“A safe and effective way of using one’s own breath to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness.”
In 2018, a reporter for Yoga Journal committed to do a videotaped short session of Holotropic Breathwork – something she had never tried before. The video begins with her relaxing comfortably on the floor under a blanket and wearing an eye mask. One can see the quick rise and fall of her belly as her professional “sitter” helps her keep her breath moving throughout the experience. After an hour of ear-to-ear grinning, hysterical laughter, shuddering, moving her arms and hands, she enters at last into a state of beatific peace and gratitude. At the end, she summarizes her experience with three wide-eyed words: “What the hell!?”
That’s what I experienced as well, in a 3-hour session with a small group led personally by the legendary Dr. Stan Grof (along with his wife, Brigitte, and their senior teaching team) in February of 2020. I’d tried breathwork in a giant group in Ubud, and once at a Tantra training, but those experiences were much shorter, and neither involved having or being a sitter. This one with Stan was by-the-book. It is a deliberate, therapeutic modality that helps access and clear holds in the body, mind, and spirit. Things came up in memory like intense fear around the birth of my oldest son, that I didn’t expect. Like all the tools available to us, it can bring us more freedom to show up in our lives as we are now, not with the warps and twists and limitations of past hurts and experiences.
What is Holotropic Breathwork?
Developed in the late 1970s by Christina and Stanislav Grof, Holotropic Breathwork is a practice that involves controlled breathing to shift one’s state of consciousness and break out of controlled patterns of thinking. For just as “heliotropic” is a translation of the Greek “moving toward the sun,” “holotropic” means “moving toward wholeness.”
The practice of inviting spiritual transformation through deep, rapid breathing—a form of hyperventilation—was experienced by psychotherapist Christina Grof while on a yoga meditation retreat in India. The event put her in a prolonged altered state, and about a year later she was referred to her future husband, Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. While working with Christina, Stan Grof understood that such breathing practices could simulate, or surpass, the mind-altering effects of LSD—which he had been using in his therapy practice from the 1950s until the drug was outlawed in 1968. Moving away from LSD, they “developed a safe and effective way of using one’s own breath to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness comparable to the use of psychedelic substances.”
In the early 1980s, Stan and Christina Grof traveled all over the world to spread the messages of Holotropic Breathwork and Transpersonal Psychology. By 1987, they had developed their first structured training program.
Holotropic Breathwork sessions can be as short as an hour, or as long as 12. Most, when led by one of the founders, spanned several hours. Each person who will be doing the work is accompanied by an attendant (or “sitter”). The sitter will watch over the breather, support their experience, and offer help if needed. “For many people,” the late Christina Grof noted, “it’s really the first time that they have been fully present for another person.”
The breathers are provided with some relaxation techniques, to calm the mind and body. Their eyes are then masked, or closed; this is an inner journey. The participants are then instructed to take full, deep belly-breaths, their mouths open, with rhythmic inhales and exhales. They move to faster and deeper breathing, staying with the breath, with a commitment to surrender to whatever comes up from their innermost being. Often there is music played in the background, to both accentuate and moderate the intense sensations and even vocalizations that arise with the deep-breathing practice—effects that can include laughter, sobbing, shouting, even animal-like howling.
What it can do for you?
“We have access to so much mental and physical power through breathing,” Stan Grof remarked in a 2013 interview. “Breathing has been used for centuries as a means to change human consciousness.” He cites everything from original baptism rites to Balinese monkey chants, from vipassana mindfulness practice to Tuvan throat singing. “All you have to do,” he observes, “is ask people to breathe a little faster and deeper.”
How Holotropic Breathing works on a psychological level is not fully understood, but—as the Yoga Journal reporter discovered—there’s no doubt of its power. “The state,” theorizes Stan Grof, “finds the areas in the unconscious which have the most charge, from infancy to later life.” For some it could be reliving their actual experience of birth; others move into mystical or spiritual realms, encounter deities (from Shiva to Mother Mary) or take on the aspects of animals.
Why does it work?
From a biological standpoint, this deep, rapid, and sustained breathing exercise leads to what is called the hyperventilation syndrome—which is known to ignite agitated, sometimes overpowering emotions (it was an experience like this, after her 1974 meditation, that first led Christina to seek Stanislav’s help). For this reason, the practice has long been viewed by the medical profession as undesirable and even dangerous.
Grof’s lifetime of experience belies this claim. The most important thing is that – as with LSD, MDMA, and other psychedelic drug therapies — there is a safe and supportive environment within which these experiences can unfold. After more than 25,000 sessions, he notes, with trained sitters and skilled direction, “people go into a very profoundly relaxed state. Deep connections are expressed. But,” he allows, “many people do develop some form of tension in the body, as the practice tends to awaken old psychological and physical blockages—possibly from past traumas.”
For this reason, in the Grof-led sessions, bodywork is often offered after the Holotropic Breathing in order to highlight and release those tensions. Many sessions ended with art therapy, during with the breathers created mandala-like images that reflected their inner experience.
PS we also saw the pre-release documentary on Stan’s life, from filmmaker Susan Hess. Find out more about the documentary and the books at The Way of the Pscyhonaut.