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Holotropic Breathwork: Healing Through Psychedelic States

ThriveTalk Staff ∙ Updated: 04/27/2020 Medically Reviewed 

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You breathe every day without pausing to think about it. Breathing is just one of the things that your brain does on autopilot. However, when you breathe consciously and harness the power that lies in simply breathing, you’d be amazed by the results. For example, in various meditation practices, breathing helps to calm the mind and body. You can also “transcend the narrow boundaries of the body ego” just by breathing. This might sound like mumbo-jumbo, however, it has been scientifically proven by the theory of Holotropic Breathing. In this article, we explore the concept of Holotropic Breathwork, what it means, its benefits and its limitations.

Holotropic Breathwork: What Is it?

The word ‘Holotropic’ is derived from the Greek word ‘holos’ which means ‘whole’, and ‘trepein’ which means ‘to move toward’. Therefore, Holotropic simply means moving toward wholeness. Essentially this is the goal of Holotropic Breathwork, a breathing technique that falls under transpersonal psychology.

Holotropic Breathwork is a therapeutic breathing technique that’s designed to stimulate an altered state of consciousness. This is intended to help with emotional healing, emotional release, and personal growth. The process involves breathing very fast for a period of time, which could be a few minutes or hours. This changes the balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body and the reduced level of oxygen is believed to induce a state of altered consciousness. Trained practitioners known as facilitators guide individuals through this process. Music is incorporated in the session and the goal is to improve the individual’s psychological and spiritual development and activate the natural human capacity for healing.

Holotropic Breathwork Theory

Holotropic breathwork is the brainchild of Dr. Stan Grof and Dr. Christina Grof, psychotherapists who used LSD to treat their patients in the 1970s and recorded great successes. However, LSD was banned and it became illegal to use it in treatment procedures. They began searching for an alternative that would have similar effects to LSD. The result was Holotropic breathwork. In the course of their research they found out that through certain breathwork techniques, you could stimulate a similar psychedelic effect to LSD. Holotropic breathwork uses intense breathing to get individuals to transcend consciousness as a way to experience emotional catharsis and healing.

How Does Holotropic Breathwork Suggest The Mind Works?

Holotropic Breathwork theorists believe that the altered state of mind produced by hyperventilation and the change in the level of oxygen in the body can help an individual access parts of the psyche and consciousness that aren’t usually accessible. Stan Grof supports the comprehensive theory of human psychology that suggests levels of human consciousness include memories of  “past life” experiences, one’s own birth experience, and past events. Supporters of holotropic breathwork believe that by working with the technique and altering their minds, individuals can access these different levels of consciousness.

How Does Holotropic Breathwork Cause Change?

Holotropic breathwork produces an altered state of consciousness. In this state, individuals gain access to deep parts of their mind that aren’t accessible in their daily lives and report a range of physiological, emotional, mental, and spiritual effects. It is a powerful technique that aids self-exploration and personal empowerment. People get release from the trauma and difficult experiences they may have buried, and gain the capacity to move toward positive transformation and wholeness. There have also been reports of a higher level of trust in self, release of stress, and clarity in personal issues.

What Happens In A Holotropic Breathwork Session?

Holotropic breathwork is a practice that’s usually led by a certified professional holotropic breathwork facilitator. Sessions can either be single sessions with only the individual seeking treatment present or group sessions. However, the holotropic breathwork is usually offered in a group setting. Participants in the session are paired. One person takes the role of a ‘breather’ while the other takes the role of a ‘sitter’. The ‘sitter’ is there to make sure that the ‘breather’ is safe and comfortable and does not usually interrupt the process unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so. Later in the day, the participants switch positions. This technique combines evocative and rhythmic music with fast breathing.

Techniques Used In Holotropic Breathwork

During the session, the breather lies on a mat and hyperventilates by breathing in a continuous fast manner for 1-2 hours. The breathing technique involves a forced exhale through the nose and a relaxed exhale through the mouth without any pauses in the breath. A variation of this technique involves breathing through the mouth with a gasp on the inhale and a relaxed sigh on the exhale. The facilitators guide the participant in this relaxation exercise and encourage each person to increase the speed and depth of their breathing in the rhythm that’s most comfortable for them.

The breather uses this breathing and evocative music to enter into a different state of consciousness where a deeply cathartic and sometimes psychedelic or trance-like process takes place. The participant may have cry hysterically, laugh, experience visions, re-experience past trauma, be in a meditative, still or serene state, or experience a deep spiritual awakening. In fact, some participants report spiritual, religious or mystical experiences. Others experience great levels of stress relief, clarity and gain solutions to the issues that have been troubling them.

