By Mary Carpenter
Placed under a new spotlight by recent interest in psychedelics, Holotropic Breathwork can offer a similar experience —without the drugs’ risk of unpleasant nausea or scary hallucinations— as reported in by Mary Carpenter following her 2018 three-day holotropic breathing retreat in Joshua Tree, California.
“SOME SHOOK their limbs wildly, looking possessed…the dozens of attendees at the recent breathwork workshop in San Francisco were… health care professionals completing the final step of an eight-month certificate program in psychedelic therapy,” Ernesto Londono wrote last month in the New York Times. “A few minutes into [the breathwork] session, which lasted nearly three hours, several participants began to weep.”
“It was trippy,” said Oregon naturopath JJ Pursell, who compared the “depth of what I experienced” with holotropic breathing to psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. Psychedelic research motivated Seattle palliative care physician Caroline J. Hurd to enroll in the training, based on reports that “psychedelics eased the fear and dread of people facing grim prognoses, allowing them to be more present and emotionally resilient in their final days.”
That chronic pain—“often a physical manifestation of repressed emotional trauma” —might respond to psychedelics was the hope of another participant, Oakland psychologist Bayla Travis, according to the New York Times. After “a wave of heavy emotions that made her cry and shake,” Travis had a vision of herself being carried by another adult, which was “deeply soothing” and made her feel “comforted.”
From Mary’s 2018 report:
I AM LYING on a foam mattress wearing an eye mask, with a pillow and blanket, water and tissues by my side—and a “sitter” to hand me any of these things if I need them, also to 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, Rosie, is a massage therapist and yoga teacher, and a good childhood friend.
The motivation for creating workshops in Holotropic—from the Greek, growing towards wholeness—Breathwork, also called neurodynamic breathing, began with investigations into LSD as a therapeutic tool by 1960s researcher Stanislav Grof. By 2009, more than 100,000 Americans had participated in these workshops, drawn by the possibilities of achieving relief from anxiety, depression and PTSD without ingesting drugs—as well as of experiencing psychedelic hallucinations and enlightenment.
Deep, fast breathing accompanied by music of specific vibrations can direct blood flow away from brain structures responsible for rigid thinking and background chatter—and can allow for the greater “connectivity and ego-dissolution” associated with the long-term improvement in well-being that can also happen with psychedelic drugs.
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.
Wrote Conor Creighton on Vice about Breathwork, the workshops add “after-care and some therapeutic suggestions. Plus, there’s someone to catch you before you fall over.”
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. Among 60 attendees, some said they hadn’t done “other woo-woo things,” while others had participated in several Holotropic Breathwork sessions. But the lingo—“visuals” for hallucinations, “dropping in” for moving away from reality—made it seem like an alternate universe.
For three hours, I worked on breathing in the unusual, difficult way that I’d practiced at an earlier one-hour session. I took very deep gulps of air into the abdomen, then pushed air out with strong, loud exhales, and immediately inhaled again—similar to hyperventilating. Inside my mask, I saw only darkness and felt engulfed by very loud music, moving from fast, intense primitive ritual sounds to slower and quieter, sometimes with lovely women’s voices.
What kept coming into my mind was anger and sadness for women affected by sexual abuse—and for the courage it took those women who spoke publicly, which I had never done about my experience. These thoughts got me to some mattress pounding and kicking, and then to wishing for greater physical strength to fight back, to protect myself and to hurt men who hurt women.
I liked reacting physically—with the eye mask to keep me from seeing myself look silly or from watching others for comparison. But while others around me were groaning, crying and screaming, I couldn’t bring myself to make noise. At one point, I followed blindly as Rosie led me to the bathroom, and having my hands on her shoulders made me feel the power of friendship, of trust, of touch—of someone taking care of me.
Toward the end of my session, visuals emerged: I was high on a mountain ledge, surrounded by dark granite rocks, looking down into a dark valley of shadowy houses and little twinkling lights. The rocks below me morphed into a monster shape, exciting to me, though they quickly morphed back into the cliff. When I heard a bird singing, undoubtedly from the recorded play tape, I was slightly disappointed to find no bird flying around over my head.
After the session, I was unable to extract meaning from the dark landscape, except maybe death. I wasn’t sure anything significant had happened, though the three hours had sped past without me wondering about the time. But leaving the room, I felt relaxed and “floaty”—a popular Breathwork adjective—especially in the retreat’s swimming pool, with the desert landscape, the moon and stars in a deep blue sky, looking sharper and brighter.
Rosie suggested that my experience of looking down from a high perch might mean I was getting a new perspective, although I wasn’t sure of what. And she thought I might benefit from a breathing coach—also by talking more about past experiences—because “getting unstuck” depends on a combination of breath, movement and sound.
I left Joshua Tree slightly disappointed that my three hours hadn’t been more enlightening, but also having new more trust in myself for future experimentation. And I wondered whether doing something like breathwork—or psychedelic drugs—in a smaller group or therapeutic setting, might work better for me than being surrounded by dozens of people sharing their experiences.
—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical subjects in health and medicine.