Breathwork and Tetany
About a third to a half of people who try breathwork experience something called tetany.
What is Tetany?
The term “Tetany” like “tetanus” comes from the Greek word “tetanos” which means convulsive tension. Also known as carpopedal spasms, during an experience of tetany, parts of your body may feel stiff and cramped. You may find that you cannot move them, or they are very difficult to move. It is usually experienced in the hands, but it can also happen in your feet, lips or other extremities. It can occasionally be painful.
What Causes Tetany – The Mainstream Medical View
From the mainstream medical perspective, tetany is caused by the alkalization effect on your body from the deeper, faster breathing you do in the breathwork session, and in some rare cases, by a mineral deficiency of calcium (if you eat a normal diet, you should have sufficient amounts of this mineral). However, because of the fact that many people who do breathwork never get tetany, there is clearly something more going on than this simplistic medical explanation.
What Causes Tetany – The Breathwork Point of View
So, if the medical “explanation” is not borne out by experience, what other explanation is there? One theory that does seem to be borne out by breathwork experiences in both the hands and the rest of the body is that the body has an innate understanding of the fact that the best way to release pent up tension is to first maximize it first. From this perspective, when we get tetany, our body is maximizing the tension in our hands or feet or other locations in the body, in order to get a full release of what is energetically “stuck” there (more details below). As Dr. Stanislav Grof states:
What seems to happen is that faster breathing creates a biochemical situation in the body that facilitates emergence of old emotional and physical tensions [including tetany] associated with unresolved psychological and physical traumas… this situation actually represents a unique opportunity for healing. What emerges under these circumstances is unconscious material with strong emotional charge that is most ready for processing (Grof, from Physical Manifestations of Emotional Disorders: Observations from the Study of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness).
Another Perspective on Tetany
There are other psychosomatic theories about why some people experience tetany and others don’t. One that may have some intuitive truth is that human beings are genetically designed to be “tribal”, to support and help each other, to live as a community. However, since the industrial revolution, that has changed. In modern society it is seen as “weak” to have to reach out to others for help. We are told to deal with our own issues; to be strong. So, mostly, we don’t reach out. So, we have this “push-pull” impulse in our hands and forearms. Instinctively, we want to reach out, but we don’t which creates an underlying tension that builds up over the years. So, based on this theory, people who are more inclined to reach out to others for help when they need it would get tetany less than people who do not reach out.
Should You Worry About Getting Tetany During a Breathwork Session?
First and foremost, tetany will not harm you, and it always goes away. Quite the contrary, breathers often report that after an experience of intense tetany, they feel relaxed, or that they’ve experienced an important physical release, or both.
With tetany… you are releasing tension that existed in your hands and forearms. Your body is doing just what it does in other parts of the body during breathwork to release: maximizing the tension first. So, tetany is actually a good thing, not a bad thing!
How To Work With Tetany During a Breathwork Session
If you experience tetany in a session there are a few key things to remember. First, as always, the general breathwork principle to remember is: The best way to get beyond something is to fully experience it and go through it. Try to always remember that the path to healing is to NOT resist whatever is happening (what you resist, persists). In other words, the more you can allow the experience of tetany without resisting, the more you stay on the path to healing.
So, remember: Continued breathing alone typically leads to culmination and resolution of tetany. In addition, tetany can also resolve through emotional and physical release. Repeated sessions tend to eliminate the occurrence of these tensions (Grof, from Physical Manifestations of Emotional Disorders: Observations from the Study of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness).
Having said that, there is also a key second principle: As with all other things in breathwork, you should always trust your body wisdom. So, if you have a natural inclination to slow down the breath for a few minutes and let the tetany subside and then pick up the pace of the breath again… you should trust your inner guidance and follow it! Don’t force yourself to “go deeper” into the tetany if it’s too much for you. Remember, one of the great things about breathwork is that you can always slow down your breathing and reground yourself before diving back in.
Lastly, if it feels too painful to continue, there are a couple of things you can try:
- Some participants report that it helps reduce tetany if they do not force the out-breath when they breathe, i.e. focus more on the in-breath and just let the air go naturally out of your lungs without any “push”.
- You can soften the breath for a period of time until the tetany subsides to a more manageable level and then pick up the pace of the breath again after that.
- You can let out a loud sound…sound is one of the best ways to facilitate the release of tensions stuck in the body.
Written by Michael Stone and Glenn Girlando