Inhale Insight: The Transformative Power of Psychedelic Breathwork
Should you be getting high on your own supply? Breath is an essential tool for every psychonaut — if you know how to use it.
Breath can shift our states. Different techniques can make us calm, energized, hot, cold, and, yes, trip out. Some are directed at expanding consciousness, others healing from physical or mental issues.
My breathwork teacher told me, “The body is a spaceship, you just don’t know how to use the controls.” I still like to think of breath as one such control pad for the body — different methods induce different states — and some techniques indeed get very psychedelic.
In this article, we unpack the different types of psychedelic breathwork, breathing techniques, how it works, and how to do it; along with risks, benefits, and side effects.
What Is Psychedelic Breathwork?
“Psychedelic breathing” is a loose term that refers to breathing techniques that induce an altered state. Simply described, it’s rhythmic breathing patterns that are repeated for an extended period, often in time to music, while lying on your back.
With good technique, many people experience physical sensations, emotional releases, and even visions. Some compare it to full-blown ayahuasca trips, while a few people experience nothing.
Techniques focused on nose or mouth breathing are thought to have different effects, but mouth breathing excites the nervous system to a higher degree.
Psychedelic breathwork is best done with facilitators one-on-one or as a guided group. You can do it alone if you’re experienced or adventurous, but even for healthy, experienced breathers, these techniques can get intense — don’t treat them casually.
Because the techniques are specific and breathwork comes with some risks, we recommend starting with a facilitated experience.
How Does Psychedelic Breathwork Work?
In James Nestor’s incredible book “Breath,” the mechanism is explained as a change in the oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the blood. Creator of Holotropic Breathwork, Stan Grof, suspects a change in the bloods’s alkalinity is a factor too. Others say DMT is released, but we couldn’t find any evidence of that.
A 2023 paper in Nature cited the role of breath in altering communication with the brain, affecting behavior, thought, and emotion. The authors also note relationships between breath and the synchrony of brain waves.
Different synchronizations, or “oscillations,” of brainwaves are a complicated science but can be linked to physical, emotional, and cognitive responses like perception, memory, and others. There are likely many different responses happening in the body, and we still have lots to study about breathwork.
Is Psychedelic Breathwork Safe?
For the most part, mentally and physically healthy people can partake in breathwork. The 2023 Nature study suggested breathwork has a “high safety profile,” although recommended more research.
However, some people should avoid breathwork. We suggest erring on the side of caution, especially with techniques that suggest you hold your breath.
Breathwork may not be right for you if you have any of the following conditions:
High or low blood pressure
Past heart attacks
Retinal detachment or glaucoma
Personal or family history of aneurysms
Personal or family history of psychosis
Recovering from injury or surgery
Pregnant or breastfeeding
We also suggest talking to a doctor if you:
Have a respiratory condition
Are taking medication
Navigating serious mental illness
Psychedelic Breathwork Side Effects
As we mentioned, psychedelic breathwork is not a casual affair. The techniques can take practice, and we recommend learning from a trained professional.
Doing psychedelic breathing techniques can have side effects, such as:
Ringing in ears
Tingling in limbs
Hands making a “claw” (tetany)
Shaking and twitching
The nice thing about breathwork is that if it gets too intense, you can just stop and rest until side effects subside. Typically, these diminish by slowing down breathing. Longer, deep breaths into the belly help.
Reach out for support if you have something like persistent chest pains or if they become more intense.
Bear in mind that psychedelic breathing is very stimulating and can trigger panic attacks.
Some teachers suggest side effects like excessive dizziness or cramping result from incorrect technique, but a breathwork facilitator can help you with it.
How to Do Psychedelic Breathwork
All that said, if you are healthy, understand the risks, and are the DIY type who will simply find instructions on YouTube anyway, here are some basic instructions.
This is Conscious Connected Breathing (CCB), a common technique:
Find a comfortable, quiet place where you can lie down. A yoga mat in your room is great. Don’t use a pillow — keep your airway open.
Allow your breath to flow naturally for some time. Become aware of your breath and body. Take your time. Breathwork isn’t just about getting high; awareness helps bring benefits.
When ready, focus on breathing into your belly through the nose. Use your diaphragm, the muscle just below your ribs.
It helps to place a hand on the belly. Let the rise and fall of your hand draw attention to breathing from the stomach. Perfecting belly breath is a good area to focus on if you don’t want to go deeper on your own.
Expand your diaphragm, inhaling fully and deeply from the belly. Without a pause after inhaling, relax your diaphragm and release the complete breath in one smooth motion.
