The Real Reason Why Your Hands Curl Up in Breathwork
I’m lying in a fort of yoga bolsters and cushions on the tile floor, air conditioning buzzes somewhere in the corner and my eye pillow is making my face itch. It’s the middle of the afternoon in Thailand and I have a day off from teaching yoga and meditation classes at a wellness retreat I’m staying at for 2 months.
The resident breathwork instructor is treating me to a one-to-one session of Rebirthing, an intense breathwork technique so named because it’s founder literally felt like he was being reborn when he discovered it.
I'm breathing fast and deep, drawing air in through my mouth and immediately expelling it with a sigh in a circular pattern which eliminates any normal momentary pauses between breaths. It's a very different experience from the nasal breathing pranayama techniques I teach and have practiced until this point.
Maybe thirty minutes into what will turn out to be an almost-four-hour experience and there’s an odd sensation creeping into my body.
It starts with micro pins and needles in the tips of my fingers and toes.
I give my digits and wiggle and stretch my hands wide with the intention of moving the feeling through.
‘Keep breathing! Mouth open!’, says my instructor.
Moving doesn’t do a whole lot to quell the determined tingle, it turns out. It has now transformed into a prickly stiffness and is rapidly making a journey into my arms and legs.
I’m now lying in my fort with my hands seized up to such a degree that my hands have curled and clamped into what feels like a claw, I can’t feel my arms and legs through numbness, and there’s even a hint of tingle teasing the corners of my mouth.
Indeed, moments later, the swarm of sensations has spread into my chest and has even found it’s way into my lips, tightening them together into a purse so that I’m now trying to maintain rhythmic, open-mouth breathing while sucking in air through an orafice that feels like a beak.
Why Your Hands Curl In Breathwork
Seasoned breathers often view the stiff, tingly lobster claws frequently developed in breathwork sessions as the symbol of a successful practice. It means you went hard enough to release some deep stuff, they say. It’s a somatic badge of having done ‘the work’. Why bother doing breathwork without the climax, if you know what I mean? ;)
Many a New Age breathwork instructor will tell you, as mine did, that the infamous ‘claw hand’ manifests as an embodied response to energetic and emotional components.
It’s certainly an explanation worth keeping an open mind to, and we'll come to that later.
But what’s the real reason your fingers tingle and your hands curl in breathwork?
I usually give two explanations when students ask.
The Scientific Reason
The tingling, numbness and clamping sensations experienced in the hands, feet and other extremities during a breathwork session that can make the hands curl is called tetany. Tetany can feel like tingling, numbness or tightness and is the result of decreased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood caused by rapid breathing, or ‘hyperventilation’. When the levels of CO2 in the blood drop, PH levels increase and become more alkaline. Carbon Dioxide acts as a vasodilator, meaning it keeps your veins open, so when your CO2 levels drop, your veins contract — which causes the characteristic breathwork claw hand. As CO2 aids the release of oxygen into your blood, your oxygen levels also lower.
This is why people experiencing anxiety and panic attacks often experience tetany, too. Because the panic encourages hyperventilation. The paper bag technique for managing panic attacks works because it allows the breather to reinhale some of the carbon dioxide lost through rapid breathing while in panic.
So that’s the scientific, physiological explanation for feeling tingling and getting curling hands in breathwork.
There is also the spiritual, or psychosomatic, explanation.
The Psychosomatic/Spiritual Explanation
Considering the reasons behind taking a breathwork class, which is usually a reason with some element of spiritual or energetic exploration, being open to the potential psychosomatic reaons behind any feelings that manifest can hugely enhance your experience and accelerate your subsequent growth and integration.
So what are the psycosomatic reasons for tetany?
It’s not uncommon for a breathwork instructor to guide those experiencing tetany to explore what they might be holding onto emotionally or energetically that is being felt in the hands.
The tightness, numbness, tingling and clamping down sensation might well be tension that has built over time from things you’re holding onto and not expressing.
In fact, this invitation to exploration beyond scientific explanation applies to any uncomfortable or unusal sensations in the body.
The two explanations for tetany—the scientific and the spiritual—are not mutually exclusive. Both can both be true at the same time or at different times, and it really comes down to you to determine how you'd like to define the sensations for yourself and your own body.
What to do when you get claw hands in breathwork
Regardless of how you choose to define tetany, we still have the feeling itself to navigate, right?
Whether you experience tetany in a breathwork session depends on many factors including your own body, the breathwork technique you’re using, and whether you’re breathing through your nose or mouth. Pranayama breathwork practices, which mostly use the nose and are comprised of sessions much shorter than modern breathwork techniques like rebirthing and Holotropic breathwork, don't rely as much on hyperventiliation to elicit bodily response, so can be a good option to start with.
Many people, when they feel the onset of tingling and tension in their hands, get scared and stop their breathing pattern for fear they’re doing something wrong.
Is Tetany Dangerous?
On the contrary, the sensations brought on by tetany might feel strange and uncomfortable but they’re actually a sign that positive change is happening in your body.
Of tetany and hyperventilation breathing, Alicja Heyda, PhD, says,
‘When you feel tingling or a bit of dizziness while over breathing it’s due to too little Co2 in your blood. This is not a problem. Your body needs to get over it. Just breathe and feel and get alkaline.’
Alicja has also discovered in her research that groups of cancer patients who did hyperventilation breathing consisting of 10 Conscious Connected breathing sessions every 2 days along with daily hyperventilation for 15 minutes, had higher levels of natural killer cells alongside more alkaline blood after radiotherapy cancer treatment compared with the control group. So getting a bit hyperventilated might actually increase efficacy of cancer treatment.
How to Stop Tingling Hands in Breathwork
Okay, so you know T-Rex hands aren’t doing you any harm, but what if you just don’t like feeling like a dinosaur while you’re in the throes of diving into your very soul?
If tetany, dizziness, or tension during breathwork is causing you panic or distracting you from the breathwork practice, there are a number of things you can do to relieve the feeling and release the tension:
Switch to breathing through your nose
Exhale more softly without forcing all of your air out
Try to surrender to the sensations rather than resist them
Stretch and move the parts of your body you feel the sensations in
Slow down the rate of your breathing
Become an observer of the feeling rather than attaching to it. Get curious and ask what message your body might be trying to give you via the feelings.
Remember: What you resist persists! As with all healing modalities, the solution is never to resist, but to surrdner, to observe and to trust and allow your body to do what it needs to do.
When the feeling eases, you can return to the breathing pattern given to you by your instructor and build up your tolerance.
The sensations of tetany are likely to ease the more experienced you become with breathwork, so don't allow the claw to discourage you from the power that can be accessed through the practice of breathwork!
Want to go deeper with your breathwork practice and explore the magic of your breath for total wellbeing with a supportive instructor? Check out Breakthrough, my 6 week online breathwork immersion.