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Uncategorized

How Breathwork Heals the Mind, Body, and Spirit: Why I Practice

After decades of filling prescriptions of antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs, I finally rejected conventional psychiatric wisdom. Using ancient methods, I went against doctors’ orders to heal. Through these methods, I treated the root cause, not merely the symptoms. I charted my journey in a series of essays. 

I write bi-monthly articles, publish podcasts, and host workshops on healing, recovery, and the root causes of pain. Sign up for two stories per month, that’s it. I charted my journey and this first article is Complex PTSD: When Your Therapist Thinks You May Be F*cked. My second article is How Breathwork Helps Process Stress, Pain, and Trauma: Why I Practice.

I breathe. 

I cry. 

I scream.

I laugh. 

I roll over on my side. 

In short, I leave behind a lot in my garage during each session of breathwork. Laying on a worn-out, plush, olive green couch, I wear blue jeans, a zipped up green hoodie, a black Iowa golf hat, and unmatched colored socks. I am under the weight of a warm blanket. Resting on my back, my arms lay next to my body. The garage door is shut, the ceiling lights are dimmed, and the dryer is on pause. 

On the floor lie half folded t-shirts, my running shoes, and a box of Christmas ornaments. I am preparing for my nightly, pre-bedtime ritual of breathwork. Breathwork is a routine to heal the mind, body and spirit before sleep. 

The next thirty minutes are mine to enjoy.

This breathwork sequence is a regular, virtual class that I take during the Coronavirus pandemic:

I close my eyes. 

Taking a few deep breaths helps me to shake out the cobwebs in my head. I push play on my iPhone. The black bluetooth speaker connects, and I hear my teacher, David Elliott, talking.

How to practice breathwork 

He asks me to set an intention. Tonight, my intention is self-love. I create an I am statement to recite to myself: I am loved.

In my head, I repeat the affirmation three times. 

I am loved. 

I am loved. 

I am loved.

David explains that we will inhale through two parts, and then exhale. We will be focusing all of our breathing in and out of the mouth. 

I start a rhythmic breathing pattern with two inhales in, and one exhale out. 

  • I inhale through the belly.
  • I inhale through the chest.
  • I exhale it out.

My heart softens. 

I repeat in my mind: 

I am loved.

I am loved. 

I am loved.

After my diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), breathwork has become a regular part of my recovery routine. Whether first thing in the morning laying in my bed, or in my garage on a couch before sleep, breathwork calms me down. It allowed me to stop taking pharmaceutical drugs prescribed by doctors. Natural medicine like breathwork, which along with sound healing, psychedelics, yoga, and other ancient practices help heal my mind, body, and spirit. 

These modalities help me to discover mystical ways to recover my aching soul. Stuck in a state of disease, and I found ease after my first breathwork class. 

Breathwork is a spiritual practice to help me find a deeper self-awareness. 

Back in the garage, I actively breathe with the two-part breathwork inhale and one-part exhale for around twenty minutes.

With the intentional breathing pattern, my thoughts slow down, while my heart opens up. 

I relax. I let go. My mind is distracted from my current state. I am at ease. The practice opens up a deeper consciousness. 

I expand my capacity to love myself. I repeat in my head: I am loved.

As I start the breathwork, I want to quit. It feels overwhelming at first. It’s like riding a horse, you have to get comfortable in the saddle. I fight through my urge to stop. Focusing on the breath, I relax more.

  • I breathe through the belly.
  • I breathe through the chest.
  • I exhale it out.

Within a few minutes, my arms buzz. From shoulder to fingertips, I tingle. My mind is wide open. It’s as if I am running a 5K race, and have a runner’s high. 

I love this feeling and do not want it to stop. The urge to quit the breathwork is gone. I am in rhythm. 

Breathwork releases stress

David asks us if we want to let out a yell. He counts to three, urging us to take a break and scream. Knowing my garage door is completely sealed off from the outside, I let go. Taking a deep breath, on the exhale I scream at the top of my lungs. 

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAAHHAAHAHAHAHAAHAHA

I do not hold back on this yell. I am sinking deeper into the ground as I let out another loud and long yell.

AHAHAHAHHAAAAAAHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHA

I shake my head from side to side while I exhale out. The yelling opens up space in my head. 

I am free.

I yell one last time, and exhale during the scream. This yell is a shorter and higher-pitched scream. It’s as if I am back in high school, jumping off a bridge into a lake. I scream like somebody taking a risk, and not afraid of getting caught. 

AHAHAHHHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHAHHAAAAAAA

I shake it out. I wonder if my neighbors can hear me. I imagine them in the backyard next door. I remember how thick the walls are, and do not worry. I get back to the breathwork.

I ask myself: “What is going on with my body?” David is in the background, hyping me up, saying that I might be “drunk off oxygen and that “my body is warmed-up.” 

Coming to breath again, I go a little deeper. My lungs open up. I am more purposeful taking longer breaths. I am controlling my body. 

My arms continue to tingle by my side. My legs extend long, they start to tingle too.

I’m having fun and a smile cracks on my face. There is now a buzzing sensation coming through my tailbone. I am rooted to the couch, as if I’m touching the core of the Earth with my tailbone. It is like I am glued to the couch. I keep it up:

  • I breathe through the belly.
  • I breathe through the chest.
  • I breathe it out.

I repeat the breathing pattern again and again.

I am safe in my garage. I snuggle deeper under the blanket to warm my body.

Breathwork can bring up old thoughts and memories

During breathwork sessions, old thought patterns come up. Faded memories emerge.

I have flashbacks from my youth. An old memory comes up as I breathe and I emotionally travel back in time: 

I am eight years old visiting my Uncle Seamus and his family in Connecticut. My cousins, aunt, uncle, and family are having fun. In the background, MTV is showing a music video for the movie Ghostbusters. It’s the Ray Parker Junior version of the theme song. Like a soundtrack to my life, I hear:

“If there is something strange, in your neighborhood. Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!”

My family and I are on our annual summer road trip. We drive from Iowa to the east coast in a wooden station wagon, with a roof top carrier on top of the car. We usually pass through Connecticut to see my relatives. Tonight we are having fun, eating dinner. 

