How can we access extraordinary states of consciousness without using mind-altering drugs? The answer is as simple as the air we breath. By altering our breath, we can reveal suppressed nonverbal memories and connect to the dynamic stillness behind our thinking minds. In today’s episode, breathwork teacher Scott Schwenk explains how this ancient practice can deeply transform our quality of life.
Scott: I am Scott Schwenk, and I am now a 47-year-old man, and I work with myself and all people about waking up, growing up, cleaning up and showing up fully. One of the ways I do that is through my public classes. I teach meditation classes and breathwork classes exclusively at Wanderlust in Los Angeles and then online and around the world, and then, in businesses, I do a bit of work with their cultures, helping their culture to upgrade to be really a fit for why they're in business and be able to deliver on those things, and then the deepest work I do is the private session work and retreat work, so one-on-one coaching or couples work.
Jeff: I'm interested in breathwork because this seems like a phenomenon now that's really just catching on and sweeping over the nation and it's obviously very related to yoga and to meditation, but I'm wondering at the core how do you define conscious breathing?
Scott: It's a really good question. I mean, just to take the words, I would say being conscious of breath, which is a struggle for a lot of people that I meet at first, to actually be conscious of how is my breath actually moving right now in this very moment and, for most people, that's a revelation, that continues to reveal, "Oh, my gosh, I hold my breath," or, "I'm a really shallow breather. No wonder I'm tired," so, starting there where you're just like, "Am I conscious with how breath is happening in my body?"
Jeff: I guess the moment that you actually become conscious of it, it gives you an awareness of the miracle of being alive, right?
Jeff: That is an enlightenment in and of itself, that we don't live with that kind of awareness every day all the time.
Scott: It's so simple and so profound, what you're pointing at. If the stages of enlightened awareness are the expansion of perspective in a real time way embodied, then, absolutely, to become aware. For example, there's an old tantric meditation where you just sit and have the awareness that your body is being breathed. You just relax and watch it happen, and in my experience and most people who tried it, it's obviously I'm not doing that. If I was responsible for beating my own heart, I'd probably be long dead by now. I would have forgotten like oh, squirrel.
Jeff: This is pretty simple. You don't need a lot of gear or you don't need to be in any specific place. What do you need? Do you need a teacher? Do you need a method?
Scott: I think it's ideal for a lot of things that can be so psychoactive to have somebody who knows what they're doing at least present in the room and introducing the practice. In my experience, this will sound spiritual, but maybe it isn't, everything in nature is learned through modeling. If a baby deer and a mother deer are out and about in a new territory, the baby deer, this is a study, will look up at the mom, "Is it okay to drink here?" At least mammals, from what I understand, learn everything through modeling, and we have these neurons head to toe called mirror neurons that can feel what another is feeling and even pick up on thoughts, so there's a solid argument to me made for learning something from somebody who already has it embodied.
Scott: It's a shortcut, and then also the piece, getting into some rhythmic breathing can open the nervous system, and then the things that have been suppressed in that nervous system can rise up. If a person hasn't had a lot of experience with things coming out of the nervous system, that might be intense. To have a safe person there while that's going on, I'll go deeper.
Jeff: So I just spent some time in Portland, Oregon with a friend, Brendan Burchard, whose a great personal development, personal growth teacher, and he shared with me one of the keys to bringing energy and generating energy, because he's one of the most enthusiastic and energetic people I've ever met and all the time. I'm like, "How do you constantly bring that level of enthusiasm to every meeting, to every call, to every public performance? Don't you ever just kind of like wear out a little bit?"
He said the key, for him, was mini recovery. So he'll have a conference call or something, but he won't schedule it for an hour. He'll schedule it for like 52 minutes or something. So he'll give himself like two minutes before he goes into his next thing to really understand the energy and intention he wants to bring into that next episode. How does he want to make people feel? How does he feel? And he takes these little moments for, what he calls micro recovery. He has his little technique.
So I wonder if you might share with us kind of little techniques that people might be able to use for that micro recovery or in the middle of something that is stressful? Where you can actually then go into that next thing kind of at your highest self?
Scott: Minimally, I practice this thing I call the six points of softening, and we go into greater detail about that in the video course for One Commune. I'm not a guy who does well with body scans, because I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I'll stick in my shins and then start to drop into meditation and realize I didn't finish the whole scan so my perfectionist kicks back in and I remember sitting on my couch and going, "F this. You got to show me a better way to do this. This is ridiculous." And these six points literally lit up in my body to focus on softening, and everything in between would soften.
