Breath work is the latest trend to get people off of pharmaceuticals and in touch with their bodies.
“Since age six, I had horrible chronic migraines,” Lindsay Balgooyen tells me. “I pretty much lived my entire life with a migraine.” Admittedly, I’m not expecting this. My interest in the idea of breath work started when I interviewed comedian and psychedelics expert Shane Mauss last year.
He described to me an intense, mind-altering experience, one that seemed more of a consciousness expansion than healing. Considering the impressive résumé of substances he’s experimented with, I took stock in his words but never considered the curative properties of my own breathing.
“I grew up in Michigan in not exactly a progressive town, and when I was 17, I had been on 50 different drugs,” Balgooyen says. “I decided I was done with that.” Working with medical cannabis patients for years, I’m used to hearing about chronic pain, but there’s something beneath her words that suggests how much of a struggle it was for her, how defining the experience was. Balgooyn’s journey overcoming the constant illness led her to seek a number of treatment options outside of traditional Western medicine, from acupuncture to physical therapy to massage. It wasn’t until a 2015 trip to Southeast Asia that it all clicked, though.
While assisting at a yoga retreat in India, she had made plans to head to Thailand toward the end of her trip to experience a modality that was totally new to her: circular breathing. “I did my first session, and it absolutely blew me away,” she says. “My entire body felt like it was paralyzed; I couldn’t move anything and just felt like my body was filled with cement.” She notes that this isn’t uncommon, but it’s one of the reasons guided sessions are recommended for beginners before branching out on their own. “My whole body was in pain.”
The process of circular breathing, she tells me, can lead to cramps and tightness, but she describes it as energy moving through your body and hitting blockages along the way. I’m a skeptic at heart, but it reminds me of a tai chi teacher I once had who would have us tense our muscles to lead the way to relaxation. Balgooyen says that once she worked through the pain in her first session, she experienced a release like nothing else she had felt before. She was hooked.
“That day, I found a month-long training and signed up for it. Within a week, my headaches went away completely.”
Returning home to Steamboat Springs, the transition was natural. “There’s a ton of different healers up there, and it’s a pretty spiritual town,” she says. Once a week, she’d bring together friends and people who had heard the buzz for three hour sessions as part of a longer course, and soon students became apostles. “It just takes one session because it’s such a crazy, profound experience,” she says. “It kind of becomes addicting.”
After another year of building her practice through word of mouth in Steamboat, Balgooyen decided it was time to take the next big leap and work in Boulder, a liberal bastion of alternative medicine and a town where collaborators would be bountiful. Soon, she was incorporating other modalities into her practice, particularly sound healing. I have some experience with the chanting and music of kirtan (Deb Browne, my spiritually woke mom, introduced me to it), and I start picturing us in a session together. “The sound alone is so powerful,” Balgooyen says, as I nod.
At festivals, it started with Nibumbu, a neo-tribal band that has spent the last 21⁄2 years incorporating shamanic drumming into breath work, creating an immersive experience. Now, Balgooyen is teaming up with Brian Dickinson, founder of Sonic Alchemy, to bring similar concepts to smaller settings, with gongs, singing bowls, flutes, and “other trinkets” adding to the journey. “It starts off really relaxed, then it builds and gets pretty intense, then it starts to calm down and gets very meditative,” she says.
I’m curious about what science has to say on the matter, though. We take tens of thousands of breaths each day, so there has to be some study on how such a simple act can have such a profound effect. Instead, Balgooyen directs me north, to the brain. “The beta brain state is similar to hypnosis, which allows you to pretty quickly drop into that deep meditative state right above sleep, that usually we’re just passing through really quickly while fall- ing asleep,” she says. “[Scientists] know that we have to be in that beta state to access our subconscious mind, where we hold so many thoughts and the beliefs that are running our lives, a lot of times not to our advantage.”
When I steer the conversation toward Mauss’s hallucinatory experience, it doesn’t come as a surprise to her. “It’s definitely common,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of people who have had experience with psychedelics who have said breath work is much more profound.” How can that be possible, though? I’ve been conditioned to think of substances such as psilocybin and LSD as incredibly powerful. Balgooyen believes that, unlike an outside substance, your body is designed to do the work and can readily integrate that experience into its own frame- work. “If you have a cut, it naturally heals,” she says. “We don’t have to think about it.”
That’s the break-through moment, the “Aha!” that ties it all together for me. For millennia, practices like yoga have incorporated an intense focus on breathing, using the body to do the heavy lifting that substances couldn’t. Not everyone had access to the hallucinogens that scientists are now increasingly focused on as alternative treatments for PTSD and addiction.
Balgooyen tells me about future plans, including going rafting and trying water therapy. “You wear a snorkel and lie facedown while somebody holds you. It allows you to get even deeper,” she says. “Water is one of the highest vibrations we have access to and it also brings up a lot of stuff from the womb, so it’s pretty cool.” Don’t be surprised if you see me there.