My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VI [Breathwork]

This month’s post will explore breath as an influence on one’s state of consciousness. My apologies for getting into the weeds at the start with a long discussion of the minutiae of this breathwork practice, but this is a topic that can create confusion for a couple different reasons.

First, there are a number of ways breath could be used to influence one’s state of consciousness, and the practices I’m talking about are of one specific type. For example, I often use a balanced pranayama practice (breathing exercises that mix calming, exciting, and balanced breaths) as a lead-in to meditative practices because it helps to put me in a state of mind that is neither groggy nor mentally agitated, allowing my mental chatter to quiet rapidly without making me drift off. However, that’s not the kind of practice I’m referring too in this post. I’m talking about breathing in a way that is excessively deep and / or fast for an extended period such that the blood becomes more alkaline (i.e. blood is slightly alkaline in homeostasis, but the pH goes up in this type of practice) as carbon dioxide is purged.

Second, there’s no terminology that’s commonly agreed upon. For one thing, the breathing that I’m discussing could be called “hyperventilative” or “over-breathing.” However, those terms are usually used to describe medical conditions that may have similar physiological effects, but aren’t controlled activities done on purpose. While there are some similarities physiologically, equating this practice with involuntarily rapid breathing caused by a physical injury, mental condition, or consumption of a toxic substance can create confusion. After all, whatever is causing involuntary hyperventilation is likely to have other effects (at a minimum, increased anxiety) over and beyond those seen in a voluntary practice. This means the list of adverse effects will also be different. I wouldn’t want a reader to look at a Wikipedia or WebMD page for “hyperventilation” and think I’m insane for undertaking the practice.

For another thing, this type of breathing is employed in a number of different systems — each of which has its own particular approach and particular context in which the breath practice occurs (and variations in terminology.) Tibetan Buddhist Tummo, the Wim Hof Method, and Holotropic Breathwork all use kinds of breathing that create a similar effects. However, it should noted that the breathwork is just a part of each of these practices that occurs within a more extensive context. In Tummo, visualization in conjunction with the breath is an essential element of the practice. The Wim Hof Method has a defined sequence including breath retention, not to mention other practices — most famously, cold exposure. Holotropic Breathwork employs an observer and encourages practitioners to make sounds and movement as they feel fit as part of the practice, basically responding freely to the impulses one feels. It should be noted that Holotropic Breathwork was developed by Stanislav Grof after psychoactive substances like LSD became illegal, and he was looking for a way to generate similar results endogenously, having seen positive therapeutic effects using LSD. 

It should be noted that yoga also has breaths that create this type of effect: Kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) and Bhastrika (bellows breath.) However, these breaths are more self-regulating in that they are generally done in and out through the nose (as opposed to exhaling through mouth which allows a greater tidal turnover of breath) and because the rapid contraction of the abdomen to force the exhalation tends to be self-limiting. In other words, the capacity of one’s nervous system to keep up with breath will — for most people — give out well before one’s blood chemistry is so out of whack that it is likely to create any bizarre or potentially dangerous effects. For this reason, kapalbhati and bhastrika can be safely practiced daily in a seated position (though if one is doing unusually large sets or numbers of sets, one might be wise to lay down.) It should be noted that the basic breathwork of the Wim Hof Method involves three sets of 30 breaths (though with breath retention in between), and most people would probably be fine doing that seated as well (though it seems to done laying down most frequently,) and it can be done daily.

I focused on the breath entirely — as well as observation of the after effects upon my mind and body. The practice I did involved a full and rapid in breath through the nose and a blowing exhalation through the mouth, repeated as quickly as sustainable for as long as 30 minutes at a time. I always did this practice lying down, and I always allowed the same amount of time I did the practice before attempting to get up. (i.e. if I did the breath practice for 30 minutes, I would reset the alarm for 30 minutes after I was done and lie still, watching the sensations, at least until the alarm went off.) I only did half-hour sessions once a week, though I would sometimes engage in shorter practices or specific practices (e.g. trying out the basic Wim Hof breath exercise.) While stimulating yoga pranayama (e.g. kapalbhati) and relatively small repetitions done in a few sets (e.g. the basic Wim Hof breath practice), can be practiced daily, I wanted to give my body lots of time to restore homeostasis because of the extensive and relatively long-lasting effects of these sessions.

The experience of doing the practice was interesting. I almost always face a challenge at the very beginning of the practice. Forcing such over-breathing feels burdensome at first, and its hard to image getting through a half hour of it. However, before long I would catch a rhythm and by the end of the practice I was usually stunned at how quickly the time went. I suspect having to focus on maintaining the breath keeps one from internally referencing time, and that’s why one seems to lose track of it altogether.

I wish I had more of a culinary sense and set of terminology, because I found there was definitely a subtle flavor associated with my changed body chemistry. I could taste the experience of respiratory alkalosis, but I have no way of describing what the taste of it was like. Of course, the most dramatic sensory experience associated with the practice was tingling all over the body. It wasn’t just in the usual parts (e.g. the extremities), but I also felt it — for example —  along both sides of my abdomen. While the intensity of the tingling began waning as soon as I was done, it often would more than last through my post-practice observation period.

As for the effect on my state of consciousness, in general I came out of it feeling loose and blissful. I haven’t had any trippy, psychedelic, or hallucinatory experiences, but there is definitely a sense of calm and clarity (not to mention a slightly inebriated feel.) I generally finished with a kind of rhythmic, music ready state of mind. I don’t know if that was a feature of the rhythm of the breathing or just a quirky sensory craving. It should be noted that I also had sensations that weren’t particularly pleasant (though they weren’t particularly uncomfortable either — like a faint trace of a headache.) I’d recommend being as slow and gentle as possible when coming out of such a practice.

As for recommendations, for this practice my recommendation would be the same as it was in my January post about an experience with psilocybin tea. That is, “know thyself.” In other words, I wouldn’t make a wholesale recommendation that someone try this type of practice. Certainly, people who have anxiety when everything isn’t in perfect homeostasis in the body should steer clear of it. If one doesn’t have an extensive background with breathwork and how one’s body responds to it, I’d, furthermore, recommend that one only try it under the guidance of (and in the presence of) someone who does. This practice has had a more drastic influence on mind and body than any of the other consciousness-altering practices thus far and may be the most potentially dangerous. All that said, I have found it beneficial, and believe others may too under the right circumstances.

Continuing this series, next month (July) I’m going to try to jump-start my practice of lucid-dreaming (a.k.a. dream yoga.) [It’s something I’ve never excelled at, though I do have a few lucid dreams a year.]

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