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Mini-Journal: My experiences with an at-home breathwork practice

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Rising Star
Hi guys,

this very good and interesting post (and discussion) Holotropic Breathwork, Meditation and Reconstructing the Self[practice] : streamentry

motivated me to look into Breathwork as a home practice. Since there is really little information, I decided to keep a journal of sorts here, documenting my experiences. I'll try and keep it shortish to facilitate reading. If you have questions or advice, please go right ahead!

My Background: I have a rather ambitious, regular meditation practice (Samatha-Vipassana meditation in "TMI"-Style + some Metta techniques + some self-compassion practices). I also have rather extensive experience with psychedelics - most of these happened 10-15 years ago, since then, I only enjoyed psychonautism every few years or so. Had a very difficult trip half a year ago, from which I have mostly, but not entirely, recovered: DMT Nexus: TBM - Mercilessly intense experience

Still, I was very interested in diversifying my practice and stumbled upon Grofs's work. For a number of reasons, classic Holotropic Breathwork isn't so enticing an option for me - working with a facilitator certainly is great, but right now, it's not possible.

The Research: So, after doing some reading, I saw a lot of weird info connected with breathwork. I'm not a scientific materialist, but still, generally try to stay close to down-to-earth approaches. Was surprised to see how much rather bizarre claims are made in connection to breathwork, from adding electricity to our bloodcells to super-charging the body with lifeforce. If that works for you, fine. To me, these claims seem to appear proto-scientific, which they certainly aren't.

So, unlike with meditation where we have many great pragmatic guides, respected teachers and lively communities now, breathwork seems to be a bit of a wild west still. So, in case of doubt, I'll try and stick to Grof, even though I like for example Michael Stone, though I haven't worked with him yet.

The Concept: But then, it seemed to me that actually, things need not be too complicated. I saw a lot of warnings from Grofians not to undertake this at home, and I understand that. Still, my plan was to utilize my experience with meditation and psychedelics and take it slow, step by step. This seems to result in a manageable amount of risk. I wouldn't take a Grof-style 3h session on my own, that's for sure. But like with meditation: some people who never have meditated go full in to do 10-day-retreats, meditating many hours per day. Others start with 20 mins per day and work their way up.

So, what I'm trying to do for now: Do 2-4 sessions per month, doing circular breathing with varying accompaniments. I'll also try and utilize some of my knowledge in working with the breath, slowly ramping up the intensity of the breathing, not going full-in right away. This way, I hope to gather some experience with breathwork states and avoid conjuring up overwhelming amounts of unprocessed material.

Any comment is appreciated! Cheers.
First session: Thursay, March 7, 2020

The Session

This is how it all started. I was offered to join this guided session over the internet. Had read about breathwork, but not pursued it further. We got some basic instructions beforehand, and then entered a 40 minute session, lying down, listening to music.

The breathing technique was, as far as I can tell, not the classical Grof technique, but a bit more intense. I don't know if it has a name, but it was a 3-step breath: half an inhale into the belly, second half into the chest, exhale. We were told to be open and let the body take over after a while, and to pause / abandon the breathing if things were getting too intense.

I had been somewhat anxious, since I have quite a bit of uncertainty and stress right now (as do many people) and, like I mentioned in the first post, half a year ago, I had a psychedelic experience that was very, very difficult, with massive amounts of fear and distress. Fear that has even returned in everyday life several times. So I wondered whether I should do something borderline psychedelic, but decided to give it a shot. I ran my usual 8k before the session, in order to be relaxed and not overly charged physically. Also, I estimated the rather happy feeling might help make the session go smoothly - I didn't want to go full trauma release at my first go.

The experience was very good! I had intense physical sensations of buzzing energy and, yeah, I admit, a very eletrical feeling. Fear swept in several times, but with relaxing the breathing technique somewhat, is was not overwhelming, I could let it be there and it went away after a while.

Was very similar in many aspects to a light dose of psychedelics, but not in all. Numbness and slight claw-hand were present, but not problematic. There was a lot of emotion, some crying, but very easygoing, no resistance or trouble.

