While I personally feel as though I’d be somewhere in the middle, I had to do some momentary introspection to figure out why she thought I would be a neo-hippie…and then I thought about some of my lifestyle preferences. I’m no stranger to things like hot yoga, kundalini yoga, falun dafa, sensory deprivation therapy, ancestral dietary preferences, international cuisine, and other aspects of a “granola” life that are just too unconventional for many modern ladies.
While I’m remarkably opinionated, I’m also surprisingly open-minded when it comes to trying new experiences, so when my mother-in-law invited me to join her for a two-hour long breathwork class led by a shamanic practitioner that was marketed as “years of psychotherapy without saying a word,” I couldn’t resist. My mother-in-law also infamously taught me to “carpe diem it,” her slogan that our family always evokes when we’re feeling apprehensive about trying something new. So, carpe diem it I did!
Let’s Chat about the Class Itself
According to his website, his classes are meant to relieve clients of their physical and emotional trauma by seeking healing at the source of their problems rather than trying to just treat symptoms. It’s important to note that there are no substances involved with these classes, just yourself and your own sheer willpower to stick through a long, arduous experience.
“All that is required is to lay down, cover your eyes, listen to carefully selected and deeply impactful music and breathe in the ways and rhythms that I will guide you with for about one hour. You are very likely to cry, scream and laugh uncontrollably while I take you on a journey through your subconscious mind to release what doesn't serve you anymore and to connect you back to your true self,” the website said.
I went in to what ended up being a three-hour class with as few expectations as possible. Had I dug through his Instagram, I would have come across his Reels of the intense reactions clients have during his workshops, and I would have been much better prepared for what I was about to be surrounded with.
There I was, seated next to my mother-in-law among 220 participants in a hotel ballroom. It looked as though I was about to take part in a giant sleepover; everyone was on their own yoga mats in comfortable clothing with a pillow, blanket, and some sort of eye cover or blindfold.
The instructor Witalij told us his own personal testimony, expressing that he feels breathwork is what healed him from being paralyzed for over a year. He also reassured us that while it may look like we’re taking part in some sort of mass exorcism, that his breathwork classes have nothing to do with demons, are not anti-Christian, and that it's instead supposed to help the practitioner unearth unprocessed, suppressed materials from within their mind.
“If you feel like you’re going to die, just die,” Witalij told us, encouraging all participants to feel vulnerable enough to surrender their full emotions to the point of breaking and also remarking that he has never had anyone actually die as a result of his breathwork.
We covered our eyes and then began going through multiple cycles of intense breathwork with moments of respite for slower breathing to prepare us for the next cycle. We went from sharp inhales and exhales timed to the rhythm of tribal African drums to long, deep breaths timed to more modern, emotional ballads. It was a motivational musical journey in its own right, from Vivaldi to Josh Groban, to Peruvian flutes, to Tibetan chimes.
“You don’t know what there is to cry about,” Witalij shouted. “What are you here for?”
Well, I don’t think I was exactly there for what other individuals were there for.
My MIL and I May Not Have Been the Target Audience
Since our eyes were all covered, I had no way of knowing who around me was beginning to cry or scream, but throughout the whole session, the room was erupting in wails, howls, moans, and sobs. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t one of them, but clearly there were people in attendance who had some serious repressed material in their subconscious that needed to come out.
Toward the end of the intense breathwork, I was beginning to feel absolutely drained. My mouth was dry and my head was pounding. That’s when Witalij began to lead us through the more meditative, relaxing portion of the night. So after what felt like an eternity of huffing and puffing, naturally my whole world went dark. I actually blacked out from what I can only assume was intense exhaustion followed by swift relief. I still don’t know how long I was out of commission, but eventually I was woken up by the sound of a man singing as the session wrapped up.
I actually blacked out from what I can only assume was intense exhaustion followed by swift relief.
My mother-in-law actually found this class because her daughter had tried it. Her class was a much smaller group of seven people compared to our group of 220 individuals, which I would expect would change the overall atmosphere and experience. Regardless, it was honestly so unique coming together with that large of a group of people and partaking in a tough process. What’s more, so many of the people had actually been to these classes before.
“Could I do this again? Probably, but I would need to have at least a month break in between. Maybe I would do it a couple times a year but it demands more than you think,” my MIL shared.
Her reaction was ultimately similar to mine in that we both didn’t feel like we had the deep sense of trauma that the other attendees must have been experiencing that leads them to really just purge their emotions out during breathwork. Instead, my MIL expressed that the class gave her a refreshed sense of focus the next day.
