The way that we use, breathwork, with, meditation, is as a tool to really settle our bodies, when we’re in a heightened stress response or feeling really tight and closed off. Breathwork, allows us to settle into a space of openness and receptivity so much faster. When we’re sitting in stillness and, meditation, you can feel the moving energy up and out of the body.
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Ava Johanna is the founder and visionary behind The Academy of Breath, international breathwork and meditation school, focused on making these ancient embodiment practices household tools across the globe. Ava’s mission is to bridge the gap between modern neuroscience and mysticism so breathwork and meditation are made accessible to everyone from high-level executives to stay-at-home parents.
Yet, Ava’s present-day reality – running a half a million-dollar breathwork and meditation empire, while giving back 10% of profits to marginalized communities and do-good organizations – is the polar opposite to her teenage experience. At the age of sixteen, Ava was homeless. Her rise to fulfillment, entrepreneurial success with The Academy of Breath, and claiming a mission that serves all, makes her the living embodiment of perseverance, healing, and wellness.
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How Ava became a breathwork teacher
Ava: I grew up in a very affluent area. I was born in Santa Monica, California, one of the boroughs in LA and moved about second or third grade to Ventura County Calabasas Westlake area. I always give the example of Calabasas is where the Kardashians live. My family was middle class, but a lot of my friends had lots of money. And so by the time my mom separated from my stepdad which I’m still so proud of her to this day for doing that, we are unable to pay for the basic basic needs, like a roof over our head, food on the table.
My little sister is nine years younger than me and has autism and after she was diagnosed with autism, my mom did everything in her power to support her and to be near her. Unfortunately, my mom wasn’t even able to get a full time job or a regular job because my sister needed to be on call for my sister. She’s her primary caretaker so the only option really for her at that point was to work at the school. Being in close proximity to my sister and you know, really makes her life revolve around my sister.
My mom’s car was repossessed, she would go to the church every other weekend, the Food Bank and pick up groceries for us and we spent a little over a year between couch surfing on friends’ couches, families, couches, neighbors. And after about a year and a half my mom finally was able to scrounge up enough money to get us our own apartment and it was this dingy dark little apartment, but it was ours. And throughout that whole experience, I really am grateful that I was surrounded by so much wealth because it showed me that there was another way.
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I feel so deeply for communities where it’s only poverty because sometimes that can create this identification of this is all that there will ever be for me. And so I’m grateful that I got to see two different sides of circumstance so that I could say, this is the direction I want to go. That experience created this deep hustle mentality within me of continuing to climb and climb and climb until I felt safe.
And it wasn’t until the past few years that as my business started becoming more and more successful, I realized that there was no dollar amount that would ever make me feel safe and safety was an inside job that I had to create within myself. And that’s really where, breathwork and meditation, have had the biggest impact on my life, is learning how to create safety within myself.
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Using meditation as a personal development tool
Myrna: That’s a powerful story. I love that, because I was born poor in Guyana, but I had a very rich godfather who also showed me the other side. How did you learn, meditation?
Ava: So I was working in a corporate job at the time I worked at this agency in San Diego in the marketing department and was so stressed out, it was a startup. I was working anywhere between like eight to 10 hours every day. I was in before the boss out after the boss and literally had dreams about my work. I was no fun to be around. A girlfriend invited me to a, yoga, class for, personal development, and, stress relief, and the, yoga instructor, taught me, how to use breathwork, and, meditation. as, personal growth, tools.
I remember being in a, breathwork meditation, class for the first time, just dripping in sweat and feeling so good. And so from there I became a little obsessed about, breathwork meditation. So I enrolled in, yoga, teacher training about six months later. And a lot of anger would come up in training, which is now I know just repressed emotions leaving my body, but my first weekend in our, yoga, teacher training, we had someone come in and do a full, breathwork, session with us. It was Wim Hof, which is a more modern take on older ancient practices that stem from the Himalayas.
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Find you bliss with breathwork meditation
I remember leaving class that day and just calling my friend and letting her know oh my goodness. This feels incredible, I found my bliss. So from that point forward, I aggressively trained in, breathwork meditation. I saw that there were a lot of amazing things coming from teacher training and also a lot of gaps that could be filled in order to support people that had these missions. And so that’s really where the inspiration for the Academy of Breath came from.
