A few years ago, a friend told me about an underground breathwork circle she’d attended in Venice Beach—back when breathwork outside of yoga studios was still hush-hush.
It was totally trippy and cathartic she told me. People were convulsing, shouting, sobbing uncontrollably. And she couldn’t wait to do it again.
I, on the other hand, instantly filed it under Not My Jam. Sure, I’d done lots of pranayama in yoga class and frequently used deep breathing to quell anxiety, but this sounded like a very different, slightly scary beast. Losing control of my emotions and bodily functions in a group of strangers? Nightmare scenario.
Breathwork, in all its forms, has gained a ton of credibility—and popularity—as a healing tool.
But since then, breathwork, in all its forms, has gained a ton of credibility—and popularity—as a healing tool. In their 2012 book, The Healing Power of the Breath, doctors Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg write: “Studies are revealing that, by changing the patterns of breathing, it is possible to restore balance to the stress response systems, calm an agitated mind, relieve symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), improve physical health and endurance, elevate performance, and enhance relationships.”
Practitioners in both New York City (Erin Telford, Emily Mikaelah) and Los Angeles (Ashley Neese, Madeline Giles) are introducing the modality to a new generation of seekers, many of whom swear that it’s freed them from repressed trauma and addiction, enhanced their creativity, and sharpened their intuition.
Plus, these next-gen breathwork priestesses all seem to be bathed in an aura of peace and good vibes—a total contrast to the dark and hellish confab my friend described all those months ago. If I were to breathe like those women, I wondered, would I be serene and glowy like them, too? I took a big breath and decided to find out.
Here’s what happened when I tried breathwork.
My odyssey began at Neese’s Silver Lake bungalow. The certified breathwork teacher, energy healer, and yoga instructor has emerged as one of LA’s most in-demand practitioners. I was a little bit nervous, since I had zero idea of what to expect. But her Aquarian-goddess demeanor and the dreamy space she shares with her 11-year-old tabby cat—filled with crystals, sunlight, and the lingering smoke of copal incense—immediately put me at ease.
There are many styles of breathwork—some, like the mind-altering modality of holotropic breathwork, are more intense than others—but Neese’s method is a blend of yogic pranayama and hands-on energy healing. She says stress is a major reason why people seek her out.
“I feel like breathwork is the last house on the block. People are like, ‘I’ve tried therapy; I’ve tried this and that, and I’m still stuck.’”
“Usually what’s underneath [the stress] is a general discomfort with life—‘I’m not fully living how I want to be living; I’m not risking enough; I’m not as creative as I want to be,’” she explains. “I feel like breathwork is the last house on the block. People are like, ‘I’ve tried therapy; I’ve tried this and that, and I’m still stuck.’”
She claims there are major contrasts between group breathwork and doing it one-on-one, and everyone experiences each differently. “In a group, you get that amazing collective energy and you can feed off other people,” she says. “But I’ve also had clients who are overwhelmed by group energy. They come to see me privately, and they’re able to move things differently.” As someone who finds it hard to let loose in group settings, I think I was wise to choose the one-on-one session.
Before she gets into the heavy stuff, Neese typically spends some time teaching clients how to breathe using the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. (Most people take short, shallow breaths into their chests, which causes neck and shoulder tension). In my case, she decided that “Inhale-Exhale 101” wasn’t necessary—thanks to my longtime yoga practice—and we skipped right to the more advanced curriculum.
This is where things got crazy
Neese taught me a simple, two-part, open-mouthed pranayama technique, which involved taking a forceful breath down to my diaphragm, then a shallower, yet equally sharp, breath into my chest, followed by a long exhale. She prescribes breathing patterns based on her client’s needs. In my case, since I didn’t have any major issues to address, she selected one that would deep clean my energy field.
Once I got into the groove, Neese had me lay down and hold two fat selenite rods, which she said would help energy move through my body. She put a pillow over my eyes, dabbed aromatic oils on my jaw, chest, and feet, and had me start sending my breath down to my hips. Basically a spa day, right?
