Take a breath. Hold it. Exhale. Now take another. We tend to take that process for granted. It’s life’s most basic act, but like so many other aspects of our existence, it’s in peril from an increasing pace of unhealthy lifestyle choices. Adding a global pandemic to the mix has generally not improved matters of mental health and anxiety. It’s getting harder to breathe properly all the time. Robert Bent, founder and CEO of Inward Breathwork, is trying to help wake clients up to the consequences, seeing his business as a logical continuation of personal wellness trends, and of how some of the most fundamental aspects of our lives need to be revisited. “Ten years ago everyone knew exercise and diet was important. Three or four years ago people clued in to how important sleep was and just how badly we were disrupting that. I think breathing is next,” he tells me. “It’s something that we’re just not doing properly anymore because of changes in our evolutionary environment.”
“A Tiny Piece of a Huge Vision”
Breathwork isn’t Bent’s only project. “It’s a tiny piece of a huge vision,” he explains. His work in psychedelics and on hot/cold ice baths deserve mentions too, and I’ll admit to a healthy dose of my own bias in choosing to focus our talk this way. Almost since COVID began, I’ve been in what might reasonably be called a mental health survival mode. I’ve taken up yoga, meditation, cycling, and running, all to give myself something to do and add tools to my growing box of coping mechanisms. Since becoming more serious about meditation in particular, I’d been paying a great deal of attention to my breathing. Robert’s journey into breathwork began as a result of his own mental health struggles.
“I’ve been interested in meditation since high school,” he begins. “I’ve always had a practice, ten minutes a day, nothing crazy, that would ebb and flow depending on how stressed I was. I also have ADHD and would seek pleasure-stimulating behaviours. I’ve had problems with drugs and alcohol, was very into extreme sports, and can work 16 hours a day. If I’m into something I can get very excited. My first job was in finance, in investment banking. My parents pushed me that way. Success was very much a core value. I was driven to make money and prove myself as fast as I could. I was pretty insecure,” he admits.
Business Struggles, Psychedelic Medicine, and The Onboarding Challenge
After the unfortunate failure of his first startup, an unhappy and introspective Robert explored meditation more seriously, going on an intense Vipassana retreat and beginning to think more deeply about his own practice. “When you try to start a new hobby, you’re not going to be good at it. Meditation has big onboarding challenges. Lots of people try to sit down, their thoughts are going crazy, and they get frustrated and wonder ‘how can I get into this?’ I did this retreat, and I felt a lot of emotions come up. It was also where I learned about psychedelic medicines. I was still drinking, and wanted to go deeper. I’d learned about ayahuasca, and after doing some research I ended up going down to Peru and having four sessions in the jungle. The psychedelic medicines really opened up a lot of traumas, things I’d buried away. That was about six years ago now. I’ve been sober ever since.”
Bent tells me that he met his fiance shortly after, who is also active in health and wellness. He created a regular routine of psychedelic medicines “every three months or so in a ceremonial setting,” and daily meditation. “It was a really strong practice. It changed my life. I was able to establish new habits, be healthy, and get back to work. I joined the Ethereum foundation at the right place and time, and when that took off we ended up moving to San Francisco. I was around all of these people I idolized as an entrepreneur. I was in the present, feeling good, sticking to my routine, and it was all showing. I tried to tell friends and coworkers about the retreats and psychedelic medicines, but there was almost zero uptake. Two hundred people in my close group, maybe twenty have a practice. It’s that onboarding problem again.”
Bent on Psychedelic Stigma and the Beginnings of Inward
“If you’re disciplined and admit to yourself that you really have an anxiety problem, meditation is doable and the resources are amazing. It’s the best practice you’ll pick up in your life. But for 90 percent of people, it’s hard to admit there’s a problem, and they are hesitant to take that first step. As psychedelics are illegal, it’s an even larger boundary to cross.” Reminding me of how far we’ve come, Bent says that “five years ago when I started talking about psychedelic medicines, people didn’t respond well. It was ‘you’re taking drugs.’ How to Change Your Mind wasn’t out, there was no Tim Ferriss or Joe Rogan talking about this stuff. It has changed a lot now, but there’s still a stigma. Even people who have heard about it probably aren’t going to book a trip to Peru for an ayahuasca retreat. It’s not accessible. It’s expensive and potentially dangerous.”
The impetus to do something, Bent tells me, came from close to home. “I was looking at my friend group. People in their 30’s, more and more successful and accomplished and less and less happy. It’s so easy to be overwhelmed. There’s so much coming at you. A phone is not a natural thing to have on you, to have your work and social lives revolve around. When someone takes psychedelic medicines and you put a phone in front of them they almost have a heart attack, just from how unnatural it is. I was looking at this and wondering what the answer was to get people to feel better. For me it started with bathhouses. I don’t drink, it was a social experience, no phones, and it feels great with the hot and cold. I asked myself why this was happening and started doing some research, reading papers, getting into the Wim Hof method, and actually ended up building an ice bath in my backyard. My partners and I had people over throughout the course of a summer, and we did a campfire and ice bath and guided people through it. At first we thought it was an athletic thing for recovery, but it turns out it’s a meditative thing.”
