“It’s a deep double-inhale through the mouth, followed by a complete exhale through the mouth. Keep with the rhythm,” the guide encouraged, as the deep throbbing of buffalo drums ushered in the ceremony. Within a couple minutes I felt a growing sense of intensity, and a tingling sensation around the edges of my fingers and lips. Soon I felt light-headed and tranced out, my fingers and toes involuntary clutching at the air.
Entities floated around me giving me energetic adjustments. I was swirling between darkness and emptiness, euphoria and ego-loss, trance and lack of physical control. When we came out, I was not ‘myself’ for hours, feeling disconnected to the world around me.
Months later I went to another session with a different guide.
Same sensations. Same level of intensity, if not more.
It goes by many names. “Shamanic Breathwork” “Holotropic Breathwork” and simply “Breathwork,” to name a few.
It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had with breath. I wanted to learn more, and maybe even teach this technique to my students. But firstI had to look into its effects and find out what was actually happening in the body.
I researched the technique, which involved rapid deep mouth-breathing (hyperventilation) for sessions of up to 45 minutes. I was shocked to find that long bouts of hyperventilation could be very damaging to the body, especially to the brain.
In fact, the body’s response to this breathwork is the same as choking! ¹ (i.e. it starves the brain of oxygen)
But wait . . . I thought deep breathing was good for you? Deep breathing is good for you! But if done rapidly through the mouth (instead of slowly through the nose) then it’s not good for you—that’s hyperventilation.²
How could over-breathing deprive the brain of Oxygen??
Here’s how it works.
Our blood needs to contain a balanced ratio of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in order to stay healthy. When we over-breathe, too much CO2 is released, a condition called Hypocapnia.³ Hypocapnia brings on an immediate cascade of effects:
• Involuntary muscle contractions, tingling, numbness, dizziness & euphoria • The blood becomes dangerously alkaline. • Blood flow is diverted away from brain to protect it from heightened alkalinity. • Brain Oxygen levels decline due to reduced blood flow. • Low Brain Oxygen levels can cause permanent brain damage. • If enough time passes like this, you can black out. ²
The most dangerous part is losing consciousness in this condition. Normally, breathing would continue automatically even when you’re unconscious. With Hypocapnia, this is not the case—because too much CO2 has been released, the body does not get the signal to breathe (the presence of CO2 in the blood is what tells the body to breathe). If you’re passed out and there’s not enough CO2 in your blood, automatic breathing stops. Unconscious and not breathing, brain Oxygen levels drop even lower, ramping up damage to the brain. ¹
NOTE: I'd like to make it clear that not all breath work is dangerous! My purpose in writing this article is not to spread general fear about working with breath, but to educate people on the risks of these increasingly trendy hyperventilation ceremonies.
Even if you don’t pass out, you couldstill accidentally stop breathing, because you don’t feel the impulse or need to breathe due to low blood concentration of CO2. At this point your awareness is so altered, you might not even notice that your natural breathing has stopped. Some variations of the technique even include an intentional breath hold to intensify the experience when the brain is already starving of Oxygen.
Students: See My Important Note at the End of this Article on How to Safely Practice Breathing Techniques
So why do people even do this technique if it’s so bad for you? Wouldn’t there be emergencies or deaths if it’s so serious?
The damage is definitely real, but it may not be noticeable right away, because the brain is really good at making up for losses (more on that later).
People do it because itgets you high. In fact, this breathing technique is widely used in prisons and drug rehabilitation centers as a way to get intoxicated without drugs.⁴ As blood flow is restricted to the brain, the areas responsible for perception & awareness are impaired, leading to altered consciousness and intense emotional arousal. ¹ This could result in an emotional breakthrough of some kind, but, the risks to the brain, in my opinion, are not worth it.
The technique was developed by Stanislav Grof, a psychologist who used it as part of a somatic psychological process for his patients. Even Grof claimed that the breathwork was “not appropriate for everyone.” He had a strict protocol to screen for physical and psychological contraindications before allowing patients to undergo the technique.⁵ Beyond the clearly negative effects this breathwork has on the body, the idea of publicly leading large groups of un-screened individuals into deep somatic work intended for psychotherapy seems irresponsible and potentially dangerous.
In my two personal experiences—one in a small class setting and the other at a large yoga festival—there was absolutely no awareness or disclosure of the risks behind this technique. Students were not advised to take any precautions, which is extra scary for people who come in with pre-existing conditions.
Unfortunately, even if participants experience no apparent negative effects, they may still be accumulating insidious damage in the brain. The brain is very effective at making up for damaged tissue, until the damage reaches a tipping point that can no longer be accommodated, at which point irreversible symptoms arise. ¹ This is why, for example, dementia patients do not show symptoms until their brain has degenerated for at least 10 years. Regular breathwork practitioners may be unknowingly putting themselves at higher risk for developing dementia or other diseases, as they regularly accrue direct injury to the brain.
Despite the clear risks, some may hold onto the healing or transformation that they have experienced while practicing this breathwork. While you may be able to get intense results from an intense and potentially health-threatening practice, the most profound results are those that we arrive at through regular, sustainable, long-term practice.
Practice becomes firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time — Yoga Sutra 1.14
We must seek practices that transform us gently & gradually, rather than violently & abruptly. Yoga offers us many wonderful breathing techniques that have stood the test of time as well as scientific scrutiny, and have been proven both safe and effective. Pranayama (yogic breathing practices) can and must be tailored to fit individuals’ needs in a safe and sustainable way. We need to share the knowledge of what works & is safe, as well as the knowledge of what can cause harm.
For the benefit of mankind.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings everywhere be happy & free.
How to Safely Practice Breathwork:
Yogic breathwork—or “Pranayama”—can be profoundly healing if used appropriately; however, like any breathing technique, it still has risks, especially for people who have pre-existing conditions. It’s important for you to do the following in order to practice breathwork safely:
• Only practice under the guidance of a trusted, trained professional. • Tell your teacher of any physical or psychological conditions. • Ask your teacher if the breathwork poses any risks or has any contraindications • Pay close attention to how you feel while practicing breathwork – avoid forcing, straining, or negative sensations. • If you need to skip a technique or take a break to breath normally, do iteven if you teacher doesn’t tell you to. • Do your own research. Find reliable sources to learn more about the techniques you’re practicing.
In the end, you are responsible for your own health and safety, and you must use your own judgment to find out what’s best for you. Be cautious not to blindly trust a teacher, no matter how well intentioned, well known, or loved that teacher may be. Remember that teachers are humans too, and we can make mistakes. Follow your inner teacher first.
1. Headway: The Brain Injury Association. Effects of hypoxic/anoxic brain injury https://www.headway.org.uk/about-brain-injury/individuals/types-of-brain-injury/hypoxic-and-anoxic-brain-injury/anoxic-brain-injury-effects/
2. Brandis, Kerry (30 Aug 2015). "6.2 Respiratory Alkalosis - Causes". Acid-base Physiology (Reviewed in 2006 by the American Thoracic Society).
3. Laffey, J.G. and Kavanagh B.P. (2002). "Hypocapnia". New England Journal of Medicine. 347 (1): 43–53.
4. Neal, Richard McKenzie. (2008) The Path to Addiction: And Other Troubles We are Born to Know. Bloomington, IN: Author House.
5. Grof, S. and Grof, C. (2010). Holotropic Breathwork: A new approach to self - exploration and therapy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.