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by Chris Retzler(more info)

listed in psychospiritual, originally published in issue 23 - November 1997

Rebirthing is a healing process that engages with the mind, the body and the spirit to cleanse away toxic patterns of being and facilitate new, healthy and fulfilling goals and choices. The core practice of Rebirthing is a breathing technique; the core metaphor is the rebirth of the personality through the integration of suppressed experience.

Therapist and client

Let me paint you a picture. A woman has been lying down Rebirth breathing for perhaps 40 minutes. At the beginning her breath was extremely shallow – barely there. Gradually, with encouragement from her Rebirther, her breath has grown more and more energetic. Now it abruptly stops. The next breath she takes is immense, the out-breath is like a contented sigh, the tension seems to disappear from her body, a beatific smile appears on her face. She says "I can breathe – for the first time I can breathe. I can choose to breathe." Her words are quite obviously laden with more meaning than any observer could hope to guess at. Later she explains how compressed she has felt all her life, how she has chosen to let her children take up all the space, as they have grown so she has shrunk. She recalls a childhood of making herself small and unnoticeable around an angry father. Then she suddenly makes a connection with her birth, that she was a late and very large baby and that her mother "nearly died". The breathing has connected her with the body sensations and thus with early experiences that have scripted her life. In taking that big breath she has given herself permission to be her rightful size.

Rebirthing asserts that thought is creative – that we are 100% responsible for creating results in our lives: that positive thoughts will create positive results; and negative thoughts will create negative results. Looking around in the world it is very clear that some people – who apparently are no more talented than others – are able to surround themselves with abundance, joy, prosperity and rewarding personal relationships. Likewise it is clear that others – who apparently are no less talented – view the world with regret, bitterness and hopelessness.

How do we make ourselves unhappy? Paradoxically, by trying to avoid pain by suppression. We suppress those parts of ourselves that we have learned to disapprove of, to judge negatively. We split off painful feelings: guilt, shame, longing, neediness. But the knowledge that somewhere, deep down, they are still there haunts us and makes us fearful of exploring our psyches.

Many would agree that suppression is a pattern begun in childhood – but Rebirthers believe that it can begin at birth or even before. We make unconscious decisions about ourselves not just as adults, not just as children, but as babies in the process of birth itself. Perhaps there was an emergency for the mother and medical intervention was needed. Perhaps medical intervention was made when it wasn't needed. Even for a normal birth some of the decisions a baby might make are: I can't do it; life is a struggle; I hurt women (my mother); men hurt me (the obstetrician, perhaps). And some of the birth complications that frequently occur can produce still more effects. For example, babies that are induced or forceps delivered can be very resistant to pressure from others in later life, or conversely feel that they cannot move at all until compelled by others.

However, Rebirthers do not accept the past as an inescapable pattern for the future. Even the decisions which surround the most traumatic birth can be reversed. The question is how to do it, how to engage all the person's resources to heal an unconscious decision made at the very dawn of life.

Rebirthers use a technique called conscious connected breathing to mobilise a client's awareness and will. It is recommended that it not be attempted without the presence of a qualified Rebirther. The client lies on their back with their body relaxed and hands by their sides, in an open posture. The diaphragm, the chest, all of the person's breathing apparatus is utilised. The breath is termed connected because there is no pause at the end of either the inhale or exhale. The exhale is open, relaxed, effortless. The inhale may be fast, or deep, or both, depending on the stage in the process. At the start of the session the focus is on a strong inhale to the top of the chest up to the 5th chakra, the throat, the seat of expression. The breath can activate all the chakras but without enabling expression the energy will be blocked. All this stimulates feeling and experience in the body and various sensations can rapidly arise – for example tingling in the limbs, or cramp in the hands or round the mouth. Rather than trying to alleviate the sensations through twitching or stretching, the client is encouraged to relax into them and to experience the feelings that may lie beneath. The Rebirthing breath is not hyperventilation, and the sensations of panic associated with hyperventilation need not appear. It is more a cure for the sub-ventilation that sadly most of us are content with most hours of our day. Just think of the occasions when we do breathe fully, during some peak experience – competitive sport, mountain climbing, lovemaking – to recall how exhilarated and connected, how whole the mind, body and spirit can be. What occurs during Rebirthing differs from person to person and session to session: sometimes the experience is euphoric, at other times scary or sad, bringing up material that may be very uncomfortable. The Rebirther is there to support the person in exploring areas they might normally avoid, and to continue to guide the breathing. At the end of the process the client can turn on to their side in a foetal position, breathe gently and integrate the experiences of the session.

