Rebirthing and Psychotherapy: The Micro and Macro Levels of Integration

By Catherine Dowling

Introduction

The name Rebirthing can be misleading because it implies a sole focus on the re-experiencing of birth and is often associated with forms of regression therapy that bear the same name. Rebirthing in the context of this article, is a deep breathing technique, a form of breathwork. When I use the word Rebirthing, I am referring to this technique and not to a process of re-experiencing birth, although this can and does happen during Rebirthing.

For historical reasons, Rebirthing breathwork is short on theory and the theory of human development that did evolve centred on birth and its effects. Over the past 30 years, practitioners have been slowly expanding this theoretical base.  In the process, the practice of Rebirthing itself has evolved. Within this development of both theory and practice, the word ‘integration’ is of major significance on two levels. Firstly, it is the word rebirthers use to describe the essence of what happens in a Rebirthing session, the curative factor.  Secondly, it quite aptly describes the potential and actual relationship of Rebirthing to other forms of psychotherapy.  These can be called the micro and macro levels of integration.

Integration:  The Micro Level

In its earliest manifestation, Rebirthing was near enough to pure breathwork with little or no other therapeutic interventions. Over the years, professional rebirthers have assimilated techniques and theories from a wide range of psychotherapeutic systems (often without knowing or acknowledging their indebtedness to other disciplines).  Rebirthers have taken freely from Freud, Adler, Gestalt, systemic therapy, cognitive therapy, Jung, Reichean bodywork and the psychology of selves, for example. The assimilation has brought accommodation and the result has been a change in the way Rebirthing is practised. Most rebirthers of my acquaintance now offer a session of approximately two hours. At the core or the session is approximately an hour of breathwork. But before and after this period of breathwork, the client and therapist interact using other, often verbal, techniques. However, it must be stressed that the professional practice of Rebirthing is by no means standardised.

Many psychotherapists have assimilated breathwork into their non-breathwork practices.  After employing other, usually verbal techniques, they use short periods of conscious breathing to assist clients in accessing material on an experiential level.  And breathwork performs this function beautifully. Rebirthers also use verbal and other techniques to begin the process of therapy.  And like talk therapists who use breathwork, rebirthers also introduce Rebirthing as an experiential technique to go beyond the verbal. But in Rebirthing, breathwork is the core of the session. This is because in Rebirthing, breathwork is at once the principle method of uncovering material, the means by which that material is explored and the vehicle which leads very quickly to resolution and integration.

Material that arises during Rebirthing is experienced by the client on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels all at once. This is the mind-body-spirit continuum. Each person naturally favours one of these modes and is more aware or more comfortable with experiencing phenomena on that level.  For example, a person may be acutely aware of their emotions while physical sensations register only vaguely.  But whatever the relative levels of awareness, the experience in Rebirthing integrates all four modes. These could be described as peak experiences, and they happen so regularly as to be routine. When they happen, the client can make sense of the what, the how, the why of an issue, can see and understand the effect it has had in his life and has arrived at the place where he can say “I let it go”. The material is safely integrated into the client’s frame of reference and life. The process can take as little as a few minutes.

Integration:  The Macro Level

This is the micro level of integration. On the macro level, how does Rebirthing integrate with other forms of psychotherapy? In terms of a theoretical base,  Rebirthing may be in conflict with the general principles of some forms of psychotherapy.  For example, the emphasis on the here and now that can be a part of behaviour therapy is in marked contrast to Rebirthing’s focus on past events and the spiritual aspects of Rebirthing might be classified under the label neurosis by some psychoanalysts.  But there is theory and there is practice, and in practice Rebirthing breathwork can be integrated into a wide range of psychotherapeutic approaches.  Both levels of integration – within the client and with other forms of psychotherapy – can best be illustrated through an examination of the practice.

Psychoanalysis

While analysis is not seen as a stand-alone curative factor in Rebirthing, free association, the exploration of dreams and other techniques from Freudian psychoanalysis are frequently used within the context of a Rebirthing session.  Through working with these methods, the client gains invaluable insight and understanding of his/her issues.  However, breathwork has the power to allow entry to the unconscious beyond the level of analysis. Often, during Rebirthing, unconscious memories surface in a literal way. The memory of birth is one example of this.  But sometimes the experience is a symbolic and surreal as any dream. Either way the journey into the unconscious in Rebirthing is multi-dimensional.

It can be felt physically throughout the body with the full engagement of the emotions and the analytical mind.  The body, the emotions and one aspect of the mind are experiencing a past event or trauma while another aspect of mind, the analytic mind, is witnessing that re-experiencing in the here an now. This here and now witnessing provides safety for the client, analysing the experience as it is happening. Through this parallel process of witnessing and experiencing, past trauma are resolved in the body as well as on the emotional and mental levels. When the breathing cycle is completed integration has taken place, therefore re-traumatisation through this form of breathwork is rare. It also eliminates the need to repeatedly revisit old trauma over a months or years of therapy.