So I started us with that breath in the beginning, the anti-anxiety breath, the crowning breath, softening soles and palms. That's one pair. The other two are the four corners of the eyes, like just imagining them really softening, melting like butter on a hot day, along with the entire region inside and around the ears, and then add on softening the tongue as it rests in the floor of the mouth, and all the little muscles leading into and throughout the pelvic floor or groin region, pc muscle, sphincter, all that stuff, soft. Letting the breath come in deeper and go out longer, and as thoughts come up, have the feeling to exhale the energy of thinking itself, as well as any tension you may be finding, down into the earth where it can be composted and breathed back up as fresh life force.
So the breath is coming in deep and it's going out long, softening soles, palms, eyes, ears, tongue, pelvic floor, groin region. Each inhale receiving nourishment, each exhale releasing the energy of thinking itself and any tension you find. Just resting in that ever growing sense of space opening up in and around the body. Then from here, to actually connect with a chosen feeling state, and if it's not readily showing up, to use a memory. You know you're a dad, you could remember the birth of your children and the heart explosion, bigger than any romance one has ever felt. Let the memory of the children go and feel that feeling where it is in the body and let the breath come in and expand it, make it up that it's easy to let it expand in and around all the cells of the body, even bouncing off the walls of the room. To continue softening soles, palms, eyes, ears, tongue, pelvic floor, breath is flowing like water, deep and full without effort.
That's the simplicity of a basic reset practice and the doorway into ever deepening meditation without grasping or chasing states.
Jeff: We touched on some of the therapeutic ramifications of breathing consciously. Why do this? What are all the reasons?
Scott: I think that that depends on the person, and, for some people, it's not interesting yet, it's not relevant yet, and I think, for a larger and growing swath of the population worldwide, especially at a time like now where there's so many things in question, the marketplace is in question, the governance systems around the world are in question, so, when there are times with more turmoil, people tend to look to make meaning and look to find some degree of peace or some degree of happiness getting through the day. The body is the first reality, and shifting the breath always shifts the life experience.
I once upon a time came upon a group that teaches acting in England and particularly teaches these actors that every emotion has a correlate breathing pattern and you can reverse engineer it. If you do the breathing pattern, it will evidence, it will show that emotion. It'll read on the screen or in theater.
But you can even just start to play and notice. Try breathing really shallowly in this moment and notice, within a minute, do it for a whole minute, and notice how does that affect how you just feel, your sense of feeling. Do you feel really lit up and ready to conquer the world? Probably not, and then maybe do a different minute of inhaling deeply and exhaling long, fully, like the full extension of the lungs, and see what that feels like.
Jeff: I know you also talk about the interrelationship between breathing and the vagus nerve. Can you, just explain what is the vagus nerve and what role does it play in your body?
Scott: Yeah. It's called vagus because it looks like it wanders. It's not a straight line, and it comes down around the jawline, down through near the throat, down into the center of the chest, down towards the belly. It's one of 12 cranial nerves. It's the most important that we know of so far. It was only recently discovered in the the last 10 years, so it's as new field of science and medicine that's growing.
The term toned up or toned down is how we talk about the vagus. When it's toned up, you're super resilient. If somebody looks at you funny, it's no big deal, water off a duck's back. When it's toned down, to the degree that it's tone down, you start looking at autoimmune issues coming online, challenges with mental disorders or emotional disorders. We are all imprinted with the tone of our mother's vagus nerve at our own birth. That's the baseline we start with. We're not stuck there, and diaphragmatic breathing is one of the key things that will tone it up.
Jeff: So you want to stimulate the vagus nerve. That's something you want to do, right?
Scott: Yeah, in a positive way, in an upgrading way.
Jeff: And you can do that through breathwork.
Scott: Yep. Exposure to extreme cold is number one in most of the lists.
Jeff: Is that right?
Scott: Singing, gargling, humming or chanting, basically making sound in this region of the chest throat, which to me explains music, in any of the spiritual traditions that have music, maybe it really has nothing to do with the words and everything to do with getting that vagus nerve to vibrate.
Jeff: Wow, and so, can you tell if someone has a toned up or toned down vagus nerve?
Scott: I feel like we can innately. Like, you know, have you ever gone to a party and there's somebody, just, they're dressed to the nines, they're really beautiful or handsome in their own really obvious way, but there's a feeling that's repellent? I know I've been that person at times, when I've felt really awkward. That awkwardness is like, a repelling feeling. Then, there's somebody, they might be dressed completely different than everybody else, maybe nothing really to write home about in terms of visualness, but there's something so drawing. Like, "I have to spend time around this person. I feel better about who I am around this person." This is how we can start to tell is, the mirror neurons in your body do pick up what's going on with me. We get entrained in each other's kind of field, as it were.