Because the whole breathing process is energising, and because energy can, if used inappropriately, feed negative patterns as well as positive ones, another role the Rebirther fulfils is to provide affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements you choose to embed in your consciousness by use of repetition. Examples might be "I am always good enough" or "I am always loved and wanted". They are an antidote to the negative self-talk we give ourselves a lot of the time. It is important that the affirmation be specific. "I am always loved and wanted" would not be appropriate for a person experiencing problems with passivity, for whom "I can have love" or "I can love" might be more to the point. The affirmations are not facile, there to jolly a person along or put on a happy face. They require effort by the client, who notes and works with their negative responses to the affirmation. The affirmation can be likened to a flower seed in a garden, which needs tending to make sure it survives, and the negative responses are weeds in the garden which need to be uprooted. Affirmations help heal suppressed material, and promote integration. They are a positive application of creative thought.

Therapist and client

Rebirthing was developed by Leonard Orr in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Breathing in bathtubs and hot-tubs, he discovered the principle of the connected breath and explored conscious birth memories. In collaboration with other experimenters he discovered that breathing just lying down 'in the dry' could also be effective. In the early days of Rebirthing, processing birth trauma was seen as particularly important. Later, the integration of painful material from any period in a person's life, and the question of how it was suppressed in the first place, was explored in more detail. Publications by Leonard Orr, Sondra Ray, Bob Mandel and Jim Leonard, among others, have disseminated the early discoveries and practices of Rebirthing.

Also around this time more people were being exposed to Eastern philosophies and practices, various psychotherapeutic approaches, and the pioneering work of Frederick Leboyer in childbirth.

Indian yogic breathing practices have been known for millennia – both the kind which are control-oriented and designed for mastery of the body, and others, such as tantric yoga, which have developed to stimulate and explore the body's potential. The concept of duality so well understood in the East is repeated in the Rebirthing model of suppression: parts of the person, anger or grief for example, are first 'made bad' in a dualistic process, then split off from consciousness.

Among Western psychotherapists, Otto Rank, a contemporary and friend of Freud, regarded birth experiences as paramount, with the capacity to greatly influence later life. Wilhelm Reich pioneered a technique of energetic breathing to activate his clients emotionally. Arthur Janov used breathing to stimulate primal experiences including birth. Humanism and existentialism greatly influenced the psychotherapies of the time. Rebirthing retains the humanistic respect for the client, and the upbeat, North American flavour of existentialism which emphasises choice over chance, and the human potential for freedom and self-actualisation over the inevitability of death. Transactional Analysis popularised the terms 'script', 'pay-off', 'early life decisions'. For Rebirthers of course, early life decisions can be made at birth or even in the womb. Support for the idea that babies consciously experience birth, and that adults can recover these memories, came from a range of techniques including hypnotherapy.

In his work on new humane forms of childbirth Frederick Leboyer strove to create a supportive environment for the mother, and one which would be welcoming and reassuring for the baby. He envisaged a place quite different from the hospital environment, with its cold, hard sterile surfaces, its bright lights and loud noises. He promoted practices quite different from the obstetric practices of the time – hasty cutting of the umbilical, the baby rubbed dry on harsh towels and weighed on a cold steel pan, the removal from the mother to a nursery – not to mention the more serious interventions: episiotomy, Caesarean, general anaesthesia, labour-inducing drugs, etc. I list these to indicate what, in Western experience, a 'normal birth' did and can still entail. This needs to be held in mind when rebirthees are asked what their birth was like, and they in turn ask their mothers who reply: "Oh it was normal, just a normal birth."

An essential part of all successful births is that the baby take its first breath. Physically this is very hard for the baby, the lungs need to be inflated from their collapsed, fluid-filled state. This alone may contribute to substantial birth trauma and a lasting inhibition about breathing. This trauma can be stimulated during a Rebirth and can be one of the reasons for resistance to the Rebirthing breath.

Somewhere in our consciousness is the thought that life began with an in-breath and that it ends with an out-breath – in the beginning we inspire, at the end we expire. We associate breathing in with the assumption of responsibility and breathing out with the end of experience. Both are connected with great anxiety. Remember too that the lungs are vital organs of ingestion and elimination. They absorb oxygen, deprived of which for five minutes we die. They are responsible for eliminating most of our body waste in the form of water, carbon dioxide and volatile toxins. Small wonder then that in the Rebirthing breath strong emotions are aroused and issues around life and death are activated.

Another reason for resistance is that the Rebirthing breath activates feelings. Often feelings seem more trouble than they are worth. Some of them – guilt, shame, fear – are unpleasant to experience. Others – rage, jealousy, even joy – seem to provoke strong negative reactions from others. Perhaps it is understandable that we suppress our feelings. But what we suppress, possesses us. What we run from, runs us. These undealt-with emotions will run our lives until we bring them into consciousness and remove their charge. What Rebirthing does is allow and promote this encounter: by breathing people get into their bodies; by breathing they energise their body and emotions. They really feel the emotion rather than just talk about it. Sometimes a person will experience a pain or sensation in a particular part of the body, which is then associated with a physical or psychic injury. The body itself seems to have the ability to store memories, and these memories can be activated by breathing – a back door into the unconscious. Rebirthing heals these feelings and reintegrates the mind and body.

