Illustrations by Alex Jenkins
Breathwork is a type of industrial-strength meditation, believed to replicate the effects of LSD. By hyperventilating for long periods of time you get to experience a non-ordinary state of consciousness: You trip, you rebirth, you visit past lives, see visions, hear voices. Or at least, that's what people say.
Shamans and swamis have used breathwork for thousands of years, but the modern practice was born out of LSD research in the 1960s. Counterculture heroes like Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson were both practitioners, but Stanislav Grof is considered to be its founder. Grof is known for early LSD studies, particularly in the field of "psychedelic therapy"—the idea that hallucinogenic drugs could aid the practice of psychotherapy. When the FBI began cracking down on drugs like LSD, he switched his attention to something you can't be imprisoned for: breathing.
Breathwork is essentially breathing really, really fast, to remove carbon dioxide from the body which leads to a rise in blood pH. The side effects range from dizziness, tingling, and carpopedal spasms, which is basically flapping your arms and legs. Most of these symptoms can be explained as byproducts of hyperventilation, but breathwork adds in a component of guided meditation, with prompts and after-care and some therapeutic suggestions. Plus, there's someone to catch you before you fall over.
On a recent trip to India, I saw a flyer for a breathwork class attached to the counter of a health food shop in Gokarna, a small holy town a couple of hour's flight south of Goa. The class was run by a guy called Franz Simon, who had been trained in Grof's methods. Simon is an older guy, probably in his early 60s, with the strongest of Swiss accents. Franz has written a number of New-Agey books, which have names like The End of Longing and Life Doesn't Care If You Pretend to be Dead, and he enjoys yodeling and playing the harmonium.
Franz runs his workshops out of a guesthouse, and on the day I turned up along with two German backpackers and three Israelis, he'd forgotten all about it. We stood knocking on his door, begging to get in.
"Sorry," he said, "just give me five."
In a few minutes, we were sitting around his room on cushions on the floor. The room was so hot the air felt toasted. We piled in and Franz tried to get the ceiling fan working but the motor was shot and all it seemed to do was push hot air around and around and around. Every one of us had long, looping sweat marks on the front, back, and under the armpits of our T-shirts.
"OK, lets begin," said Franz.
We sat in pairs, each cross-legged and facing a complete stranger. The session began with a series of questions—Who are you? What would you risk to be happy? What can you change to make you free?—and we were supposed to answer as honestly and naturally as possible during the allotted time, which felt incredibly long.
After each question, we swapped partners. The conversations were meant to butter up the mind, trigger its natural existential inquisitiveness, and create a platform conducive to the breathwork to come. Franz Simon darted around the room, eavesdropping, adjusting the ceiling fan, fetching bottled water.
We spent about an hour on the question-and-answer session, which proved insightful and pretty moving. We were complete strangers opening up to each other about our desires, our failings, and the things that stood in our way. Some of the answers I gave surprised me. The energy in the room—maybe the anticipation or maybe the heat—was making us somehow more open and all of us seemed united by our sweat, and the common suspicion that we were a little lost, and maybe a little unhappy too.
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Then, Franz asked us to stand up. He explained that this was the potentially dangerous part—that our bodies might deform, or that we could fall over, although it had never happened to him before. We were about to begin pushing all the carbon dioxide out of our bodies, which can make the body tighten. Breathwork practitioners call it "the claw": Fingers and toes become paralyzed in claw-shaped positions, and then you fall over.
I was in a trance all right, but nothing so strong that opening my eyes wouldn't have snapped me out of it.
We began breathing through our noses, in time with Franz, bending at the knees with each exhale. Each exhale was longer than the inhale. We closed our eyes; we breathed faster and faster. It was really uncomfortable, and all I wanted to do was stop and take a regular-sized breath. The noise in the room was very loud; my legs got wobbly and my fingers felt numb. Franz came over to me, as if sensing this, and told me to get down on my knees. A few minutes later, he guided me flat on my back. Everything became really quiet and apart from Franz, I wasn't aware of anyone else in the room. I wasn't aware of being in the room anymore.
Then Franz began to sing a mantra—you are made of love—but sung in a yodel style.
On the backs of my eyelids, I started seeing fractal patterns and some animal shapes. There was a fox and what looked like an elephant and, because this was India, a cow.
Some time later, Franz told us to open our eyes. When I did, I could see that everyone else in the room was lying down too. Franz asked us how long we thought it had lasted. It seemed like half an hour, but Franz told us we'd been lying down for 90 minutes.
We took an ice cream break, and when we came back, we repeated the same breathing technique. This time, I breathed even quicker and the trance seemed stronger. At one point, I could even see a long black tunnel and as I got closer to it, I fell in. The effect was similar to a very small dose of LSD or some mild magic mushrooms, or even like going to bed after a heavy night smoking weed. I was in a trance all right, but nothing so strong that opening my eyes wouldn't have snapped me out of it. Still, despite the relative clement nature of the trance, it's power lay in the fact that I'd brought it on doing little more than breathing fast, then faster, then lying down and listening to yodeling.
Franz played one his last songs on his harmonium, then woke us up. He had a croaky, old man voice but in a trance, it sounded as soft as a eunuch's.
"So," he said, "that was it. How did it feel?"
An Israeli girl said she felt vibrations throughout her entire body. A German guy lost all feeling in his arms and thought he was flying. ("You almost were," Franz told him.) Someone else heard Franz's music in a different language. Franz suggested my vision of a tunnel was a vision of my birth.
Franz told us this was merely an introduction to breathwork; people who study over time go way deeper: visiting past lives, cleansing, releasing old traumas. "You can trance for a whole night sometimes."
I've tried breathwork on my own since then, but without Franz—without the harmonium, without the yodel-mantras, the room of strangers and the 95 percent humidity—I breathed and breathed until I was exhausted. And then I fell asleep.
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