on September 2, 2015
Throughout time, the use of breathwork has been an integral part of numerous spiritual disciplines and religions. Be it meditation, yoga or singing, altered states of consciousness have reliably been produced by working with breath. Building on this ancient wisdom, Dr. Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina have created a modern technique called “Holotropic Breathwork”. The method combines music and breathing, in order to bring about powerful states of non-ordinary consciousness that are supposed to activate one’s inner healer (Grof & Grof, 2010).
In the worldview of pre-industrial societies, breathing and breath have always played critical roles. They have been used within philosophical, religious as well as healing contexts. In the ancient Indian science of breath for example (Pranayama), breathing or withholding of breath are employed to induce powerful changes of consciousness (Ramacharaka 1903). Such pro-active control of breath is also exercised in various schools of yoga.
More subtle applications of breath are observed in Buddhism, where Anāpānasati (literally “mindfulness of breathing”) is taught as a form of mediation that requires observation of breath (Thanissaro, 1997). Similar practices are found in some Taoist and Christian traditions (Nan, 1997; “Catechism of the Catholic Church 2721”).
Even in certain ritual artistic performances breath is a central element. Specific examples are the Balinese monkey chant or Ketjak (Dibia, 2000), the Inuit Eskimo throat music (Flanagan, 2008), Tibetan and Mongolian multivocal chanting (Sklar, 2005), and singing of kirtans, bhajans and or Sufi chants (Goswami & Thielemann, 2005). Within all of these contexts depth and rhythm of breathing are influenced.
A more modern breathing technique has been developed by psychiatrist Dr. Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina. Their method is called “Holotropic Breathwork” (from the Greek holos = Whole and trepein = Moving Toward) and primarily relies on inducing altered states of awareness as a form of therapy (Grof, 2008; Grof & Grof, 2010).
Stanislav Grof’s initial interest in what he later named “non-ordinary states of consciousness” was sparked in 1956 when one of his professors at Prague’s Charles University asked students to participate in a study on the effects of LSD-25 on their electric brainwaves. About the experiment during which he was given a large dose of the drug while being exposed to a stroboscopic white light, Grof is quoted as saying:
“This combination [of the light and the drug], evoked in me a powerful mystical experience that radically changed my personal and professional life. Research of the heuristic, therapeutic, transformative, and evolutionary potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness became my profession, vocation, and personal passion.” – (Zaitchik, 2010)
Highly impressed with this experience Grof decided that he wanted to devote his entire career to the study of psychedelics. His initial research took place when he was Principal Investigator of a program that explored the heuristic and therapeutic potential of LSD and other psychedelic substances at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague. Later he became Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University and Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. He was also a Scholar-in-Residence at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California for fourteen years.
Stanislav met his wife Christina, after she had experienced what might be called a “Kundalini Awakening” from her yoga practice. Since this led to a lot of emotional turbulence in her life, she was eventually referred to Dr. Stan Grof who helped her to move through her emotions.
When LSD got banned for research purposes in the late 1960s, the Grofs combined their experiences and developed Holotropic Breathwork as a powerful method to access non-ordinary states of consciousness without the usage of drugs. They later facilitated workshops of the technique and even developed a structured training program around it. Together the Grofs have facilitated Holotropic Breathwork sessions for more than 25,000 people from 1987-1994 (“HB FAQs,” 2015; Zaitchik, 2010).
Although individual sessions are possible, Holotropic Breathwork is usually practiced in groups. Within the group, people pair up as “breather” and “sitter”, where the sitter is meant to assist the breather with whatever he needs while he is in the process of breathing. The same is true for the trained facilitators, who are there to supervise and assist.
The method itself is simple: While lying on a mat, each breather closes his eyes and starts breathing deeply and quickly until he finds his own rhythm. It is important to note that no specific breathing technique is encouraged. This is because one of the method’s major tenets is to let the breathers’ trust their innate wisdom and inner healing power.
The general breathing process is further enhanced by loud and evocative music. This is done in order to bring up emotions that are connected to repressed memories. Once such emotions come up, participants are encouraged to express them in whatever fashion they like. Having music in the background also helps people to move through difficult moments and let their inner defenses down. Part of the reason for this may be that the music acts as a masking device for the emotional expressions of other breathers.
If the breathing itself, does not bring the desired release, participants can ask the facilitators to help them with a specific kind of bodywork. During the bodywork, the breather is asked to focus attention on the area where there is a problem. Once this is done, he is then asked to do whatever is necessary to intensify his physical sensations. This intensification process is aided by the facilitators who can apply external pressure to the highlighted area.
As the breather keeps focusing on the problem area, he is then encouraged to find a spontaneous reaction to his situation. The key here is that this reaction is motivated by the subconscious process rather than by a conscious decision. Thus, it can come out in manner that has not been expected. Animal voices, speaking in tongues or just plain old gibberish are not unheard of. A similar variety can be seen in the physical expressions, where tremors, jolts, animal movements, coughing and even vomiting can occur.
Once participants have returned to their ordinary consciousness, mandala drawing and group counseling help with reintegrating the experience. Here again, no specific instructions are given. This is meant to allow for the unhindered expression of whatever feels relevant. Later on, breathers can bring their mandalas to a sharing session, wherein they can talk about their experiences. The facilitators who lead these groups are instructed to encourage maximum openness and honesty during the sharing. This is thought to facilitate and speed up the therapeutic process. Furthermore, they are to abstain from offering interpretations, as they can limit the breathers’ experience who are regarded as ultimate experts on what they have felt (Grof & Grof, 2010).
In its theory and practice, Holotropic Breathwork differs significantly from traditional forms of psychotherapy in that it primary relies on non-ordinary states of consciousness rather than verbal means. Despite its unorthodoxy, the extraordinary healing power of holotropic states has been confirmed by modern consciousness research. This is in spite of the fact that Western science tends to regard the physical and psychological symptoms of breathwork as pathological (“hyperventilation syndrome”) (Grof 2001, 2007).
Although results of a breathwork session can vary, self-discovery, self-exploration and self-healing are usually attained by participants. Particular experiences that are common to Holotropic Breathwork can include re-experiencing birth, release of energetic blockages caused by past traumas, past life memories and mystical awareness states (Grof & Grof, 2010). In different studies it was shown that Holotropic Breathwork™ reduces death anxiety, increases self-esteem (Holmes et al., 1996), allows for deeper knowledge of the surrounding world, reduces rigidity and dogmatism and satisfies the need for purpose in life (Binarová, 2003). Since especially traumatic memories are thought to be related to neuroses and drug addictions, it is not surprising that Holotropic Breathwork has successfully treated these conditions (Spivak et al., 1994; Brewerton et al., 2012).
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this sounds like something I should learn to do. Apparently I have repressed memories from abuse when I was younger. I have all the classic symptoms, but not the memories.