Theory and Practice of Holotropic Breathwork

Article Index

An article by Stanislav Grof, M.D

In the last twenty years, my wife Christina and I have developed an approach to therapy and self-exploration that we call holotropic breathwork. It induces very powerful holotropic states by a combination of very simple means - accelerated breathing, evocative music, and a technique of bodywork that helps to release residual bioenergetic and emotional blocks. In its theory and practice, this method brings together and integrates various elements from ancient and aboriginal traditions, Eastern spiritual philosophies, and Western depth psychology.


The Healing Power of Breath

The use of various breathing techniques for religious and healing purposes reaches far back in human history. In ancient and pre-industrial cultures, breath and breathing have played a very important role in cosmology, mythology, and philosophy, as well as an important tool in ritual and spiritual practice. Since earliest history, virtually every major psychospiritual system seeking to comprehend human nature has viewed breath as a crucial link between the body, mind, and spirit. This is clearly reflected in the words many languages use for breath.

In the ancient Indian literature, the term prana meant not only physical breath and air, but also the sacred essence of life. Similarly, in traditional Chinese medicine, the word chi refers to the cosmic essence and the energy of life, as well as the natural air we breathe by our lungs. In Japan, the corresponding word is ki. Ki plays an extremely important role in Japanese spiritual practices and martial arts. In ancient Greek, the word pneuma also meant both air or breath and spirit or the essence of life. The Greeks also saw breath as being closely related to the psyche. The term phren was used both for the diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in breathing, and mind (as we see in the term schizophrenia-split mind). In the old Hebrew tradition, the same word - ruach - denoted both breath and creative spirit, which were seen as identical. In Latin the same name was used for breath and spirit - spiritus. Similarly, in Slavic languages, spirit and breath have the same linguistic root.

It has been known for centuries that it is possible to influence consciousness by techniques which involve breathing. The procedures that have been used for this purpose by various ancient and non-Western cultures cover a very wide range from drastic interferences with breathing to subtle and sophisticated exercises of various spiritual traditions. Thus the original form of baptism practiced by the Essenes involved forced submersion of the initiate under water for an extended period of time. This resulted in a powerful experience of death and rebirth. In some other groups, the neophytes were half-choked by smoke, by strangulation, or compression of the carotid arteries.

Profound changes in consciousness can be induced by both extremes in the breathing rate - hyperventilation and prolonged withholding of breath - as well as by using them in an alternating fashion. Very sophisticated and advanced methods of this kind can be found in the ancient Indian science of breath, or pranayama. Specific techniques involving intense breathing or withholding of breath are also part of various exercises in Kundalini Yoga, Siddha Yoga, the Tibetan Vajrayana, Sufi practice, Burmese Buddhist and Taoist meditation, and many others.

More subtle techniques which emphasize special awareness in relation to breathing rather than changes of the respiratory dynamics have a prominent place in Soto Zen Buddhism ('shikan taza') and certain Taoist and Christian practices. Indirectly, the depth and rhythm of breathing gets profoundly influenced by such ritual artistic performances, as the Balinese monkey chant or Ketjak, the Inuit Eskimo throat music, and singing of kirtans, bhajans, or Sufi chants.

In materialistic science, breathing lost its sacred meaning and was stripped of its connection to the psyche and spirit. Western medicine reduced it to an important physiological function. The physical and psychological manifestations that accompany various respiratory maneuvers, have all been pathologized. The psychosomatic response to faster breathing, the so called hyperventilation syndrome, is considered a pathological condition, rather than what it really is - a process that has an enormous healing potential. When hyperventilation occurs spontaneously, it is routinely suppressed by administration of tranquilizers, injections of intravenous calcium, and application of a paperbag over the face to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide and combat the alkalosis caused by faster breathing.

In the last few decades, Western psychologists and psychiatrists rediscovered the healing potential of breath and developed techniques that utilize it. We have ourselves experimented in the context of our monthlong seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, with various approaches involving breathing. These included both breathing exercises from ancient spiritual traditions under the guidance of Indian and Tibetan teachers and techniques developed by Western therapists. Each of these approaches has a specific emphasis and uses breath in a different way. In our own search for an effective method of using the healing potential of breath, we tried to simplify this process as much as possible.

We came to the conclusion that it is sufficient to breathe faster and more effectively than usual and with full concentration on the inner process. Instead of emphasizing a specific technique of breathing, we follow even in this area the general strategy of holotropic work - to trust the intrinsic wisdom of the body and follow the inner clues. In holotropic breathwork, we encourage people to begin the session with faster and somewhat deeper breathing, tying inhalation and exhalation into a continuous circle of breath. Once they are in the process, they find their own rhythm and way of breathing.

We have been able to confirm repeatedly Wilhelm Reich's observation that psychological resistances and defenses are associated with restricted breathing (Reich 1961). Respiration is an autonomous function, but it can also be influenced by volition. Deliberate increase of the pace of breathing typically loosens psychological defenses and leads to a release and emergence of unconscious (and superconscious) material. Unless one has witnessed or experienced this process personally, it is difficult to believe on theoretical grounds alone the power and efficacy of this technique.