Breathing is a necessary activity that we often leave on auto-pilot. However, if you take control of your breath, you’ll be amazed by what you can accomplish. For instance, you can regulate your state of mind, using measured breathing to take yourself from a fever pitch into a state of calm.
You can even use your breath to “transcend the narrow boundaries of the body ego” into a relaxed and even spiritual high. If that sounds like the stuff of arcane spiritual practices, you might be surprised to find that this was actually the goal of scientists. (Grof, Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. 2000.) That’s the goal of holotropic breathwork, a breathing technique that falls under the umbrella of transpersonal psychology.
What does Holotropic Mean?
Broken down, the word holotropic comes from the Greek holos, which means whole and trepein, which means to move toward. So, holotropic can be translated to mean moving towards wholeness.
The Development of Holotropic Therapy
Holotropic breathing was engineered by founders Dr. Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof, researchers who were trained in psychoanalytic therapy. While researching the effects of LSD, the Grofs became interested in altered states, or non-ordinary states, of consciousness and how they could help empower people to deal with their trauma. They sought to develop a method for achieving a psychedelic experience via only breathing, for use in self-exploration and inner healing.
Their solution was holotropic breathwork.
Holotropic breathwork combines intense breathing to get practitioners to transcend consciousness as a way to heal. Specifically, holotropic breathwork integrates short, intense breaths followed by long, deep breaths. Because of this, many consider holotropic breathwork to be a much more intense meditative practice.
Benefits of Holotropic Breathing
Despite it being an intense practice, holotropic breathing has great benefits for those who want to try. Since it was developed as a way for patients to deal with trauma, it’s been proven useful as a form of psychotherapy, especially helping those with avoidance behaviors.
It’s also been shown to decrease anxiety in its practitioners, with people feeling a sense of calm and creativity after each session.
Additionally, there have been personal reports of altered consciousness and greater self-discovery with this method. Others report a higher level of trust in self, release of stress, and clarity in personal issues they struggle with. (Brouillette, Gilles – Reported Effects of Holotropic Breathwork: An integrative Technique for Healing and Personal Change)
What Happens During a Holotropic Breathing Session
Holotropic breathwork is a practice typically led by a certified professional holotropic breathwork facilitator in group sessions, though one-on-one sessions are available.
Participants are paired off with one person as the “breather” and the other as the “sitter.” The breather lies on a mat while the sitter makes sure the breather is comfortable, physically safe, and supported throughout the whole session. Later in the day, the pairs switch positions.
Often times, there is also evocative music to support the session. The music is usually rhythmic throughout the intense breathing and transitions into meditative music towards the end.
A trained practitioner is on site at all times to facilitate the exercises providing guidance and instruction.
Each session usually last between 2-3 hours. After the session, participants engage in a period of creative expression. Activities like drawing and coloring are encouraged, along with a discussion of experiences.
How to Practice Holotropic Breathing
As mentioned, it’s best to find a trained practitioner to lead you in a holotropic breathwork session. If you’d like to try these methods at home, please be aware that it is more intense than meditative and there should be some acknowledgement of risks involved.
Risks Associated with Holotropic Breathwork
Holotropic breathwork is not recommended for people who are prone to panic attacks, have a history of psychosis, or those who suffer from the following medical conditions:
- High or low blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
The intense emotions that arise from a holotropic breathwork session are a concern as well. This is why many recommend holotropic breathwork as part of an ongoing therapy to help individuals work through intense personal emotions and/or painful memories that arise.
Techniques for Holotropic Breathwork
We recommend visiting a holotropic breathwork workshop if you’re interested, but If you’d like to try it at home, start by finding a space that’s cool and dark.
Place a comfortable mat on the floor and lay down. Close your eyes, release any tension in your muscles, and start by taking a few relaxing breaths.
When you feel ready, deepen your breathing. Inhale through your nose and push out your stomach as far as you can. Watch your stomach decrease as you exhale.
Then start speeding up your breath. Keep your mind clear; you can repeat “Breathe in, Breathe out” quietly to yourself.
Continue this process until you feel yourself entering an altered state or whenever you’re ready.
Other Breathing Methods for Stress
Holotropic breathing may be a viable option for therapy but as with all things that push your boundaries, make sure to follow up with your doctor.
If Dr. Grof’s method doesn’t sound like your type of healing process, or you’re just curious for more ways to manage stress and anxiety, explore these other stress management methods:
- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh or Deepak Chopra
- Meditation for Anxiety
To find stress relief throughout your whole day, Spire can help.