I sucked in air and exhaled deeply, as though stepping into a hot tub. Only I was lying on the floor, eyes closed, limbs splayed.
Barbara Carrellas, a 59-year-old with splashes of hot pink in her white-blond hair, sat within reach, telling me to imagine that each inhale brought red-hot molten energy from the center of the earth into my root chakra -- a space in between the legs also known as the perineum. When she referred to it as such, I had to suppress laughter. Then she advised squeezing my P.C. muscle, the target of Kegel exercises and much G-spot speculation, to help “at pulling that energy up.”
She was teaching me how to think myself to orgasm -- or “think off” for short. The longer explanation is that she was walking me through an exercise -- fully clothed and with no direct genital stimulation -- in hopes of helping me experience what she calls a “breath and energy orgasm.”
Carrellas, a New York-based sex coach and author of “Ecstasy Is Necessary: A Practical Guide,” described the energy building up and spilling over into my second chakra, the stomach, and recommended that I begin rocking my hips up and back with my breath. It probably looked something like a floor routine in “Striptease,” but I was bizarrely unself-conscious about it. I’d already begun to feel tingly and warm, and I was determined to see where it could go.
She walked me through each chakra, all the way up through my head. When she wasn’t guiding me through visuals, she breathed along, letting out exhalations that sounded like bedroom moans. “You’re turning yourself on in a molecular sense,” she purred and suggested that I make a bit more sound. “It can be a sexy sound, it can be a power sound.” I let out an “ahh” that barely registered on my tape recorder.
Before long, she instructed me to take “fuller, faster breaths.” My lips were dry, my mouth tight and vomiting seemed a distinct possibility. I began to notice that my hands were tingly. My three outer fingers felt curled tight, like I was involuntarily pointing. I focused on my electric pinky and tried to move it slightly, just to be sure that I could. As far as I could tell, I couldn’t. I briefly worried that, oh my god, I was losing control of my body and what if I had a seizure -- or died?
While my hands didn’t feel particularly good, the sensation was remarkable and unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It was an out-of-body experience or, more accurately, as Carrellas puts it, “a deeply in-body experience.” I liked it and was scared by it, all at once.
She had me take three deep breaths and then hold my breath while clenching and pressing my body into the floor. “No expectations. Exactly the right thing will happen in exactly the right time-space continuum,” she said. “When you’re ready, let go.” I immediately exhaled and saw a flash of yellow. My fingers impossibly felt like they had become even more rigid. They seemed rooted to the floor, a part of the earth. I wondered, in a detached, uncaring way, if I’d ever be able to move them again.
* * *
It was only later that evening, long after Carrellas left and my stone-y awe wore off, that I thought to type “hyperventilation symptoms” into Google. Tingling in the hands? Check. Numbness around the mouth? Yep. Had this transcendental experience simply been my body’s physiological response to over-breathing? This is a question Carrellas has heard before. “People say, ‘Oh, well, isn’t this just hyperventilation?’ And I say, ‘If it is, it’s the good kind.’”
Breath has long been used to reach altered states -- from meditation to Kundalini yoga. Carrellas' version developed out of a practice called “rebirthing.” As she explains it, rebirthing, which was first developed in the '70s, is “a kind of breath work therapy that takes people back through traumatic instances, including birth, and brings up a lot of emotion with the intention of clearing it.”
However, it's rarely called rebirthing anymore: "It’s coming back as ‘breath work’ because as with anything, it gets really popular, does some good, gets misused, goes underground,” she says. The most notable example of misuse is a ghastly case in which a 10-year-old girl died during so-called rebirthing therapy: She was wrapped in a flannel sheet and ordered to fight her way out of the "womb"; she suffocated before she could. It wasn't just the name that changed, either. “Over the years we’ve softened how you breathe. We’ve made it much more relaxed,” she said. They moved “more toward pleasure and less toward trauma release.”
So, why might heavy breathing lead to these phenomena? An article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine hypothesized that the altered consciousness that can arise from hyperventilation “may be related to a ‘transient hypofrontality,’ meaning a brief period of unusually low activity in the frontal cortex that has been hypothesized to underlie a number of other altered states of consciousness, such as those found in half-asleep states, meditation, exercise ‘highs,’ and some drug-induced states.” That certainly helps to explain many of the physical sensations that I experienced, but what about the sexual arousal and orgasm that Carrellas professes to experience?
It is important to note that Carrellas employs a broad definition of orgasm and wishes that people would "stop calling orgasm just something that happens when a sex organ is directly stimulated." She defines it broadly as an "ecstatic experience" and believes one can have "gigglegasms," "emotion-gasms," "cry-gasms," even "anger-gasms." In an attempt to prove the validity of her claims, Carrellas "thought-off" in an MRA machine on the TLC show "Strange Sex." Although the show presented the scan as positive proof, Rutgers University researcher Barry Komisaruk, who administered the test, tells me, "We could not get clear imaging data on Barbara because she moved her head violently during her session in the scanner, precluding data analysis."
In the meantime, we can turn only to research showing a connection between hyperventilation and enhanced arousal levels. Clinical psychologist Cindy Meston has found a connection between exercise -- which arouses the sympathetic nervous system, as does hyperventilation -- and increased sexual arousal. In a study on sexual dysfunction, psychologist Lori Brotto found that women who hyperventilated before watching an erotic film in a lab setting "had significantly higher levels of genital sexual arousal ... compared to women who just watched the erotic film."
Brotto largely attributes the connection between hyperventilation and sexual arousal to enhanced sympathetic nervous system. However, she adds, "More recently I have been working on developing and testing mindfulness meditation-based treatment for women with sexual dysfunction and finding a significant benefit on sexual response," she says. "It is possible, therefore, that hyperventilation may lead women to be more attuned to the physical sensations in their body." It's worth noting, too, that heavy breathing tends to occur naturally during sex.
* * *
After my session with Carrellas, I lay on the floor for over 10 minutes without saying a word or opening my eyes. This says a lot: I’m the person in yoga class who peeks out of one eye during the closing “namaste” because I’m so uncomfortable with the thought of being the only one left with my eyes closed.
When I finally started talking, I sounded like I’d just taken a huge bong rip. “The tingliness in my hands felt amazing,” I told her, breathlessly. “I felt everything in my hands and I felt nothing.” At the time, this seemed like a profound description. Then I revealed the extent of my mystical ignorance by grasping at the only comparison I could find: Sookie Stackhouse’s magical, light-shooting hands on “True Blood.” I was still lying on the ground, feeling like I might pass out if I sat up, when I asked her what explained the sensation. She responded, “I don’t know, I’m not gonna bullshit you."