Vivian Rosenthal on the Profound Power of Holotropic Breathwork
For Vivian Rosenthal, a trained architect and the co-founder of Frequency Breathwork, breath provides the structural starting point around which a good life gets built—it’s the foundation for all that grows around it. Through Frequency, which she describes as an emotional well-being “platform,” she leads immersive healing-breathing experiences both in-person and online to foster consciousness, mindfulness, and human connection. With a background in the psychology of immersive VR spaces, Rosenthal brings her expertise to, among others, sensorial holotropic breathwork classes that she guides from Souk Studio in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood and at off-site events.
Here, she talks about overcoming her personal feelings of numbness, dissociation, and fear; her journey from architecture and technology to breathwork; and finding agency through breathing.
Vivian, let’s begin with your path to breathwork and to the founding of Frequency. How did you get to where you are now, right here, in this room?
Gosh, I think I had to get incredibly lost to find my way here. I was just stuck in darkness, and inside that darkness, I was searching desperately for something filled with light. I was really anxious, depressed, and panicked, and didn’t know how to find my way out.
I’ve struggled with mental health ever since I can remember. As a little girl, I was terrified of being sucked into a black hole, so much so that I wouldn’t get on an elevator, and I lived on the eleventh floor, so I walked up and down eleven flights of stairs. I just had this deep fear in me. I was searching for something, but didn’t know what I was searching for.
Getting here was a long and winding road. To explain here is to explain there, and there would be a place of numbness, dissociation, and fear. It’s a state of not being in our bodies. It’s a state of always wishing for something or somewhere else.
When I first came in touch with the breath in an embodied way, it was the first time I stopped wishing to be somewhere else, somewhere that I didn’t yet know, or to be someone else. I came home to myself. The feelings of numbness, dissociation, and fear—the fear of being in and with my body—melted in that moment. Not indefinitely, but while I was in the act of consciously breathing. That was the moment when I felt like I touched something that reminded me of my essence, and it allowed me to deeply surrender.
How I got here is more how I got there, and how I got there is through the breath. The first type of breathwork that I studied was Kundalini, which is a form of yoga, but the breath is a very large part of it. After years of studying Kundalini, I discovered holotropic breathwork, and that’s when I simultaneously experienced something greater than myself and myself in a way that I never had.
Your path also includes time working in technology, behind screens. Can you share a bit about your leap away from technology and into this current work at Frequency?
To cope with trauma and physical pain in my body growing up, I decided at a fairly young age that I wanted to be a cyborg. Looking back, I can laugh and understand that I was so drawn to science fiction and the concept of a cyborg because I was in a lot of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain. But I didn’t understand that at the time. So I thought, Ah, well, robots don’t feel pain.
I became seduced by technology. I was reading and writing science fiction. I even thought my initials, Vivian Rosenthal, VR, stood for “virtual reality.” When I first learned that term, I really thought, Oh, okay, this is a sign. I think digital seduction is a real thing. There’s a beauty and slipperiness to the digital and tech world, aesthetics, and everything. I certainly was seduced. It represented a way out of my body, through the mind.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t appreciate at the time is that we’re, for [better] or for worse, stuck with this body. We might have a lot of diseases, accidents, traumas, or whatever it might be, but we can’t just wish them away or wish away chronic pain. I’ve had chronic pain for years, and I think I convinced myself that if I turned into a robot girl, I wouldn’t have that chronic pain. So that was the path I went down.
I went to Columbia[’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation] and got my master’s in architecture. It was when Bernard Tschumi was the dean. The school was paperless, and it was all about creating these digital environments that weren’t so much about being human; it was more about projecting ourselves into these abstract, sleek digital environments that were incredibly exciting and seductive, but didn’t leave a lot of space for being human.
I did my graduate thesis with my classmate Jesse Seppi, on the psychology of immersive VR spaces. It was thinking about how people could be physically in different spaces but energetically come together through the color blue—the frequency of light—and collapse space and time. He and I ended up starting a digital design studio after grad school, and it was an exciting time because we were at the forefront of imagining these worlds that blended the physical and digital in new ways.