I had the sensation that some major emotional material was on the horizon and that I was slowly approaching it. But the session ended before I got in closer contact. I'm pretty sure that a 3h session Grof-style would have brought quite a lot of intense material to the surface.

The Aftermath

I felt pretty high, admittedly. Was a very positive experience altogether. Falling asleep this night was quite different, I had weird sensations of realities shifting and even some very slight feelings of depersonalization. Per se a bit unsettling, but I could easily let it be, and then, it went away.

The next day. I felt more clearly both pain and joy. A certain protective numbness seemed to have been removed. The good part is that there was more clarity, the "bad" that difficult emotions also were more powerful. I certainly can see how these experiences can be destabilizing, since I have the feeling that quite a bit of stuff that was more or less sunken down into the unconscious had surfaced. Of course, it is a great chance to confront these things, but one also needs the time and energy to do so, and be confident that one can handle what comes up.

This was very similar to what I experienced after psychedelic experiences - interestingly, pretty independently of whether they were positive / pleasant or not. Actually, almost inverse: after blissful, ecstatic trips I have had sometimes more difficult material to work with in the days after, after difficult trips, I often was quite relaxed. Probably simply due to the cathartic nature of difficult trips.

Anyways, the experience was hugely positive and motivated me to look into this further.
Second Session: Sunday, March 10 2020

The Session

Yeah, a bit early lol, especially since I was still a tiny bit shaken from the first experience. But the sundays are my 'free' days, where I can rest, spend time in nature, meditate and so, it's the time to do something like this.

I decided to do some experimenting with the breathing technique, moving away somewhat from the 3-step breathing and towards a 2 step-breathing. Still circular though, meaning there are (almost) no pauses between inhale and exhale.

I ran the 8k again beforehand. I have the impression that this helps smooth out the sessions a bit, since endurance training does release some tension. It might take away some intensity, but that's a good thing for where I am standing right now.

As companion, I chose the CD that is probably one of my dearest pieces of music ever: Shpongle's Tales of the Inexpressible. Not only does it have the right mix between stimulating and relaxing elements, I had some of the greatest experiences of my life on psychedelics, listening to that CD. I decided to go in with relatively little structure, trying to do at least 40 minutes again, maximum 60 minutes, depending on intensity.

The trajectory was rather typical: Buzzing, electrical feeling in the body and a sense or reality becoming translucent, signalling the beginning of the trance state. After 20ish minutes, I was full in. Time is weird in this state - I know most of the tracks are 8-9 minutes, so this gave me some structures. Some of them seemed to last for hours though, others went by in not time at all.

There was a lot of bliss, joy and relaxation, as well as the strong urge to "dance" towards the music. Did this lying down, since one gets quite lightheaded and jumping around in the room is definitely not a good idea. I revisited several old memories, which seemed much more tangible than when I usually think about these things. A bit like in a movie when protagonists are taken back. A sense of openness and "airyness" of consciousness - thoughts were much more fleeting, less solid.

This time, I experienced a close connection between intensity of breathing and intensity of the experience. When I breathed deeper and "harder", the buzzing sensations intensified pretty quickly, and reality started to fade. Probably this is more a psychological connection, since the other effects seem to have quite a time delay.
Most of the session was quite pleasant - maybe not always pleasant in the classic sense, some rougher spots were there, but they had a pretty cathartic feeling: w few times I experienced waves of distress and fear coming up, especially when I used very intense breathing. But when I eased up again, this subsided relatively quickly.

Anyhow, those were the rough spots. Most of the session was quite pleasant, but after about 50 minutes, I had an stronger sensation of fear and even nausea. The fear was disorienting, but this is something I have experienced during longer meditation sessions and sometimes during everyday life, so it's not really surprising that it would come up. It didn't feel overwhelming, but I decided to return to normal breathing at this point, and it quickly faded again.

Anyhow, I assume that part of it is regular stress, but something serious might be waiting to be uncovered - which I am in no rush to do, especially without a sitter. But in the end, there will be a point where there is the question of keeping the intensity up and really confronting this.

But that's for another time, when a sitter is present. For now, I want to gain experience and find my rhythm.

