Cathartic Breathwork: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Apr 01 , 2016
Dear Mike W,
I found your website two years too late. Unfortunately, I took part in several group sessions of breathwork in the town of Prescott, AZ during 1997 and 1998.
Each group consisted of 10 weeks of once-a-week day-long sessions with "facilitators" (two, a man and a woman) and anywhere from 4 to 14 group members.
A typical group session happened on a Saturday or Sunday and lasted pretty much the whole day, with the first half for "sharing" and "processes" that involved individuals, pairs, or larger numbers of people yelling into pillows, pounding them, and doing other things to produce a cathartic emotional response.
The last part of the day was the "Breath" which involved all the group members lying down with pillows under their feet, arms and legs and breathing fast and hard while being monitored by the facilitators and others who had experience with this process.
We were to "try for nothing" but a circular, connected breath--hyperventilating--and the facilitators would suggest things for us to yell and do (such as "get up on your knees and pound the pillows with your fists" or "Yell so-and-so at your Mom/Dad/brother/sister etc...").
Again, this was all under the rubric of attempting to cause a cathartic emotional release, which happened to me a few times during the beginning of these groups and individual sessions.
In between these weekly groups, we were given writing assignments and other assignments that had to do with living, nothing major--stuff like "judge everybody you meet for a whole day"... really awareness type exercises.
I remember all emotions were considered "safe" as long as they "were not acted upon" was the mantra that was repeated over and over again. Fear, anger, hatred, joy, love, they were all considered basically innocent.
Often we were encouraged to consider a baby, who cries, gets angry, feels fear, etc. but doesn't dwell on it, just feels the feelings and moves on. This was a kind of philosophy of the group.
There was one more thing, which we did less regularly, though at the end I was doing it weekly. This same "breath" or "rebirthing" was done in a hot-tub with a person holding us as we floated naked in the tub with nothing more than a snorkel and nose-plug.
Imagine doing this--you may already have--powerful breathing with a feeling not only of weightlessness that water brings but also the heat from the tub (which was not scorching but was quite warm).
To make a long story short, it was during these weekly underwater breaths that I "lost my mind". It happened one night when I lay down to sleep. I distinctly had the impression of an alien force taking over my thoughts.
I sprang from the bed, terrified. For the next 24 hours I shifted through different states of doubt and fear, contemplated suicide--imagined historical figures like Van Gogh--and understood why anyone would decide to take such a drastic step: the fear of "going crazy" of "losing one's mind" is worse than the fear of death in many ways. One could take it a step further and think of it as the fear of losing one's soul.
Anyway, I went to the people I had been doing the work with for help, and they of course had me breathe again. It helped temporarily to alleviate this terrible condition I was in. It went away for about a week, but returned with a vengeance.
Since I had no one to turn to I kept returning to them for help, calling them up (as they said I should) sometimes late at night, early in the morning. The crisis only seemed to get worse, and I wasn't sure whether the advice I was getting was helping.
They had me do much to "confront" myself if you know what I mean. I had exercises to write things down, and sometimes to talk to myself looking in the mirror.
It was a disastrous recipe. The voices in my head--and they had the definitive feel of being somebody *else's* voices; though the breathwork people claimed this was true, as they were the voices of my parents, my family, I felt they were rather more sinister and evil sounding, certainly feeling--anyhow the voices in my head "took over" and I remember it all came down to a point where I was to make a decision--I was going to buy a gun and shoot myself.
I wandered out into the woods and then it was like *poof* something transferred, something changed. The terrible pressure was over.
I made it back to my place and lay down on a chair and that's when I felt it with a certainty: I was going to hell.
I am so sorry if I weigh all this so heavily on someone who is a complete stranger, but the only positive thing I could surmise from this horrible travail was that maybe somebody, somewhere, would not be as foolish as me, make the same mistakes I did, try to meet "God" on my terms.
As for the people who facilitated the breathwork, they insisted I stop calling them, encouraged me to seek psychiatric help, and pretty much wanted to be rid of me. And I can't blame them.
But reading your article, I am impressed by how much power so many people can wield, how much influence over their fellow persons who trust them, when they are ignorant of a definitive darker side to life.
Their sunny outlook, in hindsight, was the most naive and childish thing in all of their attempts to get us back to an infant state.