I am happy. I am loved.

I recently called Uncle Seamus after we had lost touch for thirty years. I am grateful we chatted. I forgot this memory. I enjoy reconnecting with the emotions. 

A side effect of my C-PTSD is that I blocked out memories from my childhood. Until recently, I could not recall some of the best memories from when I was a kid. 

I tear up as I reflect on my childhood. I loved being a kid. My nose sniffles. I think about my life as a child. 

I find my child-like spirit in this memory. 

Breathwork reboots my operating system. It cleans-up my mental hard drive. 

Breathwork releases joy

As we continue the breathwork, my teacher asks us to laugh. He recommends I let out a big belly laugh. I am tired of breathing. I welcome the laugh to break-up the session. 

Breathwork over-oxygenates my brain. I am pushing through to finish the class. I let out a big laugh:

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAAHAHA

Again, I laugh one more time. My mind, body, and spirit are free:

HAHAHAHAHHAAHAHHAHAAHAHHAHHHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHA

I acknowledge that I’m laughing so hard my neighbors may hear. I don’t care. During the laughing I imagine: 

I am twelve years old. I am at my friend Jay’s house. We are drinking Coke from a bottle in his basement. We are in his furnace room that doubles as an indoor tool shed. We are sitting on the floor, enjoying our drinks. It’s Friday night, and it’s NBA basketball time. I am laughing hysterically with him. I am laughing.

HAHAHAHHAHAHAAHHAAHHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH

Breathwork calms anxiety and worry

I go back to the breath. I have another episode. This one flashes forward:

I think about my to-do list for tomorrow. I worry. I have a job interview. I am anxious in anticipation. 

The voice in my head panics. Stressed, I think about the job interview. The voice says: “I haven’t done this before” and “I haven’t interviewed in years.” I accept my feelings. I acknowledge my concern. I am gentle as I breathe. I think: “I’ve done this before. If something comes up in this life, most likely I have done it before.”

The voice in my head calms down. I think: “Hey, you got this. You interviewed for a job recently and it went reasonably well. You weren’t the right fit, but the interview went well.”

I reason with myself. I am calm. I stop concerning myself with the job. I am happy. I heal. I am grateful to have a job interview. I am happier the more I heal.

I continue breathing:

  • I breathe in through the belly.
  • I breathe in through the chest.
  • I exhale it all out.

I am buzzing from head to toe. I do not want this session to end. My nose lets out its remaining sniffles from when I cried earlier. I am okay with that. I accept that it’s okay to tear up. I am grateful for my life. I am connected to my roots. My tailbone is vibrating. 

The session ends. I stop actively breathing. I enter the cool down portion of the practice. For ten minutes, I lay in silence. I think to myself:

Breathwork heals the mind body and spirit

I love myself, and admittedly I haven’t loved myself previously like this. I am ok with my life. 

I am on a runner’s high. It’s like a completed a 5k.

My consciousness is expanded beyond my own self. I am rooted in the world, as my tailbone keeps vibrating. My entire body is buzzing. I am profoundly loving myself, that is the biggest difference in my life.

Breath in. Breath out. I cool down. My body feels cold and I wrap myself up more in the blanket. I am intoxicated by the world. After a few more minutes, I gently open my eyes. 

I sit up on the green couch. I grab my journal and pen to collect my thoughts. I take a sip from the cup of water next to me. I jot down some notes, and enjoy the fruits of my labor. I have spent thirty five minutes jump-starting my mind. I am exhausted, and whole.

Breathwork is a spiritual practice. Yelling, laughing, and crying are common experiences during my sessions. It feels good. Breathwork helps to process the unconscious. 

Whether it is emotional, spiritual, mental, sexual, or physical healing – breathwork brings up a lot of stuff. It is about healing, forgiving, and loving yourself. Through the classes, I expand my to a deeper consciousness. 

Breath in through the belly. Breath in through the chest. Breathe out. 

Breathwork helps the mind, body, and spirit recover from the ups and downs of life. 

I open up my heart, filling myself with radical self-love. Breathwork heals the mind body and spirit.

Breathwork heals my mind, body, and spirit. It could bring you to the same too. Sign up to take a class with me Thursdays at 6:30 PST.

Link:

Listen to my teacher David Elliott’s breathwork here

Editors:

Big thanks to the writers who helped edit this: Asad Badruddin, Stew Fortier, Tom White, Drew Stegmaier, Piyali (Peels) Mukherjee, Stephen Scott,  Chris Angelist,  Philip Thomas, Kelly Walborn, Brett Friedman, Kyla Scanlon,Ergest Xheblati, and Chris Holinger.

 

Categories
CPTSD Meditation Recovery

Meditation is a Practice of Self-Care – How Backyard Meditation Brings Me Healing

After decades of filling prescriptions of antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs, I finally rejected conventional psychiatric wisdom. Using ancient methods, I went against doctors’ orders to heal. Through these methods, I treated the root cause, not merely the symptoms. I charted my journey in a series of essays.

I write bi-monthly articles, publish , and host workshops on healing, recovery, and the root causes of pain. for two stories per month, that’s it. I charted my journey and this first article is . My second article is .

In my backyard, I sit upright on a gray deck chair. My bare feet are squarely grounded on the Earth. I feel small blades of dry grass in between my toes. I am settled, wearing blue jeans, a black ball cap, and a t-shirt that says Des Moines: Hell Yeah. I remove my blue glasses and place them on the circular glass side table. I faintly hear speeding cars racing to work on the freeway in the background. The early morning sun sprinkles its rays while I relax under the shade of a purple flowered jacaranda tree. My hair, mustache and goatee are un-showered and unkempt. I prepare to close my eyes. My backyard is a sanctuary for my practice. Wearing ear buds, I push play on my iPhone to begin my morning meditation. I am ready for my daily ritual of thirty minutes of meditation. Today’s choice is Waking Up by Sam Harris.

