Holotropic breathwork (HB) is a therapy that is an outgrowth of LSD clinical research conducted before possession of psychedelics became illegal. In the book Higher Wisdom published in 2005 Charles Grob and Gary Bravo comment that “Psychiatrists were the first to study psychedelics, initially looking at their unique effects on the brain and capacity to successfully treat forms of mental illness often nonresponsive to conventional treatments.” Research conducted from the late 1950s to the early 1970s provided some promising results showing that altered states of awareness could be of benefit to people under the right circumstances and under the guidance of trained clinicians. Unfortunately, that research came to a crashing end when laws were passed making it illegal to possess a broad range of mind altering substances for any purpose including university sponsored research.
One researcher, Stanislov Grof, realized the significance and implications of altered awareness for enhancing mental health. Here are two quotes about Carl Jung’s theories on human psyche taken from Grof’s book Holotropic Breathwork published in 2010.
“The psyche is not a product of the brain and is not contained in the skull; it is the creative and generative principle of the cosmos (anima mundi). It permeates all of existence and the individual psyche of each of us is teased out of this unfathomable cosmic matrix. The intellect is a partial function of the psyche that can help us orient ourselves in everyday situations. However, it (the intellect) is not in a position to understand and manipulate the psyche.”
“What a psychotherapist can do, according to Jung, is to create a supportive environment, in which psychospiritual transformation can occur..”
The word holotropic means “oriented toward wholeness” according to Grof. By using deep breathing patterns in a special setting, Grof found participants could address psychological challenges in a much shorter period of time and at a much lower cost than through more traditional therapy provided by psychiatrists. Breathers were able to access internal healing capacities without relying on the intervention of a 3rd party.
Randy is a resident of the Piedmont Triad who had a friend who had had a near-death experience. The subject of NDEs was fascinating to Randy prompting him to read many books on the subject. He began participating in weekly meditation sessions at a downtown church in Greensboro that were led by another NDEr named Julie Lapham. As his appreciation for his underlying spiritual nature grew, he began considering options to more fully experience his own spirituality. His meditative practice was helpful but he wanted something more. Julie suggested he consider HB. Julie had been certified to provide this service but was no longer actively engaged in that practice. Randy found another certified practitioner, Sandy Phocas, who provided HB sessions in Winston Salem. With some trepidation he registered for a group HB session offered by Sandy.
The HB session was scheduled for a full Saturday. Randy arrived with his pillow, blanket, water bottle, a yoga pad and a dish of food to share for lunch and dinner with the other participants. There were 7 other people participating this particular Saturday. After a brief round of introductions, Sandy provided an overview of what to expect. In the morning half the group would be “breathers” and the other half would be “sitters” with the sitters providing some comfort to the breathers if needed (handing Kleenex, helping breathers to the bathroom, and generally ensuring a safe environment for the breathers. Roles were reversed in the afternoon session. Loud evocative music was provided through rather large, professional speakers throughout the multi hour breathing sessions.
Grof notes that “The experiences in Holotropic Breathwork sessions are highly individual and cover a very wide range. They do not represent a stereotypical reaction to faster breathing (“the hyperventilation syndrome”) … but reflect the psychosomatic history of the breather. In a group of people who have all had the same theoretical preparation, received the same instructions, and listened to the same music, each person will have his or her own highly specific and personally relevant experience.” Participants can set an intention for their experience but there are no guarantees intentions will be met.
Randy opted to set an intention of experiencing a portion of the immense love that NDErs often report having received in their NDE state. He began his breathing session with a brief guided meditation focusing on feeling major areas of his body moving from his feet up to his head. He then moved into his initial breathing work using deep, fast paced breaths while the energy of the music built drowning out most other sounds in the room. Soon he recognized that his thinking pattern was beginning to shift. His logical perception of his environment was changing as he let himself slip into whatever would come.
After about 15 minutes Randy was in some form of altered state. His breathing now dropped back to a level not requiring any effort. His arms and legs were moving in some form of dance with the music. This was more than just hearing sound. The sound was influencing his mental state in ways he hadn’t experienced before. This submission to the music was rather exhilarating and generated a feeling of emotional openness.
Some period of time passed in this state. As he had been instructed during orientation, Randy would occasionally return to his deep breathing to maintain the altered sense of awareness. At some point Randy recalled his intent. A sense arose in him that some form of love was being directed toward him. This love grew in intensity bathing him in a feeling of ecstasy. Tears began streaming down Randy’s face as he lay there experiencing this love. He realized that this love was nonjudgmental. It didn’t matter that he had made mistakes in his life. The intensity of the emotion had a healing component to it. Randy could let go of his feelings of inadequacy and just be. That love would always be there for him whether or not he could perceive it. He realized he could chose to live a life that more closely reflected the love being given to him.
Eventually, Randy sensed the presence of deceased loved ones with him – his grandparents, his father and his brother. They were also part of this loving environment. While he couldn’t see them, he knew they were there. A thought arose regarding his brother, Allan. Randy and Allan had worked at a ski resort in Utah at different times fulfilling a desire to learn how to ski in deep powder snow. Randy had a thought he directed to his brother – let’s do something while we’re together. In the next instant Randy was perceiving himself following Allan down a steep ski slope in 3 feet of freshly fallen snow. The two of them were creating a series of figure 8s in the untracked snow adding to the sense of exhilaration.
Not all experiences are pleasant but they are theorized to be what each individual needs. Grof reported on the experience of a woman who in her HB state relived a time in her childhood when she broke her wrist falling off a moving family car. Without going into the extended details, this experience had a negative impact on her relationship with her father. By confronting this memory, she was able to face some of the familial relationship pain she experienced in life.
Another anecdote – a man who rock climbs for pleasure found himself climbing El Capitan in his HB state. He feels his ability to climb was being hindered by the tension his partner placed on his climbing rope. He sensed that his partner may be his father. The rope becomes a symbol of the constraining environment he grew up in under his father. Feelings of anger directed at his father arise. Eventually, he accepts the fact that he has to take responsibility for his own happiness. His father was now in failing health. This HB experience provided the guidance the man needed to open a dialogue with his father allowing some healing of their relationship.
There is one HB practitioner in mid-North Carolina offering HB sessions at his retreat center in Mebane. If you have an interest in experiencing an HB session, consider visiting Bob Brame’s web site www.holoquest.org. If you wish to know more about HB, you’ll find all you need to know in Stanislav and Christina Grof’s book Holotropic Breathwork.