As I continued to breathe deeply, the tingling became more and more intense, until eventually, my entire body felt as though it was being gently electrocuted.
Not quite. Within minutes, I could feel my cells humming at a higher frequency, with most of the sensation centered around my jaw and diaphragm. As I continued to breathe deeply (but at a normal rate), the tingling became more and more intense, until eventually, my entire body felt as though it was being gently electrocuted. About 10 minutes in, my jaw completely locked up. My arms and legs turned to concrete. I noticed a heavy sensation at the base of my rib cage, and opened my eyes to make sure Neese’s cat hadn’t jumped on me.
She implored me to start letting out sloppy, primal cries, but I couldn’t manage more than a pathetic whimper. Just when it all reached peak intensity—after about 30 minutes, although it felt more like 10—Neese had me return to a normal breathing pattern with an extended exhale, applied more essential oils, surrounded me with chunks of rose quartz, and placed her hands on my legs and the bottoms of my feet.
It took about 10 more minutes before I was able to move or speak again. I couldn’t unclench my hands to release the selenite, no matter how hard I tried. Normally, this would have sent me into panic mode, but somehow I intuitively knew that I was okay.
So what just happened?
I’m not exaggerating when I say this was one of the most intense physical experiences I’ve ever had—and although it was definitely uncomfortable, it wasn’t wholly unpleasant. So what exactly happened on that table?
According to Neese, I was feeling stagnant energy move through my body. “When you notice heaviness or tension while you’re breathing, it’s your body’s way of showing you where you’re holding throughout the day,” she explains. So what was the heaviness around my diaphragm about? “The solar plexus is all about emotional protection,” she explains. “This is our most vulnerable area and that’s why we tend to tense it up.”
As for my case of lockjaw, Neese suspects it indicates an imbalance in the throat chakra, which governs self-expression. “It’s possible you could be communicating more,” she suggests. Given that I’m allergic to vulnerability and avoid difficult conversations, these assessments were pretty spot-on.
Still, I wanted to know more about the science behind what I experienced. So I asked my doctor, Jeffrey Egler, MD, of Parsley Health, what happens during breathwork from a physiological perspective.
Rapid and deep breathing leads us to release more carbon dioxide from the body than usual, causing the blood to become more alkaline and retain more oxygen.
Essentially, he says, rapid and deep breathing leads us to release more carbon dioxide from the body than usual, causing the blood to become more alkaline and retain more oxygen. “This alkalotic state can cause numbness, tingling, muscle twitching, or spasms if more severe,” he explains. While those side effects are common and not necessarily cause for concern, Dr. Egler says that if you start to notice any kind of change in your cognitive state during breathwork, you should back off. Why? “Hyperventilation tends to also cause vasoconstriction in the brain—when the blood vessels constrict rather than dilate—which may reduce blood flow and oxygen to the brain,” he says.
And the verdict is…
Before our session, Neese told me most of her clients see results instantly, and I absolutely found that to be true.
For one thing, once all the tension dissolved from my body, my drive home was the most delightful rush-hour commute of my life. The setting sun glittering through palm tree branches; the wistful melody of a Local Natives song on my playlist; the grassy sweetness of the iced matcha I picked up en route—my senses were dialed all the way up, and I didn’t need to take any illegal substances to make it happen.
My senses were dialed all the way up, and I didn’t need to take any illegal substances to make it happen.
I was also hit with a massive surge of creative energy about an hour after the session, which, sadly, I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I don’t think the work I produced when I got home was exceptionally good, but I felt a lot more inspired while I was doing it.
Although my initial post-breathwork buzz has worn off, I still feel like something’s shifted—the sun still looks a little brighter; matcha still tastes a little sweeter. I feel more loving toward the people I’m encountering, even strangers. I’m extra enthusiastic about my daily tasks. I’ve been told my skin looks awesome. I didn’t realize I needed healing, but apparently, I got it. And all it took was breathing in and breathing out.