I’m lounging in the wayback of a station wagon with my high school boyfriend. It’s a Saturday night and James Taylor’s reminder to shower the people we love with love is blasting on the radio. The future seems as bright as the moon shining over Miami. The moment is so vivid, I can still smell the pot we smoked.
Except that hazy, lazy scene took place decades ago, and I am reliving it at 10 o’clock on a Thursday morning, lying on the floor of my living room in Los Angeles. I conjured that long-buried memory during the creative visualization portion of a breathwork class.
Breathwork, you say?
Like the folks who baked their first loaf of sourdough during lockdown and began entertaining fantasies of opening a bakery, I am imbued with purpose, urged on by the glimmer of optimism that relearning how to breathe has given me. As I write, I am a woman in search of breathwork’s holy grail.
Breathwork isn’t a new concept, but James Nestor’s presciently timed 2020 best seller “Breath” brought a practice with ancient yogic roots into the 21st century. During this COVID era, it’s arguable that breathwork has become the healing modality du jour. Nestor’s investigation into “The New Science of a Lost Art,” as his subtitle heralds, chronicles his own experiences with the life-changing magic of consciously manipulating the breath. One of the more delightfully cost-effective breathing hacks that Nestor extols is mouth taping as a cure for a plethora of maladies, from snoring to teeth grinding. I bought Nestor’s book but didn’t crack the spine until I’d become just desperate enough to try something endorsed by the leading purveyor of the obnoxiously au courant, Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP Lab.
Breathing is a function of the body’s autonomic, or somatic, nervous system, which means you don’t have to think about doing it. It seems counterintuitive, then, that there could be a right and wrong way to go about it. But in our push-harder, do-more, reach-higher society, we habitually subvert our naturally occurring physiological needs, like bathroom breaks, getting enough sleep, and, yes, breathing. As many of us have spent the majority of our waking hours slumped in front of our computer screens, our lousy sitting posture has been shown to lessen lung capacity by as much as 30 percent. This can, in turn, result in elevated cortisol levels, weight gain, and a shutdown of the executive functions of the brain. Enter breathwork, with its promises of better mental and physical health, improved sleep, increased energy, and improved brain function. Practically the only thing it doesn’t promise is to help us parse the fine print of the pending infrastructure bill.
At the start of the pandemic, I coped with my frayed nerves by exercising, meditating, even microdosing THC, all of which brought a modicum of relief.
Then, just a few months after a lung-lacerating virus took over the world, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was out of the blue, I had no symptoms, and all of a sudden I developed a new appreciation for the meaning of the word “vulnerable.”
Which made the prospect of returning to the world outside the air-purified confines of my quarantine bubble a paralyzing prospect. I had no idea how paralyzing until I faced my first flight in more than a year.
I had arrived at the airport three hours early. Despite the fact that I am vaxxed and was double masked, the crowds, the loud preboarding announcements, my health, and anticipatory angst over passenger antics spiraled me into sensory and anxiety overload. Disoriented, I missed my flight.
I missed another flight the next day.
In response to hearing about how spectacularly I had failed in my first attempts to reenter whatever is passing for normal life these days, a friend suggested breathwork. I’ll pause here so that you can roll your eyes, just as I did at first. “Next you’ll be recommending workshops in intuitive aura reading, chakra realignment, and channeling crystal energies from Lemuria,” I said, referring to the fabled continent.
It all sounded like so much wellness gobbledygook. During my three decades as an actress, I’d done my share of vocal training and deep belly breathing, but I’d never even considered that it might have palliative benefits. Two missed flights in as many days turned my initial skepticism into hope.
I decided to give it a month. I’d explore the options, try some classes, and see if I could experience the wonders I’d been reading about on the Internet — among them, better mental and physical health and improved sleep and brain function. What follows are the field notes of one woman’s deep dive into deep breathing.
Gasping for air
I signed up to learn a technique loosely inspired by Holotropic Breathwork, which was pioneered in the 1970s by the married psychoanalysts Stanislov and Christine Grof. The Grofs were true believers in psychedelics’ abilities to provide emotional relief, yet they sought to develop a technique that could induce non-ordinary states of consciousness without hallucinogens.
