Theory and Practice of Holotropic Breathwork

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The Use of Bodywork - Focused Energy Release

The physical response to holotropic breathwork varies considerably from one person to another. In most instances, faster breathing brings, at first, more or less dramatic psychosomatic manifestations. As I mentioned earlier, the textbooks of respiratory physiology refer to this response as the 'hyperventilation syndrome.' They describe it as a stereotypical pattern of physiological responses that consists primarily of tensions in the hands and feet ('carpopedal spasms'). We have now conducted the breathing sessions with over thirty thousand persons and have found the traditional understanding of the effects of faster breathing to be incorrect.

There exist many individuals in whom even very fast breathing carried over an extended period of time does not lead to a classical 'hyperventilation syndrome,' but to progressive relaxation, intense sexual feelings, or even mystical experiences. Others develop tensions in various parts of their bodies and do not show signs of the 'carpopedal spasms.' Moreover, continued faster breathing does not lead to progressive increase of the tensions, but tends to be self-limited. It typically reaches a climactic culmination followed by a profound relaxation. The pattern of this sequence has a certain resemblence to a sexual orgasm.

In repeated holotropic sessions, this process of intensification of tensions and subsequent resolution tends to move from one part of the body to another in a way that varies from person to person. The overall amount of muscular tensions and of intense emotions tends to decrease with the number of sessions. What happens in this process is that faster breathing extended for a long period of time changes the chemistry of the organism in such a way that blocked physical and emotional energies associated with various traumatic memories are released and become available for peripheral discharge and processing. This makes it possible for the previously repressed content of these memories to emerge into consciousness and be integrated. It is thus a healing process that should be encouraged and supported and not a pathological process that needs to be suppressed, as it is commonly practiced in mainstream medicine.

Physical manifestations that develop during the breathing in various areas of the body are not simple physiological reactions to hyperventilation. They have a complex psychosomatic structure and usually have specific psychological meaning for the individuals involved. Sometimes, they represent an intensified version of tensions and pains that the person knows from everyday life, either as a chronic problem or as symptoms that appear at times of emotional or physical stress, fatigue, lack of sleep, weakening by an illness, or the use of alcohol or marijuana. Other times, they can be recognized as reactivation of old symptoms that the individual suffered from in infancy, childhood, puberty, or some other time of his or her life.

The tensions that we carry in our body can be released in two different ways. The first of them involves catharsis and abreaction - discharge of pent-up physical energies through tremors, twitches, dramatic body movements, coughing, gagging, and vomiting. Both catharsis and abreaction also typically include release of blocked emotions through crying, screaming, or other types of vocal expression. These are mechanisms that are well-known in traditional psychiatry since the time when Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer published their studies in hysteria (Freud and Breuer 1936). They have been used in traditional psychiatry in the treatment of traumatic emotional neuroses and represent an integral part of the new experiential psychotherapies, such as the neo-Reichian work, Gestalt practice, and primal therapy.

The second mechanism that can mediate release of physical and emotional tensions plays an important role in holotropic breathwork, rebirthing, and other forms of therapy using breathing techniques. It represents a new development in psychiatry and psychotherapy and seems to be in many ways more effective and interesting. Here the deep tensions surface in the form of transient muscular contractions of various duration. By sustaining these muscular tensions for extended periods of time, the organism consumes enormous amounts of previously pent-up energy and simplifies its functioning by disposing of them. The deep relaxation that typically follows the temporary intensification of old tensions or appearance of previously latent ones bears witness to the healing nature of this process.

These two mechanisms have their parallels in sport physiology, where it is well known that it is possible to do work and train the muscles in two different ways - by isotonic and isometric exercises. As the name suggest, during isotonic exercises the tension of the muscles remains constant while their length oscillates. During isometric exercises, the tension of the muscles changes, but their length remains the same all the time. A good example of isotonic activity is boxing, while weight-lifting is distinctly isometric. Both of these mechanisms are extremely effective in releasing and resolving muscular tension. In spite of their superficial differences, they have thus much in common and in holotropic breathwork they complement each other very effectively.

In many instances, the difficult emotions and physical manifestations that emerge from the unconscious during holotropic sessions get automatically resolved and the breathers end up in a deeply relaxed meditative state. In that case, no external interventions are necessary and they remain in this state until they return to an ordinary state of consciousness. After a brief check with the facilitators, they move to the art room room to draw a mandala.

If the breathing, in and of itself, does not lead to a good completion and there are residual tensions or unresolved emotions, facilitators offer participants a specific form of bodywork which helps them to reach a better closure for the session. The general strategy of this work is to ask the experient to focus his or her attention on the area where there is a problem and do whatever is necessary to intensify the existing physical sensations. The facilitator then helps to intensify these feelings even further by appropriate external intervention.