The next thing I know, I drop into a memory during the practice. I sob uncontrollably. A moment from my life comes to mind: I am on stage giving a business talk to a packed audience. This is a familiar space, a place where I led marketing workshops throughout the past five years. I am due to host an event there in a few weeks. Tears stream down my cheeks while I am on stage. I hope someone from the crowd comes up to hug me. I am sad. No one helps me. From the stage, I see an old friend Lisa in the crowd. I have been through so much with this friend. I feel a deep connection with her. I want someone to comfort me, and no one helps. I continue to cry, while my body is frightened. I think “We’ve all been through so much together, and I need a hug.” 

After my Complex PTSD diagnosis, meditation became a regular ritual. During the first five months of my recovery, I meditated over 2,500 minutes, which is over two whole days of my life. Meditation became a mini-hibernation to rejuvenate my body. The meditation slows down my breathing and heart-rate. I stopped taking a mood-stabilizing drug called Lamictal. I now feel intense and painful triggers throughout my body that the drug suppressed. On the surface, the drug comforted the symptoms of depression and anxiety. It helped me to manage my pain. I spent years in denial and ignored the root causes of my problems. Like the crew members moving deck chairs on the Titanic as the iceberg approached the ship, I discovered that I too was in denial about my reality. In my backyard, I learned that mindful meditation is a gateway to a new reality. Meditation opens the depths of my mind and it changes my life for the better. I learn to take care of my pain and suffering. Meditation becomes a spiritual healing practice. 

Meditation is a practice of self-care

Back in the meditation session, I lose control of my emotions. I am panicking. My body is sore. The left side of my body is tight. My left shoulder is triggered, while my left hip feels stressed. Even my left toes, ankle, and knee are tense. Taking deep breaths, I gain control. I feel badness and goodness in my body. I am scared of the past that I have not dealt with. Meanwhile, the future feels unpredictable. I am exhausted. I learn to love myself. I soothe my tight shoulder. I repeat to myself in my head, “It’s okay. I am safe.” Awakening from meditation, I struggle to breath. Tears run down my cheeks. My nose is congested from the sobbing. However, my left side body is more relaxed. I recognize that my left hip, shoulder, elbow, and knee need to be loved. I look after my sore body. 

I am healing. 

During the backyard meditation, my 6:00am sessions bring up many flashbacks. The grassy lawn becomes a sacred place for me to be alone. The decades of suppressed triggers resurface throughout my body, from my shoulder to cheek to hip to foot. I need to heal emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. During my initial recovery period, my backyard is a sanctuary. The early morning routine sets my day on a path to recovery. I treat meditation like a job. I meditate on the bus to work. Wearing my sunglasses to cover my closed eyes, I hope that no one looks at me strangely. During my lunch break, I practice in my coworking space’s dark meditation room. Before bed, I practice to ease into a deeper sleep. It is a lonely journey, yet I am determined to heal. Additionally, I attend two therapy appointments per week. Therapy helps to ease some of the burden. 

Meditation creates space to heal

I often get flashbacks to past life events and flashforwards to future events. These feelings are common with people healing from C-PTSD. I am scared and paralyzed by past events, and anxious about future potentialities. The meditation provides a safe environment for my fight or flight tendencies. I learn to focus on the present. I process the flashbacks in the moment. “I think to myself, “Wow, I can heal pain from decades ago.” Meditation is a practice of self-love. Many of these memories come from deep within the practice, sometimes twenty or thirty minutes into a session. 

The memories are visual snapshots into the deeper recesses of my mind. From different backyard meditation sessions, I conjure up vivid childhood memories like this one: 

My family has a ritual of picking up fast food at the drive-throughs of Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco John’s, and McDonald’s in Des Moines, IA. My Dad and I are in the McDonald’s drive-through to pick-up our dinner. I love Chicken McNuggets and I can’t wait to eat them. We return home and I dip a McNugget in my favorite barbecue sauce, and take a bite. I spit out the McNugget, it tastes gross. Looking at the McNugget, it is red and raw inside. The food is disgusting. My Dad, trying to save my dinner, puts the McNuggets in the toaster oven to continue cooking them. He gets frustrated with me and pressures me to eat the McNuggets. I spit them out again. He yells. We then drive back to McDonald’s to return them. I still do not want to eat the McNuggets. I stopped eating McNuggets that day and still haven’t had one since. 

Meditation brings radical change

On some days after a thirty minute session, I am strung out on my feelings. I sweat out the trauma. It feels like stuff is stuck in my body, as if I am breaking a fever. Gross, nasty, and icky are some of these memories from my childhood coming through. Basic emotions and feelings coming out of me. Sweating out the toxins, I want to be normal. Unsure of what normal even looks like, I am alone, and there is no one to speak with. Guilt, shame, and frustration set in. My body hurts. Physically, mentally, emotionally, I am exhausting myself. Closing my eyes, while focusing on the breath brings me comfort. However, it doesn’t always bring self-love. During one session, I recall my Dad’s trauma. This makes me feel like some of my pain is not mine, but other people’s in my family. It is intergenerational trauma, and my parents passed it down to me. I am not living in the moment during these meditations. I am stuck in between the past and the future. During one session I flashback to a few years ago:

I am in conversation with my Dad. He opens up about giving his own Dad CPR after a heart attack. Reflecting on the men in my life, I recognize my Dad has trauma from his childhood, trauma that he rarely speaks about. My Dad tells me that he gave his Dad mouth to mouth resuscitation in the family business office. I wonder if my Dad lives with guilt over his Dad dying months later. My Grandfather’s health was never the same. My Dad is dealing with the trauma of his own Dad dying. My Dad may be a high functioning person, but he is hurt. 

Trauma recovery brings spirituality

One some days, I feel like a new person after practicing thirty minutes of meditation. My backyard is a spiritual place. It is a safe environment for me to explore my life. I never realized it before, but I’m a trauma survivor. Doctors diagnosed me with depression, anxiety, and other normal-ish symptoms around mental health, but never trauma. During these meditation sessions, my body feels gross. My shirt has beads of sweat on it. However, I learned the practice of self-care through this healing journey. 

