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Breathwork can be any number of techniques that are designed to bring you into closer connection with your breath.
Breathwork may involve steady, deep, meditative states of breathing – but often it uses intense, active hyperventilation to induce a profound shift in consciousness. Some of the most well-known forms of breathwork, such as holotropic breathwork, the Wim Hof method, or the Soma Breath technique, use this latter style.
People often report that intense breathwork sessions can produce out-of-body experiences, or even bring up childhood memories. Many of the stories you hear sound very psychedelic.
Now that we know that it’s likely that DMT is made in the human brain, is there a chance that DMT is involved in the psychedelic-like states of breathwork?
What Is Breathwork?
The most popular forms of breathwork involve hyperventilation. This is a technique that involves periods of heavy, exaggerated breathing, sometimes using the whole body. The hyperventilation is then followed by a period of either holding the breath, or of slow and controlled breathing.
People find that this intense bodily activation can bring on altered states of consciousness, and many people engage in breathwork in order to feel euphoria and joy.
However, breathwork can also bring up traumatic experiences. Just like with psychedelics, intense hyperventilation can cause people to revisit past memories or encounter their shadow sides. Some people say they have even witnessed their own birth trauma during holotropic breathwork!
Being able to confront your trauma in a very safe environment with a safe method can be very healing. And breathwork is mostly safe – unless you have a heart condition, suffer from seizures, or have a history of aneurisms.
Breathing techniques are certainly not new – the breath is absolutely central to the ancient art of yoga, and breathing is considered by yoga practitioners to be a fundamental part of its health benefits.
Breathwork was initially used in Western medicine as a part of psychotherapy. Therapists would get patients with anxiety disorders to hyperventilate, to induce a fake panic attack. They would then help their patients work through the panic, and show them that they were in no physical danger.
This kind of therapy is known as “exposure” therapy, because patients are being exposed to their biggest fear, but in a safe and controlled context. It’s something like getting an arachnophobe to hold a harmless tarantula.
Preliminary research has shown that people who engage in holotropic breathwork as a part of psychotherapy could see reductions in anxiety, and improvements in self-esteem. Even when people take part in breathwork without any additional therapy, they can potentially see improvements in personality traits like sociability and self-awareness, and reductions in obsessiveness.
What is Soma Breath?
Soma Breath is a method of breathwork designed by Niraj Naik, a holistic healthcare practitioner. It is designed to rebalance the body and its capacity to regulate oxygen, but also aims to arouse mental and emotional energies.
Soma Breath is a mixture of hyperventilation techniques and breath retention techniques. In the development of the technique, Naik studied with traditional yogic and pranayamic methods of breath. Naik claims that Soma Breath is a more accurate reflection of yogic practices than modern, Westernized versions of yoga.
Music, movement and meditation are used as parts of Soma Breath training. The breathing component involves rhythmical hyperventilation, followed by extended periods of breath retention. The overall aim of Soma Breath is to bring your normal breathing rate to 3-4 breaths per minute, less than half the usual rate.
People report that the Soma Breath technique can produce altered states of consciousness, and many liken it to psychedelic experiences.
What is Holotropic Breathwork?
Holotropic breathwork was developed by psychiatrists Christina and Stanislav Grof in the 1970s, as a way of using the breath to produce a profound altered state of consciousness.
The technique has been designed to help people confront parts of their unconscious mind. These can often be unpleasant, unexpected encounters. This means that holotropic breathwork is often considered one of the least gentle forms of breathwork.
Usually, participants undergo holotropic breathwork in pairs, with one person breathing and the other watching over them. The session may last several hours, and involves the playing of repetitive music, while the “breather” lies on a mat hyperventilating throughout the session.
Holotropic breathwork has some reported benefits, such as improvements in personality traits like sociability and self-awareness, and reductions in obsessiveness (Miller & Nielsen, 2015). But since its aim is to help people encounter dark thoughts, it should only be considered by people who are prepared for uncomfortable experiences.
What is the Wim Hof Method?
Wim Hof is a Dutch extreme athlete who developed his unique breathing method following family tragedy. Using the method he and his trainees have accomplished amazing physical feats including high-heat marathons and low-temperature hikes.