Psychodynamic Therapies

Theoretically, Rebirthing probably fits most snugly into the framework of psychodynamic therapy.  Such theory as has been developed in Rebirthing focuses on psychodynamic exploration of conscious and unconscious motivations, relationships and experiences.  The experiences that are the material of Rebirthing can go as far back as conception and they certainly include in-utero, birth, childhood events. For those whose spiritual beliefs encompass the concept of re-incarnation, past life experiences are also the material of rebirths, as are recent developments in the client’s adult life.  An exploration of a here and now event often, though not always, begins a journey back into the client’s past.

Techniques from the more experiential psychodynamic therapies are often used in conjunction with Rebirthing. Variations on the empty chair, body awareness, movement, voice dialogue, the writing of letters and creative methodology are part of various rebirthers’ repertoire of techniques. In the framework of the gestalt for example, Rebirthing can begin with an awareness of the incomplete or unresolved experience. During the breathwork the client can drop through the layers of awareness – what can begin as a physical sensation in part of the body often translates into an emotion, which in turn can be a step towards recalling the memory of an event. The unresolved or incomplete experience is worked through and completed in breathwork: the circle is closed.

Non-Directive

Rebirthing itself is as non-directive as possible in that for approximately an hour the rebirther sits with the client saying and doing very little.  This is not to say that they have no input. Their presence, their relationship with the client, their choice of instructions in relation to the client’s breathing, the quality and intensity of their ‘witnessing’ all have a bearing on the client’s experience.  A lot is going on, including transference. The client sometimes wants to be held or to look into the eyes of the rebirther for example.  But the rebirther has much less influence, if any, on the content of that experience. The client is embarking on an internal exploration, the depth and range of which is determined largely by the client’s own readiness and perception of safety.  As such it is an ideal experiential technique for therapists committed to the non-directive approach.  Material explored verbally through reflection, mirroring and the other interventions of non-directive therapy can be taken into the breathwork, where the therapist’s main function is to be present with their client in an attitude of total acceptance.

Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy

The theoretical dissonance between Rebirthing and Cognitive Behaviour therapy is similar to that between any psychodynamic therapy and the Cognitive-Behaviouralist approach.  Yet from its discovery in the late 1960’s, Rebirthing theory has always focused very heavily on the quality and nature of the client’s thoughts and belief systems.  For many rebirthers, the zeal of their commitment to the idea that thoughts literally create reality had an almost religious fervour to it.  Over the years this has softened into the more grounded and realistic appreciation that the way we think shapes our behaviour and that behaviour shapes much of our reality. Rebirthers still devote a lot of time to helping the client uncover his/her thought patterns and to examining the effect the client’s thinking has on their experience of the world. The technique of choice for effecting change in this area has been the use of affirmations or auto-suggestion, techniques widely used in Cognitive therapy.

For clients, the awareness of their thought patterns that comes through breathwork is on a level that engages their whole being.  In the non-ordinary state of consciousness brought about by this form of breathwork, thoughts can be experienced throughout the body-mind-spirit continuum. The effect can be to bring about substantial change in the thought pattern, thus reducing the need for methods of thought control on a daily basis. In other cases, the client moves from a profound awareness of their thought patterns into an experience of the origin of those patterns.  They can, within minutes, move from the thought through the emotional punch that often accompanies limiting beliefs to an awareness of the origin of their thoughts in past events.  From there the breath carries them on to integration.

Spirituality

Rebirthing has always had a very strong ‘spiritual’ dimension, often dogmatically so.  Many schools of psychotherapy have also placed emphasis on a transpersonal or spiritual dimension as a curative factor in therapy.  This can be given shape in various ways from the collective unconscious, archetypes, the development of psychic abilities through shamanism to a communion with the divine traditionally the province of religion.  Such moments, when they are experienced throughout the full mind-body-spirit continuum, can be profound agents of change.

These ‘spiritual’ events could be related to an expansion of awareness or the symbolic workings of the psyche – contact with spirit guides, shamanic visions, past life experiences, seeing energy fields.  Or they can take the form of the felt experience of contact with the divine, god, the great spirit.  Both forms of experience happen regularly and quite naturally in Rebirthing.

For some clients each Rebirthing session is an occasion for visits by various characters similar to Jung’s own guides. Whether real entities or a figment of the client’s imagination, these guides lead people through an internal journey with wisdom, compassion and love. It is a privilege to witness the effects. When people move into a connection with the divine, the atmosphere in the room becomes numinous, connections with people move to a plane beyond personality and shared history.  Rebirthers don’t just witness the effects of these experiences, they share in the experience itself.

Conclusion

Most psychotherapies have gone through a period of being on the outside, the ‘new kid on the block’.  Breathwork is hardly new and, at this stage, Rebirthing is not so new either. Rebirthing is a powerful and very efficient method of integration within the client. I believe that the integration of breathwork and Rebirthing into the family of psychotherapies would be of exceptional mutual benefit for Rebirthing and for psychotherapy in general.

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Catherine Dowling is a fully accredited member of the Rebirthing Psychotherapy Association, a pre-accredited member of IAHIP, a therapist and trainer in private practice and the author of Rebirthing and Breathwork:  A Powerful Technique for Personal Transformation (2000) U.K.:Piatkus)