Jeff: Yeah. I have also experienced, by coming to your class actually, that it is possible to access, I guess I would maybe call it non-ordinary states of consciousness by engaging in certain kinds of breath work. Is that correct?
Scott: Absolutely, especially rhythmic breathing and especially rhythmic breathing through the mouth. It's a shortcut to get that shift quicker.
Jeff: Can you describe that a little bit, the sort of narrative arc of one of your classes?
Scott: Yeah, for sure. The beginning is a little bit more active. The first 10 minutes not different than the first 10 minutes for any of us who have done, you know, a rigorous yoga class or a spin class or something like that. The first 10, 20 minutes for me of those kind of exercises I'm like, "Why am I doing this again? I could be just relaxing, reading a book." I know that that's the tension in my nervous system that the breath is targeting, and if I just stay with it, it will start to release and the breath will get easier. Just like in a spin class or in a yoga class or running.
So the beginning is getting in and really learning to relax the body up front. That, you know, I have clients soften the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands is your number one job, not the breath. Breath is number two. You can get it going in a rhythm and not have to think about it, and it's better that you don't. That softening of the soles and palms and have the feeling to let go of tension and the energy of thinking on every exhale out the soles and palms, that's the beginning.
You stay with that long enough, and then you start to hit maybe my fourth track on the song list, which will usually have some sort of evocative vocals or something like that, because that's the moment when the emotion that's been lodged can start to move. Lodged emotion isn't just challenging emotion. It could be happiness. You know, most of us, until we're not around a delay from when something happens to when we experience the emotion of it. In some cases, years or decades later.
The breath is the great truth serum, the great equalizer. It opens up what's actually here in the nervous system. If I can stay with it, which I encourage people to do in the class, just stay with it, just keep breathing. Don't make meaning of anything, just let it move. Just let it move. Letting go on every exhale, receiving nourishment on every inhale, even if that's simply oxygen. In that middle, the heart starts to open. That's when the tears can flow. Also, that's when some of the old tension patterns, as they're releasing, can actually create movements in the body.
Then, about 20, 25 minutes in, at least the way I lead it, I have people shift over to a resting breath. That's where the payoff is. I have so many people who come to my sitting meditation class for the very first time of meditating, and they don't know what they're looking for. I tell them, "Come to breath work first." Because, that quiet bit after the active breath work is going to reveal the space that deep meditation opens up for people who have been practicing for years and years and years, and then you're going to know on a feeling level without getting caught in your head what you're looking for. Just remembering that feeling is enough to bring it into the foreground of your experience, walking down the street.
Jeff: Yeah, it's so funny, you pretty much verbatim just described the experience that I had in your class.
I was gearing up to go to your class, because a lot of people were telling me like, "You got to go experience Scott's class." I'm like, "Why?" They're like, "Well, it feels like you're totally stoned." I know that, you know, a lot of more modern research around breath work has been around the psychoactive potential of breath work, and some of that work's been done by people that were super into LSD but are trying to find some of the same introspection without actually having to drug yourself, to find it through a natural means. And so I came to the class and it was just like you said. For the first 20 minutes I'm like, "Okay, well, this is relaxing. But, I'm cool. I'm glad I'm here, but like, I don't know why people are saying you're going to have some psychoactive experience, because I just kind of feel pretty normal and, you know, relaxed." Then about 25, 30 minutes in, I had this kind of revelation.
I had started playing a lot of piano, and at the same time of also really going deep with Wayne Dyer, who's one of my favorite teachers, really speaks to me. I had this sort of catharsis of like, "Wait a minute. I see myself on the stage sort of channeling the philosophical thoughts of Wayne Dyer while playing piano in the middle of these kind of thoughts. It all just kind of came to me in this absolutely clear way of like, this is my message to help people. I saw the interrelationship between the music and the idea of the infinite soul and losing your ego and all this stuff, and it was just incredibly cathartic. I was like, "Wow, this is my purpose," and I started to cry.
Jeff: I left class, I woke up the next day, and I said, "Well, this is why they say you feel like you're stoned, because that's the most ridiculous idea you've ever had in your life." But at the same time, whether it's ridiculous or not, we'll never know, but it was tapping into a part of myself that felt absolutely clear.
Scott: Well, and as somebody who has been exposed to some of your life here in LA, you did an event at Wanderlust Studio after the 2016 election about the life and the offerings of Obama put to music. Is it really so far off from something that already is germinated?
Jeff: Right. Maybe not.
Scott: We don't know.
