I’m 54 and giving birth. More accurately, I’m “rebirthing” my first child, who came into the world 20 years ago. How is this possible? I can’t begin to understand. All I know is that it feels transcendent. Lying on my back, I lift my head, look down and there she is: a tiny head with a sheen of bronze hair emerging between my raised knees. There’s no pain, just a shocking bolt of joy. The thing I have so often longed for — to be able to go back in time for just a brief moment to hold my baby again — is actually happening, and it’s extraordinary. In fact, the experience is out of this world. My arms shake as I hold them out to hold her. I weep big gobs of happy tears that smatter like rainfall onto her tiny perfect forehead.
I’m not on drugs, but I am in an altered state of consciousness. I’m part of a small group participating in a 12-hour holotropic breathwork session, which is being guided by a trained therapist. By breathing rapidly and intensely for 10 to 20 minutes, we’re told that we can enter a whole new realm — a “non-ordinary state of consciousness” where we can relive key life experiences, both good and bad, possibly even our own birth. We might see fantastic visions, morph into an animal and even visit past lives.
I go into the session a smug and skeptical journalist, convinced this is quackery. And I come out incredulous about the things I’ve seen. Weeks later, I still feel stunned.
It sounds wacky, I know. But stick with me here.
Like most of you, no doubt, I’d never heard of breathwork, a method of prolonged fast breathing — hyperventilating essentially — that produces an altered state. The topic comes up during a phone interview with renowned Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Maté for a story I’m working on about ayahuasca, a popular hallucinogen that induces powerful visionary states, spiritual epiphanies and psychological healing. When I tell him that I’m curious about giving it a try but nervous about taking a drug, he suggests breathwork, which, he says, has similar effects. “Just make sure you find a trained practitioner,” he advises.
Breathwork dates back centuries and has its roots in ancient Indian and Tibetan traditions. It experienced a North American revival in the 1970s thanks to the grandaddy of deep breathing, Dr. Stan Grof, a world leader in the field of psychedelic therapy. Grof was chief researcher at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Centre, where he headed the last surviving official research project of psychedelic therapy before such research was shut down by the U.S. government in the late 1960s. Convinced of the therapeutic value of psychedelic experiences, though, Grof developed holotropic breathwork as a non-drug alternative to accessing the unconscious, and providing emotional healing and spiritual enlightenment. It combines accelerated breathing and loud, evocative music — ranging from multivocal chanting to hammering orchestral pieces and movie soundtracks — with a preliminary guided visualization to set the stage for an otherworldly experience. Who knew hyperventilating could lead to an ecstatic experience?
There are 1,000 certified breathworkers around the world trained in Grof’s method and, as luck would have it, one of them happens to practice just a few blocks from my home in Hamilton. Susan McBride, a therapist with a masters in theological studies, leads monthly sessions for $175. She’s got an opening for me in her next session, but first I have to fill out an extensive medical form. She says breathwork can result in a strong physical and emotional release and is contraindicated for some. After I verify that I don’t have cardiovascular problems, a history of aneurisms, retinal detachment or severe psychiatric symptoms, I’m in.
During breathwork, participants work in pairs, taking turns being the “breather” and the “sitter.” The sitter ensures that the breather is kept supported during the three-hour session with sips of water, extra blankets, a helping hand to go to the bathroom and oversized cushions to rein in the breather in the event that they are swept up in a kind of yogic flight and literally bounce off the bed, which has been known to happen.
As the lights dim, I lie down on a memory foam mattress, pull a fleece blanket up to my chin and slip on an eye mask. I’m relaxed and ready after a five-minute guided visualization led by McBride. A chorus of chanting monks blares over the sound system, and I start breathing quickly in and out of my nose so hard that I can hear myself huffing. Part of me wants to burst out laughing, but I scold myself to keep an open mind. I focus on my breath: in and out, in and out, in and out. After about 10 minutes, my body starts to tingle as though I’m being poked with thousands of pins. My brain is on high alert. What’s going on? I’m buzzing with electric energy. My hands knot up and feel claw-like, as if I’m stricken with arthritis. McBride had warned us about this. It’s called tetany, the result of low levels of carbon dioxide from hyperventilating. It’s uncomfortable but passes quickly.
