Recent years have seen a growing interest in holotropic breathwork and its purported benefits on the mind and body – but what is this new age practice and how does it work?
Want to know the link between holotropic breathwork and LSD? Or the safety concerns that make it so controversial? Or perhaps you want to know why holotropic breathing is always done in pairs?
In this article on holotropic breathwork, we’ll discuss:
- What is holotropic breathwork?
- The history of holotropic breathwork.
- What is holotropic breathwork like?
- Is holotropic breathwork safe?
- Where can I practice holotropic breathwork?
What is holotropic breathwork?
To understand what holotropic breathwork is, let’s break the term down.
The word “breathwork” describes various breathing practices in which one consciously alters and controls their breathing in order to induce a particular psychological, physical or emotional state, in the belief that doing so fosters enlightenment or therapeutic benefits.
While breath exercises have been harnessed for hundreds of years, “breathwork” is a New Age term and practice. It grew out of a broad movement in the 1970s onwards, hallmarked by a rejection of prevailing Western practices and movement towards spirituality, holism, and environmentalism as alternatives.
Next, the word “holotropic”.
Coming from the Greek words holos, meaning “whole” or “complete”, and trepein, meaning to “orientate or move toward something”, the term holotropic translates to something like “moving toward completeness.”
As such, holotropic breathwork can be understood as the practice of altering one’s breathing, to induce a particular conscious or physical state that will heal and enlighten you, moving you closer to completeness.
As it says on the official site, “Holotropic Breathwork is a powerful approach to self-exploration and personal empowerment that relies on our innate inner wisdom and its capacity to move us toward positive transformation and wholeness.”
What’s the History or Holotropic Breathwork?
While holotropic breathwork is a fairly new practice, its history is steeped in intrigue and controversy.
Developed by scientists Christina and Stanislav Grof in the 1970s, this breathwork technique arose as a response to the banning of LSD in the 1960s. Prior to the banning, LSD was used as commercial mediation for psychiatric, and in smaller circles, therapeutic treatment.
Trained in Freudian psychoanalytic therapy, the Grofs were amongst proponents of the therapeutic benefits of LSD.
They held that the altered states of consciousness induced by LSD fostered processes of deep self-exploration and introspection. By breaking restrictive and harmful thought patterns, they believed, psychedelics could heal, enlighten and even induce new perspectives on life.
Thus, after LSD was made illegal, the Grof’s sought alternative ways to induce psychedelic-like states and altered consciousness in order to achieve these healing and therapeutic benefits.
The result? Holotropic breathwork.
What is Holotropic Breathwork Like?
Holotropic breathwork is a deeply personal and individual experience, and as such it’s a little hard to say exactly what you will feel like during the session.
However, the process of holotropic breathing is much easier to explain.
A complete holotropic breathwork workshop lasts anywhere between 3 and 12 hours, and has four main components – environment, technique, “sitters” and facilitators, and finally, reflection.
While holotropic breathing workshops can be offered one-on-one, most commonly they are practiced in group settings and led by a qualified facilitator. As such, it will often be a large, spacious area, free from distractions and calm.
The space is commonly void of bright, harsh, artificial lighting – often lit by candles or daylight. There will often also be incense or holotropic herbs scenting the area too.
An important part of the environment is the “evocative” music playing in the background (evocative meaning that which triggers thought, imagination, and memories, normally of something pleasant). This music will guide much of the technique.
The overall goal is to make the setting conducive to the practitioner feeling safe and supported.
#2: Sitters and Facilitators
Holotropic breathing is always practiced in pairs – with one partner performing the “sitter” role while the other is the “breather”. They then swap roles later on.
When you enter a group holotropic breathing setting, you will normally be paired up with another practitioner. In a one-on-one session, a qualified facilitator will act as your sitter.
The sitter’s role is simple – just be present and available to assist the breather if they become distressed or ask for help. The sitter thus only helps if explicitly needed, and is there to make sure the breather is safe and supported, but not to interfere with their experience.
This point is very important. The sitter must not interrupt, interfere or try to guide the breather’s experience in any way. The same is true for the qualified facilitators who are there to lead the process, but who may act as helpers if necessary.
The role of facilitators is to set up and safely guide the workshop. This includes giving an introduction, running through safety advice, preparing the sitter and the breathers for their role, and so on.
As they guide the session, facilitators will give various instructions to the breather, such as directions to change the rhythm or speed of their breath, usually in accordance with the music.
Now, onto the crux of the topic – the holotropic breathing technique.
First, the breather will lie on the floor, (usually with some cushioning!) flat on their back, with eyes closed – where they will remain for the entire session.
This is hugely important in order to ground them and allow them to move freely during their experience without the risk of injury.
Repetitive music selected for its evocative properties will be playing in the background. Usually, this music has four different stages that will be linked to changes in the breath under the instruction of the guide.
The first is often light, rhythmic drumming, which eventually grows in volume and intensity until it reaches its peak – which is the second stage. Then, the music transitions to heart music – linked to the heart chakra. The final stage is much gentler, meditation music to guide the breather out of their session.
As the music changes, the breather will be instructed to breathe deeper or faster – being careful to keep the breathing even in order to avoid risks of hyperventilating.
Holotropic breathing workshops are exploratory. That is, breathers are encouraged to let their bodies dictate the length of the session, to derive their own meaning from their experience, to move in any way, and release any sounds that come to them.
After the breathwork has come to an end, there is an important period of time reserved for reflection on the experience.
Breathers will be led into a room full of art supplies, where they draw mandalas to express their experience in a concise, visual way. Mandala in Sanskrit translates as “circle” or “completion”, forming a beautifully symbolic way to end the sessions.
The mandalas are then used in a sharing group discussion as a visual complement to their verbal accounts describing their experiences. Here, participants discuss the feelings, memories, transformations, perspectives and so on that arose for them during their practice, and the meanings they attach to each.
These may be positive feelings, but may also be difficult realizations such as the re-experiencing of trauma. Whatever the dominant topic, the belief is that whatever surfaces during the session are the most important issues that the individual needs to focus on.
Who should not practice holotropic breathwork?
Holotropic breathwork is aimed at evoking intense physical and mental shifts. While this is the root of its purported benefits, it can also pose risks for those with preexisting physical or mental health conditions.
The list below is by no means exhaustive, thus we recommend that anyone wanting to try holotropic breathwork consult a medical professional first to see how it may interact with any preexisting conditions, such as the following:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Heart attacks, high blood pressure, and angina
- Glaucoma or retinal detachment
- Panic attacks or psychosis
- Severe mental illness
- Those who are pregnant or are breastfeeding
How can I practice holotropic breathwork?
Due to the above-mentioned risks, holotropic breathing should only be carried out under the guidance of a guide who is trained in leading sessions. It’s very important not to attempt this technique at home without the presence of a guide.
These workshops run all year round, and there are communities in most regions that will offer holotropic breathwork. Best this to do is to search on Google, Instagram, or on relevant Facebook community pages.
Make sure to do a background check – official holotropic breathwork sessions can only be guided by qualified instructors who have obtained a certification from the Grof Foundation after having completed their 600-hour training course.
If you sign up for a workshop, get in touch and let us know about your experience!
Check the video below for a glimpse into a private holotropic breathing session!
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