Wim Hof himself has climbed almost to the peak of Mount Everest wearing only a pair of shorts and a pair of shoes, and has repeatedly broken the world record for the longest time submerged in ice.
One scientific study confirmed that Wim Hof and his trainees were capable of modulating their immune systems to prevent infections.
The method involves more than just breathing, and requires frequent uncomfortable encounters with cold extremes. But the basics of the breathing part of the method also involves hyperventilation – participants take 30 deep and exaggerated breaths, before holding the breath for as long as possible.
The Wim Hof method is used mostly by people as a technique to help them in physical pursuits, or as a means to feel more in control of their bodies.
What is the Link Between Breathwork and DMT?
As many people testify, breathwork can induce altered states of consciousness that are similar to psychedelics. Revisiting childhood memories, encountering personal traumas, seeing deep and profound parts of the self; these are all facets of psychedelics, and can also be characteristics of breathwork.
Physiologically too, there may be similarities in how our bodies react to breathwork and psychedelics. There is some evidence that breathwork changes the activity of the brain in similar ways to dissociative states, such as those caused by psychedelics. Lower activity in the frontal cortex of the brain seems to be a common feature.
The naturally-occurring psychedelic DMT, found in some ayahuasca brews among other plant medicines, is of great interest here. There is growing evidence that the human brain possesses the capacity to make its own supply of DMT, and that it could potentially be released at high levels during stressful situations.
If DMT is made by the human brain, then it makes sense that certain breathwork techniques could cause it to be released. Research in rats has shown that when they are highly stressed, their brains release high quantities of DMT.
Could it be a flood of DMT in the brain that is causing the psychedelic state that people experience during breathwork?
We don’t yet know if humans can make DMT in their brains, and what levels of stress would be required to release DMT in quantities that could produce an altered state of consciousness. But we do know a little bit about how DMT can protect cells from low oxygen…
Could DMT Protect Us From Low Oxygen Levels?
Research has shown that high quantities of DMT can protect human cells from death in low-oxygen environments. In three different cell types that are found in the human brain, DMT activates the sigma-1 receptor, which triggers an anti-stress response. In this study, giving a high dose of DMT to these cells made them up to three times as likely to survive in 0.5% oxygen (our normal oxygen levels are 20%).
It’s exciting to think that DMT could be released in the brain to help our brain cells survive low oxygen states, and that we could potentially trigger this DMT release through breathwork techniques.
However, the levels of DMT used in this study were very high, much higher than the highest levels of DMT we have seen in rat brains. Since we don’t know if breathwork could induce any DMT release in the human brain, let alone remarkably high concentrations, we don’t know if these effects are even relevant to us.
There are more problems to do with relevance. Breathwork is mostly about forcing our bodies to be saturated with oxygen, and this study into low oxygen levels may not tell us much about the potential benefits of breathwork. Although some techniques, such as Soma Breath, claim to improve our baseline breathing practices, this study of human cells does not confirm these claims.
Also, our cells can survive periods of low oxygen for many hours – and it’s unlikely that we would ever experience such low oxygen levels unless we were in a lethal situation. What would be more relevant would be if DMT could be shown to improve cell survival in the moderate reductions of oxygen seen in conditions such as asthma or lung diseases.
Therefore this study is unlikely to have much relevance to practitioners of breathwork. Although it’s still possible (although unproven) that breathwork could induce the release of DMT, and that this DMT could perhaps help our cells cope in low oxygen states outside of the breathwork sessions – this is still just speculation, and we’ll need to wait for further research before we can jump to conclusions.
Where Should I Start With Breathwork?
Despite the lack of evidence of the connection between DMT and breathwork, we know that breathwork techniques can have benefits. People report them boosting their physical wellbeing, as well as bringing them into contact with altered states of consciousness that can bring about healing and catharsis.
Although some breathwork techniques may not be for everyone, EntheoNation recommends Soma Breath as a unique holistic approach to breathwork. Its grounding in yogic techniques, while incorporating facets of meditation and bodywork, make it an ideal starting point for anyone interested in breathwork.