“I honestly think there’s so much chaos in the world. The true effect of meditation or breathing helps us deal with the chaos and unite with mankind,” she said.
What Draws People to Things Like Breathwork?
Physical, mental, and spiritual discipline through things like yoga (or, in this case, breathwork) are appealing to people who might feel strained, stressed, and needing an outlet to calm and focus their minds.
There have been studies done that suggest a broad spectrum of benefits for meditative practices ranging from stress reduction, decreased anxiety, enhanced self-awareness, a stronger attention span, a solution to age-related memory loss, relief from addiction, improved sleep, lessened pain, and controlled blood pressure. Some doctors have studied breathwork’s positive effect on alkalizing your blood PH levels and some people even feel as though practicing mindfulness is a healthier alternative to conventional, pharmaceutical medicine.
You probably know quite a few people who practice guided meditation or other practices meant to help you totally zen-out like yoga, tai chi, qigong, reiki, falun dafa, and much more. Mind-body exercises have the potential to give practitioners life-altering benefits, but the true extent of overall positive gains in your own personal life certainly varies.
Safe to say, I can tell you that this breathwork practice wasn’t my cup of tea for habitual self-care, but I may not be the ideal candidate in the first place. Witalij’s team shared a few testimonials from their clients with me after the fact that do tug at your heartstrings and remind you of the important role that alternative mental health-boosting practices can play in a person’s life.
Meditative practices can reduce stress, anxiety and pain, control blood pressure, and improve your memory.
“The breathwork was truly healing, deep and gave me such a relief. I want to tell you, the moment I left I did purge. I was thinking about forgiving my mom, sending the intention, saying I am no longer angry, sad, etc. and want to start from scratch. All that resentment and anger came out and I felt such a relief,” wrote one client.
“I have done a lot of healing work and dabbled in breath work. I was ready to go there and this opened me up. Several times I was numb, my whole body was sweating and shaking [...] I was holding sexual trauma and shame. By the end, I felt lighter and know what I have to do in order to be myself and take charge of my life. I felt euphoric and like I was on mind-altering substances yet it was just through the powerful breath work,” wrote another client.
Another client shared that their class allowed them to feel everything they were suppressing: “My body started to tremble and I started sobbing. It helped me see the situation as a lesson and an opportunity to enjoy my time with my mother rather than falling into victimhood and depression.”
As trauma researcher and clinical therapist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score, one of the most common side effects of trauma is feeling disconnected from your own body and your own emotions, sometimes even your own sense of self. The traumatized person is so overwhelmed by their physical and emotional sensations that they suppress them in order to cope and function. As Dr. van der Kolk shows, the traumatized person needs to feel safe enough to allow themselves to experience their emotions and physical sensations as they remember and process their trauma – it’s an essential part of healing. With this understanding of the healing process in mind, I can see how breathwork would help people confront, process, and move on from their traumatic experiences and memories.
Who Else Might Benefit from Breathwork?
My immediate reaction to Witalij’s breathwork class was to wonder just how beneficial it could be for a pregnant woman preparing for labor. This is actually not a new idea at all, as rhythmic breathing exercises known as Lamaze breathing have been a hallmark in American childbirth education since Marjorie Karmel brought the practice from overseas in the 1960s. Lamaze breathing has been taught to empower women to give birth without the need for drugs and is similar to hypnosis relaxation techniques for child birthing.
According to research done on the Lamaze method, “controlled, conscious breathing is effective not because it is a distraction but because controlled breathing, especially slow, deep breathing, increases oxygenation, relaxation, and body awareness and mindfulness. Focusing on breathing and relaxing shuts out other distractions that take women away from the work of labor. Controlled breathing helps women become more aware, more attentive, more alert, and more focused.”
If special breathing patterns can make for “painless childbirth,” as Dr. Fernand Lamaze himself called it, it makes sense that people would report high praise for their results from breathwork classes.
While I don’t personally feel like this breathwork class instantly improved my mental health – in fact, I felt pretty unbalanced after having blacked out during the final portion – I can at least report that based on the reactions of the other attendees around me, it seems as though there’s a group of people who could benefit from trying breathwork to get to the root of their internalized problems.
As I wrote previously, I see major pros to the trend of acknowledging our overstimulation, mental hardships, and societal rise in reported stress and doing something productive about it. Maybe you’re struggling with your work-life balance, feeling spread thin by your laundry list of responsibilities. Maybe you’re holding back deep-rooted emotions from trauma early on or very recently in your life. Whatever it is that may be keeping your true potential at bay, perhaps it’s worth exhausting as many options that you’re comfortable trying to heal the root cause of your issues rather than hide from it or rely on band-aid solutions.
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