That was the path that I took, and I don’t regret it, but I certainly went down this rabbit hole of technology. I then ended up running an incubator for Google, and again, it was looking at how design and technology could be blended to create a better world and a better reality. Technology is incredible—this is not to disparage it—but at some point, I was so deep in the matrix that I had lost myself. I was dissociated from my body and how I felt physically, and I was so captivated by what existed on the screen that I no longer had a sense of my own humanity. It took me a long time to undo everything and to ask myself, “Who is Viv, and what makes me happy? What am I here to do on the planet? How am I helping people?”
It was quite an undoing of my identity to step out of that world, and it took a series of events and people to make it even possible. I also ended up with Lyme disease and was sick and hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic. Through disease, an accident, or some type of trauma or crisis, we often find ourselves willing to reexamine everything. I was fortunate in that I was stuck, sick, at the Mayo Clinic, and not able to keep down solid food. I really thought, Hmm. Maybe there’s a different path.
It’s so striking to me, listening to this story, because Frequency uses technology in interesting ways—it’s about creating an immersive space. It’s an alternate form of time, as well. In the brief time we have, I was hoping you could share a little bit about your philosophical approach to breathwork, specifically holotropic breathwork.
Breathwork seems like this innocuous thing. We all breathe. But there’s a particular type of breathwork called a connected circular breath. It has many styles and names, just like the many forms of yoga. Holotropic breathwork, rebirthing breathwork, shamanic breathwork, psychedelic breathwork, two-part breathwork. What they all have in common is a continuous inhale and exhale done through the mouth. To allow the mind to move into a non-ordinary state.
I was drawn to this practice for many reasons, but I think, like so many of us, I found meditation through confrontation. Breathwork is an active form of meditation. It gives the mind something to attach to by focusing on the rhythm of the breath. And for someone who struggled with a lot of anxiety and panic, I found breathwork to be of instant relief in a way that I had never found meditation. I’d been practicing Vedic meditation with a mantra for years, but breathwork had this potency and immediacy that was like a balm for my soul. It was exactly what I needed. Turns out, if I fast forward to the thousands of people I’ve worked with, that’s the case for so many others, too.
Breathwork acts on the brain in the same way that plant medicine and psychedelics do. Obviously, that is very exciting because we’re now seeing a lot of clinical studies that show we can rewire the brain. We don’t have to be labeled as someone who’s anxious, depressed, or stuck in trauma, PTSD, or addiction our whole lives. We have a chance to have agency. What I love so much about breathwork is that it’s such a democratic and universal medicine for mental health.
We all breathe. I’ve seen every type of person—every age, every religious belief, every skin tone, every class—come through the space and feel safe, seen, and welcome because the breath is a universal, democratic unifier. As such, I think it’s what our country needs right now because we’re in a mental health crisis. We were in one before Covid, and we’re in an even deeper one now.
My vision is to have all of America breathing together with music. The breath can be done with music. It’s not sitting in silence. To me, the hope is to bring this medicine to everyone. At Frequency, we combine music, sacred geometry, visuals, and the breath to create this beautiful container. But I’ve led breathwork sessions all over the place, and you can do it just about anywhere.
Before we go, I’d love to hear if you have any parting thoughts or words or any bits of wisdom that you might share related to all you’ve learned on this journey so far.
What I’ve learned is that we all have so much more in common than we have differences. We all want to be seen. We want to be understood. We want to feel safe. We want to be loved. We want to be held. What I’ve seen and experienced is that the breath connects us to a place of self-love, where we can connect to mother nature and each other and remember we’re not alone. We’re never alone. We’re so deeply interconnected to one another and to the trees, which so lovingly and generously give us this oxygen and take our carbon dioxide. We’re in this constant dance of the inhale and the exhale with nature, this planet, and each other. Your exhale is my inhale. My inhale was your exhale. When we remember that, I think we can all allow our nervous systems to soften and co-regulate. As we begin to love ourselves a little bit more, we can love each other a little bit more. What I hope the breath does is bring us back to ourselves and to the earth so that we can remember who we truly are.
To finish, what to you, Vivian, is the good life?
To me, the good life is trees, mushrooms, and the ocean. I could elaborate [laughs], but it’s to be in water and the ocean. It’s to be breathing with the trees in nature. It’s to be looking at the stars with mushrooms.
This interview was recorded on October 18, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.