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[ Opinion ]

TALKING TO AND WORKING WITH THE HERETIC HEALER: An Interview With Breathwork for Recovery® creator NATHANIEL V. DUST

I first heard of Nathaniel V. Dust through a friend. I had been having a difficult time after coping with a medical issue, and she told me that working with him had been life changing for her during a similarly rough time in her own life.

Nathaniel V. Dust practices what he calls Breathwork. Using focusing on breathing as a technique for meditation and self-cultivation takes on many forms, but Dust’s approach is unique in my experience. Dust says many, including himself, have found it uniquely helpful in processing trauma, as well as addressing addiction. He describes himself as a “Heretic Healer.” He sports a hairstyle reminiscent of John Lydon during his heyday and often wears a suit with colorful ties, shirts and socks; his image is definitely not what you might conjure up when you think of the term “healer.”

I am a born and trained skeptic. There are so many charlatans in the field that offerings that sound too good to be true are guilty until proven innocent. Don’t get me wrong – I am open to new things but my antennae go up when a particular new approach or treatment makes too many promises. I am a firm believer in the value of meditation, exercise, proper nutrition, stress reduction techniques, yoga, and mindfulness practices, but Breathwork was new to me.

I live in Manhattan, and Dust is based in CA, but I contacted him anyway. We proceeded to have a session via Skype, and I was surprised by how moved and emotionally touched I was after our 70-minute session. I felt somehow altered and decidedly more open for the rest of the day and the day after. Something had shifted for me during those 70 minutes. Dust contacted me regularly after the session to check in and ask how I was doing. And though it had a strong, immediate effect, the work he introduced me to is a practice – not a one shot deal. Like yoga or meditation or traditional talk therapy, the benefit comes from consistency, yet I was deeply affected by this one encounter with Dust, enough so I wanted to know more.

I thought further about the breath after my encounter with Dust. I remembered the birth of my two sons, and waiting to hear the first cries that would mark their first breath – the start of their lives. I thought also about my mother while she was in hospice. At the end she was mostly asleep, and I would listen to her breathing for much of my visit. I recalled visiting my dad in hospice decades before my mom, and listening to the tell-tale “Cheyne- Stokes” breathing that foreshadowed his impending death.

So breath is the beginning and the end. This automatic process is with us every minute of every day and though we can live without food and even water for a time, without breath our existence quickly ceases. I hadn’t truly considered the power of the breath before my encounter with Dust but thereafter this unconscious process has become acutely conscious for me.

I had a chance to ask Dust some questions and learn more about the technique as well as the practitioner.

Regina Walker: You describe yourself as a “heretic healer”. That is quite a description! What do you mean by it?

Nathaniel V. Dust: Heresy essentially translates to the ability to choose. It’s about taking your power back and giving yourself choice again, especially with regard to addiction. It’s about rebelling against the norm and the status quo. Being a heretic is allowing yourself to be the rebel with a cause; standing strong in your values, even (especially) if society deems it incorrect or “alternative.” I got sober using Breathwork as my primary tool for recovery, and my recovery doesn’t quite fit in with what’s commonly associated with sobriety – and that’s OK.

In the old days, heretics were vilified for bringing a new and uncomfortable way of thinking to the people. It’s not easy to question the belief systems we hold so dear, but I believe it’s essential to think outside of the norm in order to fully serve someone in need. And that includes thinking about addiction and recovery with wider eyes. Addiction is a nationwide epidemic and the most commonly accepted methods we use to manage it are not universally effective at maintaining healthy, long-term sobriety – we need a new path for those seeking recovery and I am working hard to forge it, using breathwork at its core.

RW: The focus of your approach is your specific approach to Breathwork. How would you describe what you do and why do you believe it is helpful?

ND: Breathwork is a two-stage breathing technique that is simple to learn and allows a person to engage with the body, mind, emotions, and spirit in an unconventional way. What I mean by that is, rather than suppressing or bypassing emotions, we are effectively quieting the mind long enough for them to surface and be fully felt. This allows us to become aware of the sensations stuck in the body and gain clarity about how our defense and coping mechanisms truly serve us (i.e. they don’t). With this clarity, we can prevent ourselves from falling back into the patterns of trauma replication and, in turn, begin to heal.

You are never without the use of your breath; it’s available to you all the time. No need to buy anything, no need to drive somewhere, no need for any equipment other than a pair of lungs. Breathwork is powerful and immediate, and all you must do inhale, exhale, and follow this two-stage pattern. You feel the effects after only a few breaths and experience results that even years of traditional treatment, 12-step support groups, and talk therapy could barely reach. These modalities can absolutely be effective for many people; however, if we describe and prescribe them as the only solution, we end up alienating and excluding a huge part of the recovery population. Breathwork is not a panacea, of course, but I’ve worked with clients who have seen more therapists and worked the steps more times than they have years of age and still seen little shift – until they started breathing.

RW: There has been a widening interest in the healing power of breath.

ND: There has been fascinating research recently that has revolved around testing and identifying the benefits of breathing differently, specifically that it can help a person combat anxiety, depression, and other mental illness by using simple techniques. Having experienced these results myself, both in my own recovery and in my private practice, I decided to create Breathwork for Recovery to make this work accessible to people seeking deeper healing from addiction and other compulsive behaviors.

