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Just Breathe: Breathwork as a Journey of Self-Discovery

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If you were going to explore uncharted territory—say, the undersea world of the psyche, brimming with exotic anemones and creatures you'd never seen before—you'd want someone like Pepper Monroe by your side. The Woodstock-based healer is earthy and kind, with a gentle voice and empathetic eyes. So, one September morning, when I am about to embark on my first breathwork experience—a state of altered consciousness driven simply by a change in one's breath pattern—I am happy to have her leading the way. We're in the minimalist healing-arts space that she shares with an acupuncturist on Tinker Street. But with her help, I will soon go someplace else entirely. I will transcend space and time.

"Imagine you're on the floor of the ocean, and you're out of air, and then you realize that and swim to the surface," she explains. "The pattern of your breath would be 'in, in, out.'" Monroe demonstrates with two deep, quick, bottom-of-the-belly inhales, followed by a huge exhale through the mouth, as if gulping the air. It's completely different from pranayama, the breath control I've used in yoga practice. She warns that I might feel strange bodily sensations at first. "It's like jumping into a cold pool and can be very stimulating, like a surge of energy. You can feel the blood and the oxygen merging, this very effervescent, bubbly sensation." Yet the bodily commotion will soon give way to something beyond the physical, she advises. "The breath pattern itself is what helps to break up any mind loops and fixations that we might get stuck in. It's like an express train to whatever is going on in our lives. Sometimes it's a surprise, what comes up, because we didn't even know it existed inside of us."

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She tells me that, while I'm in the altered state with my eyes closed, I might want to move my arms and legs. Tears might emerge. I might want to laugh like a wild banshee or scream at the top of my lungs. She will even suggest that I do so when the time is right. "Whatever happens, I am here to hold the space for you. It is my pleasure to do it," she says as I stretch out on a mat she's placed on the floor. "It does get wacky. I want to encourage you to have some fun with it. We're gonna hoot and howl and who knows what."

I tell her I hope that I can actually let go. I'm not a yeller. "That's okay," she says. "It doesn't have to be crazy or painful for it to mean something. We can just have a really good, weird time, and also get some good work done."

She cues up her music. We start to breathe. And off I go.

Breath and the Inner Experience

Breathwork is a magic carpet ride, a tool for self-discovery and, some say, deep healing. It is not new—ancient and indigenous cultures in the Americas, India, and the East have tapped the power of the breath for centuries in rituals and ceremonies—nor is it a single, uniform practice. Several styles exist, perhaps most famously holotropic breathwork, developed in the 1970s by the Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and his late wife Christina Grof. Rebirthing, developed by Leonard Orr, is a breathing technique that people use to relive their birth and release and heal traumatic childhood memories. The style Monroe practices is simply called breathwork, a no-frills, straight-up technique taught by David Elliott, a tobacco farmer-turned-actor-turned-healer from Kentucky. There is also the breathwork of Wim Hof, "the Iceman," who defies frigid temperatures. And there is shamanic breathwork, practiced by medicine men and women of yesterday and today. But you don't have to travel to the rainforest anymore to experience breathwork. You can find group or one-on-one sessions in all sorts of places, from retreat centers to alternative wellness spaces.

If breathwork is having a moment right now, that's because it's riding on the heels of a revitalized interest in psychedelics (which I wrote about in the September issue). Breathwork can create an expansive state of consciousness that's wildly similar to the effects of hallucinogens like psilocybin mushrooms and LSD. In fact, after LSD became illegal in the 1960s, the Grofs developed holotropic breathwork as a non-drug method to achieve similar states of consciousness. These days, Holotropic is the technique that's often used to train the scientists and psychiatrists who facilitate psychedelic clinical trials.

While scientific research is exploding around psychedelics, we have surprisingly few solid studies around breathwork. There are just a handful of small trials, including a 1996 study finding that Holotropic Breathwork reduced death anxiety and increased self-esteem in some subjects, and a 2015 study suggesting that breathwork can increase self-awareness. We need more research not just on breathwork's effects, but on what's happening physiologically when we rev up our breath. There's little consensus about how altering the ratios of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood might contribute to the state of non-ordinary awareness. Hopefully, we'll have more insight soon, as researchers from Johns Hopkins' brand-new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research plan to break ground on breathwork studies.

A Route to Wholeness

Thanks to its similarity to the psychedelic clinical experience, holotropic breathwork is getting a lot of airtime these days. A psilocybin or LSD journey can last for the better part of a day, and a Holotropic session can go just as long—anywhere from three to eight hours, accompanied by a driving music sequence. Other breathwork styles typically have shorter sessions, but what really distinguishes holotropic is "the 'set and setting' or model of safety," explains Dr. Tom Francescott, a naturopathic doctor and holotropic breathwork facilitator based in Rhinebeck. "The idea is that if you provide a safe container and give proper preparation to the psyche, then we can tap into our inner wisdom and inner healing mechanism." Practicing in groups, people work in pairs: a "breather" who lies on the mat and a "sitter" who provides support (they eventually switch places so both have a turn). To begin, breathers are instructed to breathe fast and deep, with no pause between the inhale and exhale until they are "surprised." That's when a state of non-ordinary awareness begins.

The material that comes up might be biographical or perinatal (relating to your birth), or it might be what Grof calls "transpersonal," relating to the archetypal experiences that Carl Jung describes. In this fantasy land, anything can happen. "You could have shamanic experiences, you could turn into an animal, you could be a bird, you could jump on Jupiter," says Francescott. While every experience is unique, he describes it like a hero's journey: "You dive deep into the muck and figure out what's going on, and then you resurface, kind of newly born with insight and experience."

