This story was originally published in DoubleBlind Mag, a media company and educational platform at the forefront of the psychedelic movement.
As a collective, we’re rapidly opening to psychedelic experiences as a way to heal and evolve. However, we still draw quite a firm line between what are considered to be “normal” and “altered” states of consciousness.
For many people, the process goes somewhat like this: They have a psychedelic trip, reach certain realizations and then expect to go back to their “baseline” state of awareness—only updated with some new insights. However, there remains a clear distinction between the “ordinary” and “altered” consciousness.
Stanislav Grof, the creator of the Holotropic Breathwork method that relies on accelerated breathing and evocative music, noticed that non-ordinary experiences “are all put in the category of altered states of consciousness. What it suggests somehow is that there’s a correct way of experiencing ourselves and the world, and that, in these states, it’s distorted.”
But what if we questioned the “correct way” of experiencing life? What if we could lastingly transform our awareness, so that those altered states would gradually seep into our “new normal?”
That’s what breathwork may help you to achieve.
The Breath That Transforms
Breathwork is any form of a controlled, intentional breathing practice with a goal of improving well-being. Most modalities rely on increased oxygenation of the body, which in turn could alter perception.
Some of the popular breathwork modalities include Transformational Breath® (consciously connected breathing with the intention of restoring natural breath patterns), Rebirthing (a breathwork technique that can supposedly help you relive your own birth and heal trauma connected to it), the abovementioned Holotropic Breathwork, and the Wim Hof Method. The latter combines breathing and cold exposure techniques that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “have struck a chord during the coronavirus pandemic because they teach people how to tolerate extreme discomfort.” That’s actually something all breathwork techniques have in common: They create a safe container for the practitioner to face and process their deepest fears, unresolved emotions and traumas.
Most of the commonly used techniques rely on Consciously Connected Breathwork, a method where the practitioner intentionally connects in-breath and out-breath without any pauses. According to the International Breathwork Foundation, a lot of those techniques have evolved from Rebirthing, which was originally introduced in the 1970s by author Leonard Orr, who is said to have re-lived his own birth while taking a bath. Rebirthing is founded on two main premises: First is that relaxation, which can be induced by the breath, is the ultimate healer. Second, the breath can help us embrace the life-death cycle and, through that, help us heal all major traumas.
What could be called the “next iteration” of Rebirthing is Transformational Breath® created by Judith Kravitz. She was inspired by Orr’s work and, over time, added elements from her healing practice as a counseling minister. The essence of her method is deep, conscious, diaphragmatic breathing without any pauses between the breaths. Sessions often happen in a group setting and involve assistance of facilitators who guide practitioners through the process by invoking their intentions, using hands-on techniques and simply holding safe space.
According to the official website of the Transformational Breath® Foundation, some benefits of the method include resolving addictions, improved energy levels, clearing past traumas and dramas, improving self-esteem and strengthening the connection with the divine. The case studies sound very impressive and include people getting cured of cancer, paralysis or schizophrenia. Tibetan Buddhist Lama Rinpoche Tulku Thubten said that Judith Kravitz’s techniques “have the power to lead one to have a direct experience of liberation on many levels. You may call it a shortcut to enlightenment.”
The scientific research on the effects of breathwork is still in its infancy. However, there’s solid evidence showing the benefits of deep, diaphragmatic breathing, such as “reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression,” and “increased sustained attention.” According to Scientific American, the power of breathwork lies in the fact that these “techniques influence both physiological factors (by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system) and psychological factors (by diverting attention from thoughts).”
However, when I examine my own experience of breathwork and talk to fellow practitioners, I can’t help but think that the health benefits of breathwork are just the tip of the iceberg.
The Expansion of Your World
Understanding where the words we use come from can tell us a lot about their hidden meanings. This rings particularly true when it comes to the vocabulary around breathing.
In many Latin-derived languages, the root spiritus gave beginning to both the words “spirit” and “respiration.” That’s also where “inspiration” comes from—a word that has at least two different meanings. On the one hand, to be inspired is to be visited by the creative Muse, to connect to the Divine. On the other, inspiration is simply the act of breathing in.
These two meanings have an underlying common denominator: expansion. Inspiration in the creative or spiritual sense requires one to see the bigger picture, to perceive that which was unavailable before. The act of inhalation is literally an expansion of the lungs and the whole body.
Could it be that, through breathwork, we can create more space in our lives by opening our awareness to what was previously unseen?
A lot of practitioners report more than just improvements to their physical or psychological well-being. Often, their accounts of the breathwork effects sound more like a shift in paradigm, reaching a whole new understanding of life. Bogdan Gligor, a multidisciplinary artist and traveller currently based in Italy, who’s been practicing different types of breathwork since 2012, told me about a profound experience he had after a three-day Transformational Breath® facilitator training in Edinburgh:
“At the end of the weekend, I experienced a very interesting state. It wasn’t unfamiliar but I can’t remember experiencing it as an adult; maybe as a child. I looked at all the people in the room with whom I’ve completed the training and I clearly saw that each of them had a particular role to play. There was this person who was always skeptical about things; there was someone who claimed that ‘everything is love,’ and so on; everyone had their particular thing. And it was perfect. For the first time, I understood that there’s nothing wrong with being negative, pessimist, or even with being sick. The world needs all of these experiences to evolve.”
To Bogdan, the major change caused by breathwork wasn’t so much about experiencing “altered states.” More importantly, his breathing practice led him to a much broader, big-picture understanding of reality and being at peace with it. This seems to correspond with frequently reported “heightened states of consciousness” in psychedelic users and increased “feelings of connectedness to others.” The common denominator here could be the reduced sense of individual self in those experiences.
