“Lie back and start breathing in and out of your mouth,” commanded a golden-tinged man with silver hair, draped in head-to-toe white linen. “You may feel joy, you may feel pain. You may feel a series of sensations from tingling to whole body orgasm. You may cry, you may laugh, you may feel your body tense. If your fists clench, ask yourself what you’re holding on to.”
The man began talking again: “Make sure your breath stays seamless and connected. Let go of the words; there’s so much to notice in between this string of thoughts we have. And remember: It’s safe to breathe and it’s safe to feel.” Since the dozens of other people surrounding me seemed unfazed, I followed their lead and lay on my back. Sun drifted through the windows, sprinkling the room in light. I closed my eyes, and did my best to relax. “It’s just breathing,” I figured. “I do that all the time.”
As it turns out, I'd stumbled onto a session of “conscious breathing,” an ancient practice that has grown in popularity in recent years. “People have been using breathwork—movement and sound to connect to something higher or to heal—since the dawn of man,” explains Lauren Chelec Cafritz, the U.S. national representative for the International Breathwork Foundation (IBF).
Chelec Cafritz goes on to point out modern breathwork pioneers like Leonard Orr and Stanislav and Christina Grof. Mr. Grof, a Czech psychiatrist, was a leading LSD researcher in the ‘50s and ‘60s. When the U.S. government made LSD illegal in 1968, he and his wife began looking for alternate ways to access the outer reaches of the mind. The result? Holotropic Breathwork, which uses rapid breathing, evocative music and bodywork as “a powerful approach to self-exploration and healing that integrates insights from modern consciousness research, anthropology, various depth psychologies, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual practices, and mystical traditions of the world.”
When we change the pattern of breathing, we change the millions of messages the respiratory system is sending to the brain.
I found out later that the glistening man leading my class was named Anthony Abbagnano, a serene and charismatic half-Italian, half-Englishman who chooses words with intention and smiles as he speaks. The founder of Alchemy of Breath and a practice he calls holobirthing, breath has fascinated him since a young age. He believes it improves every aspect of life, including mental and physical health, as well as more nebulous concepts like creativity, compassion and self-love. “If you were given the most wondrous gift for Christmas, and you didn’t unwrap it, it would be of no value to you,” he says. “The breath is given to us—but we don’t unwrap it, we don’t explore it.”
Back in Bali, the music intensified: heavy percussion, chanting in languages I couldn’t understand. I took heavy breaths in and out of my diaphragm, gradually increasing their speed and force. Abbagnano’s voice rang out across the room: “Claim the wholeness and richness of the life you want. What can you let go of with that exhale? As the music builds, let your determination build.”
My limbs began to tingle. Thoughts and images swirled through my mind: I thought of a long-term relationship that just ended, I thought of a friend who recently lost her life.
Their faces materialized before me, and guilt billowed through my body. I realized my hands were clenched so hard they were going numb. As the emotions and physical sensations spiked, I experienced a moment of panic; it felt like the onset of a bad trip. But then I reminded myself I hadn’t taken any drugs—that was just breathing, that I was completely in control. “Let go of whatever tension or stress you’re holding.” I heard Abbagnano’s voice drift into my consciousness: “Make space for something new. Anything that comes up, be ready for it.” I slowed my breathing, and felt my body loosen. My angst evaporated, accompanied by the sobs, yelps and ecstatic moans of the people around me.
Scientific explanations for the benefits of breath are abundant. “Of all the automatic functions in the body, there's one we can control quite easily—and that is breathing,” says Dr. Patricia L. Gerbarg, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath. “When we change the pattern of breathing, we change the millions of messages the respiratory system is sending to the brain.”
Since breathing is our body’s top priority, Gerbarg says the brain listens to messages from our respiratory system above all else. “These messages go to the centers that regulate the way we perceive the world, the way we think about things, the way we regulate emotion,” she says. Certain breathing patterns, for example, can quiet the amygdala, which controls our emotions, and the sympathetic nervous system, which makes us feel unsafe and defensive (Both of these are often overactive in people with anxiety, depression and PTSD.).
Breathing can also stimulate oxytocin, a hormone that helps us bond with others, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down and enhances our ability to have loving relationships. “A lot of of psychotherapy is what we call ‘top-down’; you’re reasoning with the person,” explains Gerbarg. “But with breathing, you activate a bottom-up response from the nervous system that works no matter what you’re thinking. It calms you down because we’re using your body’s own internal communication network.”Rapid breathing acts like a stimulant; it activates your sympathetic nervous system and reduces the carbon dioxide in your blood, which can cause tingling and clenched muscles. The altered blood gases might also be why people experience altered states of consciousness. (Due to these effects, Gerbarg warns rapid breathwork isn’t safe for everyone, including people with severe anxiety, bipolar disorder, seizures, schizophrenia, hypertension or respiratory illnesses.)
Gentler breathing, on the other hand, activates the love-y, calm parasympathetic nervous system—and is what Gerbarg focuses on with her patients. “We’ve taken these ancient practices, which are thousands of years old and found in almost every culture throughout the world,” she says, “and we’re looking at them through a modern scientific lens.”
After 30 minutes of intense breath, the music became slow, soothing—as did Abbagnano’s voice. “Breathe into that feeling, whatever it is,” he said. “Let each breath be a wave of love, a wave of care. Let us be in here in all our truth, our strength, our vulnerability.”
Though I hadn’t found a long-lost child or a new version of myself, I did feel a release of guilt I hadn’t known I was holding. The pain hadn’t disappeared, but I felt more at peace with my recent losses—like I was finally able to bid farewell to my relationship, and to my friend. My body was buzzy and buoyant, energized by the natural high. For the rest of the day, I was like a balloon on a breeze.
“There’s a miraculous quality to this work,” says Abbagnano. “And the paradox is it’s right under your nose.”