During one session, I envision telling different friends and family members about the C-PTSD. I have this vision many times, and each time I am ashamed of telling loved ones about my diagnosis. I feel judged. I flash ahead:

Tears fall down my cheeks. I am sad. Whether it is my Dad, friends from college, or childhood friends- I am heartbroken. Sharing with them my diagnosis makes me upset. During one session, I tell a college friend whom I haven’t spoken to in years, and by the end of the session I am crying. During another session, I share my C-PTSD diagnosis with a childhood friend who I haven’t seen in decades, and I sob. During another session, I tell my Dad, and I’m balling my eyes out. I am ashamed. This is all in my head, I meditated these shamed feelings out of my body. 

I treat recovery like it is a job. I full-court press myself to get better, determined to try every last option to find a solution. Since college, I have seen psychiatrists, tried group therapy, gone to one-on-one therapy, and tried cognitive therapy. In my head, I am close to the finish line. This is a twenty-year journey in the making. Mindfulness is a gateway to a new reality. It gives me power. My backyard practice heals leftover feelings of helplessness. It opens up my mind to depths that I need to reach. I discover a radical recovery device that changes my life for the better. 

Through the backyard meditation sessions, I open my mind to a higher consciousness. A steady diet of meditation helps me to rediscover myself. It opens the door to more self-exploration, feeding my soul. I learn the skills of self-care in a new way. Meditation proves to be a gateway to exploring other ancient healing modalities. Whether it is practicing a calm mind with the Dalai Lama, or breathwork to process stress, pain, and trauma, sound healing to help soothe my body – meditation opens the door to expand my consciousness. 

Links:

Waking Up Meditation, by Sam Harris

Editors:Vandan Jhaveri, Abu Amin, Lyle McKeany, Steven Ovadia, Joel Christiansen, Oliver Palmer, and Drew Stegmaier.

Categories
Meditation Recovery Uncategorized

The Dalai Lama’s Guide to Finding a Calm Mind – How Meditation Balances My Emotions

After decades of filling prescriptions of antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs, I finally rejected conventional psychiatric wisdom. Using ancient methods, I went against doctors’ orders to heal. Through these methods, I treated the root cause, not merely the symptoms. I charted my journey in a series of essays. 

I write bi-monthly articles, publishpodcasts, and host workshops on healing, recovery, and the root causes of pain. Sign up for two stories per month, that’s it. I charted my journey and this first article is Complex PTSD: When Your Therapist Thinks You May Be F*cked. My second article is How Breathwork Helps Process Stress, Pain, and Trauma: Why I Practice.

How group meditation balances my emotions

I am twelve minutes late to a five-hour Cultivating Emotional Balance (CEB) workshop. I am anything but balanced. Walking briskly down the sidewalk, I burst open the doors of the Insight LA meditation studio. I remove my shoes and ask the receptionist if I’m too late to join the class. In a whisper, she advises me that I can still register. Using my credit card, I watch her process the transaction, which feels like it is taking forever. I skim over the literature about the event. Today’s workshop is inspired by a 2000 meeting in India, between The Dalai Lama, leading Western behavioral scientists, and Buddhist monks to create a “new map of our emotions for a calm mind.” I grab the card, sign-in, and thank the woman behind the counter. I walk into a large meditation room that sits around fifty people. 

Eve Eckman is my teacher today. She introduces herself to the group as an emotion researcher and trainer. I am determined to find a calm mind with Eve and The Dalai Lama’s wisdom. Wall to wall, people sit quietly in chairs. I’m nervous about being late. Luckily none of the other students in the room seem to notice. Sliding around in my socks on the wooden floor, I grab a yoga blanket from a stack against the wall. I find an open seat in between two empty chairs. Everyone looks like a stranger. There is something calming and reassuring about not knowing anyone in this room. I do not envision ever seeing this group of people again, which makes me feel like I can be honest and raw in a more authentic way today.

Sitting down, I let out a quiet sigh of relief. I’m finally here. Eve explains that her goal today is to teach the Dalai Lama’s secular (non-religious) approach to bring awareness to our emotional behaviors, experiences, and triggers. As I get comfortable in my chair, I try to relax. Head to toe, I am tense. Earlier in the year, a social worker diagnosed me with a form of childhood trauma, Complex PTSD. After years of running the gauntlet of antidepressant, mood-stabilizing, and anti-anxiety drugs, I discovered the root cause of decades of pain: childhood trauma. I recently stopped taking a mood stabilizing drug, Lamictal, because I have decided to go against traditional health advice to heal my trauma through ancient methods. I am in this workshop to integrate the wisdom of modern psychology, mindful meditation, and emotional research. 

Finding a calm mind with meditation

Eve leads us in a meditation. She asks us to find calmness in our breath. I am stressed and I avoid making any sounds. I have never meditated with such a large group of strangers. Not wanting to annoy anyone, I silently sit, trying to keep my legs still. My main goal is not to disturb the people next to me. The room is dead quiet. I’m worried about bothering the practice of my seat neighbors. I am calm, yet I am anxious. I’m not able to relax until the very end of the meditation.

Towards the conclusion of the forty-minute practice, an image of Muhammad Ali appears in my mind. Ali’s face shows up in my brain as if clouds in the sky are opening up. His vision in my head surprises me. I have had previous mystical experiences on psychedelic drugs, and this moment feels like one of them. I am in another world. No longer in my own body, I am connected with this image of Muhammad Ali. I am in a state of consciousness where mentally, I am no longer in the room. Sitting with the image for the final few minutes, I am lost in deep meditation. I am no longer stressed about showing up late. I temporarily forget where I am sitting. For these moments, I am no longer recovering from trauma. I am alive.

Eve rings a copper Tibetan bowl to conclude the meditation. I open my eyes with wonder. Looking around the room. I think to myself, “Did anyone else conjure up an image of Muhammad Ali?” Everyone in the room starts to bring movement back into their bodies. I am relaxed. The meditation slowed down the stresses I brought into the room. With my Ali still on my mind, I ponder his life, reflecting on his career as a civil rights champion, professional heavyweight boxer, and Olympic gold medalist.

