Holotropic Breathwork: Purpose, Methodology and Criticism

“How does holotropic breathwork work?” this is a common question which most curious individuals who are new to the technique generally ask prior to the start of a session.

Holotropic Breathwork: Purpose, Methodology and Criticism
Mental Health

Madhuri Ramesh Article Writer

What is Holotropic Breathwork?


Holotropic Breathwork (HB) is a new age therapeutic practice that involves using elements such as breathing and music to access higher states of consciousness similar to that achieved by using psychedelic drugs such as LSD. This practice however does not involve the use of any drugs.


The term holotropic breathwork is derived from two Greek words ‘holos’ meaning ‘whole’ and ‘trepein’ meaning ‘moving forward. When combined, the words translate to ‘moving towards wholeness. The history of holotropic breathwork dates back to the 1970s and 1980s shortly after LSD became a schedule 1 controlled substance in the late 1960s. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof who is widely known as the founder of holotropic breathwork along with his wife and psychiatrist Christina Grof developed this practice as a succession to their LSD-based psychedelic therapy. 


Dr. Grof was a principal investigator in the 1960s and it was during this time that he started his study to find out the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic drug LSD. His interest in the drug heightened when he discovered that its psychedelic effects seemed to benefit his subjects in various ways and allow them to hallucinate and enter non-ordinary states of consciousness which closely resembled the ancient mystic principles of the east. 


His findings urged him to continue his study throughout the 1970s even after the drug became illegal. He then moved to the United States where he partnered with Abraham Maslow and Anthony Sutich and started a new discipline called Transpersonal psychology, an integrated concept that combined principles of modern psychology and transcendent and spiritual human experiences. 


It was in the year 1975 that Christina Grof was referred to Dr. Stan Grof to help her deal with her whirlwind of emotions. Christina, who had been practicing yoga for nearly 10 years had experienced a sudden surge of energy and a brief shift in consciousness during a meditation session with a south Indian yoga master. Stan and Christina’s common interest in non-ordinary psychic states led them to develop the technique of holotropic breathwork. 


Christina further went on to establish the Spiritual Emergence Network (SEN) with the aim of helping fellow spiritual seekers and individuals like herself who had gotten entangled within a fierce web of emotions during their journey of inner spiritual transformation. Stan and Christina Grof soon began touring the world, spreading their recently developed concepts of transpersonal psychology and holotropic breathwork as far and wide as they could. In 1987, they finally managed to gather a group and begin their first holotropic breathwork training program.


The key purpose of this practice was to promote physical, spiritual, and mental healing by helping people attain altered or non-ordinary states of consciousness without the aid of drugs. This in turn enabled them to connect better with themselves, others, and the environment. Holotropic breathwork is believed to be beneficial for successfully treating a number of mental and physical conditions such as stress and trauma and has also helped promote self-growth and self-awareness. Followers suggest that holotropic breathwork helps individuals become more compassionate and deeper thinkers. 


However, despite its positive effects, most practitioners often consider the technique to be more of spiritual practice rather than a therapeutic one. Holotropic breathwork is generally practiced in groups. And experts suggest that it is always best to practice this technique  under the guidance of an official practitioner. 


In the Stanislav Grof holotropic breathwork book titled ‘Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy’, 

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Stanislav and Christina Grof elaborate on the theory and practice of this new-age technique of introspection, self-exploration, and psychotherapy. Their book also includes the experiences of people who have undergone life-changing transformations through this practice, providing insight into their groundbreaking discoveries over the past thirty years. 


Moreover, a number of online forums and communities such as Reddit and Facebook dedicated to holotropic breathwork have emerged, giving people a platform to seek help and support as well as openly share their experiences and concerns. These communities also often organize holotropic breathwork training programs which provide an opportunity for people with similar interests to network and connect. The holotropic breathwork community majorly comprises groups of people who have a keen interest in self-development and personal healing. 


Besides holotropic breathwork, there are also several other breathing techniques that are capable of bringing about similar results. Examples include vivation, shamanic breathwork, clarity breathwork, transformational breathwork, and rebirthing. However, despite their similarities, each type of breathwork is unique in its own way and has its own set of benefits, drawbacks, and contraindications.


Holotropic Breathwork Method


“How does holotropic breathwork work?” this is a common question which most curious individuals who are new to the technique generally ask prior to the start of a session. Practicing holotropic breathwork allows individuals to enter non-ordinary states of consciousness and access thoughts, feelings, and memories that would otherwise be impossible to access under normal conditions. While breathing may be something that happens automatically, holotropic breathwork exercises involve having complete control over your breathing. The practice includes a combination of short, intense breaths accompanied by long, deep breaths. 


Although individuals are required to keep their breathing even, some who have practiced the technique mention the physical experience to be similar to being short of breath, also known as hyperventilation. This usually occurs when a person exhales more carbon dioxide than the amount of oxygen inhaled. The difference in the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream can lead to respiratory alkalosis which can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, a tingling sensation in the fingers as well as an altered state of consciousness.     


