Theory and Practice of Holotropic Breathwork

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The Healing Potential of Music

In holotropic therapy, the use of breath to induce holotropic states of consciousness for healing purposes is combined with evocative music. Like breathing, music and other forms of sound technology have been used for millenia as powerful mind-altering tools in ritual and spiritual practice. Since time immemorial, monotonous drumming, chanting, and other forms of sound-producing techniques have been the principle tools of shamans in many different parts of the world. Many pre-industrial cultures have developed quite independently drumming rhythms that in laboratory experiments have remarkable effect on the electric activity of the brain (Jilek, 1974, Neher 1961, 1962). The archives of cultural anthropologists contain countless examples of trance-inducing methods of extraordinary power combining instrumental music, chanting, and dancing.

In many cultures, sound technology has been used specifically for healing purposes in the context of intricate ceremonies. The Navajo healing rituals conducted by trained singers have astounding complexity that has been compared to that of the scripts of Wagnerian operas. The trance dance of the !Kung Bushmen of the African Kalahari Desert has enormous healing power, as has been documented in many anthropological studies and movies (Lee and DeVore 1976, Katz 1976). The healing potential of the syncretistic religious rituals of the Caribbean and South America, such as the Cuban santeria or Brazilian umbanda is recognized by many professionals of these countries with Western education. In our own tradition remarkable instances of emotional and psychosomatic healing occur in the meetings of Christian groups using music, singing and dance, such as the Snake Handlers, or the Holy Ghost People, and the revivalists or members of the Pentecostal Church.

Some great spiritual traditions have developed sound technologies that do not induce just a general trance state, but have a more specific effect on consciousness. Here belong above all the Tibetan multivocal chanting, the sacred chants of various Sufi orders, the Hindu bhajans and kirtans, and particularly the ancient art of nada yoga or the way to union by sound. The Indian teachings postulate a specific connection between sounds of specific frequencies and the individual chakras. With the systematic use of this knowledge, it is possible to influence the state of consciousness in a predictable and desirable way.

These are just a few examples of the extensive use of music for ritual, healing, and spiritual purposes.

We have used music systematically in the program of psychedelic therapy at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore, MD, and have learnt much about its extraordinary potential for psychotherapy. Carefully selected music seems to be of particular value in holotropic states of consciousness, where it has several important functions. It mobilizes emotions associated with repressed memories, brings them to the surface, and facilitates their expression. It helps to open the door into the unconscious, intensifies and deepens the therapeutic process, and provides a meaningful context for the experience. The continuous flow of music creates a carrier wave that helps the subject move through difficult experiences and impasses, overcome psychological defenses, surrender, and let go. In holotropic breathwork sessions that are usually conducted in groups, music has an additional function - to mask the noises made by the participants and weave them into an esthetic gestalt.

To use music as a catalyst for deep self-exploration and experiential work, it is necessary to learn a new way of listening to music and relating to it that is alien to our culture. In the West, we employ music frequently as an acoustic background that has little emotional relevance. Typical examples would be use of popular music in cocktail parties or piped music (muzak) in shopping areas and work spaces. An approach quite characteristic for more sophisticated audiences is the disciplined and intellectualized listening to music in theatres and concert halls. The dynamic and elemental way of using music that one finds at rock concerts comes closer to the use of music in holotropic therapy. However, the attention of participants in such events is usually extroverted and the experience lacks an element that is essential in holotropic therapy or self-exploration - sustained focused introspection.

In holotropic therapy, it is essential to surrender completely to the flow of music, let it resonate in one's entire body, and respond to it in a spontaneous and elemental fashion. This includes manifestations that would be unthinkable in a concert hall, where even crying or coughing might be a source of embarrassment. Here one has to give full expression to whatever the music is bringing out, whether it is loud screaming or laughing, babytalk, animal noises, shamanic chanting, or talking in tongues. It is also important not to control any physical impulses, such as bizarre grimacing, sensual movements of the pelvis, violent shaking, or intense contortions of the entire body. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule; destructive behavior directed toward oneself, others, and the physical environment is not permissible.

We also encourage participants to suspend any intellectual activity, such as trying to guess the composer of the music or the culture from which the music comes. Other ways of avoiding the emotional impact of the music involve engaging one's professional expertise - judging the performance of the orchestra, guessing which instruments are playing, and criticizing the technical quality of the recording or the music equipment in the room. When we can avoid these pitfalls, music can become a very powerful tool for inducing and supporting holotropic states of consciousness. For this purpose, the music has to be of superior technical quality and sufficient volume to drive the experience. The combination of music with faster breathing has a remarkable mind-altering power.

As far as the specific choice of music is concerned, I will outline here only the general principles and give a few suggestions based on our experience. After a certain time, each therapist or therapeutic team develops a list of their favorite pieces for various stages of the sessions. The basic rule is to respond sensitively to the phase, intensity, and content of the participants' experience, rather than trying to program it. This is in congruence with the general philosophy of holotropic therapy, particularly the deep respect for the wisdom of the inner healer, for the collective unconscious, and the autonomy and spontaneity of the healing process.

In general, preference should be given to music of high artistic quality that is not well known and has little concrete content. One should avoid playing songs and other vocal pieces in languages known to the participants, which would through their verbal content convey a specific message or suggests a specific theme. When vocal compositions are used, they should be in foreign languages so that the human voice is perceived just as another musical instrument. For the same reason, it is preferable to avoid pieces which evoke specific intellectual associations and tend to program the content of the session.

The session typically begins with activating music that is dynamic, flowing, and emotionally uplifting and reassuring. It is important to avoid selections that are jarring, dissonant, and anxiety- provoking. As the session continues, the music gradually increases in intensity and moves to powerful trance-inducing pieces, preferrably drawn from ritual and spiritual traditions of various native cultures. Although many of these performances can be esthetically pleasing, the main purpose of the human groups that developed them is not entertainment, but induction of mind-altering experiences.

About an hour and a half into the session of holotropic breathwork, when the experience typically culminates, we use what we call 'breakthrough music.' The selections used at this time range from sacred music - masses, oratoria, and other powerful orchestral pieces - to excerpts from dramatic movie soundtracks. In the second half of the session, the intensity of the music gradually decreases and we bring in loving and emotionally moving pieces ('heart music'). Finally, in the termination period of the session, the music has a soothing, flowing, timeless, and meditative quality.

The adjacent table provides representative selections of music for the five consecutive phases of the session: 1. opening music, 2. trance-inducing music, 3. breakthrough music, 4. heart music, and 5. meditative music. These selections reflect our own experience over the years and also the results of a poll that Steven Dinan, a certified facilitator of holotropic breathwork, conducted with the community of other practitioners who conduct their own holotropic workshops. I would like to re-emphasize that these are simply typical examples offering general guidelines. Eventually, each practitioner will develop his or her own collection of favorite pieces.