I think to myself, “Wow, what a heavy experience to have in this group.” I am nervous to tell anyone else about this mystical experience. In my quest to treat my trauma, I would prefer to avoid any negative labels. Having past diagnoses of depression and anxiety, the last thing I need is someone judging me based on this vision. People may call me crazy. 

What the hell is happening?

After we meditate, Eve guides us through an exercise to map the triggers on our body. She hands out worksheets with images of a human body and a face. She asks us to label all the triggers in our bodies. I am tasked to draw out anywhere in my body where I feel stress, unhealthy emotions, and pain. I am ready to get to work. I draw lines and circles on the worksheet, as seen below.

As I write on the worksheet, I am learning that my body is a trigger factory. Analyzing my triggers visually shows me how f*cked up my body feels. I draw small circles and lines on my left temple and cheek, as I feel tension there. I tag my left hip, knee, shin, and ankle as points of stress. I mark my left shoulder, neck, forearm with lines and circles. I label my tailbone with a small circle. Visualizing my pain helps to make me feel less tense. In my decades of talk therapy, I rarely spoke about my physical pain. In this session, I am leaning into the physical. It’s a relief to name the stress, and where it lives in my body. Often, I focus on the emotional side of my feelings, while ignoring the physicality of it all. I note that my left side contains more stress than my right side. As I write these triggers out, it is helping me. Outlining these triggers makes me feel a little bit more seen. After years of therapy sessions, I am sinking my teeth into something more meaningful. I feel heard in a new way from this exercise. 

Why journaling after meditation balances my emotions

After we diagram our triggers, Eve explains that the workshop gives us space for our emotions. She tells the group that today’s session is about confidentiality and trust. Everything we discuss stays in the room. The anonymity of healing in this anonymous group is helpful for me. I am safer sharing personal details about my mental health with non-judgemental strangers, than with people who I know more deeply. I do not plan to see any of these people in the room again. These people are not my family, friends, or co-workers. Due to the anonymous feeling, I do not feel judgement. It is a relief to spend this afternoon checking out from my routine. This workshop is a much needed escape. 

Eve shares that she wants to help recognize destructive emotions that harm the world, and turn them into constructive emotions. That sounds like an impossible task, yet here I am. When I meditate, I go deep into the recesses of my mind. During this workshop, I learn how important journaling is for me, especially after long periods of meditation. In a meditative space, I make time for myself. I detach from the world and find peace. In this state of mind, I conjure up a lot of memories, images, and ideas. Writing out these ideas helps me to communicate my thoughts. It’s different than traditional therapy, where I talk through my problems with someone else. When I journal after meditation, I am forced to focus on myself and how I feel. Today I acknowledge the root causes of my pain. My goal is to end the cycles of trauma in my body. 

After journaling for a few sessions, Eve drops many nuggets of information about emotions. 

  • Emotions are supposed to last a total of ninety seconds. 
  • Any trigger lasting more than ninety seconds is rumination. 
  • Ruminating is when one emotion becomes an entire cycle. 

This blows my mind.

During one writing session, I journal about a traumatic episode from my childhood. I write about a memory that comes up with my Dad yelling at my brother. I associate the diagrammed triggers in my left shoulder with pain from this memory. As a kid, my older brother lost his wallet at the mall, and my Dad yelled at him over it. I recognize that I may have stored the stress from that incident in my left shoulder. 

I write:

“My left shoulder felt anger for my Dad, for how he treated my older brother. Screaming, yelling, and belittling him. I couldn’t hear my Mom’s voice, yet I imagined her blessing this outburst. I cried inside. I witnessed it.

Now my elbow is feeling like it is convulsing, perhaps it is healing and taking control. My brother had lost his wallet. I heard this yelling through the bathroom, listening to my father’s anger through the door. My brother had gone to Valley West Mall with his friend Todd. He was probably in 8th grade. I am thinking about it in a whole new way. I’m going to shake hands with this fear, by being compassionate to the two boys who felt that angry episode.” 

Reflecting on the event, I assess my inner child feelings. 

I journal:

“I hide under covers. Wincing. Shoulder pain. Every word. Familiar feeling in defeat and despair. I immediately suppressed these feelings. My family acted acting like it never happened. Witnessing my brother’s pain hurts. I felt shame for not sticking up for him.”

The power of anonymous group healing

Again, I am heard. Eve splits us into dyads, and we work with a partner on the diagramming. Having a complete stranger in this trusting environment gives me relief. I am free to open up, knowing that I will never see this person again. I share personal details about my life without hesitation. There is a safe feeling in my body. He is more of a witness than a friend. I tell this sixty-year-old looking white man about my childhood trauma story, and it feels cathartic. He also tells me about his journal entry, and I listen.

We do a few more writing sessions when I see a friendly face in the crowd. My friend Kat is also in attendance. I am surprised to see her. I debate if I want to say hello or not. Part of me wants to keep the anonymity. I wonder if she does not recognize me. I have grown a thick goatee and mustache since I saw saw her. At the end of the workshop, Eve leads a final discussion. She asks the crowd if we have any questions or comments., Even though I’m nervous, I raise my hand. I share with the group that I conjured up the image of a 1960’s civil rights icon as I meditated. I hide the detail that Muhammad Ali was who came to mind. Not wanting to be judged by this group, I do not share the specific vision about Ali. 

 

Afterward, I approach Kat to say hello. We grab a burrito together at the Mexican restaurant close by the studio. It’s now 6pm and I am in a much different headspace after today. I eat a chip with salsa. I share with Kat the vision of Ali. She is excited for me. She explains that I was channeling and that it is totally normal. I’m not even certain what channeling means, yet it is comforting to hear. She offers to send me a video on channeling later that night. Having not told too many people about my Complex PTSD diagnoses, I open up to Kat about how I feel. She is supportive, which is refreshing. I feel less judged and think that maybe I will be better once my recovery is complete.

