Theory and Practice of Holotropic Breathwork

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The Course of Holotropic Sessions

The nature and course of holotropic sessions varies considerably from person to person and in the same person also from session to session. Some individuals remain entirely quiet and almost motionless. They might have very profound experiences, yet give the impression to an external observer that nothing is happening or that they are sleeping. Others are agitated and show rich motor activity. They experience violent shaking and complex twisting movements, roll and flail around, assume fetal positions, behave like infants struggling in the birth canal, or look and act like newborns. Also crawling, swimming, digging, or climbing movements are quite common.

Frequently, the movements and gestures can be extremely refined, complex, quite specific, and differentiated. They can take the form of strange animal movements emulating snakes, birds, or feline predators and be associated with corresponding sounds. Sometimes breathers assume spontaneously various yogic postures and gestures (asanas and mudras) that they are not intellectually familiar with. Occasionally, the automatic movements and/or sounds resemble ritual or theatrical performances from different cultures - shamanic practices, Javanese dances, Balinese monkey chant, Japanese Kabuki, or talking in tongues reminiscent of the Pentecostal meetings.

The emotional qualities observed in holotropic sessions cover a very wide range. On one side of the spectrum, one can encounter feelings of extraordinary well-being, profound peace, tranquillity, serenity, bliss, cosmic unity, or ecstatic rapture. On the other side of the same spectrum are episodes of indescribable terror, consuming guilt, or murderous aggression, and a sense of eternal doom. The intensity of these extraordinary emotions can transcend anything that can be experienced or even imagined in everyday state of consciousness. These extreme emotional states are usually associated with experiences that are perinatal or transpersonal in nature.

In the middle band of the experiential spectrum observed in holotropic breathwork sessions are less extreme emotional qualities that are closer to what we know from our daily existence - episodes of anger, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, and feelings of failure, inferiority, shame, guilt or disgust. These are typically linked to biographical memories; their sources are traumatic experiences from infancy, childhood, and later periods of life.

As I mentioned earlier, in some instances, faster breathing does not induce any physical tensions or difficult emotions, but leads directly to increasing relaxation, sense of expansion and well-being, and visions of light. The breather can feel flooded with feelings of love and experiences mystical connection to other people, nature, the entire cosmos, and God. More frequently, these positive states come at the end of the holotropic sessions, after the turbulent parts of the experience have subsided.

It is surprising how many people in our culture, because of strong Protestant ethics or for some other reasons, have great difficulties accepting ecstatic experiences, unless they follow suffering and hard work, or even then. They might respond to them with a strong feeling of guilt or with a sense that they do not deserve them. It is also common, particularly in mental health professionals, to react to positive experiences with mistrust and suspicion that they hide and mask some very painful and unpleasant material. It is very important under these circumstances to reassure the breathers that positive experiences are extremely healing and encourage them to accept them without reservation as unexpected grace.

A typical result of a holotropic breathwork session is profound emotional release and physical relaxation. After a successful and well-integrated session, many subjects report that they feel more relaxed than they have ever felt in their life. Continued accelerated breathing represents thus an extremely powerful and effective method of stress-reduction and leads to emotional and psychosomatic healing.

This is the understanding that one finds in the spiritual literature of many cultures and ages. The healing potential of breath is particularly strongly emphasized in Kundalini yoga. There episodes of faster breathing are used in the course of meditative practice (bastrika) or occur spontaneously as part of the emotional and physical manifestations known as kriyas. This is consistent with my own view that similar spontaneous episodes occurring in psychiatric patients and referred to as the hyperventilation syndrome, are attempts at self-healing. They should be supported rather than routinely suppressed, which is the common medical practice.

Holotropic breathwork sessions vary in their duration from individual to individual and, in the same individual, also from session to session. It is essential for the best possible integration of the experience that the facilitators and sitters stay with the breather as long as he or she is in process and has unusual experiences. In the terminal stage of the session, good bodywork can greatly expedite emotional and physical resolution.

On the days folowing particularly intense sessions, which involved a major emotional breakthrough or opening, a wide variety of complementary approaches can facilitate integration. Among them are talking about the session with an experienced facilitator, writing down the content of the experience, or drawing more mandalas. Good bodywork with a practitioner who allows emotional expression, jogging, swimming, and other forms of physical exercise, or expressive dancing can be very useful, if the holotropic experience freed excess of previously pent-up physical energy. A session of Gestalt therapy or Dora Kalff's Jungian sandplay can be of great help in refining insights into the holotropic experience and understanding its content.