The Aftermath

This time, I felt less high afterwards, even though, first opening my eyes was a bit crazy... we all know that one, right? 😁 I returned to a normal state within 30 minutes. Have to say that my experience with meditation and psychedelics is really very helpful here. The meditation technique gives me a structure that's always available - I had a sense of the breath go haywire, and since I spend many hours breathing calmly, I could easily switch over to that.

My experience with psychedelics helped me stay grounded during confusing experiences. I wouldn't recommend someone without at least one of these states of pre-knowledge to go at it alone - it's easy to get startled and disoriented. Had I pursued with truly intense breathing, I believe, massive amounts of emotions would have come up. At least this is what it felt like - and one sees pretty intense stuff from videos from full-blown 3h Grof sessions.

And you definitely want someone close to you when this happens, in order to really, fully let go. Its like when one takes a high dose of psychedelics: yeah, most people are fine on their own, but if no one is there, one still wants to try and make sure things are allright. If one has a sitter, one can completely let go, knowing they will take care of any eventualities.

But like most people can take care of themselves when the doses are not too high, I assume it is similar with breathwork when one doesn't go too deep too fast.

And I have to say I am surprised of the intensity of the emotions coming up. I would not be surprised for dissociation to happen in this state. The good news is that so far, it was extremely controllable - with smooth, relaxed breathing, the intensity of the experience was reduced quickly. But I assume that, beyond a certain threshold, something might come out of the box that won't go back in and then, one might have to ride it out and really integrate it. That's why I do this, in the end. I see that this intent of controlling the experience is not unproblematic - my intention with psychedelics was always to go in and trust the process.

Dreams were very intense again this night - I revisited many memories I had not had in a long time. Very vivid, with strong emotions, both painful and cathartic sensations. Again, this was very similar to the aftermath of full trips of LSD or mushrooms. I really do have the impression that this is kicking of some deep processes, and friends of this method of course highlight the healing properties enabled by the trance state. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little research on the matter as of now, but the papers that exist cast a positive light.

Anyways, it seems to be really fine now, when the dosing is right: increased clarity, both for positive and negative emotions. Some feelings of cognitive relativism and groundlessness, but also a vast, energetic, warm energetic space within which everything seems to be fundamentally alright. I have the impression that this goes pretty well with my meditation practice - my sessions (I sit 60-90 minutes per day) seem to me more vivid, and a certain amount of routine is removed.

Will see how this goes on - if there's no red flags, the next session will be in a week.
Third Session: Sunday, March 17, 2020

The Session

So, this time I structured it somewhat differently: took the whole Sunday as a sort of mini-retreat. No phone, no PC. Got up, meditated about 3 hours (with breaks in between), had tea and then did the session in the afternoon. The goal was to give myself more time to process and land than before, when the sessions were in the evening.

Setup was the same as before: This time, the music was Sphongle's Nothing Lasts, Nothing is Lost. So I laid down and did the simple circular breathing. I still did slower breathing than is usual, trying to ramp up the intensity gradually - both within single sits and in general. But no pauses between in-and outbreath, and a faster pace of breathing than normal.

Again, the fact that I know the CD helped estimate how much time went by. The trancelike symptoms started to emerge more quickly this time, after 10 minutes or less. Early on, I experienced very intense resistance towards the breath. There was much less fear than the times before, but a strong sensation of something holding me back from doing the breathing. Very similar to what in meditation happens when there is the urge to get up and distract oneself, instead of keeping returning to the object. I tried to not force myself all too much, keep some relaxedness going, so I eased up on the breathing, keeping it circular though. This is where the memory gets somewhat fuzzy. I can’t recall the break, but a few minutes later the tension was gone and I got into a relaxed, semi-energetic breathing rhythm, started to drift out to sea quickly.

The CD, which I know well, evoked very different sensation than usual. The normal, very hedonistic touch I have listening to Shpongle was gone, it was more sober, I reacted way less to the music than under the influence of psychedelics. It was more there in the background and didn’t capture my attention as much.

The session went through several stages: First, there were several waves of joyfulness, vastness, floating in an open space of consciousness. Almost a sense of depersonalization, alongside a feeling of strong waves of energy passing through the body. Those are neither super pleasant nor unpleasant – a bit of both. But the sheer power of these sensations can be overwhelming at times. There was still an unsettling sensation, but that is probably because the whole practice is still relatively new. Also, a certain sense of loss of control appeared – when one is alone, it is the question of how much one will want to let go.