That sounded good to me. Via Zoom, a teacher trained in the Grofs’ method encouraged my fellow students and me to relax our prone bodies into an effortless natural breathing pattern and to focus our awareness on proprioception — our body’s ability to sense movement and its position in space. This is also sometimes called the sixth sense, and this moment was not the first time my vivid imagination would come in handy. Breathwork teachers tend to employ poetic prompts, encouraging students to “send breath” into their elbow or ankle or pinky toe, for example. The direction in my first class was no exception.
Guided by our teacher, we progressed from shallow chest breathing into deep diaphragmatic, or belly, breathing. Fidgety and frustrated, I noticed myself holding my breath and gasping for air. How long had I been doing that? I wondered. Had the specter of catching COVID while being treated for lung cancer changed the way I inhaled and exhaled as a matter of course? It seemed likely.
Thirty minutes into the session, just as I was managing to breathe a bit more fully, we transitioned again, this time to quick-paced rhythmic breathing exercises designed to produce a slightly altered state. I felt lightheaded. My fingers and toes tingled. I did not experience the kind of ecstatic emotional release that turns some into devotees. Afterward, however, I did feel more present in my body and less like the disembodied Zoom talking head I’d become during the year and half of life online.
I was hooked. I wasn’t after an altered state; I just wanted to find a technique that I could rely on when, say, I was experiencing total sensory overload and existential overwhelm at an airport. My search for the right breathwork technique continued.
I’m with Her
I remembered from my time in the yoga trenches that breathing is central to the practice. Back then, I was less focused on “the breath” than I was on appearing fashionably fierce in my warrior poses in front of my peers. Could pranayama — the awareness of breath that binds the physical practice to the mental one — help me? I put the question to my former yoga teacher, Jeannie Heilman. “When we don’t respect our breath, we muck up the nervous system,” she said, by which I am pretty sure she meant “yes.”
In my well-ventilated living room, Heilman first guided me through Sama Vritti, a practice that loops inhaling with extended exhaling. The simple act of focusing attention and slowing down my breath felt like mainlining a three-day weekend. From there we moved into Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nasal breathing, in which you hold one nasal passage closed on an inhale and exhale through the other passage, switch, and repeat.
With the latter technique, we counted to five on each inhale and held our breath for a beat before exhaling, also to a count of five. The counting interrupted my racing thoughts and quelled my anxiety to a dull hum. Hillary Clinton has spoken in praise of this practice, which means that some people will see alternate nasal breathing as a left-wing conspiracy. Me? I’m with Her. Alternate nasal breathing’s portability has proved a perfect intervention when I’m stalled in Los Angeles’s infamously enervating traffic, which has essentially returned to pre-COVID levels.
Galvanized by the relief produced by only two techniques, I became that convert who hijacks every conversation to extol the glories of their passion du jour, be it veganism, Ayahuasca, or joining Peloton Nation. That’s how I learned that another friend had taken up Fitzmaurice Voicework to ease the anxiety that landed her in the ER after she mistook a dizzy spell for a heart attack.
Catherine Fitzmaurice, who trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in England, originally conceived of the voicework as a warm-up for actors. More recently, it’s been embraced in rehabilitative therapeutic settings.
Erika Ackerman, a local instructor of the method, came to my backyard and guided me through a series of stretches designed to release chronic tension. In interviews, Fitzmaurice calls this “destructuring,” intended to aid in “undoing the learned societal behavior that inhibits breathing fully.”
Ackerman cued me with light touches to relax various muscle groups. I allowed myself to produce low guttural sounds that I found soothing, even as I realized I would be too embarrassed ever to be heard making them in public.
“You know that phrase ‘I’m holding my breath until . . . ?’ Is it possible that I’ve been unconsciously trying not to use my lungs in order to slow my lung cancer’s progression?” I asked Ackerman, while breathing into my jaw, which I realized was locked after nearly 18 months clenched behind a mask. “It makes sense,” she said. “When we’re fearful, we freeze and hold our breath. We’re bracing ourselves. We’ve all gotten stuck in our sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight mode, during COVID.” She explained that my job in that moment was to breathe through the tension to activate my parasympathetic system, my body’s calming mode. My job, in other words, was to let go.
