by Anam Kat Langer
Breathwork and plant medicines seem to be what all the hype in the worlds of healing and spirituality is currently about. Whilst breathwork has been described as “the new yoga”, the healing powers of psychedelic substances are receiving increasing interest from the scientific community, with leading trauma experts, such as Dr Gabor Maté, openly advocating the use of ayahuasca in trauma therapy. The following piece is my personal sharing of having worked with both over the past 5 years and what I am learning in the process. I do not claim to “know” anything about the mysterious ways of this work and if anything I write here sounds as if I do it is due to my limited linguistic expression of something that I truly do not have adequate words for.
I came on my spiritual path in 2012 at the age of 30 which marked a turning point in my life. Disguised as a burnout, life as I knew it came crashing down within the space of 6 months during which I left my long-term partner, our home, my successful advertising career and eventually the country I had called my home for over 10 years to follow a calling to India. I spent the following years immersing myself and studying yoga, meditation, tantra, bodywork and other ancient healing practices, not knowing why, how and where I had to go or end up other than somewhere deeper inside.
My first encounter with breathwork seemed random at first — I had been searching for a yin yoga teacher training and found a course which sounded great, on my favourite island Paros, and was about to start just a week after I finished my summer teaching engagement on another Greek island. I sensed that the universe had made arrangements for me. As part of the training, the teacher, a graduate of the BioDynamic Breathwork & Trauma Release System® (BBTRS), offered two experiential breathwork sessions for the participants. I had no concept of breathwork other than having practiced yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) over the years, so I went into the first session with a relatively open mind and yet a substantial dose of doubt and cynicism. Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced anyway. As I laid there, breathing deeply through connected, open-mouth breathing, I felt my heart crack wide open like it never had before. I was bathed in a sea of bliss, unconditional love, compassion, connected with a greater whole and I knew this is what I had been searching for all along, this sense of aliveness and peace had to be what life was meant to be all about. Needless to say, I wanted more. And yet, the second session 3 days later could not have been more different as I fully launched into what I now understand a trauma of the soul, something I had known and feared somewhere deeper all along, a sense of complete and utter disconnection, of really being alone in a meaningless world. It took me some time to recover and integrate these experiences and looking back on them now I understand them as having gone to heaven and hell in the space of a few days. But I sensed that I was on to something.
I continued the breathwork practice over the following months but during that time I never experienced the same depth of feeling as I had in those first two sessions as somehow my mind’s protective mechanisms had kicked in, preventing me from surrendering fully to the breath. Yet, over these following sessions I discovered a new connection with my body’s innate wisdom in the form of new shapes and movements, tremors and sensations which it revealed while breathing without my conscious doing. Layer by layer, I found an infinite source and capacity to experience joy and pleasure in every cell of my body whilst also dropping into complete stillness and surrender, a state of embodied presence, a deep listening to the universe inside, revealing all the answers I needed at any point. Breath by breath, my body released numbness and pain, opened up and became softer, more sensitive and at the same time stronger than ever before. Layer by layer, I started to feel, befriend and trust my body as it finally sank in that making peace with my body was the foundation of my physical and mental well-being as well as my spiritual growth. As a woman who had spent her whole life at war with her body in countless ways, I consider this healing priceless.
By 2016, I had heard about ayahuasca and as someone with zero experience with chemical drugs I had a fair bit of resistance and conviction that plant medicines weren’t needed for my healing or spiritual development. And yet, 2 weeks after another training with my yin yoga teacher and her partner and several breathing sessions, I found myself in my first ayahuasca ceremony in Goa, facilitated by another BBTRS practitioner who is also a shamanic facilitator. It was in that first ceremony that the ayahuasca (I have got to know this plant as “The Mother” and so shall refer to “her” in the following) explained to me that the breathwork practice had been preparing me for her, that the people who had somehow been involved on that journey were part of my space-holder tribe and that somehow we were all connected and involved in a much greater healing.
Shortly after my first ayahuasca ceremony, I started training with Giten Tonkov at the BioDynamic Breathwork & Trauma Release Institute to become a practitioner myself. In his new book, ‘Feel to Heal — Releasing Trauma through Body Awareness and Breathwork Practices’, Giten introduces this modality as a transmission he received through ayahuasca. Since these initial experiences, I have qualified and started working as a breathwork practitioner and continued my journey with the plants, sitting in numerous ceremonies as well with San Pedro, Peyote and Iboga, whereas my main teacher for now remains the ayahuasca. I have come to see for myself how closely these two paths are interwoven and, in a way, I consider them the same.