During the following weeks, I intentionally thinking about Muhammad Ali while I meditate. I also re-watch the Oscar nominated documentary When We Were Kings. The film chronicles an epic boxing match, The Rumble in the Jungle, between Ali and George Foreman from 1974. Ali is the challenger to the undefeated heavyweight champion Foreman. Ali comes in as a massive underdog. Ali deploys a rope-a-dope technique in which he plays the majority of the fight staying on the ropes. Finally Ali waits for Foreman to fatigue, and came out swinging in a later round, knocking out Foreman. Ali shocked the world by knocking him down.

I have spent much life on the boxing ropes in different traditional Western-based therapies. Like Muhammad Ali, I’ve survived many blows. Yet, I never fully healed. I absorbed a lot of metaphorical blows to the head, chest, and gut in my life. Doctors prescribed me numerous types of antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and even an antipsychotic drug, which made me fall asleep at work. Ancient medicine is my missing link to feeling fully healthy. My goal is to recover by knocking out my opponent with a flurry of punches. I deployed the rope-a-dope in my healing.  Like Ali, I waited until a later round in life to deliver the knockout blow. I am an underdog, and have only myself to prove. 

Links:

Insight LA meditation studio

CEB: Cultivating Emotional Balance

His Holiness the Dalai Lama 

Many thanks to Blake Reichmann, Noah Maier, Sara Campbell, Joel Christiansen, Kyla Scanlon, Asad Badruddin, and Drew Stegmaier in helping with the editing.  

Categories
Breathwork CPTSD Uncategorized

How Breathwork Helps Process Stress, Pain, and Trauma: Why I Practice

 

After decades of filling prescriptions of antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs, I finally rejected conventional psychiatric wisdom. Using ancient methods, I went against doctors’ orders to heal. Through these methods, I treated the root cause, not merely the symptoms. I charted my journey in a series of essays. 

I write bi-monthly articles, publish podcasts, and host workshops on healing, recovery, and the root causes of pain. Sign up for two stories per month, that’s it. I charted my journey and this first article is Complex PTSD: When Your Therapist Thinks You May Be F*cked.

My life is divided into two life spans: before breathwork (BB), and after breathwork (AB). 

My arms and hands tingle. My body pulses from head to toe. A sensation of powerful energy flows in and around me. My left shoulder tightens and constricts, it feels stressed. I massage my aching shoulder. Comforting my clavicle, my mind is confused, yet certain. My body is frightened, yet self-assured. My shoulder is tight, yet free. It is overwhelming, yet soothing. My soul jumps out of my body. 

An increasing itching sensation hangs around my left temple. I cannot hold back from satisfying the itch. Placing my fingers on the temple, I gently massage the itch in small circles. My brain calls for me to heal it. My left temple pulses again and again. These sensations overwhelm my senses. My body needs reassurance that it is okay. My brain needs to be looked after. Then my shoulder needs help again. I triggered myself. I go deep into my subconscious to find answers to questions that I didn’t know I sought out. 

What is going on with my body?

Taking a Breathwork Class

I am in the middle of a breathwork class. The teacher, Marlize Jourbert, monitors the nearly darkly lit room of forty students. Loud rock music and rapid breathing flow around my fellow breathers. Faint ceiling lights shine on the floor, while battery-powered candles lay in the front of the room. Folding chairs cover the floor, seemingly bolted to the ground. Wearing blue jeans, an unzipped green hoodie, and colored socks, I am laying on my back. My glasses and baseball cap rest by my side. My workday is over. I’m relaxed on a Tuesday night at 7pm in West Los Angeles.

After getting diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), I felt like a frozen caveman getting thawed out. I had recently stopped taking a psychiatric mood-stabilizing drug, Lamictal. Frustrated by the mental health industry, I looked to alternative and more spiritual methods to heal. After paying tens of thousands of dollars in therapy and psychiatry bills over the decades, I felt abandoned by Western medicine. For years, I numbed the symptoms of my problems, while living in denial that there was a root cause. On the surface, psychiatric drugs improved my mood, even though the drugs covered up the deeper causes of my pain. Beneath my body lived stored-up, unprocessed trauma from my past. Like a caveman, parts of my body and psyche were frozen inside. As the ice melted, decades of triggers jolted throughout my body, head to toe.

How to do Breathwork

When I’m in a room practicing breathwork with strangers, I am vulnerable. Hearing people cry, screaming a lion’s roar in unison, and letting out belly laughs together helps to move the energy. Whether it’s from the heart, shoulders, or temple – our bodies are like a reservoir for trapped emotion. Breathwork flushes my system, clearing the reservoir. 

I breathe in two deep inhales. First in the belly, then in the chest. Then I exhale it all out. I’m breathing in a rhythmic breathing pattern. 

I repeat these three steps non-stop for twenty to twenty-five minutes. 

  1. I inhale in the chest.
  2. I inhale in the belly.
  3. I exhale.

I set an intention beforehand to direct the course of the practice. I prefer an I am statement. Saying statements like: I am loved, I am safe, and I am peaceful work as my intentions. And by breathwork, I mean it. In the classes, the teachers blast loud music, while they help us focus on breathing. We usually pause breathing about four to five times during each session. During these pauses, the teachers ask to let out a big belly laugh or scream at the top of our lungs, in order to release anything that may be holding us back. It is not uncommon to cry or hear fellow breathers weeping beside me during the course of a session. 

My eyes are closed. In a dream-like state, my body is still. My mind is resting.

I feel pain. 

I comfort myself.

I feel safe.

Whether it’s to eliminate old belief systems, heal trauma, or temper emotional suffering, breathwork allows me to hit a reset button. I stay mindful of my intention as I go. During classes, I receive flashbacks to emotional memories from the past. I process them in the moment, sometimes decades after the fact.

How Breathwork processes past emotions

I am loved.

I’m thinking about my Grandfather Roger who had a heart attack before I was born. I recall a story of my Dad giving his own father CPR after he collapsed in the family’s business office. Feeling love for my Dad, I acknowledge his pain, hurting, and suffering. I empathize with the unspoken trauma my Dad experienced. Repeating I am loved. I am loved. I am loved. My heart opens with self-love.

I am loved.

