The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, October 13, 2012
Brain / Mind ... Psychology ... Spirituality ...

Last week at the zendo, one of our members gave a talk about holotropic breathwork; the person in question was quite qualified to do this, as she has been practicing it for over 15 years and is now a group facilitator. I wasn’t familiar with that particular form of “bodywork”, so I listened with interest. It sounded quite interesting, especially the claim that holotropic breathers plumb the depths of the psyche and glean great personal and metaphysical insights — without expensive long-term talk therapy or the use of dangerous psychotropic drugs. And without any extraordinary life commitment; the typical breather attends a day-long session every two months, and that’s it. Hey, I’m all for personal and metaphysical insights without a repetitive and burdensome daily practice! So, like many of the other listeners at this talk, I was interested in signing up.

But before I signed on the dotted line, the quasi-scientist in me wanted to know how it worked. The other parts of me said, “oh come on, quasi-scientist, that kind of attitude is exactly what holotropic breathwork puts on hold”. It’s all about the Journey to the Center of the Mind (remember that cheezy song by Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes?).

Nonetheless, the quasi-scientist soon had me in front of a Google page typing in terms like breathwork and hyperventilation. Hyperventilation? It was made clear at the recent zendo talk that breathing fast for a good long time (around an hour) is the key to holotropic breathwork, the gateway to all the wonderful insights that it provides. Sure, there’s music and relaxation beforehand (maybe even incense and peppermints), and meditation and group discussion afterward. But the main event starts when you start breathing fast.

SO, the quasi-scientist wanted to know, just what happens in the brain after you’ve been breathing fast for a while. It turns out that what happens is not necessarily what you would expect at first. I thought that all the extra oxygen being pumped into your blood would rev the mind up, just like going to one of those oxygen bars for a hit of pure O-2. WRONG! Actually, just the opposite happens. As the oxygen goes up and carbon dioxide goes down in your veins, a pH reaction takes place making your blood more alkaline than normal. This causes the arteries to constrict and messes up the hemoglobin that carries the oxygen from the blood into the body tissue (including the brain cells).

So, what actually transpires after a long period of hyperventilation is called hypoxia — i.e., oxygen deficiency in the brain and muscles (not to mention all the other organs of the body). One of the symptoms listed for hypoxia is “a feeling of euphoria”; other lists include lightheadedness, dizziness, hallucinations, delirium and delusions. So, if you’ve been primed beforehand to believe that this will reveal something truly meaningful that is otherwise blocked by the ego and superego, by the evils of the rational parts of the brain, then sure; once you get your marbles back, you’re going to say “wow, that was deep!!” (Holotropic Breathwork people suggest that you may even re-live your own birth experience! And suggestion by peers strongly influences what you actually experience in these mind games.)

So, we have hypoxia presented as therapy, as a means of metaphysical and spiritual exploration; this hearkens back to the days of Timothy Leery. And yes, the lecturer said that the founder of the Holotropic Breathwork movement, a Czech psychiatrist named Stanislaw Grof, originally worked with LSD but wanted to find a less risky way to achieve the same mind states. Thus, he found and adopted the hyperventilation / hypoxia routine, which had been practiced by certain esoteric spiritual sects (e.g. Pranayama yoga) for many centuries.

OK, I’m out. I never did buy the New Age line that drug-induced trances uncover the greatest sub-conscious truths; Native Americans and their peyote rituals notwithstanding. As such, I’m not going to invest time and energy into hyperventilation trace-states. I’m not going to put my aging brain through any more punishment than necessary; an occasional craft brew or a nice glass of wine or two provide more than enough hypoxic experience for me these days (although actually, alcohol works on the brain more by affecting neurotransmitters and their receptors).

What is interesting is that during her presentation and question / answer session, our breathwork maven never explained that the brain would be given LESS O-2 that it normally needs during the “hyperventilation enlightenment hour”. She DID say at one point that the Holotropic exercise would effect the oxygen levels in the blood, which is certainly true. But she left it open as to whether that effect caused an increase or decrease in oxygen to the brain. And no one, including myself, was sharp enough to follow up with her on this point. I just assumed that the oxygen effect on the brain would be stimulative, i.e. that more O-2 would be on hand for the neurons, given all that work pumping the lungs up and down for an hour. Hmmm, was this just an innocent omission . . . or a practiced instance of modern car salesmanship . . .