Breathwork for Recovery brings trained CADC-track breathwork practitioners into treatment centers, IOPs, sober living communities, and other facilities in the field as part of their existing programs. Breathwork for Recovery also offers the industry’s first training program to teach clinicians how to professionally use breathwork to help treat substance use disorders and other mental illness.

On my own time, I run The Recovery Circle, a weekly breathwork-centric support group that offers an alternative (or supplement) to existing recovery-focused meetings. These sessions are open to anyone seeking recovery from anything, including trauma, codependency, alcoholism, addiction, eating disorders, depression, and other mental illness; attendees gather, learn, and utilize the breathwork technique without having to pay gobs of money – we are strictly donation-based and no one will ever be turned away due to lack of funds. The Recovery Circle participants are able build a community of like-minded peers while deepening a personal connection in a way that teaches them to trusts themselves.

RW: How is your Breathwork different than meditation?

ND: Many people consider Breathwork to be a form of meditation, and it is, but it’s an active form that requires a person to work through their resistance. Both are effective at quieting the mind, but with Breathwork, results are immediate, whereas meditation can take time to see and feel tangible results. I work with many people who’ve never been able to successfully meditate for more than 30 seconds and, as a result, given up on trying. But as soon as I get them breathing, they are able to drop in and have a genuine experience.

RW: How did you get into Breathwork and what has it done for you?

ND: I’ve been using Breathwork to combat my own addiction since 2009 and helping other people use Breathwork since 2010. This is the path that’s allowed me to heal while also helping others find relief from their own demons, and it’s been a tremendous challenge and reward. Seven years ago, I introduced Breathwork to treatment communities that had not yet incorporated it into their programs and have seen great success, on both the client and facility levels. More treatment centers are inquiring and hiring breathwork practitioners than ever before, which tells me that Breathwork for Recovery is regarded as a serious and relevant part of treatment programs.

RW: How do you see Breathwork benefiting those dealing with unresolved trauma?

ND: There is great work being done by people like Bessel Van Der Kolk and Peter Levine. Working through trauma is not as simple as the “talking cure” that was so popular back in its day, and we’re finding out more and more how trauma gets passed along through the lineage and is being healed by using the body/mind connection. Breathwork allows a person to quiet their mind, thus lower the defense mechanisms that keep the unconscious patterns of trauma replication in place. This allows the client and practitioner to create the space for the trigger-activated trauma to be cleared from the body using the breath as the catalyst for resolution. This happens as the vagus nerve is stimulated and the body starts to release the stuck kinetic energy from unsuccessful attempts at fighting or fleeing. This work also appears to increase vagal tone, which is the body’s ability to switch from sympathetic activation to parasympathetic regulation more quickly. As with any trauma that occurs, successful resolution depends on the person’s ability to clear that stuck energy in the body and the mind.

RW: As you have shared, you are sober. Do you think Breathwork is helpful for everyone in recovery from an addiction?

ND: Breathwork is the most powerful tool to combat addiction that I’ve ever seen – and used. That said, it isn’t for everyone. Breathwork is confronting. It takes hard work and dedication. The tool is only as good as the user. For those suffering with substance use disorders, breathwork can be particularly useful because it offers instant gratification; often clients feel noticeable results after one session. Most people struggling with addiction and alcoholism have been sold a line of bullshit their entire lives, that there’s only one way to get sober and if it doesn’t work for you, you’re the problem. These people have been shamed because of their disease and ostracized as weak-willed or as criminals undeserving of compassion and care; Breathwork for Recovery embraces this reality and recognizes these very real issues within the recovery community and, hopefully, offers a space in which clients can feel safe and better understood. I love Breathwork because it teaches you how to harness your own innate sense of trust, love, and compassion – and all you gotta do is breathe. That’s it. The change happens as soon as suppressed emotion and trauma begin to surface within a safe and supported environment, and though it can feel scary and uncomfortable, it’s a sign that you’re on your way to finding peace.

RW: Where do you see Breathwork fitting in with conventional talk therapy, psychopharmacology, and self-help groups?

ND: Breathwork can be an incredibly transformative adjunctive therapy. Used in tandem with traditional psychotherapy, the treatment centers I work in have found it to be particularly helpful. To heal addiction, we need to build community of like-minded professionals who bring a variety of skills dedicated to understanding and treating addiction and alcoholism. Breathwork stands alone very well, but addiction is older and smarter than any one person, program, or modality can be. Without a team, without a community, and without a comprehensive approach to getting and staying sober, treatment or support programs cannot successfully combat addiction. We’re talking 80% recidivism rates (in the first year of recovery), as per the Surgeon General. I believe this dismal number is the result of relying on a single-pronged approach, as opposed to something comprehensive and inclusive.

It’s surprisingly easy for any one approach or community to inadvertently replicate a person’s dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics. Without dealing with deep-rooted trauma, a person stays locked in a cycle of unconscious reenactment that has the ability to coopt their own recovery. Breathwork becomes an important part of treatment because it allows clients (and their treatment teams) to heal their trauma in a way that can effectively break these patterns.

Nathaniel V. Dust can be reached through his website, twitter, and Instagram.

Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist, writer, and photographer in NYC. You can find her on twitter and Instagram. Walker is currently at work on her first book.

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