I’m eleven, riding my DiamondBack dirt bike in the streets of Des Moines, IA. At my friend Cameron’s house, we play The Legend of Zelda on Nintendo. I overhear Cameron talking to his older brother about how he doesn’t think I’m cool. It hurts my feelings. I haven’t thought about that moment in decades. I comfort myself, saying it’s okay. Grieving for that sad child in my past, my left shoulder relaxes.

I am loved.

I’m a second-grader. Asking my Mom to spend the night out at my friend Todd’s house to watch Saturday Night wrestling. She says no. She would rather Todd come to our house. My Mom controls where I sleep. I cannot change her mind. I haven’t thought about this moment since it happened. I say to myself, “It wasn’t my fault. It was never my fault.” My left temple itches.

I am loved.

Practicing Breathwork in groups

Back in the studio, Marlize pumps up a song by Radiohead. She walks around the room like a college football coach, providing inspiration, motivation, and helping us to stay focused with words of encouragement. “You’re good enough!” Marlize yells to the room. “Stop playing small,” she shouts out a few minutes later. Constantly inspiring us, saying, “You guys are doing great,” and, “I’m so proud of you.” I continue to massage my left temple. Feelings of energy slide down the side of my face. The triggering in my left shoulder continues. The knot is increasing.

Marlize then tells the room: “Surrender to the moment. Keep it up.” Not knowing what to surrender, or what she precisely means, I massage and sooth my body. I continued to breath. It feels like I could run through a wall when working with Marlize. I am ready to trust her with my life. She wants us to heal. 

What is Breathwork? 

According to one of my teachers Shanila Sattar, breathwork “helps you to achieve different altered states of consciousness. In these states of consciousness, you can unblock anything in your body that’s keeping you stagnant.” She says people “often have huge breakthroughs because they are holding on to a lot of stuff that is emotionally captured in the cellular level of the body.” She adds, “what breathwork helps with is stress, anxiety, trauma, pain, and anger. It helps process emotions physiologically in the body.” 

Breathwork feels like a compounding trigger. Complex PTSD is a brain dysfunction that comes with emotional flashbacks. In Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith defines a trigger as “any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions.” Triggers can be conscious or subconscious. In breathwork, I process complicated and repressed childhood feelings of abandonment from parents arguing, my Dad yelling, my Mom controlling me, and all the chaos swirling around my life. I carry these moments from my childhood.

Throughout my life, I experienced fight or flight feelings in my mind and body. The Cleveland Clinic defines a fight-or-flight response as “a stress response, triggered by a release of hormones either prompting us to stay and fight or run away and flee.” During my recovery, I realized I sometimes I overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening. Whether it is getting into fight or flight over a boss yelling at me, an accusatory co-worker pressuring me, or a family member trying to control me, I trigger myself. 

Why Breathwork feels like five years of therapy in one session

Many instructors call breathwork five years of therapy in one session. Breathwork teaches me to release stress in a natural way – through exhaling. A good breathwork class is all about breathing deeply, yelling, crying, sweating, laughing, and allowing stored-up pain to leave my body. These classes give me space to grieve. I vary my breathwork from doing it once a week, to going through 30 sessions in 30 days, to practicing every morning before I get out of bed. It helps me conjure up old painful memories and process them appropriately. While therapy can help with discussing past feelings, breathwork goes deep into your non-verbal memories. 

Breathwork is about soaking in the tears from your wet eyes, screaming at the top of your lungs, and feeling pulsations all around your body. 

  • It’s about giving yourself permission to belly laugh. 
  • It’s about breathing like you want to live. 
  • It’s about danger, and risking the feelings of your old wounds surfacing. 

It’s about past heart-wrenching break-ups popping into your mind, your parents’ argument when you were five years old, and traumatic moments coming into the television of your mind. 

Your first ten minutes may send you to the darker regions of your subconscious, and your last fifteen ten may transport you into a state of indescribable ecstasy. 

Modern medicine has never taken me to a place where breathwork has in my recovery.  Breathwork helps the physical body recover. Simple actions of courage, strength, and hope can help us to heal better than any “miracle drug” from a consumption-driven corporation. It’s a natural medicine to me. I practiced it over 150 times in 2020. The practice heals your pain, stress, and trauma. 

Big thanks to editors:  Stew Fortier, Tom White, Marcus Whitney, Drew Stegmaier, Diana Hawk, David Vargas, Lyle McKeany, Anushri Kumar, and and Chris Holinger.

Breathwork Resources:

 

Categories
CPTSD Recovery Uncategorized

Complex PTSD: When Your Therapist Thinks You May Be F*cked

This is part of a larger series of writing around my recovery from Complex PTSD. After decades of filling prescriptions of antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs, I finally rejected conventional psychiatric wisdom. Using ancient methods, I went against doctors’ orders to heal. Through ancient healing, I treated the root cause, not merely the symptoms. I charted my journey in a series of essays. I’ll be writing bi-monthly articles, publishing podcasts, and hosting workshops on healing, recovery, and the root causes of pain. Twice a month, I send out a personal story of healing. Sign up for two stories per month, that’s it.

“Ryan, I think you have a form of insidious ongoing childhood trauma called Complex PTSD. Let’s talk more in the next meeting.” 

Towards the end of the couples’ therapy session, our social worker looked at me and said those exact words. 

That first sentence rocked my world.

I was shocked, surprised, and scared.

What does insidious mean? 

What does it mean to have trauma? 

I had the pressures of a family, work, and being a dad. 

How would I go through trauma recovery?

I felt desperate. After years of following the traditional rules of mental health: chatting about my feelings on therapy couches, ingesting mood-stabilizing drugs like candy, and trusting medical doctors’ advice—I felt that Western medicine abandoned me.

Since college, I ran the gauntlet of mental health professionals. I saw a therapist, psychiatrist, group psychologists, cognitive behavioral experts, and many different doctors. I accepted that I was in pain and had to manage it. I knew there was a better way to live, yet  no one showed me how to get on that path.

