Thursday, 21 July 2011

Review of 'Exhale: an Overview of Breathwork' by Gunnel Minett

I first experienced connected breathwork at a workshop led by Ramsay Dukes at the 1991 IOT World Seminars in Lockenhaus, Austria. It was such an impressive experience, that 20 minutes of breathing differently, that I went home determined to learn how to do it.

I bought the only books available at the time - 'Rebirthing in the New Age' (Yes; none of us is innocent) by Leonard Orr and Sondra Ray, and 'Vivation - the Science of Enjoying the Whole of Your Life', by Jim Leonard and Phil Laut.

These were the in-house manuals of Rebirthing*, and its lineal descendant Vivation. The other great lineage of connected breathwork descends from Stanislav Grof, whose fascinating books do not tell you anything about how to do breathwork, so those two books really were the only ones at that time.

A few more books have come out since then (see my website under 'Breathwork Resources' for a brief list), and I shall retrospectively review some of them over the next year; this helps me to clarify to myself what still needs saying about breathwork, which in turn will influence what I write in my next breathwork book.

The first chapter, The Importance of the Breath, reviews what most people do not know about how important breathing is. Links are made between conscious subjective experience and physiological processes. Minett explains the book's title - the importance of exhalation is not only expel CO2; defensive muscle tension prevents us exhaling as deeply as we can: 'How we exhale shows how willing we are to trust what happens to us and go with the flow of life.'

We learn an astonishing statistic - 60% of all emergency ambulance rides in USA's largest cities involve hyperventilation or other breathing disorders.

Chapter 2, The Power of the Breath, is a historical overview, a rich compendium of techniques, including a terrific review of the role of breath in magical/meditative practices and soul lore, spanning the Athos island monks to the !Kung and many other peoples who are still living traditionally.

Good survey of the psychotherapeutic background to breathwork, the first time I've come across a discussion of Reich and 'body psychotherapy' in a breathwork book, and the author correlates the symptoms of kundalini arising with possible physiological mechanisms. She also covers the Buteyko method for treating asthma, another first in any breathwork book I've seen.

All these things help contextualize BW, which in turn enables us to understand what we are doing with it. We have come quite a way since Orr, Ray, Laut and Leonard in understanding what is actually happening in a breathwork session.

Chapter 3, Healing and the Breath, has an excellent run-down on the physiology of breathing, the best I’ve seen in a breathwork book. It’s good to have, for instance, something on why alternate nostril breathing works, looking into the physiology of the ida-pingala system.

She continues into modern breathwork, the two lineages of Leonard Orr and Stanislav and Christina Grof. Orr's stuff is contaminated with a daft immortalism, which Minett critiqued in a recent article for the free online magazine Breathwork News (, so I'm a bit surprised she has any time for such nonsense in this book.

It gets worse, though: she shows a seriously uncritical eye when it comes to things which claim to be 'spiritual'. That word blinds people, even intelligent people, to the toxicity of the teachings of the likes of 'Breatharian' 'Jasmuheen'. This person, who somehow remains out of jail whilst encouraging fatal eating disorders with the lie that people can live without eating, represents the point where breathing philosophies impact with the Darwin award.

Mentioning such people on the same page as the wonderful healing science and magic of breathwork brings the latter into disrepute, for thoroughly understandable reasons. Nobody should be asked to take seriously such rubbish on their way to healing.

There are a couple of other problematic statements. On p152 we are told that ‘some foodstuffs can cause autism in children’ – whilst there is some promising research going on in this area, this is a bit of a scattershot statement for such a subtle and complex field.
She also mentions a bizarre-sounding theory of how trauma is stored, to take into account the existence of pre-birth memories: in ‘chemicals’, stored ‘anywhere in the body’. This may be true, but needs much more detail before we can take it on as a working theory.

She makes interesting points about hyperventilation, which of course sits right next to the mechanisms by which breathwork leads to an extraordinary state of consciousness (ESC). She also sounds confused over the hyperventilation (HV) vs superventilation (SV) debate: surely they’re the same physiological thing, in different contexts? You have assistance, and a healing frame for the experience with SV, but not with HV.

There's an excellent guide to the physiological and emotional changes experienced in giving birth, and being born, and a fine appreciation of the placebo effect, putting it in its proper place as a sign of the chief mechanism of healing, the body’s own. This contrasts vividly with the irritation shown by drug trial people against that wonderful effect, showing just how little pharmaceutical companies care about patient health.

There's also a good overview of the 3-brain notion, reptile-mammal-neocortex, the fourth zone of the frontal lobes, and what she treats as a 5th zone, the heart-nerves. She has an interesting interpretation of the function of these neurons: ‘The heart selects the information that corresponds best with the inner world and interprets it to fit our individual world view’.

There are lots of very interesting exercises, which I’m still trying out. Keenly - since Minett points out that the brain expands and contracts as we breathe, so that faster and more intense breath gives the brain a massage!.

She examines the role of breathwork alongside conventional approaches, and here falls into that weak PoMo argument that ‘there is a growing recognition that what we call ‘objective facts’ in reality are only mental constructions’.
For a demolition of such attitudes, see my review of Alan Sokal's 'Beyond the Hoax',

The problem she’s addressing is of course our old enemy parascience, the talking of science-like religious drivel by scientists, the shallow triumphalism of scientists blundering into areas science is not competent to address, and then aggressively defending their occupation of these territories with straw-man arguments.

We don't need some hippy-dippy paradigm shift in order to fight parascience – all we need is clear thinking. Such arguments as we find here merely ally the book with worldviews which are being discredited, weakening breathwork’s credibility, its status as an objectively effective technique.

The final chapter, The Future of Breathwork, contains a plea to bring more challenge, meaning and stimulation into the over-controlled lives of adolescents, suggesting initiation rituals. This sounds like a great idea, but who would run such schemes, and what belief-system would over-arch it all? In the absence of a universally-accepted religion (for which I'm grateful) I can only imagine such a thing happening in small tribe-sized communities.

So where is this book in the multiverse of breathwork?
It is very much a book about the 'spiritual' dimensions of our craft. I use quote marks because spirituality is an extremely problematic term in itself: for a start, check Watkins Bookshop's usage (see blog April 2011); clearly, it can mean many things, and has a span which reaches from the sublime to the embarassingly bad.

Still, we probably need the word; I just prefer not to use it, when I can find a less devalued (or simply a clearer) alternative term.

This is a good book, but contaminated with newage wishful thinking. We are judged by the company we keep, and some of the stuff around breathwork must put off those who are not naturally inclined to faith, the god-minus genotypes amongst us.

For instance, I'm very glad I didn't read Jim Morningstar's intro before asking for this book as a Yule gift, because I'd have missed a worthwhile read, and it is really not necessary to go along with Mr Morningstar's personal faith in a benign universe to get good things from either breathwork or this book.

As for the new age, Minett doesn’t mention the most significant criticism of it, that it is driven by consumerism, tainted at core by the shallowest philosophy mankind has ever devised. It rests on a kind of spiritual tourism, a consumption of novelty. If spirituality means anything worthwhile at all, that value lies at the opposite pole to the new age.

Yes, breathwork needs to grow up and leave behind this religious guff: we have a wonderful set of techniques for healing, the exploration of higher consciousness and its magical properties, and we don't need bargain-basement metaphysics to make it work.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, but probably only to completist breathwork coaches who want a decent but pricey review of the field. The £20 price tag will put most off; it's a nicely produced, stout paperback with glossy paper, but not so lavish as to justify such a high price.

* Not to be confused with various psychodramatic rebirth techniques involving pushing and lubricant gel.

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