Using Your Own Breath to Reach an Altered State
TRIPPING ON MY LUNCH BREAK
I had recently started going to group meditation classes on my lunch break to get away from my computer for a minute in order to avoid getting burned out. I was sitting at my desk on a particularly stressful day and decided it was a good day to meditate. I looked up classes nearby and there was one that I had never heard of before, called Breathwork, but it was the only one at 12:00pm. I signed up, grabbed my purse, and headed that way. Breathwork. Sounds like another one of those yoga classes that focuses on various breathing techniques. Hopefully jeans and a hoodie are okay to wear because that is all I had with me.
I arrive and wait in the main lobby with about 20 other individuals. The bell chimes signaling that class is about to begin. The door to the meditation room opens and we all walk in. There are mats on the ground all around facing the front where the teacher sits. I grab a blanket, choose a mat, and sit down. The teacher introduces a new breathing technique that I have never heard of before. She tells us that we will be breathing through our mouths only, in a three breath rhythm. One breath into the stomach, another into the chest, and then one breath out. Breathing as deeply as we can but rapidly. She will guide us through the process over the next hour.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
We all lie down on our backs and she begins breathing loudly making it easy for us to mimic her. It is sort of similar to the breathing one learns during a lamaze class if you can imagine that. She dims the lights and turns on some evocative music. Our journey begins. I start to breathe in and out through my mouth in this rhythm which is slightly more intense than how I breathe on a regular basis. I get a little lightheaded but keep going. I am honestly pretty skeptical that simply breathing will do much for me but want to at least try. I can hear others breathing softly all around me.
At first, I am a little self conscious to breath so loudly where others can hear me. I think the people around me feel the same as they are more on the quiet side even though the teacher is coaching us, telling us to breathe more deeply. She then turns down the music and asks everyone to scream as loud as they can on the count of three. 1,2,3…ahhh! Everyone is giggling. She tells us to do it again but even louder this time. 1,2,3…AHHHHHHH! There is something about letting yourself go and not caring what anyone else around you thinks of you. That is exactly how I felt and it seemed that others did as well and now the awkward tension has left the air. We are all in this together.
The music gets more powerful and she continues to instruct us on breathing but more intensely now. After about 10 minutes, I all of the sudden feel waves of energy radiating all over my body. My senses are heightened. It is dark, my cells seem to all be vibrating as I lie there on the ground with my eyes closed. I hear the girl behind me sobbing. Her emotions seem to roll over me like a wave where I can feel them throughout my body. I continue breathing, more deeply as I want this feeling to stay. At that moment, I feel tears pouring down my cheeks. I am crying? I had no idea.
Twenty minutes in, the energy is so intense throughout my body that I cannot move. Really, I try moving my hands and can’t. My jaw is numb and my hands have formed into a lobster claw like shape. I try to release my fingers and lift my hands off the ground but I am unable to do either. This is slightly unsettling and I wonder if my body can handle this anymore. But I keep going.
The music gets louder. She says to keep breathing. My head is spinning. I still can’t move my hands and now my arms are paralyzed too. I can’t move anything. My body is sweating. Memories come to me. I just watch them flash by. I think of my parents. Times I have misunderstood them. I now see a new way that they need my love. I think about the stress I have been feeling about whether I should take the new job I was offered. I feel like this burden is lifted off of me and I realize everything will be okay. I keep breathing. I feel the energy flowing. A tingling sensation in my hands, shooting through my arms, all the way down to my toes. I keep breathing and allow it to take over my body. I can hear people laughing. Crying. I am feeling all of these things. As my eyes are closed, I start to see swirls of color. Purple and green.
The music then becomes softer and the song changes. A woman is singing. Loud and passionately about love. Like a song you belt out in the shower right after you break up with someone. One of those songs that makes you feel something. She says now to begin to slow our breathing. The same song is still playing and I can feel the passion in the lyrics throughout my entire body. It is so emotional. But at the same time, my body starts to relax. Although I am more relaxed, the energy in the room is still intense as we are all coming down. The music comes to an end and the room is silent. We all lie there in the darkness, silent for a minute. She says to stay there as long as we need to.
I take a deep breath in through my nose and blow all of it out through my mouth. I can finally move my hards again. I lift them up and feel my face. There are tears running down my cheeks. I wipe them away. My body is slightly trembling, as I can still feel the vibrations that penetrated through my entire body only minutes before. I open my eyes and sit up slowly. I continue to just sit there. Others get up and go talk to the teacher about their experience. Ask questions. I am still in a trance. There is no way I can drive right now. I don’t know what just happened but it was liberating.