Myrna: What is the neuroscience behind, breathwork meditation, that makes you feel so blissful?
Ava: I like approaching the science from two different angles. I love the mysticism behind, breathwork. I love the spiritual approach to it and I also love the science. So in the same way that if you are with a group of individuals and you’re all singing together. This energy that you can feel this, this opening that’s happening that is almost intangible to describe with words, but you can feel that heightened level of bliss. There’s that kind of element of, breathwork, that comes up.
I can’t really explain this through my words, but you must experience it, in order to really feel what I’m talking about. So, with, breathwork, what I found was that, through this practice, I could feel my body softening and opening and calling almost all aspects of myself to the present moment where I was no longer time traveling between what had happened in the past or my anxiety and worrying predictions of what was happening in the future.
The neuroscience behind breathwork meditation
Now, that’s not necessarily something that we can prove with science, but that is something that you experience when you’re practicing various, breathwork, techniques whether it be a calming technique that’s really slowing the body down, slowing the, nervous system, down or more energizing techniques that’s actually creating more of a movement and momentum within yourself.
You can experience that type of surrender, that type of fullness or oneness with all of these different, breathwork, practices and quite quickly as well. You can do three rounds within two to three minutes and start to feel that sense of relief. Which is really powerful. And then on the other side of it when we look at the science behind, breathwork meditation.
In the same way that singing turns on the, vagus nerve, which is responsible for your, parasympathetic, response in the body. Breathwork, as well turns on the, parasympathetic response.
So basically, the way that I explain it is that the, vagus nerve, is like pumping the brakes on your stress response or, sympathetic nervous system. We’re not necessarily humming or vibrating the vocal cords to activate the, vagus nerve, but there’s different practices like for example a, box breath, or equal ratio breath where the, parasympathetic nervous system, is being activated through slowing down your breath and essentially telling your body and telling your, nervous system.
It’s safe for me to relax, it’s safe to let go. And when we’re doing that, we’re releasing happy chemicals throughout the body like, dopamine, and, serotonin, which are all those feel good hormones, and so that’s where the bliss comes.
Meditation stimulates the nervous system
Myrna: I told you, I learn something new every time I interview someone. I’ve never heard that you can relax your, vagus nerve, by singing. I understand now why some, meditations, do the chanting. I myself do the, box breath, with my, meditation, where you inhale for four, hold for 4 and then exhale for 5.
Ava: Most people don’t realize that our breath can be used as medicine. So when someone goes into a really advanced, breathwork, practice, like a Wim Hof practice, all of those practices are amazing. They all serve their purpose. However, if we’re working with somebody who struggles with PTSD or struggles with anxiety or struggles with depression, we want to be really clear about what, breathwork, practices we are using and the equal ratio breath or the, box breath, or the style that you had mentioned.
So when I teach it, I teach 5-5-5-5, box breath. You can absolutely elongate the exhale, because it does help with the, vagus nerve, being stimulated. But that’s like the easiest practice for anybody to start with to reacquaint themselves with their, breath. To reestablish a relationship with their breath where they’re more mindful about when they’re breathing, because we know that anything that we do in the 10 minutes that we’re sitting down, or five minutes that we’re sitting down, we’re going to become more aware of in the rest of the time during our day when we’re awake.
Using the box breath with breathwork meditation
So that’s a really, really simple place to start breathing in through your nose for four or five, holding at the top for four or five, scaling for four or five, and then we also hold at the bottom for four or five and that’s a way to just strengthen the lungs as well. And the way that is easiest to remember is just an equal basic breathing. So that’s how I explained it to individuals who this helps them.
Myrna: Okay, so you’re saying that’s the simplest, breathwork, . Give us a complicated one.
Ava: Being able to increase your body temperature is a pretty epic tool to have, especially when you’re feeling a little chilly. And I think more than anything, it’s understanding the breath, and the role that the breath plays on the autonomic nervous system. It is like the heart beating; it is the immune system. It’s our hormones releasing from the body.
It’s our digestion, our breath is directly connected to our, autonomic nervous system. And so we can do about that as a way to again move out of that, fight or flight response, where we’re just dumping acidic chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline on our body into a, parasympathetic response.