Pretty soon, hazy, swirling, purple and pink feminine figures begin to appear on the insides of my eyelids. They lead me through a tunnel, and when I emerge, I look up, and, what’s that I see above me? A vast bluish black sky with millions of sparkling stars. I am but a tiny speck under this enchanting universe and feel flooded with a sense of cosmic unity.
Also, I’m having the most clichéd psychedelic experience ever.
I fall into a deep sleep, and when I awake, I start the process over again. Now that I’ve got the hang of it, I breathe faster and deeper than before and it doesn’t take long before I’m transported again. I clamp my hand over my mouth as if it’s an oxygen mask. It’s ether, I realize, and I then see the anesthetic gas being pumped into my mother as her labour pains mount while she gives birth to me. I take all this in stride; McBride told us in our preparatory workshop that birth experiences are common during breathwork. I see my mother, who is barely 18 and alone in a hospital room. There’s no mother or husband nearby to offer comfort; only a masked doctor telling her to push. She is frightened, and I’m overcome with empathy for her. I’m a witness to how intimately we were once connected — my body in hers, floating in amniotic bliss and kept alive by the supple rope that gave me all the nourishment I needed. In the next few moments, the cord will be cut by the masked stranger in the room. Decades later, it will be cut again, when I reject the fundamentalist religion she raised me in, causing irreparable damage to our connection.
A few minutes later, I begin to rebirth my daughter. Even as I experience this, I can’t believe it’s happening. This second chance to welcome her into the world comes at a time when she is about to fully launch her adult self. And just a week after this session, I’ll miss my regular-as-clockwork period for the first time in 40 years. It’s a marker that my intense mothering years are now behind me and I’m moving into a new stage of life. In the beginning, our mothers are our whole world. Then, there is the pain of severed connection. Yet all of our lives, we want to be mothered. Of the mother-daughter bond, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich wrote that “the materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.”
In his academic paper, New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Self-Exploration, Grof wrote that “unless one has witnessed or experienced this [breathwork] process personally, it is difficult to believe on theoretical grounds alone the power and efficacy of this technique.”
No kidding. When I get home, I can’t wait to tell my husband what’s happened. But when I do, I can see he’s resisting the impulse to jerk his eyebrows heavenward. And it’s hard to describe the experience to friends without seeming like I’ve been gorging on peyote. I even feel a little queasy writing about it here.
Entering this altered state feels magical, but of course, there’s a perfectly reasonable physiological explanation: the continuous rapid breathing delivers more oxygen to the lungs and, at the same time, decreases carbon dioxide, which leads to a rise in blood pH. This has an effect on the brain that, breathwork practitioners say, makes the unconscious more accessible.
But there’s no explaining the specificity of my visions. They feel like a mysterious godsend delivering a strange sense of peace. Those in mainstream religion might balk at this sort of practice, but there were certainly plenty of characters in the Bible who had famous hallucinations. Maybe Moses was hyperventilating when he saw the burning thorn bush? Perhaps Jacob cooked up a brew of leaves from the acacia tree — a known psychedelic frequently mentioned in the Bible — when he saw angels ascending that ladder that reached up to heaven? Who knows?
These sorts of otherworldly visions might just be the beginning of a brave new world. Currently, there’s a renaissance in psychedelic experiences as a healing modality. Just last week, more than 2,500 physicians, scientists and other health care providers gathered in Oakland, Calif., for the Psychedelic Science Conference, co-hosted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Dr. Grof, now 85, led a two-day sold-out workshop on holotropic breath work at the conference, which was also attended by Paul Summergrad, the past president of the American Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Thomas R. Insel, the former head of the National Institute for Mental Health. Attendees buzzed about the FDA’s recent decision to move ahead with large-scale Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA (also known as ecstasy) to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. (The drug is expected to be available by prescription as early as 2021).
Brave new world, indeed. In fact, the author of the famous book by that name, Aldous Huxley, was a known proponent of psychedelics. He believed that the way to enlightenment included prayer, meditation — and mescaline.
“It's a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is,” he said. “ I think it's healthy that people should have this experience.”
I’m still figuring out what to make of my own experience. But I sure am glad I had it.