Without a pause between breaths, repeat the process. The technique is also called Circular Breathing because there is no pause between inhale and exhale.
With repetition, this can induce an altered state for some, but keep expectations low and don’t force anything.
Keep inhaling longer than exhaling while releasing all air from the lungs.
Don’t focus on breathing hard and fast but on mastering technique. Breathe smoothly, not sharply or broken into parts.
The duration is up to you. Some people will feel the effects with a few rounds. Others may need much more time.
I recommend going slowly through the nose here, as it’s less intense. Heavy and rapid mouth breathing is far more stimulating, so use it with caution.
Stop if you aren’t sure you’re doing it right or feel uncomfortable or scared, and find a professional to work with.
Facilitators can also help with:
Coaching participants in their breathing technique
Monitoring for challenging experiences
Supporting emotional releases
Physical touch and bodywork, with permission
Facilitate individual or group shares for integration
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Who Invented Breathwork?
Truly, breathwork is an ancient practice. Many types can be found in spiritual traditions and mystery schools, and they deserve credit for developing the practices.
Yogis, shamans, Sufi mystics, Buddhist monks, and many others have been using breath throughout recorded history. Tibetan monks used Tummno to stay warm in the highest reaches of the Himalayas while Sufis chanted and breathed themselves into ecstatic states in desert mosques. Shamans around the world, from Siberia to the Americas, understand breath.
Modern psychedelic breathwork has exploded in popularity, and there is now an abundance of slightly nuanced and unique techniques. Non-psychedelic breathwork has many therapeutic benefits too.
Despite the many methods out there, we try to stick to the established schools. For the sake of simplicity, here are some of the original schools that one could consider “psychedelic.”
Wilhelm Reich was a highly controversial student of Sigmund Freud in the 1920s. Freud eventually rejected Reich, who was pursuing radical ideas like open sexuality and freeing people from what he called “body armoring.”
Reich went beyond talk therapy and began experimenting with techniques of intense breathing and massage to stimulate repressed emotions stored in the body. Reich encouraged the expression of any movements, sounds, or feelings during the process.
Many of Reich’s other ideas drew intense criticism (like Orgone), and he died in prison with many of his books burned. While Reichian Breathwork practitioners are rare, ideas like emotional release or combining bodywork with breathing have inspired modern forms of breathwork.
Rebirthing was created by Leonard Orr in 1970. Experimenting with breath after spending time at an Ashram in India, Orr developed rebirthing after having a transformational experience reliving his birth while taking deep, connected breaths in his bathtub.
Orr was inspired by the effect of breathing in the water, saying it stimulated being in the womb before birth. Rebirthing emphasizes breathing through the nose for a gentler experience on the nervous system.
Nonetheless, the experience can be intense, with some people claiming to reconnect with forgotten childhood experiences.
It was created in 1975 by Stanislav Grof, a legendary researcher, alongside his wife Christina. Grof pioneered psychotherapy techniques with LSD but developed Holotropic Breathwork after it became illegal.
Holotropic Breathwork, done in Grof’s traditional style, is typically long, lasting many hours, and accompanied by intense music. Breathing is done with an open mouth. Done in a group, participants partner up into “breathers” and “sitters” to support each other through the process under the guidance of trained facilitators.
Holotropic breathwork is probably the most famous psychedelic breathwork technique. Subsequently, it has inspired many others.
Other Breathwork Schools
As mentioned, there are a huge amount of offshoots of breathwork practices of both modern and ancient techniques. Most listed below host breathwork retreats and facilitator trainings.
Breathwork inspired by Riechian, Holotropic, and Rebirthing include:
Clarity Breathwork — Founded by Dana Dharma Devi and Ashanna Solaris, Clairty is adapted from Rebirthing but with an expanded focus outside of the birth process.
Transformational Breathwork — Led by Dr. Judith Kravitz, Transformational Breathing is an established school taking an emotional, physical, and spiritual approach.
Vivation — Created by Jim Leonard in 1979, Vivation focuses on feeling positive emotions and the body’s wisdom.
Some notable adaptations of ancient techniques in the modern world are:
Wim Hoff (The Iceman) — Famously adopted the Tibetan practice of Tummo and other breathing styles to a huge audience while stimulating research in the process.
Kundalini Yoga — A few schools teach yoga postures, pranayama, meditation, and techniques from other traditions that can get extremely psychedelic.
Dan Brule — Traveled the world collecting breathing techniques that he now teaches to students and even the military.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (Book Recommendation)
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