While the attention of the breather is focused on the energetically charged problem area, he or she is encouraged to find a spontaneous response to this situation. This response should not reflect a conscious choice of the breather, but be fully determined by the unconscious process. It often takes an entirely unexpected and surprising form - voice of a specific animal, talking in tongues or an unknown foreign language, shamanic chant from a particular culture, or baby talk. Equally frequent are completely unexpected physical reactions, such as violent tremors, jolts, coughing, and vomiting, as well as typically animal movements. It is essential that the facilitators simply support this process, rather than apply some technique offered by a particular school of therapy. This work continues until the facilitator and the breather reach an agreement that the session has been adequately closed.

In holotropic breathwork, we also use supportive physical contact. This is based on the observation that there exist two fundamentally different forms of trauma that require diametrically different approach. This first of these can be referred to as 'trauma by commission.' It involves external intrusions that had unfavorable impact on future development of the individual, such as physical or sexual abuse, frightening situations, destructive criticism, or ridicule. These traumas represent foreign elements in the unconscious that can be brought into consciousness, energetically discharged, and resolved.

Although this distinction is not recognized in conventional psychotherapy, the second form of trauma, 'trauma by omission,' is radically different. It actually involves the opposite mechanism - lack of positive experiences that are essential for a healthy emotional development. The infant, as well as an older child, have strong primitive needs for instinctual satisfaction and security that pediatricians and child psychiatrists call 'anaclitic' (from the Greek anaklinein meaning to lean upon). These involve the need to be held, caressed, comforted, be played with, and be the center of human attention. When these needs are not met, it has serious consequences for the future of the individual.

Many people have a history of emotional deprivation, abandonment, and neglect that resulted in serious frustration of the anaclitic needs. The only way to heal this type of trauma is to offer a corrective experience in the form of supportive physical contact in a holotropic state of consciousness. For this approach to be effective, the individual has to be deeply regressed to the infantile stage of development, otherwise the corrective measure would not reach the developmental level on which the trauma occurred. Depending on circumstances and on previous agreement, this physical support can range from simple holding of the hand or touching the forehead to full body contact.

Use of nourishing physical contact is a very effective way of healing early emotional trauma. However, it requires following strict ethical rules. We have to explain to the breathers before the session the rationale of this technique and get their approval to use it. Under no circumstances can this approach be practiced without previous consent and no pressures can be used to obtain this permission. For many people with a history of sexual abuse, physical contact is a very sensitive and charged issue. Very often those who need it most have the strongest resistance to it. It can sometimes take a long time before a person develops enough trust toward the facilitators and the group to be able to accept this technique and benefit from it.

Supportive physical contact has to be used exclusively to satisfy the needs of the breathers and not those of the sitters or facilitators. By this I do not mean only sexual needs or needs for intimacy which, of course, are the most obvious issues. Equally problematic can be a strong need to be needed, loved, or appreciated, unfulfilled maternal need, and other less extreme forms of emotional wants and desires. I remember an incident from one of our workshops at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, which can serve as a good example.

At the beginning of our five-day seminar, one of the participants, a postmenopausal woman, shared with the group how much she had always wanted to have children and how much she suffered because this had not happened. In the middle of the holotropic session, in which she was a sitter for a young man, she suddenly pulled the upper part of her partner's body into her lap and started to rock and comfort him. Her timing could not have been worse; as we found out later during the sharing, he was at the time in the middle of a past life experience that featured him as a powerful Viking warrior on a military expedition.

It usually is quite easy to recognize when a breather is regressed to early infancy. In a really deep age regression, all the wrinkles in the face tend to disappear and the individual might actually look and behave like an infant. This can involve various infantile postures and gestures, as well as hypersalivation and sucking. Other times, the appropriateness of offering physical contact is obvious from the context, for example, when the breather just finished reliving biological birth and looks lost and forlorn. The maternal needs of the woman in the Esalen workshop were so strong that they took over and she was unable to objectively asess the situation and act appropriately.

Before closing this section on bodywork, I would like to address one question that often comes up in the context of holotropic workshops or lectures on experiential work: "Since reliving of traumatic memories is typically very painful, why should it be therapeutic rather than represent a retraumatization?" I believe that he best answer can be found in the article Unexperienced Experience by the Irish psychiatrist Ivor Browne and his team (McGee et al. 1984). He suggested that we are not dealing here with an exact replay or repetition of the original traumatic situation, but with the first full experience of the appropriate emotional and physical reaction to it. This means that, at the time when they happen, the traumatic events are recorded in the organism, but not fully consciously experienced, processed, and integrated.

In addition, the person who is confronted with the previously repressed traumatic memory is not any more the helpless and vitally dependent child or infant he or she was in the original situation, but a grown up adult. The holotropic state induced in powerful experiential forms of psychotherapy thus allows the individual to be present and operate simultaneously in two different sets of spacetime coordinates. Full age regression makes it possible to experience all the emotions and physical sensations of the original traumatic situation from the perspective of the child, but at the same time analyze and evaluate the memory in the therapeutic situation from a mature adult perspective.