Since then, I have lived as an almost total recluse. I moved back to Los Angeles, where I'm from originally. I did go to see psychiatrists, the best one said something like "ah, the devil doesn't want you, he's interested in characters like Hitler and Al Capone, you're too nice a guy" or some such thing.
I took pharmaceuticals, including Xanax, Prozac, Riperdal, and so on. I still need to take diazepam (Valium) for occasional outbursts of sheer panic. But by far the worst outcome of all of this is my rather (lateblooming) understanding and comprehension of the basic fact and underlying struggle between good and evil. Christianity makes absolute sense.
In fact, I spent a good many months reading the bible and people like Carl Jung, who warns against these kind of techniques (e.g. kundalini yoga) as they are incompatible with the development of the western psyche.
By far, the saddest thing in all of this is my listless path through life.I remember at the height of the feelings of insanity a distinct sensation of my heart leaving me... Of the light, the holy spirit if you will, fleeing.
I have a constant dull ache in my chest, and my dreams are full of bizarre, sometimes violent imagery, falling down waterfalls, drowning, and other painful (physically and psychologically) events. Mostly they are confounding, but the overall theme is one of an almost "cosmic despair".
I do not know what good this will do. Maybe you didn't want to hear it. Somehow, though, I feel you are smarter than the run-of-the-mill people who are doing this work, and leading so many others in to it. You at least have the wisdom to caution people. There was no warning when I set out to "heal".
May this be of service. Name withheld by request.
To say it cures cancer, as a breathworker just told me Judith K did, is to potentially greatly mislead and put one into severe risk of death. Granted, breathwork is very powerful but CANCER? Remotely possible and in my opinion should be framed as such. REMOTELY. VERY.
I sent this to an MD that has facilitated some 400 group breathwork sessions. The Question and Answer was:
Can you help me put a stop to results like the examples above?
And what would you recommend that this man does now?
I shall refrain from commenting on car crashes, that I know not even the trademark of. <"breath" or "rebirthing"> can be experienced as turning the car keys.
Don't you want to learn (sic) the street map ? Spiritual mapping (sic) has some options, my first try would be buddhist (sic) awareness training. ( Jack Kornfield ) and meditation on harmony ( The Dalai Lama )
From Mike again:
"Ok, we/you get to go figure what all that meant. I take the excessive energy and ground it, balance and re-embody it FAST; Before it tears one apart or sends them into space for a decade or so.
For those that have had a negative experience or similar experience to the personal recounting above, be encouraged to be awfully careful of anecdotal hype about all the good things that can happen stemming from cathartic breathwork.
Many good things can happen however I recommend they seek an experienced Psychotherapist well versed in breathwork or Reichian Therapist with at least several years experience OR an intensive with me or try colleague Denis Ouellett's Integral Breathwork or Dan Brule's Spiritual Breathwork."
Removing the blocks to self realization and peak performance: breathing as a metaphor for living.
"I spent four days in private sessions with Michael White. My breathing was fast (23 to 28 breaths per minute) and I was having a very hard time catching my breath without using muscles in my core and shoulders to consciously draw in the inhale. My girlfriend tended to feel anxious around me and wanted to break up.
Decades of breathwork and other somatic processes helped improve my confidence and joy in my life, but the mechanics of my breathing had not improved. I went to North Carolina with the following goals:
1. Improve breathing mechanism to catch my breath
and breathe naturally and automatically.
2. Relieve "body armoring" from emotional traumas.
3. Have a deeper inner peacefulness.
4. Improve my relationship with my girlfriend.
5. Hike and run without inflammation in the lungs (chest) area.
6. Learn to sing in a way that sounds good and is enjoyable.
Mike made me feel very welcome and comfortable. We got right into some baseline testing followed by a wide variety of exercises and bodywork techniques.
After four days, my normal breath rate was down to 10 to 14 breaths per minute (from 23-28). could take a full, satisfying breath most of the time. My inhale started to occur automatically, without using my core and shoulder muscles.
More important to me, is that my girlfriend is excited about the new me! I backed off on my running a bit with the intention of adding it back gradually being careful to avoid lung inflammation.
I bought a karaoke machine and have been using it and enjoying it. I had considered myself "tone deaf" and only sang (traumatized myself) once in public as a child 40 years ago.
I have to admit that it took me several days after returning home to gradually add some of the Optimal Breathing exercises back into my routine. I realize that it will be a process to fully transform my life and breathing and heal my lungs. But thanks to Mike White, all of my six goals have started to come to fruition!"