Breathwork and altered states of consciousness

Until recently I had paid little attention to breathwork techniques for achieving non-ordinary states of consciousness.  I’ve done zen meditation for many years now, on and off, and spent quite a bit of time paying attention to the breath, counting the breath etc, but I had been somewhat sceptical of claims I had read that breathwork could induce psychedelic-like experiences.

Late last year I went to a 5 day retreat in the Netherlands which introduced me to a number of new (to me) practices aimed at personal transformation. Among these were breathwork sessions which introduced me to several forms of breathwork, including the form of energising breathwork taught by Wim Hof, the Iceman. Our facilitator was a trained Wim Hof instructor. He also taught us another form of breathwork, called transformational breathwork, and I will describe one of my transformational breathwork sessions at the retreat.

The session was about an hour long, though the actual breathwork was probably only around 40 to 45 minutes. We lay flat on thin mattresses on the floor, wearing a “Mindfold” (blindfold that cuts out all light to eyes). There were three periods of breathing, lasting probably around 10 minutes or a bit longer, each followed by a shorter “tantrum” period. The breathing technique involved deep breathing (pulling air deep into lungs using diaphragm) with outbreath twice as fast as inbreath. Both in and out breath through the mouth, and continuously connected with no pause at the end of inhale or exhale (so-called circular breathing).

The shorter tantrum period was a period of time in which you could express and release energy and emotions, through sound, movement, pounding the mattress or whatever helped to release and experience what was coming up. The guide would also move around and apply pressure to particular pressure points on the abdomen or chest, which also had a remarkable effect on me at times in releasing emotions and bodily energy, expressing itself in shaking and spasmodic muscular contractions.

In the session I am describing, the first two “tantrums” involved muscular spasms and intense releases of emotion. And after the second tantrum, I went into an altered state of bliss. A feeling of floating, of bliss waves running through my body, and my breathing slowed down. There was some dynamic billowing of light in the dark visual field (under my blindfold), and then a couple of visions. In one of these, I became aware that I could see the wall behind me, and curtains bunched up in the corners. I felt for a moment that my eyes had opened and I was really seeing the glass doors and wall behind me. But I realized that I was still wearing the blindfold. I looked up and around the walls of the room, and on the far end of the second wall was another structure that became a ledge or mezzanine balcony quite high up as the room had a very high ceiling, almost two stories up.

And I wanted to go up to this mezzanine, so I ran up the wall behind me, at right angles to the wall (just like Dr Strange), and then across the top of the joining wall and onto the balcony. I think there may have been a couple of words spoken in my head, but I don’t remember what they were.

And then I went “into the music” which was playing, and which caught me up in it and swept me along, particularly the deep singing. Or the music went into me. I felt like the music was flowing into my tanden and later also into the soles of my feet. My third and last “tantrum” was actually a very gentle opening of my arms and legs to draw in and project out loving energy along with a low tone from my throat expressing joy, bliss.  And in the last part of the session I went into a deep relaxed meditative state of love and happiness. As I was lying there in this state, a voice inside my head said very distinctly “You can sit up now.” So I sat up, and three or four others were also sitting up, though most still lay down. And a few minutes later, our guide told everyone they could sit up.

The visionary state I experienced in the above session was somewhat similar to visionary states I’ve achieved in the past in self-hypnosis sessions though the latter felt more like I was travelling deep into the subconscious or other states of being, whereas this experience felt very much like I was there in the room and perceiving my surroundings in ways that were simply not possible in my ordinary state of consciousness. But of far more importance to me than the visionary or hallucinogenic component was the experience and release of emotions. Not so much the blissful state I ended up in, but the release and very strong experience of a range of emotions related to past traumatic events in ways that totally surprised me with their strength and with the state of acceptance and integration that I felt I reached during the process. Leaving aside any high-falutin’ enlightment or satori experiences, this technique seems to have a strong potential to explore my mind and subconscious and to address and dig out buried emotions and integrate them.

When I returned home, I did a few sessions of breathwork on my own, but found without the group environment and guide, I was not really getting into it enough. In March, I watched three introductory videos by Wim Hof, and decided that during the coronavirus lock-down I would practice his energising breathing technique every morning. After a couple of days, I decided to add the cold showers, despite my deep reluctance to get under the cold water. I surprised myself by starting to enjoy both practices after a few days, and have kept them up daily. In the last few days, I’ve been using the following guided session by Wim Hof. So last week, I thought I should research a little more on transformational breathwork and give it another go. The technique I was taught in the retreat is very similar to the transformational breathwork taught by Judith Kravitz, but there are a number of other quite similar breathwork techniques such as holotropic breathwork (Stanislav Grof), rebirthing, shamanic breathwork, DMT breathwork, etc.

I certainly intend to explore this more, and if it turns out that solo practice is not so effective, to look for group sessions once the social distancing can be relaxed.

4 thoughts on “Breathwork and altered states of consciousness

  1. Fascinated by your experience. I tried the Grof method a little, on my own, but I suspect you may be right about the group environment. I believe Grof started the holotropic things when psychedelics were banned. I must persevere.

    • I suspect perseverance is key. Its likely easier to maintain a quite strenuous form of breathing in the group setting than on my own. I’m experimenting with a music tape that I am adding some voice guidance to, so that I don’t need to distract myself by either tracking time or wondering whether I have done the breathing for long enough. And whether the effort is worth the outcomes remains unclear. I have seen comments online that like anything else the technique becomes easier and more effective with practice.

  2. Pingback: Breathwork and sensed energy | Mountains and rivers

  3. Pingback: Breath: the new science of a lost art —- a review | Mountains and rivers

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