Reclaiming 'Rebirthing'

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Rebirth of a Notion

By Elaine Zablocki
WebMD Feature

Aug. 6, 2001 -- Recently, two therapists were sentenced to 16 years in prison when a 10-year-old girl they treated died following a "rebirthing" session. During the treatment the child was tightly wrapped in a blanket, in an attempt to re-create and relive the trauma of birth. Instead, she suffocated.

This horrifying story has nothing to do with the practice generally known as rebirthing, say members of the Association of Rebirthers and Trainers International (ARTI). The defendants in this headline-making case seem to have just borrowed the "rebirthers" name, which is not copyrighted or trademarked.

"Rebirthing is a very gentle but powerful breathing technique, using a deep breath with no pause between inhale and exhale," says Debi Miller of Decatur, Ga., a member of the ARTI board. "You lie on your back, with a rebirther sitting next to you, and focus on the breath. This process accesses and releases stored emotion, and releases stress from the body."

Anna Christensen, MSW, of New York City, is qualified to judge. A professional psychotherapist herself, she's also a rebirthing client who has completed 20 sessions.

"Rebirthing is a powerful tool to enhance personal growth," she says. "It's not a purely intellectual experience. The breathing allows you to connect with old beliefs and patterns on a body energy level. I work with Maureen, who is such an intuitive, loving person, and I experience rebirthing as a gentle unfolding in which you perceive and release stuck energy."

Maureen Malone, who coaches Christensen, first learned about rebirthing in 1980.

"It was a way of contacting emotions I wasn't even aware of, mostly sadness," she says. "It may sound unusual, but I realized I was also suppressing a lot of my own happiness and joy in life; my emotional aliveness wasn't available to me. Rebirthing gave me the will to make a lot of changes." Today Malone is a rebirthing center manager in New York City.

Tony Lo Mastro first tried rebirthing in 1979. "I was hyperactive and scattered, with lots of thoughts and emotions and feelings, and rebirthing put me in my body," says Lo Mastro, a rebirthing center manager in Philadelphia. "It allowed me to focus and find out what I really thought and felt. It slowed me down."

How Does It Work?

Rebirthing sessions last two hours, usually including an hourlong discussion of the issues the person is dealing with, plus an hour of breathwork. The first session often takes three hours, since it includes a thorough intake interview. People usually do 10 sessions with a male rebirther and 10 with a woman. "Different issues will come up in the presence of a male or female," says Miller.

ARTI has developed a training program for rebirthers that includes classroom work plus a period of practice under an approved rebirthing trainer. Those who've completed this training period are called "sponsored rebirthers."

"Rebirthing may be a pleasant experience," says Kenneth Skodnek, MD. "However, if something comes up which triggers old traumatic memories, it could be very upsetting, and someone might end up with more issues to deal with than when they started." Skodnek is a psychiatrist and chairman of the department of psychiatry and psychology at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y.

Not for Everyone

Skodnek questions whether rebirthing is suitable for someone who's had major emotional difficulties or has a history of being manic or suicidal.

"If someone is well-adjusted, it might not be a problem. But if this process elicits disturbing feelings and the person is in great distress, they should go to a hospital emergency room for an assessment. If someone is troubled but can wait, they could go to their family physician for a referral."

Miller agrees. "This is for stable people who want to go to the next step in their lives. If someone is suicidal we'll refer them out for the support they need. In our training program we cover these issues in detail. This is one reason we do such a long intake interview," she says.

But of course, even though ARTI has set up its own training program and has reasonable processes in place to protect people who use the rebirthing process, it is not a recognized psychological treatment modality. While there are many testimonials from people who say it's helped them, there are no formal studies to prove it works.

On the other hand, "there is little research data on many approaches used in clinical psychology, partly because it is very difficult to do controlled studies in this field," says Stephen Sideroff, PhD, clinical psychologist on staff at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine. "There are several recognized clinical approaches that believe many psychological issues are held in the body, not just the mind."

Sideroff uses breathing work in his own practice, although he doesn't describe it as rebirthing.

"Breathwork can help someone access images and feelings that weren't available simply by talking," he says. "At some point in the treatment process it can break through defenses and barriers, so it does have value.

"But no matter what form of therapy is used," he says, "the most important thing is the person doing it. Check their training and credentials, and listen very carefully to what they say they intend to do."

'Our Goal Is Happiness'

Rebirthing fees range from $75 to $150 per session, and many rebirthers follow a sliding scale or offer pro bono work for those with special needs. Miller, for instance, offers rebirthing free-of-charge throughout pregnancy.

"Since teenagers need extra support, at any time I'm usually working with three teenagers, on a no-fee basis," she says. She meets with their families, and generally tries to mentor them.

"We want to make the planet a better place," she says. "I realize that may sound a little airy-fairy, but it's the truth. As individuals let go of their pasts and heal, we all heal. Our goal is happiness, sometimes one person at a time."

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