Over recent years, more people have become interested in breathwork for health, wellbeing, and spiritual purposes. One of the most widely known forms of therapeutic breathwork is holotropic breathwork, a practice developed in the 1990s to aid self-growth and trauma-healing.
The breathing technique, combined with therapeutic guidance and music, can have several physical and mental health benefits. Read below for a guide on the history, practice, and safety of holotropic breathwork.
What Is Holotropic Breathwork?
Holotropic breathwork is a psychotherapeutic practice developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof in the 1970s. Through a combination of controlled, intensive breathing, therapeutic music, and guidance and support from a facilitator – holotropic breathwork is a method for self-exploration and healing of trauma.
The word holotropic is derived from the Greek words holos meaning “whole” and trepein meaning “to move toward”; hence holotropic breathwork is a way to “move towards wholeness,” and help people embrace all aspects of their life and past.
Trauma is a term used to describe the body and mind’s response to disturbing and distressing life events. Trauma can manifest itself in different ways, including:
- An inability to feel or express emotion
- Occurrence of anxiety and panic attacks
- Physical effects – such as disturbed digestion
- Disturbed sleeping – including irregular sleep patterns, nightmares, and insomnia
Sometimes people cope with traumatic events by storing the memory of such in the subconscious part of their brain, so their conscious mind can “forget” about it. However, this mechanism doesn’t stop the physical and psychological effects of trauma from occurring.
Holotropic breathwork can take people to altered states of consciousness, where memories stored in their subconscious come to the surface. By understanding these past experiences and talking about them with a facilitator, holotropic breathwork can allow people to learn from and move past their trauma and make positive life and behavior changes accordingly.
History of Holotropic Breathwork
Stanislav and Christina Grof trained in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the idea that psychological problems result from the subconscious mind. They developed holotropic breathwork in 1975 to assist with this style of psychotherapy.
The Grofs began with research into LSD as a psychotherapeutic tool in the 1960s, recognizing the molecule’s ability to help patients uncover their hidden traumas.
The Grofs began investigating holotropic breathwork as a safe and legal way to reach psychedelic states.
However, due to health concerns around LSD, and with the drug officially banned in 1967, they began investigating holotropic breathwork as a safe and legal way to reach similar psychedelic states.
Stanislav and Christina shared holotropic breathwork across the globe and developed their first training program for the practice in 1987. Since then, many people have trained in holotropic breathwork and guided patients on therapeutic journeys. Several other forms of breathwork meditation, based on holotropic breathwork, have since been developed.
How It’s Practiced
In a holotropic breathing session, a facilitator, trained as a holotropic breathwork practitioner, will guide a participant to take continuous rapid, deep breaths for around two to three hours.
Carefully selected music is played during the session to help the participant find physical and emotional release. Often, music playlists draw inspiration from sounds used in indigenous healing ceremonies, such as rhythmic drumming.
The facilitator may support the participant with physical release during the session through elective bodywork. This type of bodywork encourages participants to bring their attention to areas of tension in the body and intensify the sensations till they become released.
At the end of the breathing session, the participants engage in creative expression, commonly mandala drawing, and sharing their experiences with the facilitator.
Holotropic breathwork can be practiced as a one-to-one form of therapy or in a group setting. Participants may also choose to have one to several follow-up sessions with the facilitator after the breathwork session to better understand and learn from their experiences.
More detailed information about the methods of holotropic breathwork can be found in Stanislav’s book Holotropic Breathwork: A New Experiential Method of Psychotherapy and Self-Exploration, which can be accessed online.
Benefits of Holotropic Breathwork
Psychological Benefits of Holotropic Breathwork
Holotropic breathwork can help people feel more relaxed and aid them with personal growth. Here are some of the scientific investigations into the therapeutic benefits of holotropic breathwork:
An early study investigated the therapeutic benefits of holotropic breathwork by comparing two groups of study participants. One group received breathwork and psychotherapy, and one received psychotherapy only.
The group who received the breathwork had significantly reduced measures of anxiety around death and increased self-esteem and connection to others compared with the therapy-only group.
Recent experiments found holotropic breathwork participants had more consistent improvements in symptoms of psychiatric problems.
More recent experiments include a study in 2007 that found holotropic breathwork participants had more consistent improvements in symptoms of psychiatric problems than participants who had music therapy.
Another study in 2015 found participants had increased levels of self-awareness, reduced levels of hostility, and decreased interpersonal problems following four holotropic breathwork sessions.
Physical Benefits of Holotropic Breathwork
During holotropic breathwork, a person takes more deep and rapid breaths per minute, known as hyperventilation, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) they exhale. Because CO2 is acidic, releasing more CO2 through hyperventilation causes the blood to become more alkaline. This state is known as respiratory alkalosis.
Some physiological benefits of a short-term respiratory alkalosis include:
- Anti-inflammatory effects
- Improved blood circulation
- Increased muscle tone
- Improved exercise performance
Risks of Holotropic Breathwork
For some people, short-term hyperventilation may have more damaging than positive effects. Some of the risks associated with hyperventilation include:
- Increase in heart rate and blood pressure to dangerously high levels
- Loss of consciousness
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Blurred or tunnel vision
The risks mean that holotropic breathwork may not be for everyone. People with high blood pressure, glaucoma, and cardiac complications should avoid holotropic breathwork due to its effects on the heart.
Summary on Holotropic Breathwork
Holotropic breathwork can be a profoundly healing experience, but it also comes with risks. If you’re interested in holotropic breathwork – it’s essential to be aware of the safety hazards. Make sure you book a session with a well-trained licensed facilitator who can support you to make the most out of your journey.