I AM LYING on a foam mattress, wearing an eye mask, with a pillow and blanket, water and tissues by my side. I have a “sitter” to hand me whatever I need, lead me to the bathroom (still blinded by the eye mask) and call for help if I want or appear to need it from one of six trained facilitators. My sitter is Rosie, my good childhood friend who is also a massage therapist and yoga teacher—without whom I probably would never have undertaken such a thing.
For three hours, I work on breathing in the unusual, difficult way that I’ve practiced (at an earlier one-hour session), taking very deep gulps of air into the abdomen, then pushing the air out with strong, loud exhales, and immediately inhaling again—similar to hyperventilating. Inside my mask, I see only darkness and am engulfed by very loud music, moving from fast, intense primitive ritual sounds to slower and quieter, sometimes with lovely women’s voices, sometimes punctuated by groaning, crying and screaming from other breathers.
In the California desert, I am attending a weekend of Holotropic Breathwork, touted to provide relief from anxiety, depression and PTSD as well as psychedelic hallucinations and enlightenment. The remote possibility of achieving these by breathing is an appealing alternative to ingesting anything —LSD, ayahuasca—with the similar goal of “psychedelic therapy.”
While I’m open to ideas about mind-body connections and have dabbled in gentle adventures like flotation tanks, I am too skeptical to try most New Age practices like consuming smelly herbs or doing whatever with crystals.
What helped get me to this breathing weekend was its location in Joshua Tree, where I’d long yearned to go because a favorite musician, Gram Parsons, loved it and died there. I’d had trouble justifying such a long trip and been reluctant to do it alone until Rosie wanted to come, too.
Workshops in Holotropic—from the Greek, growing towards wholeness—Breathwork, also called neurodynamic breathing, were created by Stanislav Grof, one of the 1960s researchers looking into LSD as a therapeutic tool. By 2009, more than 100,000 Americans had participated in these workshops. Decades earlier, Rosie had done Holotropic Breathwork with Grof, which reassured me. Our weekend took place at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, a collection of aging buildings with a pool, oleander bushes in bloom and one shop that sold crystals and smelly herbs but no snacks to relieve hunger or fatigue.
Among 60 attendees, most were friendly but not insistently so. Some said they hadn’t done “other woo-woo things,” while others had done Holotropic Breathwork several times. Having both groups there comforted me, although I remained wary. Rosie is my only friend who’d ever heard of such a thing. Also, the lingo—“visuals” for hallucinations, “dropping in” for moving away from reality—made me feel as if I’d entered an alternate universe.
Some attendees had brightly colored hair and flowy robes; most were from California. One brought his own bathtub in the back of a truck, which he filled with huge buckets of ice cubes each morning for 10 minutes of cryotherapy (healing with cold) by the pool, after which others jumped in to see how long they could last.
There are several explanations for the effects of deep, fast breathing accompanied by music of specific vibrations. Directing blood flow away from brain structures responsible for rigid thinking and background chatter can allow for the greater “connectivity and ego-dissolution” associated with long-term improvement in well-being.
Reduced carbon dioxide in the blood (caused either by hyperventilation itself or by the brain stem response) has been shown to “modify emotional states,” UCLA neurobiology professor Jack Feldman told Cosmopolitan.
And lower carbon dioxide levels spur a rise in blood pH that can cause dizziness, tingling and “carpopedal spasms, which is basically flapping your arms and legs,” writes Conor Creighton on Vice. “Breathwork adds…after-care and some therapeutic suggestions. Plus, there’s someone to catch you before you fall over.”
Besides feeling skeptical, wary and faintly hopeful, I was a little worried: three hours sounded very long, especially if nothing happened, which was my biggest fear. In my first role as sitter for Rosie, I watched the room full of breathers crying, yelling, flailing, making me both more unsure of my ability to do any of these but also better prepared to try when the time came.
Taking my turn as the breather, I focused on doing it correctly, continuously searching for a better position to allow deeper breathing—on my back on the mattress, then arched over a pillow, then on my hands and knees; then forgot about breathing altogether as I moved around; then remembered to start the breathing again.
What kept coming into my mind was anger and sadness for all the women affected by sexual abuse and for my own difficult experiences—and for the courage it took those women who spoke publicly, which I had never done. These thoughts got me to some mattress pounding and kicking, and then to longing for greater physical strength to fight back, to protect myself, to hurt men who hurt women. At first I punched upwards, which didn’t feel very powerful; then I tried knee pushups into the mattress, strenuously pushing and pulling with my arms.
I liked reacting physically to the horrible trauma affecting women, also to move freely—without the prescribed poses of yoga or Pilates, and with the eye mask to keep me from seeing myself look silly or from watching anyone else for comparison. Another physical effort was trying to warm my toes, which became so cold in the chilly room that I felt sorry for them. But I couldn’t bring myself to make any noise at all.
What brought me to tears was Rosie leading the way to the bathroom as I followed blindly, my hands on her shoulders, feeling the power of friendships, of trust, of touch—of someone taking care of me.
Toward the end of my session, visuals emerged—at first very exciting. With my eyes open but encased in the mask, I looked down from a mountain ledge, surrounded by dark granite rocks, into a valley with lots of little twinkling lights that looked like a town at night—like a 3-D movie. The rocks below me morphed into a monster shape, more exciting, but quickly morphed back into the cliff. I heard bird singing, but despite knowing it came from the recorded play tape, was slightly disappointed to look around and find no bird flying around over my head.
While thrilled to be capable of such a hallucination, after the session I couldn’t extract any meaning from the dark landscape, except maybe death. From the entire experience I wasn’t sure anything significant had happened, though the three hours sped past without me once wondering about the time.
Leaving the room, I felt relaxed and “floaty” (a popular Breathwork adjective), especially in the swimming pool. The desert landscape, the blue sky and the moon and stars all looked sharper and brighter.
Rosie had some helpful thoughts, for example that looking down from a high perch might mean I was getting a new perspective, although I wasn’t sure of what. She had noticed my difficulty breathing and suggested that my general well-being might benefit from a breathing coach. She wondered if that difficulty might be linked to my silence and if both might be holding me back from a fuller experience: “getting unstuck” depends on a combination of breath, movement and sound, Rosie said.
Before the weekend, we spent a few days in Joshua Tree. It was my first trip to the American desert and first view of Joshua trees, unimaginable to me before seeing them. We visited the motel where Gram Parsons stayed and the room where he died, the walls covered with Parsons memorabilia—and heard locals bursting into Parsons’s songs. In Joshua Tree National Park, we took long hikes, which I usually consider arduous and boring but I loved spending time among the Joshua trees and the park’s towering boulder formations. Listening to Parsons after I returned home, the songs sounded better than ever and kept me reflecting on my Breathwork experience.
For now, I am not eager to sign up for more Breathwork sessions, concerned that no location could lure me like Joshua Tree and that I could never match the experience of having my first Breathwork there. Despite being slightly disappointed that my three hours weren’t more dramatic, I also emerged with more trust in my ability to survive such experiences and with more interest in trying what is increasingly popular and available: psychedelic drugs in a therapeutic setting.
On the other hand, maybe I’m “still processing,” which is what many Breathwork participants said. Maybe I’ll crack the puzzle of the granite valley as representing something other than death, or get better at breathing and finding my voice. One- and two-day sessions are offered around the country, mostly on the west coast but also by one of our Joshua Tree facilitators, Sharanya Naik, in New Jersey.
Every Tuesday in this space, well-being editor Mary Carpenter reports on health news we can use.