The Origins of Mindfulness Based Breathwork

We normally think of mindfulness as an exclusively Eastern practice – for example, the classical yogic practice of Vipassana meditation. And so it comes as a surprise to learn that a fully developed form of mindfulness practice, based upon the use of the breath, has existed in the West since the start of the 20thCentury! If anything were to qualify as the grandparent of all mainstream western breathwork it is probably the system developed by Elsa Gindler (1885-1961) in Germany in the first decades of the 20th century. Diagnosed with tuberculosis and seeking to heal herself, she devoted her attention to her own moment by moment awareness during every activity she performed. Through this high level of conscious awareness she was able to alter her breathing giving her diseased lung the opportunity to heal. In doing so:

“she found that in this practice she came into a state where she was no longer disturbed by her own thoughts and worries. And she came to experience … that calm in the physical field is equivalent to trust in the psychic field.”(1).

By 1913 Gindler had developed a discipline that involved paying close attention to the breath as an integral part of its practice.

“For her breathing was a teacher: simply being attentive to it is a way of learning how things are with one, of learning what needs to change …”(2).

In the 1930s, along with so much other innovative work, her system was carried to the US by her students. Gindler herself continued her practice in Berlin were it also served as a cover for the assistance she gave to dissidents and Jewish families threatened by the regime. Some of her students, such as Charlotte Selver, continued to develop and teach her ideas, now called ‘Sensory Awareness’, in the US. In this way the tradition of awareness training became a major influence on the work of such pioneers of psychotherapy as Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Stanislav Grof, Fritz and Laura Perls, Isa Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais and many others. ‘Sensory Awareness’ – and its tradition of breathwork – provided one of the foundation stones of somatic or body psychotherapy as well as some of the schools of remedial breathwork. Through people like Reich and Selver it in turn influenced Frank Lake and Stanislav Grof, two of the pioneers of the ‘rebirthing’ style of mainstream breathwork. The discipline that Elsa Gindler had worked out for herself and her own healing, that of maintaining herself in present moment awareness, is indistinguishable from what we would today call the practice of ‘mindfulness’, a practice that is revealing astonishing therapeutic properties.

The Healing Potential of Mindfulness Based Breathwork

Mindfulness has been defined as “present moment, non-judgmental awareness”(3) and has always incorporated the use of the breath as one of the main elements of its practice. The scientific and medical acceptance of mindfulness is often associated with the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Inspired by Eastern meditative tradition, and in particular by Buddhist Vipassana meditation, he created the first mindfulness clinic in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Calling his system Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)(4) it was initially designed to help patients during post-operative recovery and those living with chronic pain. The success of this program has resulted in its adoption at hospitals and clinics around the world and now, increasingly, in corporate settings as well.

The central role of mindfulness practice also characterizes the so-called ‘Third Wave’ of psychotherapies such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)(5). These therapies are based upon a similar theoretical and practical framework as MBSR.

During the 1980s one of the most innovative pioneers of modern breathwork, Jim Leonard, building on his earlier work with ‘Integrative Rebirthing’ developed a system that he called ‘Vivation’(6). Vivation is essentially a form of breath enabled mindfulness practice of some sophistication and a great deal of effectiveness.


 Recent Scientific Research Findings on Mindfulness

Recent research on the effects of mindfulness practice has demonstrated greatly reduced levels of stress and increased immune system functioning(7). More significantly, recent research in cognitive and affective neuroscience has demonstrated that although mindfulness meditation might look like ‘just doing nothing’, on the level of brain function highly significant developments are taking place. During mindfulness meditation those areas of the brain that are activated in clinically depressed and anxious people become much less activated and there is a corresponding activation in those areas associated with happiness and contentment(8). 

This shift in neural activity is also associated with the growth (neurogenesis) and development (neuroplasticity)(9) of the neural networks that sustain such positive states as happiness and contentment(10)]. People who practice mindfulness style meditation are less deeply impacted by negative events and recover far more quickly from them(11)]. As the practice is developed so an increasing capacity for happiness and contentment is realized. In other words, happiness and contentment are skills that can be refined and developed through this type of practice. Although the research underlaying these findings is still in its infancy, its overall thrust is both clear and consistent with the findings about the importance of positivity in just about every area of life emerging from the rapidly growing sub-discipline of Positive Psychology(12)].

In addition, recent research studies have established the value of mindfulness as an adjunct treatment for a whole range of illnesses:

  • chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1987)
  • cancer (Speca et al., 2000)
  • anxiety disorders (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992)
  • eating disorders (Kristeller & Hallett, 1999)
  • fibromyalgia (Goldenberg et al., 1994)
  • relapse to depression (Segal et al., 2002)
  • psoriasis (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1998)
  • stress (Williams et al., 2001)
  • addictive behavior (Marlatt, 2002)

We can now say, with some degree of confidence, that the consistent practice of mindfulness, whether in a breathwork context or not, is a major factor in happiness, health, healing and longevity. When it comes to gaining the full benefits from mindfulness based practices there are two prerequisites:

  • An appropriate technique. This is critically important to avoid such common errors as boredom – counting the minutes to the end of practice, drifting, daydreaming or just sleeping – all of which are indicative of unresolved, and probably unrecognized, emotional activation.
  • Persistence. Mindfulness is not magic, it is a skill. No one is very good at it at first, but with practice (and more practice) you get better. There are no shortcuts.

Without these two conditions being met the chances that mindfulness based breathwork will have any major therapeutic benefits becomes extremely remote. Whilst some forms of mindfulness practice (such as MBSR) are based upon the adaptation of selected eastern practices, purely western styles of mindfulness based breathwork exist that have developed within a consistent and continuous

breathwork tradition. As we have already mentioned one technique for inducing a profound state of mindfulness has been pioneered by Jim Leonard and is called Vivation.

(1) Quoted by Judyth O. Weaver in ‘The Influence of Elsa Gindler – Ancestor of Sensory Awareness’

(2) ibid

(3) Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn

(4) Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1991) Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness

(5) Cloud, John ‘The Third Wave in Therapy’ Time February 25th 2006 (online resource)

(6) Leonard, Jim (1996) ‘Vivation: The Skill of Happiness’

(7) Davidson, RJ, Kabat-Zinn, J.  et al. ‘Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation’. Psychosomatic Medicine 65:564–570 (2003) (online resource)

(8) Davidson, Richard J. et al, ‘Making a Life Worth Living: Neural Correlates of Well-Being’ Psychological Science Volume 15 Number 6 (online resource)

(9) Davidson, Richard J. & Lutz, Antoine ‘Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation’ (online resource) IEEE Signal Processing Magazine [174] January 2008

(10) Antoine Lutz, John D. Dunne, Richard J. Davidson ‘Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness’ Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness (ed) Zelazo P., Moscovitch M. & Thompson E. (in press)(extract available as an online resource)

(11) Kabat-Zinn, Jon. et al. ‘Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation’. Psychosomatic Medicine 65:564–570 (2003) (online resource)

(12) Fredrickson, Barbara ‘The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (2004) (online resource)

Copyright © Peter Mark Adams 2009