It was my first Holotropic Breathwork ™ retreat, and nothing I would have expected. I laid in a fetal position on my mat – hands clenched, sweat dripping from my forehead, crying my eyes out like a newborn. Thumps of tribal drums blasted through the speakers just a few feet away. To the right was my sitter, carefully looking after me if I needed water, to go to to the bathroom, or just a hand to hold. Scattered throughout the dark basement floor were 7 other pairs of breathers and sitters. Some were crying. Some were laughing. Some laid quietly as if deep in meditation.
I continued breathing deeply and quickly. More energy filled my body. More tingles around my muscles. Gradually my arms raised to the air. As they did my hands contorted into strange positions. An intense pressure started to wrap around me, like contractions a baby would feel in the womb. Then the shakes came. My legs began shaking… Then my chest… Then my arms and hands… Eventually my entire body vibrated violently to the beat of the drums.
Just a few week earlier, I didn’t even know what the hell the term ‘Holotropic Breathwork’ was. If you’re in that boat, not to worry. It’s still relatively unknown. Holotropic Breathing was first pioneered by the famous transpersonal psychologist Dr. Stanislav Grof in the mid 1970’s. Before his work with Holotropic Breathwork (HB), Grof was one of the leading researchers studying the effects LSD had on the psyche.
Through thousands of case studies, he observed how effective altering his patient’s state of consciousness had with treating trauma, addiction, and invoking personal growth. Yet in 1967, Grof’s research hit a grinding halt when LSD was banned to quell the growing counter-culture movement. In response, Grof looked for alternative approaches to achieve non-ordinary states of consciousness. He looked towards the breath.
The manipulation of the breath has been used for thousands of years by cultures and religions around the world to alter consciousness. In the earliest forms of Christianity baptisms involved limiting the breath by holding initiates under lake water, bringing them close to the brink of death, only to lift them back up to the surface. For centuries, aboriginal cultures use circular breathing in various cultural and spiritual rituals. Many buddhist meditations involve slowing and placing one’s attention on the breath. The famous Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh once wrote “The Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness.”
Dr. Grof began exploring how one could cross this bridge as an alternative to psychedelics. He found that by breathing faster, deeper, and placing your attentions towards the body, one would naturally move into a non-0rdinary state of consciousness. He coined this technique “Holotropic Breathing”, which literally means “moving towards wholeness” (Holos = whole and Trepein = moving in the direction towards something).
Benefits Of Holotropic Breathwork
Similar to his experiences with LSD, Grof found this method just as effective. In the late seventies he began holding workshops throughout the country. Participants reported HB helping them:
- Recover from addiction
- Alleviate chronic pain
- Relieve depression
- Gain powerful life insights
- Remove negative thought patterns
- Let go of fear of death
- Find newfound meaning and purpose
- Increase creativity
- Experience mystical states
Yet unlike LSD this approach was natural, safe, and participants had control whether to dial up or down the intensity of the experience. Meaning if you were at all uncomfortable during the session, you could breath naturally and quickly brought back. Compare this against a bad LSD trip where you’re trapped in the experience for a number of hours.
Grof found HB particularly effective in releasing past trauma. My workshop leader James Frazier had a great analogy to explain why this is. Imagine sitting at home watching a horror movie on a VCR tape. It’s so scary that halfway through the movie you press the eject button to pop the tape out of the player. Luckily, you don’t have to watch the rest of the movie, but instead now have to carry the tape around the rest of your life. Whenever go near a VCR, the tape threatens to play itself which brings up a mountain of fear and anxiety. The only way to shed free of the tape is to finish it to its completion. In other words, by fully experiencing your past trauma, you release it.
The problem with trying to achieve this during regular waking consciousness is your ego throws up defenses and walls preventing this from occurring. It recognizes the amount of hurt you underwent and protects you from re-experiencing it.
We all have past trauma that deeply affects our day-to-day lives. Whether that’s childhood issues with our parents, peers, at school – we all have tapes we’re holding onto. These tapes manifest itself in the fear, anxiety, hurt, and anger that continually pops up in our lives. Holotropic breathing is a safe way to bring your ego’s defense walls down, open the door to your subconscious, fully relive your trauma, and finally release it from your life. You begin seeing your trauma from a completely new vantage point, and make new neural connections to process it as a result. This is why many associate Holotropic Breathing with self-healing.