After the breathing process comes creative expression, sharing, and discussion. The participant is asked to draw a mandala to visually represent the thoughts and ideas that resulted from the experience. A mandala is a circle with shapes and symbols inside. Next, the participant shares what happened during the experience. The facilitator does not attempt to interpret the experience, however, they may encourage the participant to explain or elaborate where necessary in order to help the participant fully understand the experience.

Holotropic breathwork can be really intense and people tend to be really shaken by the experience. It’s recommended that you practice this technique only under the supervision of a trained facilitator. Facilitators are trained to supervise individuals as they experience the shifts in their states of consciousness. They know when to step in and help if it’s necessary to do so.  Remember that though there are recurring themes, every individual has a different and unique experience with holotropic breathwork.

Holotropic Breathwork

Does Holotropic Breathwork Work?

Holotropic Breathwork has immense benefits. It was developed as a safe way for patients to deal with trauma and has proven to be a great treatment tool. It has also been proven to decrease anxiety and those who practice it report that they feel calmer and less stressed after the session. Other people report greater clarity and a renewed sense of self. Different studies point to the efficacy of holotropic breathwork. A  2015 study showed that holotropic breathing can increase self-awareness. It also helps to positively shape character. People who went through the technique several times said that they were less needy and slower to anger.

In another study, psychotherapy and holotropic breathing were combined and used to treat patients. Patients who participated in both holotropic breathing and psychotherapy had lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of self-esteem compared to those who only participated in psychotherapy.

A 2013 report also found that with holotropic therapy, no adverse reactions were reported. Instead, participants reported that they experienced great emotional catharsis which means that it is a relatively low-risk therapy.

What Kind Of Concerns Is Holotropic Breathwork Best For?

As explained above, Holotropic breathwork has immense mental healing benefits. It allows individuals to connect with their true selves and get release from buried trauma. It promotes higher levels of self-esteem, clarity and a more positive outlook on life. It also aids the reduction of chronic pain and improves symptoms from conditions such as depression. It has been shown to be of significant benefit to those with avoidance behaviors and addiction issues. People who haven’t had much progress with traditional therapy might find holotropic breathing to be a great alternative. Holotropic breathing is useful for treating a wide range of conditions including the following:

How Are Holotropic Breathwork Specialists Trained?

Holotropic breathwork specialists usually have to go through the Grof Transpersonal Training program in order to become facilitators. The courses consist of 600 hours of training over a two year period, after which participants who are successful become certified. Only certified facilitators are licensed to offer holotropic breathwork sessions and organize events

Concerns/Limitations Of Holotropic Breathwork

Hyperventilation produces low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood and this can cause intense behavioral and physical changes. Therefore, it’s advised that you don’t participate in holotropic breathwork if you have a history of, or suffer from the following medical conditions:

  • Angina
  • Heart attack
  • Panic attacks
  • Glaucoma
  • Osteoporosis
  • A recent injury or surgery
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Seizure disorders
  • Severe mental illness
  • Any condition for which you take medication regularly

Holotropic breathwork is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Holotropic breathwork also brings up intense emotions. This is why we recommend that holotropic breathwork is done as part of ongoing therapy so that individuals can work through the painful emotions that arise in a healthy manner.

How To Find A Therapist

You can find a therapist who is a licensed holotropic breathwork facilitator on the Grof foundation’s registry of facilitators.

What Should I Be Looking For In An LMHP?

You should be looking for a holotropic breathwork facilitator with proof of certification and a license to practice. You should also check to see how much experience the facilitator has.

Questions To Ask A Potential Therapist

  • How long have you been practicing holotropic breathwork?
  • How do you think this form of treatment will be beneficial to me?
  • How much experience do you have in this field?
  • Do you consider yourself an expert in holotropic breathwork?
  • Do you have any concerns about me using this technique?
  • How much do sessions cost and will this be covered by my insurance?
  • What is your cancellation policy?

Find a Therapist Now

When you choose to start seeing a therapist, you’re committing your time, energy, and money. While most clients will agree that the benefits of therapy outweigh the costs by far, digital technology has made therapy more affordable and accessible than it has ever been before.

People who are seeking a therapist can find the right practitioner for their needs through ThriveTalk – an online platform with a simple sign-up process and a wide range of highly qualified therapists for you to choose from. By seeing an online therapist, you can save on the cost and avoid waiting lists while also being empowered to change your story from the comfort and privacy of your own home. So why not try it today?

Final Thoughts On Holotropic Breathwork

If you would like to try holotropic breathwork, make sure you speak to your doctor about it first. You should also ensure that you get a trained facilitator who’s licensed and certified to guide you in the process. Holotropic breathwork can help you get to the roots of your pain and trauma, gain deep inner healing and learn more about yourself. It is a great way to enhance your physical, mental and emotional well being

 

 

About the author 

ThriveTalk Staff


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