Afterward, the group devotes time to integrating their material, including drawing a mandala and having a sharing circle. Such closure is essential, he says, "because you can have the greatest epiphany or insight, but if you don't anchor it or bring it into your life, then there's no value."

When Francescott first tried the practice 15 years ago, after the death of his sister and both his parents, he knew he needed a cathartic release. He got that and a lot more. "I thought, 'Nothing's going happen to me, I'm too locked in my head,'" he recalls. "And in five minutes, I was Jesus on the cross being crucified. It was my first non-ordinary state, and it was pretty crazy." He released a lifetime of intense grief and also had profound realizations about the deaths he had experienced, discovering, among other things, that subconsciously he had been avoiding relationships due to an irrational belief that if he loved someone, they would die. "Once I had that realization, everything changed. Relationships entered my life and I wasn't afraid to go with them," he says. "It was like 20 years of therapy in one session. It changed the entire course of my life, personally and professionally."

Breathwork is not for everyone; it has contraindications, just like psychedelics. These include hypertension, pregnancy, epilepsy, and psychological issues such as psychosis or paranoia. Romping in your own psychic muck is intense, and for the wrong person, it can open up a Pandora's box. Nonetheless, after completing the extensive Grof Transpersonal Training to become a certified holotropic breathwork practitioner, Francescott has worked with people with multiple personalities, PTSD patients, veterans, survivors of abuse, even Holocaust survivors. "They have profound, deep insights," he says. "It really helps people make sense of their lives."

A Sacred Container for Exploration

Monroe, too, had a transformative experience the first time she tried breathwork. She was in her 20s and living in Costa Rica when a teacher introduced it to her. "It felt like the beginning of a very powerful emotional and energetic awakening," she recalls. "I was accessing childhood trauma. I found that I could mend heartbreak, even ancestral stuff. I didn't know I could do that." After coming back to the States, she lost touch with breathwork but never forgot how powerful it was. A few years later, she met David Elliott through alternative wellness circles and rediscovered breathwork. But this time it was different; she knew right away she wanted to train with him. "David has an accessible way about him that is very straightforward and uncomplicated," she says. "He's approachable and so is his breathwork." She liked the structure—it has a beginning, middle, and end—which felt safer than the original style she tried. (It's important to note that Elliott's breathwork differs in many ways from Holotropic—for example, the sessions don't normally extend much beyond two hours.)

"It feels good to know there's a structure and boundaries," says Monroe. "We can run like a wolf and be wild within that space because it's a safe container. Going into an altered state can be wildly vulnerable. So it's important to know that you're in a place where you can unravel if you need to, and there will be someone with you the entire time and on the other side."

To give in to that vulnerability, it's essential to trust your guide. Mary Evelyn Pritchard Pearson, a feng shui consultant based in Woodstock, discovered breathwork a year and a half ago—but it wasn't until she met Monroe earlier this year that she knew she had found the right teacher. "I've dealt with chronic health issues my entire life and tried a lot of different modalities," she says. "There are things that I've tried to work through for years, and in one 45-minute breathwork session with Pepper, something gets transmuted. It's a huge relief. And it's different every time, which is another part that I love. It makes me so curious. I've had experiences that felt luscious, floating, and dreamlike, and I've had really psychedelic experiences. Other times it's gentle, like a wave moving through. There's so much value in each type of experience I've had."

Attending group sessions is also very different from one-on-ones. "When you're participating in this work simultaneously, you can feel this electricity between all these humans who are showing up to do something that isn't necessarily easy to do," says Pritchard Pearson. "When a group of people show up to do this work and make transformation happen in their life, there's something really beautiful about it."

Parachuting into the Non-Ordinary

In my own private session with Monroe, I need not worry about letting go. After a little coaching from her, the breath simply takes over. It's vigorous and energizing, like running, yet somehow sustainable and not exhausting. My limbs start to move, and what's happening in my consciousness is astonishing. Time vanishes, and a bird's-eye view of my life emerges in its place—it feels as if I can go anywhere within my own biography. I end up staying awhile with my 16-year-old self, revisiting people, places, and experiences I've had. At one point, Monroe suggests we laugh together, and another time she bids me to scream. Both cues let me release into the experience a little more. Before I know it, tears are streaking my face and I hear Monroe's voice gently supporting and cheering me along.

I have no idea how long I'm running with this breath (30 minutes? an hour?), but when it's over I feel a sweet peace holding me. Sitting up, I'm completely amazed. My first words to Monroe are about love—how this whole life is about loving better, loving deeper. That's the message I take away with me. That's the love letter that comes out of my breathwork experience.

A few minutes later, I'm bursting with questions. What in the world just happened? What does breathwork do to the brain? "It's not the brain," she says. "It's not the mind. It's energy."

I have a hard time absorbing this, so the next day I ask the same question to Francescott. He can't give me a definitive answer to satisfy my scientific inquiry either—although he mentions Daniel Siegel, MD, the author of a book called Mindsight, who hypothesizes that during breathwork the left (analytical) side of the brain shuts off and the right (intuitive) side comes online. This seems plausible, but I suspect the comprehensive scientific explanation may be more complex. As for Monroe and Francescott, neither one of them seems to be very concerned about what's happening on a physiological level. After all, how can we explain non-ordinary consciousness with our flimsy little ordinary consciousness?

Sometimes we need to let the extraordinary be just that.

Pepper Monroe will lead a semi-private breathwork session on Friday, October 18, 6-8pm, at 99 Tinker Street in Woodstock (above Euphoria Yoga). She is also co-leading the group event "Airwaves: Breathwork, Sound + Crystals" on Sunday, October 20, 2-4pm, at Cygnets Way in Kingston.

RESOURCES Pepper Monroe, Peppermonroe.space

Dr. Tom Francescott, Drfrancescott.com

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