Healing trauma with ancient methods

To heal my trauma I went against traditional health advice. I sought out the wisdom of fourth-generation sound healers, and connected with some of the best breathworkers and meditation leaders in the United States. I experimented with psychedelics, plant-based medicine on the bleeding edge of mental health, dove into an emotional balance workshop through the Dalai Lama, and met with modern-day shamans to build myself back up. I conversed with the legendary Buddhist trained monk Jack Kornfield, learned Vipassana meditation with Mingyur Rinpoche, studied Pranayama breathwork meditation under David Elliott, and worked with sound healers who liberated my body with Tibetan singing bowls.

Now a year later, I’ve survived to live another day. By the grace of God, I finally found the healing practices of thousand-year-old eastern traditions. Many of these practices are from India, pre-colonial America, and indiginious tribes around the world. These ancient methods helped solve my modern mental health problems. Resiliency came through my bones. My healing work culminated in a series of mystical journeys that changed my life.

How We Treat the Symptoms, and Not the Root Cause

I’m grateful that my wife and I opted into marriage counseling. On that day we were in a dimly lit room, sitting next to one another on a small couch. While in the offices of a clinical social worker Dr. Julie Hoine, Wally, her service dog, ran around the floor. Julie sat across the room, on a sturdy black office chair, with a desk and an Apple computer behind her. 

I always seem to misremember things. However, I would not soon forget this day. I had been taking a drug called Lamictal for well over a decade. On the surface it stabilized my mood. In addition to therapy, I had been seeing a psychiatrist for years. While the drugs treated depression/anxiety-like symptoms, they also covered up the root cause of my pain. I recall specifically crying during one therapy session over a painful childhood memory. The psychiatrist’s solution to my grieving was a prescription for an antidepressant. I began doubting this psychiatrist over the past year. Like many Americans, I numbed the symptoms of my problems, while living in denial that there was an actual root cause. 

Julie told me something that shook up my life, my family, and my mind forever. 

“Ryan have you ever been diagnosed with trauma?” 

“No. What do you mean?” I replied. 

“You sound like you’ve been through trauma, would you like to go through a trauma checklist with me?” 

After hearing this, I stopped breathing. In utter disbelief, I agreed to do a trauma checklist with Julie. She asked my wife if it was okay for us to go down this trauma rabbit hole. She said yes. 

Julie spun around her chair to her computer, and searched online for a trauma checklist. I had no idea what she was doing, and was equally curious and shocked. In my decades of searching for answers to my symptoms of depression, anxiety, frustration, sadness, relief and anger, I had not heard the word “trauma” any time in any doctor’s office. 

What is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Complex PTSD)?

Wally was now on the floor resting on her back, no longer running around. The room was calm and we waited an eternity for Julie to pull up the complex trauma checklist. She then asked me if I sometimes felt like I had: 

  • A lack of emotional regulation
  • Changes in consciousness (dissociation)
  • Negative self-perception (extreme guilt or shame)
  • Difficulty with relationships (lack of trust) 
  • Loss of systems of meanings (feeling hopelessness and despair).

I barely recall my answers. My mind felt blank. Complex PTSD is the result of prolonged exposure to trauma over long periods of time, often during the formative years of childhood. It’s different than PTSD, which is often a result of one single traumatic event. C-PTSD is a result of ongoing and long-lasting trauma. The trauma can last for a series of months or even many years. C-PTSD is repetitive trauma, and if left untreated the effects can last a lifetime.

Some of the most common aspects of C-PTSD are:

  • Nightmares 
  • Memory issues (often blocking out reminders of the traumatic event) 
  • Heightened irritability 
  • Decreased interest in once-enjoyable activities 
  • Dissociative flashbacks (oftentimes emotional flashbacks) 
  • Severe feelings of guilt and shame 
  • Difficulty maintaining close and trusting relationships with others

Suddenly I felt exhausted. I learned from my therapist that Complex PTSD and complex trauma is under-diagnosed. To which I said, “No shit.” 

Since graduating from college, I’ve been on as many different pharmaceutical drugs as you can imagine. Feeling like a human guinea pig, I’ve been prescribed antidepressants, anti-psychotics, and mood stabilizers. None of them has completely worked. 

Past doctors diagnosed me with depression, anxiety, and other normal-ish symptoms around mental health, but never trauma. Complex PTSD sounds like something that military veterans and survivors of sexual assault have, but I had experienced neither. I was a father and husband with a career, and I was floored by the diagnosis. I thought to myself, “WTF?”. I felt totally f*cked. I asked myself, “what does recovery even look like?” I wondered, “How am I going to meet my client deadlines next week?”

How Recovery Works

Now I am in recovery; something I will happily continue for the remainder of my life. In the coming series of essays you’ll hear how, why, and which ways I’ve healed. I merged Eastern and Western treatments to get better. Rather than return to the well of psychiatric and psychological evaluations, I forged a new path. I’m the happiest I’ve ever felt. I have to thank microdosing psychedelics, breathwork, meditation, practicing gratitude, journaling, and yoga for some of this continual effervescent feeling that I have. Now in retrospect, I understand what worked for me. Equally as important, I learned what did not work for me. I’ll share my results, as I experimented with many different types of healing methods. I waited decades for my oneness with the world to bubble up to the surface from down below. I genuinely feel whole, connected to people, and believe that my best days are ahead. This feeling is a stark contrast from how I felt just a year ago.

I want to share with the world the story of how my final trauma therapy uncovered the truth. I would like no one else to go through the decades of pain that I felt. What many people call healthy isn’t necessarily right. Rather than fighting a traditional mental health system of what we define as healing, I invite you to follow along so that you too might chart your own path through the recesses of the mind and psyche. The needless suffering that I went through must end now, and we can all collaborate to work on a more human experience to help people who’ve been traumatized. There are more people like me —zombies living with unknown pain, looking for answers to questions that they don’t even know exist. I invite you to follow along so that you too might chart your own path through the recesses of the mind and psyche. This is the journey to getting unf*cked.

Big thanks for edits from: Ross Gordon, Stew Fortier, Tom White, Joel Christiansen, Drew Stegmaier, Sara Campbell, Richie Bonilla, John McGarvey, Chris Holinger, David Rosenblatt, Lyle McKeany, Steven Ovadia, Charlie Bleecker, and Joshua Mitchell.