Holotropic breathing (HB) has become increasingly popular among those seeking to explore a unique self-healing process to achieve a state of wholeness. This unconventional New Age practice was developed by psychiatrists Stanislav and Christina Grof in the 1970s to achieve altered states of consciousness (without the use of drugs) as a possible therapeutic tool.
Holotropic breathing involves controlling and accelerating breathing patterns to influence mental, emotional and physical states. It is a practice that derives from a spiritual framework, but it is also a recorded activity.
History of holotropic breathing
After LSD became illegal in the late 1960s, the Grofs, who had been proponents of LSD’s therapeutic effects, developed holotropic breathing. The technique was created to achieve psychedelic-like states without using psychedelic drugs. The Grofs were trained in Freudian psychoanalytic therapy and believed that the process of deep self-exploration brought about by these altered states can bring healing.1
Stanislav Grof is known as the co-founder of transpersonal psychology (along with Abraham Maslow). Grof began working at the Institute for Psychiatric Research in Prague and eventually moved to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. His work was conducted with patients suffering from psychiatric illness, cancer and drug addiction.
Holotropic Breathwork Practitioners
Official holotropic breathing can only be conducted by certified instructors who obtain a certification from the Grof Foundation after completing a 600-hour training course.
In many countries, practitioners use this technique as a spiritual rather than therapeutic practice. Thus, some people participate to expand their awareness rather than to overcome or manage a mental health condition. Many proponents of HR propose that this technique moves you toward higher consciousness.
In other words, it can move you to another state, which can be appealing to people who feel stuck and unable to move forward by other means. Often, this sense of awakening can occur through some form of catharsis.
However, the belief is that trauma will only come to light during a session if it is necessary for healing; and that this will not be known at the beginning of the session.1 Rather, each person’s experience with HB is unique, self-directed, and unfolds on its own as the practice progresses.
A journey of self-discovery
The practice of holotropic breathing involves using a controlled breathing process to access altered states of consciousness. The purpose is to gain some form of enlightenment. From the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “trepein” (to move toward), the word “holotropic” translates as “moving toward wholeness.”
The fundamental principle of this technique is that healing comes from within the person practicing the breathwork. This premise is also intended to help the participant feel personally empowered.
During holotropic breathing, participants breathe rapidly and evenly to induce an altered state from which it is believed a deeper understanding of oneself can be derived. Some describe this experience as a more intense form of meditation.
how does it work?
The underlying principle of RH is that each person has an inner radar that can determine the most important experience at any given moment, but that we may not be aware of this experience until it occurs.
From this perspective, the facilitator does not need to tell those practicing what to focus on. Instead, participants need to discover what emerges for them as they do the work.
Often, people experience an intense “therapeutic” crisis that helps them expel negative energies and brings them to a healing place of greater understanding. This will always be specific to the person at that particular time in their life.
The intended breathing pattern is designed to be uniform so that the participant avoids hyperventilation. However, some attribute the physical sensations of the experience to the imbalance between the person’s carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen (O2), which is what occurs with hyperventilation.
The act of hyperventilation (exhaling too much CO2, which causes respiratory alkalosis or alkalinization of the blood) can cause an altered state of consciousness, as well as the physical sensations of tingling in the fingers and mouth, lightheadedness and dizziness.
How is holotropic breathing practiced?
The following is a description of what a holotropic breathing session can be like.
- Holotropic breathing is most often practiced in a group setting led by a trained facilitator. It can also be offered in individual sessions or as part of a retreat.
- People are paired together in a group setting. There is a “breather” and a “sitter.”
- The “sitter” only assists the “breather” if needed. The breather is the person who actively practices and experiences HB. The sitter ensures that the breather is safe and supported during the session.
- A facilitator guides the session. Instructions are given to increase the speed and rate of the breather’s breathing. The ventilator is told to breathe faster and deeper while keeping the eyes closed. As the breathing speed increases, attention is paid to maintaining even breathing, which helps practitioners avoid complications from hyperventilation.
- A session can last from 2 to 3 hours in total.
- The ventilator lies on a mat for the entire session. Lying down gives him/her the possibility to move freely, in whatever posture his/her breathing takes him/her.
- Repetitive music is played. The rhythmic music encourages the ventilator to enter an altered state of consciousness (similar to having a vivid dream). The music begins with drumming, and eventually reaches a peak and changes to “heart music.” From there, it eventually changes to meditative music.
- The session is open. This means that each person can draw their own meaning and achieve self-discovery in whatever way is for them. In addition to moving in any way they wish, participants are encouraged to make any sound they feel appropriate.
- Afterwards, participants draw mandalas about their experience and comment on what happened. It may be about re-experiencing a past trauma, feelings of joy, or developing spiritual awareness. In essence, the goal is for the RH to be a catalyst that brings to the surface the most important issues that the person needs to address.
- Breathers and sitters exchange roles for future sessions.
- There is no specific guideline or expectation of what should happen or what issues are explored during a session. Participants are free to work on whatever comes up for them as they enter the altered state.
Proponents of this technique claim that this altered state allows people to access parts of the mind that are not normally accessible; this may include the re-emergence of memories of past events.
What sensations are experienced?
A common question is what it feels like to participate in holotropic breathing. It may seem frightening to breathe in this way, and you may worry about the effects you will experience.
Rapid breathing can be overwhelming or unsettling, but practitioners can always withdraw if the sensations are too intense. However, breathers are encouraged to continue (safely) if they are able, as this is believed to be the path to enlightenment that the practice is intended to reveal.
Rather than calling it an altered state of consciousness, some prefer to refer to it as a “non-ordinary state of consciousness” to reflect that it does not necessarily have the negative connotations of altered states. In general, the concept of having a dream might be a more useful metaphor.
Holotropic breathing is an experience that is supposed to bring a person into a deeper dimension of the present moment and to see things in a more colorful and insightful way than reality might otherwise appear.
Benefits of HR
There is no research to support the therapeutic benefits of holotropic breathing for psychiatric illnesses such as depression and anxiety. However, there is some evidence to suggest that it may be helpful for relaxation, stress relief, personal growth, or self-awareness.
Spending time in a trusting environment, focusing on deeper life concerns, learning to support others, trusting one’s ability to heal oneself, and developing compassion are all potential benefits.
It is recommended that holotropic breathwork be done in conjunction with traditional therapy, rather than used as a substitute.
There are some potential risks of engaging in holotropic breathwork. There is some concern that this technique will cause distress in vulnerable individuals, such as those at risk for psychosis.
In addition, there are significant medical risks of hyperventilation. In addition, few studies have been conducted on the efficacy of achieving mental health “enlightenment,” healing through holotropic breathing, or the overall safety of the practice.
Since the process of holotropic breathing aims for a “deep experience,” uncomfortable feelings, also known as “healing crises,” may arise. In fact, this technique is controversial because it involves the possible amplification of symptoms in potentially problematic ways.
Holotropic breathing can cause a reduction in carbon dioxide and other alterations in blood chemistry that can lead to dizziness, fainting, weakness, hand and foot spasms, and even seizures.
Who should not practice holotropic breathing?
This technique can evoke intense physical and emotional changes. As such, there is a list of specific criteria that discourage its practice. For anyone considering trying out HR, it is a good idea to discuss the possible risks with your physician before embarking on this alternative practice, especially if you have any of the following conditions:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Heart attacks, high blood pressure and angina pectoris
- Glaucoma or retinal detachment
- Recent injury or surgery
- Any condition that requires you to take medications
- Panic attacks or psychosis
- Severe mental illness
- Aneurysms (or family history)
- Pregnancy or breast-feeding