11. Is Holotropic Breathwork just about reliving trauma?

One of the most common misperceptions about Holotropic Breathwork, particularly in Ireland, is that it is only about recovery from trauma. This may be due to the fact the bulk of Holotropic Breathwork done in Ireland was in the 1990s. (And some therapists, not trained by Grof, were doing their own version of it in the 1980s). This was a time of great transition in Ireland. The reality of physical and sexual abuse, at the hands of parents, teachers, and clergy, was just beginning to become known. Therapists were helping clients process this trauma at a time when the culture was not very supportive of the truth of that trauma. And the people who came to Holotropic Breathwork workshops were often those who were particularly depressed, ‘stuck’, or emotional. They were often those people who had suffered the most severe trauma. They were referred to Holotropic Breathwork workshops by their therapists because they were not making any progress, or because the therapists couldn’t handle the intensity of the process. All of this has skewed the perception in Ireland of Holotropic Breathwork.

Holotropic Breathwork is practiced by people in recovery from trauma and also practiced by people who have no known trauma. I know of a Zen teacher who refers people to Holotropic Breathwork when their meditation practice gets stuck. I have seen Holotropic Breathwork as a very effective partner with other forms of personal development. It has been used in the context of leadership development, interfaith dialogue, and gender reconciliation. The point is that Holotropic Breathwork is a modern way for us all to explore the deepest dimensions of ourselves: sometimes that involved healing what happened before, and sometimes that means discovering what is happening beyond. But always, it means touching what is truly happening right now.

Yes, Holotropic Breathwork does seem to offer people the possibility of recollected memory and an extraordinary opportunity for catharsis. And it is often a history of trauma, or the onset of symptoms from a trauma, that drive an individual to a path of self-discovery. But Holotropic Breathwork is not primarily about trauma. Nor would a Holotropic Breathwork facilitator encourage a client to ‘believe’ a recollected memory as fact, for two reasons. First, it is always up to the client to interpret the experience. Second, Holotropic Breathwork sessions, like dreams, usually contain a mixture of elements, both biographical and symbolic, which can be very hard to separate. This is not to say that a recollected trauma did not happen, merely that it is not the role of the Holotropic Breathwork facilitator to set an agenda or interpret experience, and the goal of the workshop is never just ‘trauma recovery’.

The definition of trauma is not as simple as we think, and it may vary with both culture and era. Some people wonder whether Holotropic Breathwork might be re-traumatising; many people wonder whether any technique in which trauma is revisited is re-traumatising. Grof’s belief, however, is that the trauma only manifests in a holotropic session if it is necessary for healing. Holotropic Breathwork facilitators would never insist that someone work on a trauma, nor determine how long one should work on a trauma.

It is possible for people who are working through trauma (via any modality) to get stuck in that process for a while. Indeed, it seems that this is one way in which some people move forward: They get stuck in a particular perspective until they get so fed up with being stuck in that perspective that a new one breaks through. During the period of stuckness, however, they can certainly seem to be caught in a loop.

But it is important to remember that Holotropic Breathwork, because it is not about trauma recovery, is always offering clients a new way out of old problems. The primary injunction in Holotropic Breathwork is not ‘go into the trauma’ but ‘do the breathing until you are surprised by what emerges’. In other words: ‘don’t get stuck in your assumptions.’

Quite frankly, I have seen more re-traumatisation by therapists and gurus who impose their own assumptions on the wide-open psyche of their clients—interpreting symptoms according to their particular model, advising them to do particular forms of work, managing their life choices, etc. Holotropic Breathwork is simply a loving field in which whatever needs to emerge can do so.

In many countries, Holotropic Breathwork is actually seen more as a spiritual process than a therapeutic one; workshops attract people who are primarily looking to expand their awareness. But whether the benefits of a Holotropic Breathwork are spiritual or therapeutic (and I’m not really sure there is a difference), the main point is that what happens in a Holotropic Breathwork session, at its simplest, is this: you get the next part of the picture.