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to ponder how — but more importantly, WHY — hyperventilation and the decline of oxygen flow to the brain create the “altered mental states” that the holotropic breathers crave. I’ll leave the HOW ultimately to the doctors and neuroscientists. But my guess would be that as the brain’s oxygen supply declines, the first part of it to slow up and shut down is the evolutionarily-modern frontal cortex. I.e., the center for rational thought, self-assessment, and social awareness. If O-2 goes down just enough but not too much, the “older” core brain areas (the stem and the limbic system) would stay active and thus come to dominate the big-picture of our conscious awareness. The limbic system is where memories and emotions are mediated. So without the frontal cortex to curmudgeonly question whether an inner feeling that was cooked up by the amygdala is relevant or an old memory reconstructed (probably inaccurately) by the hypocampus is appropriate for the situation and whether it makes any sense at all (or is a flight of fantasy — which can be useful, so long as the frontal cortex recognizes it as imagination and not the way things really are), then a lot of “deep experience” stuff can happen.

As to the WHY, I have a guess based on evolutionary survival advantage. We most often experience hyperventilation when we are nervous, scared or anxious about some situation we perceive (rightly or wrongly). When we get into such a state, the rational part of the brain starts making up all sorts of unfortunate possibilities; and the limbic system responds with all sorts of dark feelings and associations. This results in a feedback loop, with the “rational” forebrain and the emotional core-brain goading each other into more and more excited (and foreboding) states. You would think that the body would need a shot of increased oxygen as the big lump on top is signalling it to go on full alert, enemy torpedos and missiles are on the way!!! So, a short-term bout of hyperventilation seems expected.

But why does hyperventilation continue if after a few minutes its oxygen flow-effect reverses itself and starts STARVING the brain and the muscles that are being called to defend one’s continued existence? That makes no sense, on the face of it. But perhaps the STARVATION of oxygen might be a good thing, given the frenzied state that the forebrain and corebrain have whipped themselves into. Maybe this decline of O-2 is evolution’s way of telling our brains to slow down, keep the panic from getting out of control, take another look at what the sensory organs are saying. Is that tiger really leaping at our throats, or did it just turn the other way although we nonetheless imagine it closing in on us? Maybe the hyperventilation effect on the brain is nature’s mechanism to keep us focused in the midst of a crisis — the type of crisis that homo sapiens faced for over 90% of their time here on earth.

But NOT the type of crisis that we people in modern industrial society typically face today. It’s rather ironic that some of us modern society dwellers came across this ancient crisis-management system and decided to apply it to the modern crisis of psychological identity. I.e., why are we here, why do we feel unfulfilled, why isn’t our love life better, why doesn’t our boss treat us with more respect . . .

Personally, I believe that a modern mental crisis needs a modern solution, not an ancient technique that puts rational thinking on hold. Not to say that our “rational” methods of psycho-crisis management (i.e., traditional talk therapy) are all that great either. I don’t think they are worth too much; I’ve experienced a bit of introductory analysis from a licensed therapist who is affiliated with our sangha, and that advice always sounds good when being delivered. It makes a lot of sense if you don’t think about it. But once you do think about it . . . well, all I can say is that modern psychology is still far from a science, and has a lot yet to learn from evolving fields such as cybernetics, chaos theory and complex systems dynamics.

So for now, I’ll deal with my own inner doubts utilizing my own internal muse, and maybe some support from the small band of people that still put up with me. I’ll save the fast breathing for the next time that I take the train home from work and don’t leave the office on time, then see the train pulling into the station while I’m running on the street towards the platform stairs!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:41 pm      

  1. Jim, I can’t say I disagree with you much on all this. There are a couple (or more) points I would like to make: 1) I do not think that emotional problems, which seem to be the issue with this holotropic breathwork, can be solved by *rational* thinking. Mixing apples and oranges here I would say.

    2) However, I also think that raising serious issues that “plumb the depths of the psyche” should only be dealt with when someone who is a professional in dealing with psyche issues is available for help if/when needed. My question would be what qualifications other than her own practice of 15 years does this person have in dealing with such serious issues.

    Then too this sounds as if it is just another way to enter an altered state of consciousness. As I see it, how safe it is depends on the point I mentioned above. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 16, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  2. I realize that this post is years dated, but I thought I’d chime in here with some of my own research on this topic, and potentially new information, for the curious.

    There seems to be building evidence that blood ph with higher alkalinity may up regulate INMT, an enzyme found everywhere in the body, but especially in the lungs and liver. INMT catalyses the endogenous production of n,n dimethyltriptamine, and 5-meo-n,n dimethyltriptamine (and methlynated tryptamines). Being someone who has, on several occasions, experimented with hyperventilation, I can give anecdotal evidence that from an experiential perspective. The feeling and effects of hyperventilation, and smoking freebase DMT are very similar – especially as it pertains to the feeling in the body (and mind, if you are willing to push the hyperventilation far enough). The primary difference in my experience being that hyperventilation takes a lot longer to build.


    Comment by Justin — October 30, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

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