Bent explains the reaction in neurological terms. “In the ice, your norepinephrine triples. It’s the neurotransmitter responsible for mood, attention, vigilance. It means you’re present. Your thoughts, your emotions, your to do list, they just fade away. You teach yourself to surrender in the face of stress, using your breath. It ended up getting pretty big. I think we had about a hundred people in our WhatsApp group, all wanting to do these sessions. When it got cold, we converted my garage space into a little mini sauna/ice bath/tea room, put up a landing page, and just did events. It was my sister who suggested turning it into a business. I was still working for Ethereum at the time, but we did that and every month the sales grew.”
Ice Baths and Breathwork as a Community
“We started to realize it wasn’t just the mental aspect. People were coming for emotional experiences and to connect with their community. We started layering in practices I’d learned from psychedelic experiences and rituals and practices from mental health.” Bent identifies a few of these, saying he would encourage participants to share their fears in complete darkness, or have partners eye-gaze while connecting their heart rates in an ice bath — a profound experience in that mental state, he assures me. “All these experiences using hot and cold are wrapping mental health experiences in an accessible and fun container. We were never overt, we just said ‘come because it’s awesome and you’ll feel good,’ but we slowly taught a lot of people about meditation through this first step. People were loving it. It exploded.”
As with so much else, Covid derailed Bent’s program. “Obviously we had to shut down. We started offering the breathwork we’d been training with from several different schools online. People started asking for recordings and we filmed videos and sold them in a course. They asked for more, so now we’ve made it a full time business. We have the largest breathwork library in the world. We’re filming new content every day and it’s our absolute passion.”
Making Breathwork Accessible
“Breathwork is something you can feel in a single session. You’re changing the blood, oxygen, and CO2 ratios. Over time you can actually shut down the executive function of the brain, the same way you’d get through intense meditation or psychedelic medicines and actually heal traumas in the body. If you have a meditation practice or real spiritual practice there’s a ton of resources, but I’m sort of obsessed with the idea that 90 percent of people won’t go down this path. They don’t know they’re overwhelmed, they’re very uncomfortable feeling vulnerable. They struggle to feel the benefits of meditation. With breathwork, we can make it like a fitness class for the mind. We’re not using traditional meditation music, it’s fun and engaging. You can go really deep with the platform. The idea is that this is fun and you can do it with friends but you’re also going to have emotional releases and we’re going to teach you about fundamental foundational breathing. Really improve your breathing patterns. I think making that accessible to a mainstream audience with a science-based language is a very powerful offering.”
Bent compares his program with other popular schools of breathwork such as Wim Hof and Laird Hamilton, saying that “where they’re geared toward resilience and athletics, we’re going to the average person who’s stressed, and explaining how their breathing affects their mental process.” Tying it together with his other programs and interest in psychedelic medicines, he adds that ice baths, meditation, psychedelics, and breathwork are all steps along the path toward becoming a “community of continuous improvement.”
Breathwork as the Body’s Control Switch
All of this caused me to wonder: How are people breathing wrong? “You can breath for two reasons. To release tension or to ramp up. Breathing deep into the lungs stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest nervous system. It sends blood flow to the organs, it signals that you’re safe. The other is the fight or flight system, which is like pushing the gas pedal. It sends blood flow to the muscles, the brain, turns on adrenal responses. Breath is the control switch between these. It’s the only way we can consciously control these things. A big problem we have in society these days is that because of overstimulation, we’re always breathing through the top of the chest instead of deep into the diaphragm. As a result, that fight or flight is always on, always spiking. You get a Slack message that you’re late for a meeting, or a notification on Instagram, and your breath gets short and it jumps.”
“You’re looking at all these things and your brain doesn’t actually know you’re not in danger so you feel your heart rate increasing. If you’re in that state all day long then you aren’t getting enough blood flow, which leads to chronic stress, among other diseases. Your brain has a sensor that measures how much carbon dioxide is in the body, and every time you’re in this fight or flight state you breathe faster, usually through the mouth, and the carbon dioxide levels go down. The same thing can happen from eating too much junk food — a high carb diet, processed foods and refined sugars. If you are eating more acidic foods, you need to breathe out more carbon dioxide to balance the ph levels.”
Bent’s explanation struck close to home for me. I think it’s a relatable experience for most professionals these days. Working from home, too many open tabs, several kinds of notifications pinging away at us at once with snacking as one of a scant few compensations for our reward-seeking minds. Our concentration, mental and physical health, and breathing all suffer as a result. I confess I hadn’t thought about just how much all three of those were related to one another until our talk. To wrap things up, I asked how he felt about the tech aspect of his platform and how it fit with the more naturalistic side of the practice, both in his own business and the psychedelic space as a whole. It’s a frequent topic of discussion for us here at Truffle. “For breathwork or psychedelic medicine, I think the blindfold, the elements of touch, the acoustics and a good playlist, these are all important elements. In my mind, there’s no technology that can replace those things. The flip side is that tech can give you the ability to have a connection to a trained and focused coach, who you can talk to about your intentions and goals and then follow up with. It’s nice to have that to keep you accountable.”
James Stephen is a content contributor at Truffle Report. He studied Politics and International Development at Trent University and completed his Postgraduate Certificate in Book, Magazine, and Electronic Publishing at Centennial College. He has previously worked as a chef, and in his spare time is an author and freelance writer.