Holotropic Breathwork is a powerful method for self-exploration and therapy. It uses simple means (special set and setting, enhanced breathing and evocative music) to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness or so-called holotropic states of consciousness. The word holotropic is derived from greek and it means literally “moving towards wholeness” (holos: whole, trepein: moving in the direction of something), which describes the effect of holotropic states of consciousness on human psyche. When used in a responsible way, these states can be very healing, transformative and informative. Holotropic Breathwork is part of Transpersonal psychology, and it is an experiential therapeutic technique, which utilizes the healing power of holotropic states of consciousness, emotional expression and bodywork.
Holotropic Breathwork is in its essence a self-empowering technique, where you can learn to connect with your Inner healing wisdom. This innate wisdom has the ability to open up a process, journey to your unconsciousness, and guide you towards positive transformation and wholeness through surrendering and letting go.
Structure of Holotropic Breathwork: preparation, session and integration
In Holotropic Breathwork, safety is of utmost importance. For this reason, the structure of a holotropic workshop is always threefold, each part being equally important: preparation, session and integration. Holotropic Breathwork is usually done in a group setting, but individual sessions are also possible. Holotropic Breathwork should never be done alone or without a trained facilitator for safety reasons.
Preparation has many levels, which can be divided to internal (set) and external (setting). The first step in preparation is usually the moment, when someone hears the calling to breathe. He already thinks about the motivations, fears and hopes about coming to a workshop and starts the inner preparation. Filling the medical form and having an interview are also important parts of preparation, where it is possible to screen out potential risks, express thoughts and get a connection to the facilitators. The first part of the workshop is about preparation, where practical guidelines for sessions and relevant theoretical knowledge about holotropic experiences are given. A feeling of safety and trust are crucial in this work, which hopefully will be generated towards the group, facilitators, oneself and the process. Facilitators will do their best to keep the setting as safe as possible on a physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual level.
Sessions are done in pairs, alternating the roles of breather and sitter. During the session, which lasts about three hours, the breather lies on the mattress and has eyes closed or covered and is encouraged to give full attention to the inner world. The session starts with a short relaxation, which helps to calm the mind and to get a connection with the body. Then breathers are guided to breathe a little bit deeper and faster than normally, without a break in between breaths. The purpose of the breathing is not to be technically right, since it can be done in many ways, but to be a tool for letting go and starting or deepening the process. Usually people find their own way of breathing, which can alternate during the session. A music set designed specifically for Holotropic Breathwork is played during the sessions, which supports the inner process.
The general strategy in the sessions is to follow whatever is happening in any given moment spontaneously and to give full expression to that. In this way it is possible to let go of the rational mind and surrender to the Inner healing wisdom, which will bring just the right experience in the right moment. This can lead for example to emotional outbursts, impulses to sing, laugh, cry or scream, bodily experiences like shaking or twisting, visions and insights in the psyche, experiences of death and rebirth, visits to archetypical and spiritual realms, or to any other kind of experience. The contents of the sessions are highly individual and usually very meaningful to the breather. Generally all experiences and expressions are embraced, and the facilitator will encourage the breather to make whatever is happening bigger and go deeper into it. Only cases when the process is stopped is when someone might hurt oneself, others or the property. Then it is just a matter of finding safer way to express the internal process. During the whole session the breather is in full control of how he wants to use the time on the mat and his process is not guided by the facilitators or the sitter.
The sitter’s role is to be present and help the breather with basic things: giving a blanket, a pillow, a tissue or water, or helping the breather to the toilet. Many times it is actually quite an impressive experience to be a sitter, just witnessing the holotropic states in full action. It is important that sitters don’t interfere, interrupt or guide the breathers process. The same is true for facilitators, who are there to help if it is needed. In this way sitters and facilitators can make the space safe for breather to surrender to his process fully. In some experiences, empathic human touch or closeness can give the feeling of safety or be very healing in itself, which can be provided during the session. If needed, the facilitators can also do simple energy releasing bodywork or give advice to help the session to move on. At the end of the session, facilitators will check whether the breather has landed properly from holotropic states and if the process has come to a good closure. If not, the facilitators can help the process move towards a better completion.