Then, the energy started leaving the aethereal, cloudlike state, contracted, became more concrete and ‘personal’: strong waves of pain and sorrow arrived, bringing with them moaning, the urge to move, I even grabbed a towel and bit into that. Would have liked to scream and moan and well really loud, but I live in a shared apartment and had to not go too far. There was also erratic movements, sometimes very fluent hand gestures, interesting stuff. I followed grof philosophy and let everything that came up express itself.
It might sound like a painful event and, for unfamiliar eyes, will have looked very strange, even like one of 'possession', but it was not like that at all. From the inside, all of the apparitions felt intensely familiar, not in the slightest like something that was coming from the outside or even from deep below. Much more like things that had been lurking just under the surface for such a long time - like when one can't say a word, but it's on the tip of the tongue, and then, suddenly, it's back. That aha-feeling is what accompanied the sensations. But it’s not an external inspiration, just something from which one was separated by a thin layer of amnesia is coming back into consciousness completely.

So, the sensation was very cathartic and of great relief - the main sensation was "finally". Finally was this coming out. I can see how much deeper I could have gone with support - I still needed to maintain a certain amount of control, it felt like I could have let myself sink so much farther had I intended to. I rocked back and forth, and sweated profusely.

After a while then, there was a sense of great exhaustion, the emotions subsided and I felt like entering in a true transpersonal state. There was no sense of myself anymore, no connection to emotions, just floating out into space, becoming space. But the breath sensations were still there, I had control over the breath, and slowed that down somewhat, in order not to accelerate too quickly. I had such experiences on psychedelics, then, they were very intense, ecstatic, dramatic. There, I sat like “woooooooooow what is happening” This wasn't that - it was calm, laid-back, not a big deal. In a sense, it felt very normal – only in retrospect did I realize how far I had been removed from ordinary consciousness.

That happened when the music stopped and I had to manipulate my smartphone – it was so bizarre: all the colors, the details in the menu, how the phone felt. Everything took a long time, and was so unfamiliar. Only then did I realize how far out there I was. I went back to breathing then, 50 minutes of the session had passed at this point.

I probably fell asleep, because 15 minutes later, I woke up, feeling relatively normal. I doubt that I passed out because the breathing was not very intense at that point, but am not sure. I then had something to eat, meditated for another hour and went on a long walk. That was a good idea - i needed the time to process some of the stuff. The mind was very energized - on the one hand, there was a feeling of great vastness, spaciousness, translucency of all mental apparitions. On the other hand, there was a lot of pain and suffering. It didn't feel like resistance towards the situation, just so much familiar sadness and fear that now was out in the open. And it was so, so painful... at the same time, a sense of peace and calm pervaded the whole experience.

The Aftermath

When I got back, I got a feeling I know from low-dose psychedelics: a "beginner's mind" effect: I know the things, scenery, people I'm looking at from a cognitive standpoint, but they 'feel' so new, like I'm seeing them for the first time. No sense of routine, sometimes, I'm wondering what I should say, since so many responses present themselves at once, the routines that normally govern the actions seem paused.
Unfortunately, this night's sleep was very bad, since insomniac roommates cooked and argued until 4 o'clock in the morning. A bit of a shame, I was very relaxed and eager for a good night's sleep, which should have been interesting. The night after I slept very, very well and was really relaxed.
This is similar to the aftermath of previous sessions: everything is more clear and present. The good things, but also the painful things. There is more potential for insight, but also more potential to get hurt - like on psychedelics.
I feel like the sessions make my life and meditation sessions more clear, more textured, deeper - but the things that come up demand time and energy to be integrated. Still, all in all, another interesting and healing session, as far as I can tell. I have to say I’m still surprised at how significantly consciousness is altered with such a simple breathing technique. I feel like I could easily have gone out so much farther with more intense breathing – but I’d want some support for this.
I’m intrigued to see where this journey is going to take me – it feels like a genuine psychedelic experience in many respects.
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