In the psychonaut circles, the expansive and all-accepting state of awareness is often attributed to ego death, or a deactivation of the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN), which is responsible for ego functions, i.e. putting us at the center of our universe, while perceiving ourselves as separate entities. Certain psychedelics, as well as controlled intense breathing, may temporarily “switch off” that network (or at least disrupt its functioning), causing the practitioner’s experience of reality to shift.
Dennis McKenna, a veteran investigator of psychedelic healing, describes what happens as a result:
“A lot of what psychedelics do is they bring the background forward. … That’s a very valuable thing because there’s a lot going on in the background that we are conditioned never to notice because we think they’re unimportant; they are important. … So you can take your Default Mode Network offline and you can open yourself up to all these other things that you never pay attention to. And then you realize: ‘Wow, I’m missing a lot! These are very important, these are aspects of interaction with reality that I just never noticed before.'”
Although McKenna refers to psychedelic substances, the experience of “bringing the background forward” may also be induced through breathwork. For example, one study found that “when participants accurately tracked their breath, both the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved in moment-to-moment awareness, were active.” This suggests that intentional, controlled breathwork can make us notice things in the present that we’d otherwise overlook. As a result, the practitioners may be able to reach a more holistic and objective experience of the world.
Anne-Marie Birch, a Transformational Breath® facilitator from Scotland, says that as a result of experiencing those deeper states, “We’re moving from unconscious, conditioned experience, into higher-conscious, unconditioned. When we’re breathing, we’re allowing our unconscious patterns of energy to be integrated.”
But what does it mean for them to be integrated? On the physical level, this may manifest as “fully opening the breathing pattern,” which Judith Kravitz stated as the first intention of the Transformational Breath® method. Psychologically, integration is about “ending the cycle of trauma,” as breath coach Justyna Kubach from wellness company Thriv3 put it. Here, it becomes clearer why this work is called “transformational.”
What it Means to “Complete” Your Trauma
In traditional talk therapy, trauma is usually approached as a psychological ailment. The hope is that, through intellectual insight, the patient can also ease their physiological symptoms of trauma—such as anxiety or chronic pain.
However, in the words of health writer Emma Pattee, “anxiety is in your body, not your mind.” There are more and more therapeutic approaches that back this up. Take, for example, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, which was founded by Dr. Pat Ogden. Her approach recognizes the physiological component of trauma, anxiety and other mental health issues, i.e. their reflection in how the body operates on a daily basis. Transformational Breath® facilitators I spoke to also agreed that trauma is stored somewhere in our tissues, in the form of unreleased energy. To release it, we can use the breath to connect us to the physical experience of trauma, without necessarily reaching an intellectual understanding. Justyna Kubach from Thriv3 explains that trauma doesn’t derive from merely experiencing a horrible incident. It’s those incidents that we didn’t have the chance to complete that cause trauma. Kubach says that when the natural fight-or-flight response of the body is held back, the energy produced for that response can “get stuck” in our nervous or hormonal system. For example, if we get hit by a car, our body doesn’t get a chance to make any movement in self-defense; the event was too rapid. However, the energy generated for that movement doesn’t disappear. It remains in the body and may influence our conscious experience until we let it move through.
“The states of deeper awareness that can be accessed through consciously connected breathing allow us to tap into the past experiences and close the cycle of trauma,” says Kubach. “It’s simply about releasing that energy that was generated for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response that we never had a chance to perform. That release can happen through screaming, a particular physical movement, or simply freeing our breath pattern that was restrained because of the trauma. The trick is, you need to fully feel it before you can release it.”
Consciously re-entering traumatic events from our lives can be scary. For many people, these are extremely painful, triggering, and often shameful experiences they’ve been avoiding for years. That’s why most breathwork practitioners benefit from the assistance of a facilitator who can safely guide them through the process of completing the traumatic cycle.
While Birch refers to breathwork as a “self-empowering practice,” as a facilitator she says her intention is to provide a practitioner with knowledge, understanding, and experience that will allow them to facilitate themselves when they feel ready. “Mostly, I do this through holding miracle consciousness—the truth that, on the deepest level, they’re already whole and have everything they need to guide themselves. I’m allowing them a safe space by seeing them in their truth, their beauty and their power,” she says. “And on the outside, I’m allowing any intuitive guidance within that framework to come through to support the breath opening, for example as certain words or touch.”
In the Transformational Breath® community, seeing practitioners as already perfect and whole is sometimes called “holding Miracle Consciousness.” That, plus the experience of one’s breath pattern opening, allows people to “come home to themselves, their true Self.” This resonates with what Stan Grof talks about when he explains the effects of altered states induced by Holotropic Breathwork on his patients:
“After they did some significant work around their traumatic past, they got a sense that they discovered something like an authentic script that they brought into this incarnation. (…) They were doing what Joseph Campbell would call ‘following their bliss.’ Suddenly, they were achieving things with much less effort. They observed sometimes amazing synchronicities (…) and they were basically operating in a way that was fulfilling for them, but also serving some larger cause.”
This suggests that the psychedelic states induced by breathwork may have the potential to lastingly transform the consciousness of its practitioners—and, as a consequence, the way they show up in their lives.
If breathwork indeed helps us release trauma from our bodies, this can mean that we become freer to choose new responses to the same situations. We don’t have to act based on unconscious patterns from the past. Gradually, we develop a new awareness which was previously only accessible to us in “altered states.”
And the most promising thing about this? You don’t have to seek out external substances to transform your consciousness. The only tool you need is at your disposal all the time. You’re already using it whether you think about it or not.