Visualise for a moment a little boy in a paroxysm of rage. He is stamping his feet on the spot, he is screaming, his face is contorted, his fists are clenched tight to his chest. He is holding all his energy in. He can't get what he wants, partly because his parents react to his rage by disapproving and not giving him what he wants and partly because his energy is blocked so he can't reach out and create what he wants. Because of his fear of abandonment and isolation he suppresses the angry part of him he fears is unlovable. He adapts, he makes himself more lovable by behaving 'nicely' which also has the effect of getting others to get him what he wants. As a grown-up man, he is nice, very nice. Sometimes cloyingly nice. People are attracted to him at first, then puzzled and frustrated by how he never says what he wants. Perhaps they also experience him as artificial, and suspect or sense the anger beneath. This young man, aware of his own dissatisfaction, experiments with various workshops including assertiveness training. But, as he sees it, being assertive is being tough, hard, nasty. He has become aware of his passivity, but not the underlying reason. Rebirthing, by getting him to breathe, puts him straight into his body and back into the angry, painful scenes of being impotent and unlovable. And then below that, to his feelings of being wrong. And eventually to the birth memory that his mother really wanted a baby girl, which he speculates may have caused his later painful tantrums. His integrating affirmation is: I am right, perfect and lovable exactly as I am.

Clients do sometimes reexperience their birth. This can be an extraordinary and wonderful experience, but it is not the goal; Rebirthing is not regression. The main focus of Rebirthing is to put people in contact with their experience in the here and now, and with their potential. Rebirthing supports people in recreating their lives, taking control and responsibility, in a life-change that can feel as profound as birth itself. Clients may also experience a breathing release. This is a deeply satisfying experience where breathing, having perhaps been held for a moment, suddenly becomes completely free. The person effortlessly takes in huge breaths, and the sensation of the breath is uniquely pleasurable. One feels: Why don't I breathe like this all the time? Some people may interpret it as the releasing of the first-breath trauma they experienced as a new-born baby. Along with the physical pleasure comes the realisation that feeling, choice and creativity are also pleasurable and fulfilling.

Rebirthing has features of many of the modern tendencies in personal growth techniques. It is short-term, directive and has an open theory. The recommended course is 20 sessions, 10 with a male Rebirther, 10 with a female; the finite number of sessions motivates the client and dependency is less likely. It is directive – while remaining respectful to the client – because it is communicating a technique which, in order to be effective, needs to be done in a highly specific way. The theory and practice is open, it can be read about in books which are widely available. The aim is to promote growth and autonomy by passing on techniques and knowledge which the client can, after their 20 sessions, use on their own.

Recently my partner Colleen Guymer and I have expanded from working independently as Rebirthers, to group workshops, and working together with individuals. It has been rewarding to discover how complementary we are in terms of style and skills, but more than that, we have discovered the power of being able to tap into a client's experience of the 'primal triangle': the three-way relationship between the child, its mother and father. Our dual presence with the client seems to activate and integrate parental material particularly rapidly.

I want to conclude by describing some of the things which really excite me about Rebirthing. Firstly its speed and effectiveness as a personal growth process. It is very satisfying to witness the illumination and growth it provides for people who are ready to change.

Secondly, clients talk back with their whole body and with the quality of their breathing. It's a holistic communication much more expressive than speech alone. It visibly activates body memories. It really seems like a short-cut to the psyche!

Lastly, I have been very moved by people's willingness to be vulnerable. By so doing they discover that – just like a vulnerable baby – they grow. That surrender can be a means to empower ment and the body can be a safe and pleasurable place to be. That personal growth is a process of reclaiming, proclaiming and acclaiming oneself. That personal growth can be – literally – a process of inspiration.

For further reading:

Leonard Orr & Sondra Ray Rebirthing in the New Age Celestial Arts 1977
Sondra Ray & Bob Mandel Birth and Relationships Celestial Arts 1987
Jim Leonard & Phil Laut Rebirthing – The Science of Enjoying all of your Life Trinity Publications 1983
Frederick LeBoyer Birth Without Violence Fontana/Collins 1977
David Chamberlain Babies Remember Birth Ballantine Books 1988
Gunnel Minett Breath and Spirit The Aquarian Press 1994


  1. Kirby Bible said..

    Interested in happiness!

  2. Anita Aboulafia said..

    Colleen, Is that you? Back in the early 1980s, I was on a kibbutz and I met someone with that name. I was recently cleaning out my (too) vast assortment of papers and found a letter from you, when you were in Cairo. I imagine you are the same Colleen, although I may be wrong. I'm still living in Brooklyn. All is well except for the horrible stuff going on in the US - coronavirus, crazy president and, last but not least, the awful injustices that persist here for people of color. Please, if you are the Colleen who I met in Israel, I hope you're well.

    Fist bumps, Anita

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About Chris Retzler

Chris Retzler and Colleen Guymer are Rebirthers living and working in London. They run workshops and individual sessions. For further information telephone 0181-806 8045.

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