Just What Is 'Rebirthing' Therapy?

June 28, 2000 -- Alternative therapies must follow a long and arduous road to get into the mainstream, often for good reason. Nonconventional medications and therapies can sometimes be useful, but at their worst, they can be dangerous, even life-threatening.

Take the process called "rebirthing." One such procedure recently proved lethal to a 10-year-girl in Colorado. But a different technique that goes by the same name has many believers who say it has changed their life.

Before the tragic incident in Evergreen, Colo., this April, few people had even heard of rebirthing therapy. But the process made national headlines after the girl died while undergoing what was termed a rebirth.

She was an adoptee named Candace Newmaker, and she was being rebirthed to overcome a mental condition called reactive attachment disorder, in which children lack the ability to develop a loving, intimate relationship with a guardian.

The rebirthing therapists reportedly pushed Candace's body against pillows and wrapped a blanket around her head to simulate the womb. She was told to push against the pillows and blanket, to recreate her birth in an effort to heal her past and begin anew with her adopted mother. Instead, she suffocated. Four workers at the rebirthing clinic, along with the girl's mother, are now facing charges in her death.

Reactive attachment disorder is a difficult condition to treat, and the standard treatment is an intensive regimen of psychotherapy. There are treatment centers around the country that specialize in the disorder.

One such clinic in Evergreen issued a press release about the rebirthing incident, saying that, except for what was reported by the media, "we are unfamiliar with this technique and have never engaged in this practice. We are not aware of others in the attachment field who are using this technique."

Gregory C. Keck, PhD, of the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio, tells WebMD he is familiar with the tragedy in Colorado, but "I really have no idea about this practice. ... It's not something that we do in our office."

Rhea Farberman, communications director for the American Psychological Association (APA), tells WebMD the process "is outside of the mainstream of what psychologists do ... and honestly, until this story broke, I had never heard of it."

Farberman says the procedure has no legitimate standing in the mental health community. "One of our problems with this, in addition to the fact that it seems bizarre, is that there is no research, there's no validation of it as a practice, and that's obviously a concern. That, and of course, it's been proven to be dangerous after this young girl's death."

There's more to the story, though. Some practitioners say rebirthing may involve a memory of one's birth, but it is first and foremost about breathing.

Kelly Walden, a mechanical engineer from the Atlanta area, is a rebirther who also trains other rebirthers. She tells WebMD that what happened in Colorado is "actually called birth regression; it's completely different."

Walden says rebirthing was started in the early 1970s by a man named Leonard Orr, who used the term "rebirthing" to mean "rejuvenation." Walden is on the board of directors of the Association of Rebirthers and Trainees International, which has chapters and practitioners around the world.

Rebirthing, as Walden describes it, is all about breathing: "It's a circular breath where the inhale and the exhale are connected; there's no pause, it's continuous, and it actually puts you in another state where you're processing thoughts and feeling and emotions, spiritually, mentally, physically, all that."

Walden tells WebMD the process takes about an hour, and that those who undergo it should have a trained practitioner with them for the first 10 to 20 sessions as intense feelings may come to the surface -- even memories of their own births.

"What we've noticed are that some people have memories of childhood, memories of birth, [or] memories of what they had for lunch yesterday," Walden says. Blankets are not used, and children seldom, if ever, undergo the process.

Walden compares the process to "running without running," saying: "You release stress, you just feel better. It's like having that endorphin high without moving. ... The goal is to be more at peace with yourself."

Joy Marler, a self-described professional rebirther in the Atlanta area, describes her first experience with rebirthing nearly 15 years ago. She says she didn't exactly feel like she was re-experiencing her birth, "but it was a very interesting connection."

Marler tells WebMD she got an image of looking down on her mother having her at the hospital, and in following sessions, the name "John" kept flashing into her consciousness. Marler asked her mother if her parents had originally thought they were going to have a boy, and she said yes. They were going to name him John.

"That just kind of freaked me right out, I can tell you ... I thought there must be something to all this stuff; I'm going to keep doing this," Marler tells WebMD.

During another rebirthing experience, Marler says, "I just felt such a sense of peace, for the very first time in my whole life I felt like everything is really OK; I am perfect just the way I am." Marler and Walden also describe rebirthing as purification, cleansing, meditation; they say the breathing can release toxins from the body.

Although not everybody re-experiences their birth (the percentage is about 30%, according to Marler), many rebirthers believe that unconscious experiences from the type of birth you had may have helped shape your life. For instance, they say, a person born by cesarean section may look for shortcuts to everything, someone with a forceps birth may dislike being controlled by authority figures, and a premature baby may grow up often feeling like an intrusion.

If intense feelings come up during rebirthing, Walden may try to get participants to breathe through them and release them. If that fails, both Walden and Marler say they refer the participants to counseling, and Marler even suggests that people in counseling get their therapist's approval before undergoing rebirthing. Rebirthers do not claim to be therapists, Walden tells WebMD.

Kim Waters-Rose, LPC, is a therapist. She has a master's degree in psychology, she's a licensed professional counselor, and she's also what's called a rebirthing sponsor. She says she wouldn't recommend rebirthing for all her clients, but many could benefit.

"For those that are looking for personal growth in their life and don't have any clinical disorders, what I've found is that [with rebirthing,] therapy goes a lot faster," Waters-Rose tells WebMD.

Nonetheless, the APA's Farberman says when dealing with new or unproven procedures, consumers should beware: "You have to educate yourself and ask the right questions so you know that you're seeing a provider who is appropriately credentialed and appropriately educated, so you give yourself the best opportunity to get the type of help you need and recover from whatever it is that's bothering you -- the same way you would in choosing a physical health provider."

Vital Information:

  • One type of so-called "rebirthing" therapy was made famous recently when a 10-year-old girl died from the procedure, which involved wrapping her with blankets and pillows to simulate the womb.
  • The girl was being treated for reactive attachment disorder, but many psychology experts previously were unaware of the "rebirthing' treatment, and discount the therapy.
  • Another therapy with the same name involves breathing exercises that help to relieve stress, may bring back past memories for some people, and help bring peace in their lives.
  • Consumers should educate themselves and ask questions before beginning rebirthing or other types of alternative therapy.