I could manage it in my backyard or in the comfort of my living room. What about out in the real world?
The ice bath cometh
In the world of breathwork, perhaps no one is more revered than Wim Hof, the 62-year-old Dutch extreme athlete whose use of forceful breathing, breath retention, and cold exposure training has garnered him 26 world records, 16 of them for the longest time in direct, full-body contact with ice. Hence his nom de breath: The Iceman.
My ideal bath temperature hovers between gentle boil and lobster bake, so I initially dismissed Hof as a bit showboaty and, possibly, nuts. YouTube videos of the grizzly, bearded Iceman and his disciples, known as Hoffers, led me to believe his method was for weirdos and beardos. There’s Hof, looking like Ted Kaczynski’s twin and channeling Jack Nicholson’s intensity in “The Shining,” meditating on a glacier in a bathing suit. There’s Hof in another swimsuit leading a mostly bearded gaggle on a snowy mountain trek, and there he is again, hangin’ with the Hoffers in an ice bath.
Maybe I was on an oxygen high, because I signed up for an in-person workshop that would culminate in an ice bath.
Then I chickened out. Ice bath? Who was I kidding?
I opted for Hof-lite, an online course led by a former Marine sergeant and jujitsu black belt named Joey Hauss, who is a certified (and beardless) Hof instructor. His dulcet prompts put me at ease during a live-streamed hour-long class attended exclusively by women. So much for my preconceived dude-centric notion.
We began with slow breathing, not unlike the holotropic method I first dabbled with, before moving into forceful breathing and breath retention cycles. I was lying down, and the aerobic breathing required so much energy that it made me feel on the verge of hyperventilation. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the technique also gave me a happiness-infused endorphin rush, a sensation I can only describe as a braingasm.
Hauss later explained that the active breathing method mimics Hof’s cold-exposure regimen.
“The initial dip in the ice bath activates the fight or flight response. Then you focus on your breathing to kick in your parasympathetic system, even though you’re still inside the stressor,” he said.
“Imagine yourself in a time and place where we felt optimistic about the future,” Hauss whispered as we settled back into a natural breathing pattern. Previously, whenever I’ve been invited to “go to my happy place,” I have pictured myself in one of the bucolic lakeside pagodas at my childhood summer camp. Imagine how startled I was, then, to instead find myself in that long-forgotten memory, stoned in the wayback with my erstwhile beau. Not that I hadn’t been warned: Hauss had told us that the Hof method allows for “disconnection from our prefrontal cortex” — the cognitive-thinking brain — “and connection to more mammalian and reptilian parts of our brain.” This experience also inspired me to add James Taylor to my Spotify playlist, which has nothing to do with breathwork but, as everybody knows, the man’s voice has soporific properties.
I’ve become a regular to the class, which, I have since learned, is based on tummo, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice that translates literally as “inner fire.” Tummo is also that religion’s goddess of heat and fire. I confess to being charmed by that association, too.
One breath at a time
It helps to have someone in the family who has developed a breathwork protocol — in this case, for children and families who have experienced trauma, such as school shootings. Robin Gurwitch, my cousin, is a clinical psychologist and professor at Duke University. She is also a senior advisor with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
“Is my newfound calm merely a placebo effect?” I asked.
“Nope,” she responded. “All of the protocols I’ve used in my trauma recovery work with children and families in the aftermath of Sandy Hook and Parkland involve a form of breathwork. It can lower blood pressure, heart rate, help you sleep better, and manage stress.”
I’ve kept at it. I stretch each morning, focusing on my breath. In anxious moments, I make like Hillary and attempt alternate nostril breathing, which takes me out of my whirling thoughts and returns me to my body. While I’m wary of invoking that dubious catch-all “wellness,” the practice reliably replenishes my sense of well-being. Reader, I’ve even started taking cold showers.
There is an inescapable irony to using breathwork as a coping tool for a disease that will someday rob me of my ability to breathe. The medication that’s currently keeping the cancer under control will eventually stop working. When that will happen is anyone’s guess.
For now, it’s one day and one deep belly breath at a time.
Annabelle Gurwitch is an author, activist, actor, and co-host of the Tiny Victories podcast. Her most recent book is “You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility.”