Integration is as important as the session itself. It is the ability to connect the session in one’s own life in a meaningful way. After breathing sessions, the breathers are advised to draw a mandala, which simply means drawing whatever one feels like drawing on an empty paper. Mandalas oftentimes help with the integration and might bring new insights even weeks after the session. Talking circles, where everyone gets the opportunity to share their experience are also used. In the talking circle, everyone is given space to express what they want without interpretations from the group or facilitators. There might also be other kinds of integration techniques used in workshops, such as soul collage, writing, dancing or sound massage. At the end of the workshop facilitators will give tips for how to continue the integration in daily life.
Expanded cartography of the psyche
An important aspect of Holotropic Breathwork is its expanded cartography of the human psyche as described by Stan Grof, which is discussed in its essentials in the preparation-phase of the workshops, and on which you find lots of information from his books and lectures. It is a useful tool in the navigation and understanding of non-ordinary states of consciousness. It has emerged from Grof’s psychedelic research and it has integrated insights from modern consciousness research, anthropology, various depth psychologies, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual practices and mystical traditions of the world. An important part of the cartography is describing different kinds of experience which can emerge during holotropic states of consciousness. These are divided into three main categories: biographical, perinatal and transpersonal domains.
A great deal of healing and transformation can happen in the biographical domain - that is our personal life after our birth - where many holotropic experiences are connected. The expanded cartography shows, however, that there are even deeper layers of unconsciousness, which can affect our lives and which we can have an experiential connection with. The perinatal domain means experiences that are related to our conception, time in the womb, the birth-trauma and time after the birth, which can be divided in four different experiential matrices. Psychospiritual death and rebirth -sequences also fit under the perinatal domain, and as many other perinatal experiences, it can be quite dramatic and intense, but also very healing. Transpersonal domain means beyond personal which includes the collective unconsciousness and the realms of archetypes. It can involve a great spectrum of different experiences, from transgenerational traumas and past life experiences to the meeting of the spirits guides and the Divine.
History of Holotropic Breathwork
Holotropic Breathwork has been created by Stan and Christina Grof as an alternative for therapy with psychedelics in 1970’s. Stan Grof is a psychiatrist, who did groundbreaking studies with psychedelics between 1955 and 1973 in Czechoslovakia and USA. He was also a pioneer in psycholytic and psychedelic therapy, facilitating over 4000 LSD-sessions in scientific and psychiatric context.
In the 1970’s, psychedelic studies and therapy were made illegal around the globe, which led Grof to seek alternative method for psychedelic therapy, where he had seen very promising results. Little by little the pieces came together and he developed Holotropic Breathwork with his wife Christina in California Esalen institute, which has been practised essentially in the same way from 1976 till this day. According to Grof, the experiences and therapeutic results of Holotropic Breathwork sessions are similar to psychedelic therapy, and this view has only become stronger during the last decades.
Holotropic Breathwork has become worldwide, and there are now more than a thousand facilitators around the globe offering workshops. Facilitator training is organized by Grof Transpersonal Training (GTT), which offers modules in USA, Europe, Russia, Australia and Asia. There is a worldwide Association for Holotropic Breathwork International (AHBI) and many other local associations. This beautiful and deep method has finally landed in Finland, so we can proudly present Holotropic Breathwork Finland ry, which is organizing workshops and supporting the holotropic movement here in the north.
Grof Transpersonal Training
Information about Holotropic Breathwork and GTT training
European association for Holotropic Breathwork
Information about Holotropic Breathwork events and training modules in Europe
Music for Holotropic Breathwork
Examples of Holotropic Breathwork music
Master thesis in Finnish about Stan Grofs theoretical framework
Holotrooppinen tajunnantila. Käsitetutkimus Stanislav Grofin teoreettisesta viitekehyksestä. (Valde Orrenmaa, Uskontotiede, Turun yliopisto 2017)