I used to run a lot. When I got sober nearly 24 years ago, I was full of energy, anxiety, and a head full of thoughts shooting this way and that. It was pretty unbearable.
Back then, I hadn’t really run regularly in awhile --what with all the drinking I had been busy doing, along with late night study sessions in law school. But my husband had signed up for a marathon, so in my usual impulsive fashion, I signed up too.
And I think it saved my life.
In the rhythmic cadence of running, I found a peace I’d never really felt before. It’d take awhile to settle in. Maybe 20-30 minites of thoughts and anxieties shooting this way and that. And then just when my knees didn’t bother me anymore, just as my breath was settling in, it was finally quiet upstairs. And I’d notice the trees as they swayed or stood perfectly still depending on the day. And I’d sense the air on my skin. And my heart beating. And the strength of the ground with every strike of the foot. I was finally and truly present. What I’d found was more than physical— I'd found mental, emotional, and spiritual peace.
At the time, I called it meditation. And it was.
But it was also something else--something I later learned is called "transient hypofrontality," an altered state of thinking where the ego part of the brain, the teacher who sits in the front of our brains and tells us all what to do and when and diagnoses problems and strategizes how to fix them, goes to the back of the room and relaxes for a bit, letting the wisdom of the breath and the body lead for once.
Dr. Arne Dietrich, who coined the term "transient hypofrontality,", explains that when engaged in prolonged physical activity like running, the brain undergoes a fascinating shift. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for orderly thinking, takes a temporary hiatus, allowing other cognitive functions to take the stage. This phenomenon sheds light on the elusive runner's high—a state of altered consciousness marked by timelessness, reduced awareness, and a sense of unity with self and nature.
So imagine my surprise when I found breathwork could elicit the same sensation—and this time, with the aim at processing, well, life?
Conscious connected breathwork is a therapeutic technique that offers a parallel journey into altered states of consciousness, a sort of "runner's high" without the running. By consciously altering natural breathing patterns, this breathwork opens a door to the subconscious, allowing repressed thoughts and emotions stored in the body to surface. It serves as a bridge from the mind to the body, a tool for healing, and a means to form profound connections with oneself and others.
The connection between the rhythmic breath of CCB and and the so-called runner's high is one of heightened awareness, a focus on the body and the breath, where moments of the ordinary give way to the extraordinary. Practicing breathwork, much like running, becomes a deliberate act—an intentional exploration of the mind-body connection.
Accessing this grounded, full-bodied presence through running, other high aerobic activities and breathwork takes intention, practice, and coaching.
Cultivate the Experience: Just as with the runner's high, you can cultivate aspects of these altered states which help us process stress, anxiety, and past experiences. If you've ever been on a hard run, legs and lungs burning, as seat pours down your face, you know what I mean. Breathwork engages the same hard work, the same release. They both create conditions that increase the likelihood of experiencing heightened consciousness.
Invoke Intention: Though you can certainly run anytime, anywhere, your experience goes so much better with the right shoes and clothes, and if you've been training for a while, with a route more or less mapped out. Same with breathwork. Be intentional. Use breathwork to explore important questions. Set an intention for the practice, such as letting go of old stories, or finding more self-acceptance. Then let the intentions go, trust in the breath and the body, and see you back at home at the end of the journey.
A Guide can help the Benefits last: Whether the runner's high, or the breathwork's breakthrough, understanding that the "high" is transient--but the effects and the impact can last where you have the right guide. A running coach can help you stay in shape and get the most out of your runs. A breathwork coach can do the same for your mental, emotional, and spiritual health. By working together before and after a session, the coach helps you identify patterns and a path forward.
In both the rhythm of the breath in conscious connected breathwork and in running or other high aerobic activities, we find not only physical vitality but a gateway to altered states of consciousness and increased awareness and self-love. Whether pounding the pavement or consciously connecting with breath, the journey inward reveals a profound connection to self, others, and the essence of life itself.