones are placed in order: the first being a question of whether there is enough nervous system regulation to support a breathwork practice. In terms of inner child healing and visiting more vulnerable places in our being, I maintain that slow and steady is the way to go. This process can be cumulatively transformational as we heal and welcome home more of our parts.
I also hold there is a place for more intensive and upregulating breath explorations too. Some of our parts are snarly, they like to move and to growl. In my own breathwork training, we spent time hopping in and out of super hot tubs and baths of ice, breathing through the intensity of the experience. The intention of the former was to explore our bodily memories of birth, the latter to explore our relationship with death.
I gained so much understanding about my own deep unconscious drivers through these processes. I still hop into my own bath at home to breathe through when things feel stuck; cold water breathes (I love jumping in lakes and the sea) help me contact a core sense of strength, aliveness and inner peace. Bodies of water are also liminal spaces, breathing in them helps me access dimensional gateways within.
Altered states and consciousness explorations have attracted me since my late teens, initially that manifested in escape from inner pain through alcohol and drugs. Accessing altered states without drugs has done more than simply replace one addiction with another. Doing so – whilst attending to the work of integration too – has given birth to some of the most rewarding aspects of my life, work and relationships.
Trauma Sensitive Breathwork Online
Hopping onto Zoom for a session can be both cost and time effective and breathwork enables us do alot more than ‘just talking’: bringing embodiment and somatic experience into a therapeutic and educative container. The skills you will learn through doing breathwork online will often stay with you long after sessions have finished. You may wish to participate in group breathwork sessions online, Breathing Circles is a gathering of breathwork groups, many of which will be offered online. At present I am not offering breathwork groups as I like working one to one (for now).
I am however focusing on developing a video course, introducing key practice and educational components of trauma sensitive breathwork. The video course will include guided breathwork enquiry exercises and supporting background theory too. Through these I hope to make aspects of my work more widely accessible as I recognise the financial accessibility limits of individual sessions: if you want to hear about this video course please sign up to my mailing list!
Rose C Jiggens: Trauma Sensitive Breathwork Therapist
I hope you enjoyed this article and that it supports your breathwork journey. If you are interested in the work I offer then do email me your questions or sign up to my mailing list via the buttons below. I also offer:
- Ancestral Healing using Family Constellations
- TEB: Transforming Touch® a somatic therapy
- Wheel of Consent teachings: healing your relationship with pleasure
- Soul Energy Optimisation: SEO, web building and mentoring for practitioners