Holotropic Breathwork Sessions


The total duration of a holotropic breathwork session may range from 2 to 3 hours, which may either be conducted as one-to-one sessions or retreats. However, group sessions are the most common. Before the start of a holotropic breathwork session, participants are usually given a detailed explanation about the different types of phenomena that occur during the sessions and an opportunity to seek expert advice and assessment if required. 


Individuals are often advised to practice this technique in pairs of two. One individual known as the ‘sitter’ is responsible for ensuring the safety and comfort of the other individual known as the ‘breather’ who is performing the breathwork while a trained professional known as the ‘facilitator’ leads the session. Breathers are often advised to lie on a mat for the entire length of the session. This practice of laying on the ground, also known as grounding or earthing promotes both physical and mental relaxation, thus reducing pain and improving sleep quality. Moreover, the open-minded nature of the sessions allows individuals to make any sounds or movements which feel right to them. 


The facilitator instructs the breathers to increase the speed, pattern, and rhythm of their breathing while keeping their eyes closed. To prevent hyperventilation and other forms of discomfort, the facilitator often instructs the breathers to focus on their breathing and keep it even throughout the length of the session. Instructions are often given either before or during the sessions. Besides this, the technique involves minimum intervention and allows the breather to experience the outcomes of the practice naturally. 


Moreover, music is one of the most important components of holotropic breathwork practice. Repetitive, rhythmic music often consisting of acoustic beats, drumbeats, or nature sounds is played throughout the session to stimulate the breather and help him/her enter an altered state of consciousness. 


Research has shown that music tends to have a profound effect on mental state. For instance, drumming helps boost the immune system, ease chronic pain, and calm anxiety. In fact, drumming at certain rhythms and frequencies produces theta brain waves that are mostly seen during REM sleep phases as well as different stages of deep meditation. 


The music which is quite stimulating at the start progresses towards a more dynamic rhythm and finally climaxes into a breakthrough quality. The choice of music often signifies various stages of the holotropic breathwork experience. Soon after the culmination, the music gradually shifts into a slower, more meditative rhythm. 


At the end of the session, participants discuss and describe their experiences by drawing mandalas. Each participant’s experience is unique and there is no specific expectation about how the experience must turn out. The main goal of the holotropic breathwork technique is to address personal issues, gain spiritual insights as well as heal past traumas. After a session is complete, each pair swaps their role as a breather and sitter for the next session.


Becoming a holotropic breathwork practitioner requires genuine interest and dedication. Only those who successfully complete a 600-hour training course and receive a holotropic breathwork certification from the Grof Foundation are allowed to become official practitioners.


Pros and Cons


The holotropic breathwork practice has its fair share of pros and cons. It can help to deal with trauma makes the technique a beneficial form of psychotherapy. Moreover, some published reports admit that holotropic breathwork is likely to help individuals who display avoidance behaviours and have failed to respond effectively to psychotherapy. Practitioners have also claimed to have observed a noticeable decrease in different forms of stress and anxiety-related issues along with an increased sense of wellbeing. Other notable benefits of holotropic breathwork include an improvement in self-confidence, self-esteem, reduction in feelings of grief, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related issues. 


But evidence regarding the connection between holotropic breathwork and depression seems to be lacking. However, the possibility of the technique to heal past trauma gives people a reason to believe that it plays a significant role in treating depression. The technique also could help individuals become more self-aware, gain clarity, understanding, and meaning in their lives, get rid of bad habits and addictions, and explore spiritual realms that otherwise remain un-accessible. 


However, the practice also comes with a number of dangerous risks, side effects, and contraindications. This is why most organizations, societies, and communities that offer holotropic breathwork courses do so on a consent basis by requesting individuals to take part in a questionnaire and fill out a consent form prior to enrolling for a session. The reason is to stay cautious and avoid repercussions by ensuring that the individual is physically and mentally fit.


For instance, the holotropic breathwork technique may not be suitable for pregnant women and those who are suffering from certain health conditions such as epilepsy, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure which cannot be controlled through medications. Since the technique is most likely to cause hallucinations, it is also unsuitable to be practiced by individuals who have a history of mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 


The practice also involves sudden vigorous body movements as a result of which may be ill-suited for individuals who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis and suffer from neurological conditions such as stroke and seizure. Moreover, imbalances in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood make this technique risky to be practiced by individuals who are using Coumadin and other similar prescription blood thinners. 


Individuals suffering from eye problems such as glaucoma and detached retina are also advised against practicing the holotropic breathwork technique. On the other hand, it is quite surprising that although the technique involves breathwork, it isn’t necessarily dangerous to be practiced by individuals suffering from asthma. However, to be on the safe side, having an inhaler in hand is a must!


This technique also has a list of other restrictions and contraindications.


