Breathwork wasn't a psychedelic drug for me, but it did alter my psyche
I'm the drugs reporter for Rooster Magazine; ayahuasca helped me be happier.
My friend Darius, who's done as many drugs as a whole mid-level funk band — 200 DMT trips, 85 acid trips — said he'd found a new hallucinogen just as wild as that jungle drug:
“Breathwork is crazy shit,” Darius tells me. “Got me to a place I haven't been able to get to before, even on DMT."
I thought Darius was nuts. Yes, I'd heard of breathwork. It's a big trend in hip cities from L.A. to Boulder, drawing celebrities and supermodels, from Kate Hudson to Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Tanya Mityushina.
But for breathwork, all you do is lie on the ground and breathe fast. That's it. In. Out. In. Out. This is supposed to alter your consciousness like DMT does?
Darius said yes. He felt it, on just his breath, "Total acceptance of the universe. I saw that everything was 100 percent okay."
This seemed crazy. DMT lets you fly through the stars toward the source of all light only to realize the light is your own brain holy shit what does it all mean. A little hyperventilation seemed as interesting as kids spinning around fast on a playground.
But I trust Darius. And breathwork was pioneered in part by Stan Grof, the godfather of LSD therapy, after the authorities ganked his acid.
I picked a session taught by a spiritual Sikh named Gurpreet Gill, who grew up doing breathwork, who now teaches it regularly, and who I know to be a kind person.
The setting was gorgeous — the Starhouse retreat above Boulder, ringed with trees and cool stones. The music was right — sweet symphonies and melodic driving beats. I should be blissed.
Twenty minutes in, I'm pissed. Frustrated to to all fuck shit.
I'm trying soooo hard — breathing like I'm 10 centimeters dilated, like I'm trying to inflate the Goodyear blimp, like I just got an unexpected enema, and I still don't feel jack. I mean, I feel shit. When you breathe this hard, you blow off so much carbon dioxide that your Ph balance gets fucked, and your hands cramp up like lobster claws, tingles shoot down your limbs, and you curl into a ball like a hippie armadillo. These sensations are rad and a little scary — worth the $60 ticket, for sure — but I ain't tripping. I ain't calming my tits. I ain't transforming.
"Actively surrender," Gurpreet tells me. "Let go."
It's extra frustrating because a girl I know who's also at the session, "Lu," is feeling it huge. Even with my eye mask on, I can hear her rolling and moaning and sobbing. Turns out she's seeing bright lights and re-experiencing the fear she felt on her first day of school — feeling like a dog sent to the pound. It's a therapeutic release that, I believe, permanently loosened her fear of abandonment.
My problem? In terms of breathwork? Breathwork doesn't work if you don't believe in it, and I have a deep resistance to woo-woo.
Woo-woo means anything hippie-dippie, religious, paranormal, spiritual. Claiming to cure cankers with crystals. Reiki massage. Horoscopes. Energy work. Sage. Spirits. Woo woo woo.
And this breathwork is all about woo. Gurpreet believes breathing deeply allows you deep access to the Greater. Father sky. Mother earth. The spirit of breath. Your higher self. The wooiest of woo.
Darius, too, told me that in doing breathwork, "Spirit visited me. The goddess, mother universe."
I drowned in woo growing up religious. Spirit, God, angels. I was sick of it. If woo doesn't have a peer-reviewed scientific paper backing it up, I ain't buying your woo.
But hearing Lu and Darius's stories of transformation, I wanted to breathe again. I wanted to feel at peace.
After all, I'm brave when it comes to drugs and travel and extreme sports, but that's all chest-puffery, and masks deep inner fears of loss, pain and rejection, a life lived in constant anxiety.
So I went to a second breathwork session. Same spot, same teacher, same routine. Same talk from Gurpreet about the Greater, spirit, pachamama. Woo.
But this time, along with breathing so hard my face went numb and my hands jammed up and tingles rippled through all my muscles, I tried hard to release doubt. Quiet the chatter about how I'm not a woo person, I'm not built for "emotional releases" or crying in public.
The doubt didn't go. But something strange happened. Without my doing it, my stomach started to quake and quiver. My breath got short and puffy. And then my whole body shook. And I visualized and felt the doubt and skepticism and frustration and anger not as words, but as a tight band on my forehead, suffocating my thoughts. And I saw that skepticism is just part of me, and that's ok. I didn't have to be mad at myself for having doubts about woo. It's just who I am right now. And suddenly the feeling of doubt let go of its grip on my head and spread down the rest of my body, a wave of feeling like a fast moving fire. It lit up my body with feeling. And my head felt more calm and open and at peace than it has in months.
Accepting my doubts about woo lead to one of the wooiest moments I've ever had. Self-acceptance.
And, in the days since, I've felt calmer. Happier. Less anxious. More able to deal with difficult situations and emotional friends.
I didn't trip balls on my breath.
But something just as cool happened.