This experience was so unexpected. Only an hour ago, I was sitting at my desk having a normal day at work. And then I come here and have such an intense experience. It feels like I have let go of emotions that I have been holding on to for years. Throughout my life, I have tried various methods, therapy, self-help, meditation, etc. but this was the first one that I feel really got to the core and helped me let go. I feel free. I slowly get up and walk around for a minute. I walk over to the teacher, hug her, and tell her thank you for everything. I open up the door and go outside. The sun is bright, a huge contrast from the dark room I was just in for the past hour. It is a perfect summer day in Los Angeles. The birds are chirping. I just take it all in. I feel different. Better. What just happened in there? There is no way I can go back to work right now.
I drive home in silence. Smiling. Completely present. Noticing everything around me. When I get home, I sit down and start thinking about what just happened. How can something we are constantly doing (breathing) get you to that altered state so quickly? And physically paralyze your body. I already want to do it again. But it was so intense. Is it safe? I have to know more.
WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
When I get home, I look up breathwork. I learn that there are two main types. Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing. The main difference is that with Holotropic Breathwork, you breath through your mouth. With Rebirthing, you breathe through your nose. Holotropic Breathwork was developed by Dr. Stanislav Gof, one of the earliest researchers of LSD and the therapeutic effects of psychedelics on the mind. But then in the 70’s the federal government cracked down on LSD research which eliminated all of Gof’s funding.
He then decided to continue his research but without drugs. He studied the way his subjects were breathing when they were on LSD and replicated this same breathing with his new subjects. He found that “by forcefully inhaling and exhaling for equal amounts of time, at an increasing speed, one is able to enter an altered state of consciousness*”. Grof defines the holotropic state as “those that are beyond the normal waking consciousness, having a mystical quality to them that can sometimes be reached through meditation and use of psychedelic drugs, and in some cases through spontaneous emergence. Grof argues that these states have inherent healing mechanisms, similar to a body’s immunological or histological response to distress. Setting an intention for healing and psychospiritual growth when accessing the holotropic states initiates a process of self-repair of the psyche, he explains.*”
As far as the lobster claw hands and paralysis I experienced, I learned that this is called tetany; a convulsive tension that can be triggered by a deficiency of carbon dioxide in the blood (which resulted from all of the rapid, shallow breathing we were doing). This is completely normal during breathwork sessions and can be controlled by changing your breathing. It is harmless as far as I have read in my research (but don’t quote me on that), but if you get panic attacks easily, it would be a good idea to make sure to do one on one breathwork sessions instead of group sessions. This way you always have the teacher there to talk you through it.
MORE ABOUT BREATHWORK
Since this first experience, I have continued my breathwork journey and do believe it is proof that much healing can be done from within. I have tried both Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing and believe they have the same benefits. My experience with Rebirthing was slightly more intense for me even though the technique is calmer and seems to be more gentle on the body. For that reason, I do prefer Rebirthing going forward. Regardless of if you breath through your mouth or nose, every session will be different. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry, sometimes I just feel. I don’t see colors all of the time but when I do, it is delightful. As with anything, if you go in without expectations, you will be given the exact experience you need at that moment.
I still think about that day at my office. And how it unexpectedly turned into a day that I will remember forever. My intuition told me to take a break and sign up for that class even though I had never heard of it before. I didn’t question it, I just did it. And it ended up giving me exactly what I had been needing. Life is great like that. When you listen, you are most often rewarded. Whether you meditate or not, do or don’t do yoga, or are spiritual at all. I highly recommend you try a breathwork session. It just might change your life.
Below are the main websites for each type of breathwork where you can find more info, a list of practitioners, and workshops.
Below are a list of the breathwork centers where I have done group sessions and would highly recommend. I will add to this list as I find more that I think have a good atmosphere.
Unplug Meditation is where I had my first experience and many after that. They have various teachers and sessions at different times of day throughout the week. You can also book through ClassPass. 🙂
Jalan Kelebang Moding No. 22 Banjar Bentuyung Ubud
Tegallalang, Tegallalang, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571
Every Wednesday, Daniel (Suntara) Coates and his wife, Rosarmy, lead a 2 hour Rebirthing & Sound Healing session that I highly recommend. Daniel has over 13 years of experience as a Sound Healer and Rebirther.