Holotropic Breathwork Criticism


While holotropic breathwork does offer a plethora of benefits and is widely popular throughout the world, the technique, if practiced incorrectly can be very dangerous and can cause some very unpleasant side effects. However, if practiced correctly, these risks could be minimized. This is one of the main reasons why experts categorically advise against practicing holotropic breathwork alone. 


So, what exactly makes holotropic breathwork dangerous? 


As mentioned before, a number of people who have practiced this technique have reported having experienced feelings similar to hyperventilation. The risks of holotropic breathwork are plenty especially if the individual practicing it fails to keep his/her breathing even throughout the session. Uneven and abnormal breathing could cause severe distress, anxiety, psychosis, and in worst cases could also lead to seizures. 


Moreover, depending on a person’s health status and ability to deal with past trauma, practicing holotropic breathwork could either heal or damage a person. As mentioned previously, the practice can bring deeply buried memories back to the surface. This can be seen as a plus point on one hand since it enables a person to address his/ her past issues and deal with the trauma, eventually helping them to heal. 


On the other hand, certain traumatic situations such as childhood abuse, the death of a loved one, or being the victim of a brutal accident may naturally cause a person to push away these memories to the back of their minds. When such memories resurface, it may be extremely hard for the individual to cope with their trauma and may cause them to go into a deep state of depression. In the end, whether a holotropic breathwork session would be beneficial or harmful would largely depend on the ability of an individual to handle its effects.


Besides its tendency to cause medical complications, this technique has long since been viewed as being highly controversial. In the year 1989, the British national Kate Thomas became an affiliate of the Findhorn Foundation, a Scottish charitable organization dedicated to promoting spiritual growth. Having been drawn to the organization for its reputation for spiritual prowess, Kate soon realized that the new practice of holotropic breathwork which was introduced into the organization by its director Craig Gibsone was inappropriate. 


She closely observed several clients who were practicing the holotropic breathwork technique and noticed that while some people were feeling euphoric, many others were experiencing highly unpleasant and distressing symptoms such as vomiting, screaming, paranoia, and hallucinations. The level of distress appeared to be so high that a few were also seen to be on the verge of a mental breakdown.


Co-founder of the foundation, Eileen Caddy also began to notice that there was something not right about this new technique. It was observed that several clients who suffered severe after-effects and required psychotherapy treatment were however left undiagnosed and unremedied. She told Kate that despite her objections about the therapy, the management and staff had refused to look into the issue, following which she had completely stopped intervening. Kate however did not stop here.


In the year 2003, she went on to write two papers for the Network journal of the Scientific and Medical Network (SMN) highlighting the dangers and demanding a re-evaluation of the holotropic breathwork technique. In the same year, Professor Christopher Bache, a loyal follower of Dr. Grof appeared at a conference hosted by SMN where he promoted the concept of holotropic breathwork to the SMN members. 


Programme Director David Lorimer who was seen as an influential individual within the SMN was a supporter of Prof Bache and his technique and was anxious following the submission of Kate’s first paper and asked her to prune it. In her first paper, she mentioned a major contradiction she had observed between Prof Bach’s writings and preaching. In his book ‘Dark Night Early Dawn’, Prof Bach had admitted his distress and sufferings from the holotropic breathwork practice and LSD therapy. 


Despite this, he went on to defend and promote LSD therapy and holotropic breathwork by glorifying his sufferings and justifying them as being a necessary component of having a spiritual breakthrough. Lorimer also imposed constraints of brevity when Kate’s second paper released in 2003. Following his review, Prof Bache accused Kate along the lines of having “a naïve understanding of how psychedelics impact consciousness”. 


A further contradiction was noticed when Prof Bach’s article titled ‘Sacred Medicine Path’ was published and glorified on the SMN website. Critics labeled SMN as the ‘LSD Medicine Path’ after the content of the article was seen by them as being medically unsafe. 


Kate emphasized that both Prof Bach and the Findhorn Foundation had neglected her papers and complaints and had not been open to judgment and criticism of their policies. Moreover, she was also criticized by two of the foundation personnel Eric Franciscus and Alex Walker for challenging their roles and principles. While being questioned by the local press, Alex went on to state that Kate had never been a part of the Findhorn Foundation.  


In 1993, a report on holotropic breathwork was commissioned by the Scottish Charities Office (SCO) from the University of Edinburgh’s pathology department after they became largely concerned about the adverse effects of the technique. Negative results soon came in which confirmed that the technique was indeed dangerous to be practiced, given that it was untested. The practice of holotropic breathwork was later suspended from the foundation by the SCO. However, despite warnings, a few foundation practitioners were still found practicing the technique. 


Therefore, while some consider Dr. Grof’s holotropic breathwork technique as a mystic, spiritual, and open-minded, others call it pseudoshamanism. With these points in mind, it is certainly useful to remember that although holotropic breathwork might sound appealing, the practice does have its drawbacks. Therefore, it is important to do your research, take necessary precautions, and become well aware of the pros, cons, and contraindications of this technique before jumping in to give it a try! 

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