Types of Experiences With Holotropic Breathwork
Stan Grof once said that non-ordinary states of consciousness function as a radar. It finds areas of the subconscious that have the strongest emotional charge and surfaces them into consciousness. Similar to psychedelics such as Ayahuasca, the experience is incredibly unpredictable and you don’t know what’s going to happen until you’re there.
Some have experiences rich with visuals. Others have less visuals, but more physical sensations pulsing through their body. Some dive into a relaxed state. Some others begin tensing up. Dr. Grof once noted that Holotropic Breathing can create a condition in the body that triggers old tensions associated with past trauma. For example, if you were sexually abused as a child, there could be buried tension in certain areas of your body associated with that event.
Oftentimes these tensions run completely under the radar. This was the case in my own session. My subconscious brought up tensions from my past I never knew were even there. As these tensions arose, my body began shaking to release them. This is why I felt so light the weeks after the Retreat.
Many others have mystical experiences with Holotropic Breathing. Participants have recalled visions of being in contact with Krishna, Jesus, Marry, The Buddha, etc. Many others connect with certain animals or other aspects of nature. Some others experience what Richard Maurice Bucke coined “Cosmic Consciousness”, a dissolving of one’s ego and a feeling of deep unity with everything around you.
As we’ve said, some re-live childhood trauma. Some others have transpersonal experiences being whisked away to other countries, other lives, and other times of history. James Frazier recalled a past participant being a soldier in the Roman army, being in the frontlines of battle. As you can see, there is a wide spectrum of experiences anyone can have when they dive into this type of work.
Reliving The Birthing Process
One of the most common experiences is reliving the birthing process. As stated, Holotropic Breathwork can give you access to your subconscious and one of the most impactful events to shape it is the birthing process.
For the majority of babies, births are incredibly traumatic. Prior to labor, babies are cocooned in a rapturous, heaven-like state. All their needs are provided for, there are no feelings of separation with the outside world, and they feel a peaceful connection with everything around them.
Yet when labor begins, suddenly the baby is thrown out of the garden of eden. Intense contractions closes the walls around them, blood supply is cut off, and there is no exit in site. When the cervix eventually dilates, the child is forced to undergo the painful journey out of the womb. As I laid in a fetal position feeling intense pressure wrapped around my body, I was reliving this very event.
And for those who underwent complications during labor, lasting trauma can be even worse. It’s not uncommon for babies to have cords wrapped around their neck, birthed in breeched positions, or experience a cesarean section. These events can set the framework for the subconscious and deeply affect the psyche throughout the child’s life.
As strange as this may sound, Holotropic Breathing gives you the ability to re-live your own birth in order to let go negative material from the trauma you experienced.
As the music quieted and my breathing slowed down, I laid on my mat in exhaustion. My clothes were drenched in sweat after what felt like an intense workout the past two hours. My sitter eventually helped me up, and lead me upstairs to a quiet room. We were given colored pencils and a white sheet of paper with a mandala circle drawn inside it. Facilitators encouraged us to draw within the circle and express what went on in the session. This allowed us to get introspective, process the experience and gain insight. Here’s the picture I drew that represented the intense energy flowing through my body throughout the session:
After a group sharing session of our mandala drawings, my first Holotropic Breathwork retreat came to a close. I left the center with a bit of confusion. I thought I’d have an eye-opening experience of enlightenment. Instead I felt like I went through a power workout at the gym. Yet I had to admit, it felt as if weights were lifted off my shoulders. I felt lighter, calmer, more centered. And something completely unexpected happened the day after the retreat – I finally had the courage to confront my parents with an issue I’d put off for over a decade.
Holotropic Breathwork is something I would wholeheartedly recommend trying out. It will give you access to your subconscious in a safe, supported container hard to find through any other method. You can see dramatic healing with trauma, recovery from addiction, and growth personally & spiritually.
Have you tried Holotropic Breathwork? We want to know. Share your experience in the comments below!
Cover Photo by JR Slattum