Both, the breathwork and the plant journeys, can take me into similar processes within myself, my body and my psyche, showing me the places that I fear, that are wounded, that I have somehow rejected and pushed into my subconscious, leaving energetic blockages in the form of muscular and cellular contractions and/or unhealthy defence patterns. In essence, we are all traumatised by life, be it through what we consider ‘real’ trauma, such as violence, the experience of a war or natural disaster, an accident or an abusive childhood or relationship, or simply by experiences which have overwhelmed us, such as the loss or rejection of a parent or partner, the demands or meaninglessness of our everyday lives, etc. As humans, we are hard-wired to not fully complete our nervous system’s automatic response to stress or danger, which leaves energetic residues in our bodies and minds, leading to blockages which can show up as chronic pain and tensions, restricted breathing, unhealthy behavioural patterns and ultimately disease.
The aim of the BioDynamic Breathwork & Trauma Release System is to allow the body to naturally complete this fight-or-flight cycle, releasing the trauma, memory or emotion which was too painful to feel at the time, in a safe space where we are guided and supported by a space-holder. The ayahuasca works in a similar way in that it reaches spaces in our subconscious mind where personal, ancestral and collective traumas are stored, bringing them to our conscious awareness where we can acknowledge and integrate them in our being. Through the work of Alexander Lowen, founder of ‘Bioenergetics’, we can understand the link between a wounded heart at our core, surrounded by layers of defensive armouring in the form of emotional, muscular, ego and personality patterns. Many of these patterns are useful and needed for our survival, whereas others, such as addictions, unhealthy relationship patterns or character traits can be the source of much suffering throughout our lives. Both, the ayahusca and our breath, can help us break through these layers of numbness and contraction, connecting us with the innocence and tenderness of our hearts which ultimately really just want to love and be loved by others. Anatomically, our hearts are directly surrounded by our lungs so it kind of makes sense that in order for the heart to open we need to first make space in that part of the body by expanding our breath and respiratory capacity.
Through the work with the plants I continue to release layers of resistance and control, allowing me to let go and go deeper in the breathwork as well. In turn, the practice of breathwork is giving me a sense of presence and grounding in my body which helps me go deeper with the plants as there is now less fear of checking out or of getting lost in my darkness when something traumatic comes up during a plant journey.
The more we work with these powerful plant spirits, the more obvious becomes the need to properly integrate their teachings. We can go oh-so deep and far in the space of a night’s ceremony but we won’t heal much or grow if we do not learn to live these teachings in our everyday lives and relationships with ourselves and others. Every cycle with the plants is taking me more deeply into physical embodiment of their teachings and is deepening my commitment to the embodied practices in my life, including breathwork, yoga, dance, movement and active meditations. There is an understanding that spiritual growth can only come from a solid physical foundation, that in order for the teachings to stick I have to truly absorb and feel them in every cell of my being.
Whilst the journeys with ayahuasca tend to be more energetic and less physical than the breathwork journeys (although I have also had very physical plant journeys and very subtle breathwork journeys!), I have experienced the most profound healing states with both during phases of deep relaxation and let go, when my breath is at its slowest and most expanded, completely free and unrestricted. As a friend and fellow BBTRS practitioner recently suggested, perhaps it is the oxygen that we breathe and rely on for our survival which is the ultimate medicine that we receive from these plants? After all, trees are the lungs of our planet. And then there is the DMT, of course, a chemical substance which is naturally present but suppressed by our bodies, which gets released through certain plant medicines and through breathwork as well, resulting in psychedelic states.
What I find most fascinating though is the undeniable presence of a higher intelligence and guidance in this work — how during a breathwork journey I sometimes pick up on themes and experiences that I have already seen in an ayahuasca journey, revealing new layers of understanding. How somehow along this path I am always guided to exactly the right places and people that are needed for my next lesson. How somehow we all seem to be pieces in a big puzzle and web of space-holders that feed off each other, teach each other and help each other wake up — sometimes in not so obvious or even painful ways.
I use the word “healing” with caution these days as it implies that somehow we need fixing — which I don’t believe is true. I understand this “healing” of ourselves and our planet as a collective and individual process of awakening of consciousness and it is happening right now as mankind and the world is in turmoil, as we are destroying the planet and all life on it. The plants seem to have their own agenda, wanting to re-connect us with Mother Earth and each other by reminding us of our innate wholeness and inter-connectedness through the consciousness that we all share.
Many people come to this path searching for meaning and purpose in life. The ayahuasca in particular is known to be able to reveal our gifts and “healing powers” to us — the true power of our authentic selves, our light — a state of trust in ourselves and the world that we can show up and be accepted as we are, without defences. There is now scientific evidence that plants thrive when spoken to kindly, that they communicate with each other to inter-change nutrients for mutual support — which begs the question what could happen if we, as humans, started doing the same?