A breathwork technique to reduce hot flashes
Yes, there is actually a really great practice that is so funny. My mom came with me for my bachelorette party a couple years ago and it was so hot and we were walking back from the party to the Airbnb we were staying, and she just got so overheated and she had to sit down. I was like, Mom, you got to do this, breathwork, practice with me to cool you down. It works within five minutes. It’s really simple, you curl your tongue like a funnel and inhale through it. And for anyone who can’t curl their tongue up, you’ll just breathe through the teeth.
Myrna: Can you use, breathwork, to connect to our, higher power? Because when you go into stillness, you connect with your, higher power, you connect with God. So how do you teach your clients to use, breathwork, to connect to the, higher power, or their higher self?
Myrna: Yeah, that’s such a beautiful question. And to be honest, this is where I get them the most like space to explore on their own because I truly believe that we all have a unique relationship to a, higher power, of our own understanding. And so you know, as an example, I know that in a lot of communities, the word of God can trigger them based on religious upbringing. For me, I love the word God if that’s my understanding of the, higher power, but I know other people like the word, universe, or my, higher self, or whatever it might be.
And so I need to change the language because I know that God created the, universe. All those things are just means the same, super consciousness. There is a bunch of labels.
Using Breathwork meditation to access your higher self
Ava: So the way that I use, breathwork, in with, meditation, is that using, breathwork, first as a tool to really settle our bodies so that again, we’re out of that heightened stress response or feeling really tight and closed off. Breathwork, allows us to settle into a space of openness and receptivity so much faster. When we’re sitting in stillness and, meditation and you feel that moving energy up and out of the body.
Sometimes that energy might be before in the form of recurring thoughts. that might be something that happened yesterday, something that you have to check off of your to do list etc. we can use, breathwork, as a way to move that energy up and out of the body so that we’ve actually created enough of a slowing down within the mind. so that when you are meditating, it’s so much easier for you to hear your own inner voice or the voice of God or the voice of source in the practice itself.
And so usually what I will do for someone who’s like just started, guide them into, breathwork. Then once they’re in, meditation, bring them through a list of things that they’re grateful for, so that they’re really dropping their, heart space, and then guide them into some sort of, prayer. That, prayer, might be just like asking a certain question of something that they desire guidance around or wanting to communicate with God.
And then just allowing myself and, breathwork meditation, to be the subject. I think the two practices go together so perfectly and you know, the lens of, yoga, the eight limbs of, yoga, conjures eight limbs of, yoga. Breathwork, comes before, meditation, as a way to prepare the body to sit for longer periods of time so that you can experience God.
The Academy of Breath
Myrna: How can we connect with you and learn, breathwork meditation, an these wonderful things that you’re teaching.
Ava: Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to share. So the Academy of breath offers an eight week online, breathwork, and, meditation, certification program. This is really meant for anybody who is interested in incorporating, breathwork, and, meditation, into their work that they do. We’ve had high school teachers go through, therapists go through, we have coaches, yoga teachers, massage therapists, so really anybody who would want to expand their core offering using, breathwork, and, meditation, or wants to become a replica, meditation teacher.
We created this program to really guide you through how to facilitate nine different record practices, three different styles of, meditation, as well as bonus modules and bonus support on how to build a business around it. Again, as I mentioned, when I went through all these trainings, I thought there were phenomenal aspects of the trainings that were more spiritual based or the trainings that were more like science based, but no one really approached like the business side of things either.
I think that’s where a lot of teacher trainings fall short is that you give them all of these tools, but then they’re like, I don’t know what to do with this. And so we really work on that aspect of it as well. If that’s something that feels a little bit too, too much or too advanced for those of you that are listening and maybe you’re brand new to, breathwork, and, meditation, we also have a six modules for some practice course called backward, where you will learn over the course of six modules how to develop your own personal, breathwork meditation, practice, to help amplify your creativity, your intuition, lower stress levels, and become more present.
And so we really wanted to create a more accessible way for people to learn, breathwork, and, meditation, that might not necessarily be ready to go into a full teacher training. And you can find details for all of that at www.Academyofbreath.org/programs.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai