Breathwork is a foundational tool for internal exploration, and one which can produce altered states of consciousness. Join Lindsy Hively, LMHC in learning about the applications of breathwork for processing and healing.
This global, societal crisis we have been living through has called on us to tolerate uncertainty in the utmost complex of circumstances. As problems loom increasingly large, much of what we pay attention to, with or without judgment, has narrowed. Our worlds are smaller and more isolated, save for the smoke and mirrors of the Internet.
Prosperity has come to connote a spectrum of survival: How are you surviving? I have asked. I don’t mention the subtext: internal patterns, i.e. neurons that wire and fire together, are converted into energy that is reified in feedback loops that ripple out into our relationships and beyond.
Sometimes I hear the merciful voice in my head reminding me to breathe, to just focus on the breath.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The soup of neurons that make up my thoughts and thus, life in many ways, has been inscrutable. The context is that I’m forty-four and 39-weeks pregnant, coming off a decade working in psychiatric crisis triage and as a psychotherapist in clinics and private practice. I am numb yet disbelieving, shocked and stifled, aware of paradoxes stacking up everywhere. Simplifying my life has not necessarily quieted my mind.
I don’t always identify with bleak thoughts, but have come to realize that I fall somewhere on the continuum of a spiritual emergency and emergence.
I try to show the critical, ruminative part of me compassion and understanding, asking if it wants a simpler job, like being present.
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”– Aldous Huxley
Experiential Learning through Breathwork
Even if the present initially feels scary or without purpose, I have learned that there are spiritual openings to crawl into, to drop down beneath the surface. To risk sounding like a psychonaut crossed with an English Romantic Age poet, these connections live within. Knowing this, I was compelled to enroll in the 100-hour, 3-month long MAPS MDMA-assisted therapy training (offered virtually to students around the world).
Never has there been a more exigent time to expand the boundaries of medicine. A requirement of the program is to have one’s own transpersonal experience, but taking a psychedelic medication wasn’t a viable option for me due to my aforementioned pregnancy.
Even deeper and faster-than-normal breathwork — that can yield a surprisingly powerful mystical experience — could potentially induce overwhelming emotion unfit for a pregnant person. That’s not to mention potentially (though rare) negative physical effects, like dizziness or numbness in extremities from a change in the pH level in the blood.
Exploring Holotrophic Breathwork
This breathwork practice, when in the physical presence of a trained guide and often done in group settings, is known as Holotropic Breathwork. It has been pioneered by Dr. Stanislav Grof, MD, a contemporary godfather of non-ordinary states of consciousness and psychospirituality. A version of it is offered as a virtual breath workshop in the MAPS training, taught by a Grof Transpersonal Training practitioner, and I was eager to try it.
I was advised to do it at my own, non-hyperventilating pace, to the flow of spiritual music carefully chosen by our guide, in a room lying down comfortably. A requirement is having your camera on you for the duration, so that each participant can be monitored for any signs of distress. Training personnel were scanning the Zoom screens of over 200 participants around the world, prepared to contact an appointed person at home with the participant if necessary.
We could choose to vulnerably share experiences in breakout rooms or with the whole community, where I learned that some had mystical experiences, others sobbed as a psychological release, and several others self-recriminated, caught between their egos and shadow selves. These states were reported to be fluid and transmutable, though difficult to move through at times. If this had been true Holotropic breathwork, a guide, through touch, may have helped amplify sensations in our bodies, to help stay with and deepen the experience. Despite it being virtual, I felt our teacher’s presence, empowering our inner healers through the light and dark of our psyches.
Consciousness as a Healer
Grof believes that consciousness itself is the healer; it goes where it needs to go. A major area of his exploration was in accessing not only the biographical and transpersonal, but also the perinatal realm (surrounding the time of birth). In the workshop, we learned about the four “biological perinatal matrices,” most notably the third and fourth ones: babies come through the birth canal into a new world where it’s no longer an aquatic existence. They are disconnected and perhaps experiencing a sense of relief. In this way birth is the first encounter with death and grief in the pattern of human life.
The perinatal realm is believed to be embedded deep in our consciousness, and bioenergetic blocks can stem from individual experiences here; there are traumas of commission and omission, and sometimes these start in a womb’s hostile environment. Even further back than perinatal life is the collective transpersonal domain known as the “unity dimension” that lies beyond time, body and ego. This is what is known in Jungian terms as the collective unconscious.
Our teacher imparted the wisdom: “Breathe until you’re being breathed; breathe until you are surprised.” She also said to ask yourself, following a session, what carries the most energy from the experience, with the goal of processing and integrating it into the future.
In our first breathwork session, I walked through vignettes of memory amplified by refractions of light like a prism. Later that night, I had a visceral dream in which I witnessed my son being eaten by a hippopotamus. During the second, more sustained breath session the following day, I felt the wild nuances of the music and watched myself letting go of control. I was brought back to my own birth experience, with nothing but the echo of my own breath. Without rumination or the need to control, there was simply sensation, sounds, and light. I could feel the sublimity of newness but most remarkable was that fundamental aliveness with a pulse, like the humming of machines and people around me.
Integration after Breathwork
Following the workshop, I refreshed my knowledge of object relations and attachment. Due to chaotic early circumstances and insecure attachments, some people don’t learn to accept ambivalence about others and experiences; that they contain both good and bad parts. As a result, integrating mixed feelings about anything becomes hard: things are either good, i.e. serving in the moment, or bad, i.e. you don’t want them because they fall short of expectations. This causes dysregulation as a typical emotional response, and leads to dysfunctional relationships and behaviors.
As Dr. Gabor Mate expounds upon, it’s incredibly important to not be/feel alone in one’s dysregulated experiences as a child. When this happens, babies and children not only direct bad feelings towards external objects, but also to themselves, causing a fractured sense of self and general insecurity in the world.
No matter who you are, it is a gift to connect layers of consciousness within that typically feel out of reach. Whether through a practice of breathing or other psychospiritual mechanism, it is possible to return to one’s unadulterated spirit and offer it love. Witnessing yourself as someone who deserves loving energy, can activate a shift in perception. Things can actually be simpler amidst confusing life signals. Cutting the mental noise down to the breath was a valuable lesson for me in self-care and moving beyond merely surviving, to becoming more whole again.