Jeff: We don't know. Maybe we'll find out.
Scott: We know you're a great piano player.
Jeff: I'm getting there, I'm getting there. What I've learned is, you can get better at something, even in your mid-40s.
Scott: I sure hope so.
Jeff: Yeah. Now, you personally, Scott, how did you learn this practice? Why is it important to you to teach it?
Scott: That's a great question. It was about 15 years ago, I believe May 19th, when I had my first private session with a fellow named David Elliot over in a hidden part of LA called Eagle Rock in a really nondescript neighborhood. I went back into his little healing room. I was sent there by a business coach I had at the time who had vetted me long enough, decided she's going to send me to her healer. I'm going to back up to actually the phone call I had when I made with him to look into going, and I said, "What is it exactly you do?" I still hear his Kentucky, "Exactly? There's nothing I can say that will ever satisfy that part of your brain, but I can tell you the two things we'll focus on if you come in: getting you out of your head and into your heart."
Cut to, and I had lived in a monastery in Ashram for the better part of three years, profound experiences there, tremendous energy. Nothing touched the experience that I had on that table that first time. We talked for a little bit. I got on the massage table, started doing the breathing. It was like lightning was coursing through my body, no kidding. Like somebody had plugged me into the wall and 220 was flowing. I had never felt that intensity of energy that profoundly. I went through some intense contraction like T-Rex arms in my hands, my mouth tensed up and he didn't tell me that that might happen. So I do try and warn people about that and that's a release. At the time I was doing body work, as I was assembling my tool kit and I was afraid that my wrists were going to snap off and I would be broke the rest of my life and I didn't know what I'd do for a living, but the energy was so intoxicating that I just said, "Forget it. I'm going with this. I don't know where this is going, but I'm going." The tears started to come. I felt this huge opening in my heart and it was that clarity, it was that feeling of revelation. Setting aside any details or storylines, it was the feeling of revelation.
It was the feeling of being face to face in my own body with my potential. I wouldn't have said it that way then, but it's definitely clear now, and I sat up from that and I remember two things he said to me that were really important. He said, one, "The breath is not the work, and he never said what the work was and I'm really grateful. Then number two he said, "I'm looking for leaders, not followers," which I felt was really important because as I've seen over the years with thousands of people, the first person you do the breath work with, you imprint on in some way. Regardless of their character, you can imprint on them and it's important to hold that carefully. That the breath is not the work and he was looking for leaders, not followers, and I sat up and I said, "I have to do this."
It became a unifying thing between all of these different modalities and trainings I had. It was a unifying force, an activity that I could take a client or a person through and address all sorts of life issues physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Then over the years of practicing myself, on myself, I've never had the same experience twice. In the last year, I started doing it every day again. In the morning, every day whether I want to or not, for 30 to 60 minutes in the morning, and I've learned so much about myself without having to sift through stories. I think that's one of the biggest gifts of working with breath is anything I could possibly have stuck is not about the story, it's the energy that's lodged in my nervous system that needs to get digested and breath does that invariably.
Jeff: So you found a way to be a teacher, to give, to help people. To help people de stress, to clear trauma, but also you found a way to give this gift to yourself.
Jeff: Where you can actually draw from it, not just have the energy going out.
Scott: It's critical that I keep feeding myself. There's an image in the tantric tradition of a goddess named Chhinnamasta, and if you don't know better, it looks like a gruesome image. She severed her own head. She's holding it and her two devotees on either side of her and there are three sprouts of blood coming out of the neck. One going into her own head, the mouth of her own head, and then the others going into her devotees and there's a, for me, that talks about she's an image of a teacher who can really help awaken energy in a person. A teacher who is being nourished as well as nourishing. That it's not enough to just give. If the giving doesn't include me, it's incomplete, and it's a form of grasping.
Jeff: So you're 47 today. What's your legacy?
Scott: Love. My whole training and my life is learning and training and being able to come from a love that's not caused outwardly, while still being totally playful and have fun and enjoy what's right in front of me.
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well just over the last three years, I've seen so many people walk out of your class, and talked to hundreds more, and I am acutely aware of the impact that you're having on people's life. So God bless you for that, Scott. Thank you.
Scott: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you for giving me a place to practice.
Jeff: There are many paths to healing, some more complex than others. But one of the most wonderful things about breathwork and meditation, is that you already have everything you need to give it a try.
Thanks for listening to the Commune podcast. If you enjoyed this or any of our other episodes, we’d love if you could leave us a review. And if you haven’t already, hit that subscribe button for new episodes every week. I’m Jeff Krasno, and we’ll see you next time.