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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • 1. Does Holotropic Breathwork involve the use of drugs?

    No Grof was one of the earliest and most respected researchers into the clinical use of LSD. A Freudian analyst and psychiatrist, he became convinced that LSD had therapeutic value as a catalyst for the healing potential of the unconscious. Grof conducted LSD treatment at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague from 1960 to 1967, and continued this work at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He worked with psychiatric patients, cancer patients, and drug addicts, as well as with artists and scientists who were curious about the deeper dimensions of their minds.

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  • 2. Is the facilitator the healer?

    The primary principle of Holotropic Breathwork is that healing comes from within the client. In the holotropic model, this is taken to an unprecedented level of trust. Facilitators are not considered to be healers or even therapists. Rather, they are more like mid-wives, there to support a process that has an inherent wisdom. Facilitating a Holotropic Breathwork workshop is intense practice in ‘not knowing’. I recall Grof saying that the reason the training to be a facilitator takes a minimum of two years is that it takes at least two years to realize how little you know.

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  • 3. Is Holotropic Breathwork a kind of shamanism?

    There are many ways in which Holotropic Breathwork resembles shamanism. As in shamanism, participants in a Holotropic Breathwork workshop go on a journey into a non-ordinary state of consciousness to find healing. Music is played to support this journey. But there are many differences between Holotropic Breathwork and shamanism. First, there is no roadmap for the Holotropic Breathwork journey: participants are not asked to imagine an entrance to a shamanic world, and don’t begin their holotropic journey with an intention to work on a specific problem or question. It certainly makes sense to look for a spirit guide or power animal at a shamanic workshop, for these are typical features of the shamanic world, but to do this in a holotropic session would constrain the process. In a holotropic session, the whole world of possible spiritual experience, from any tradition (and from no tradition), is available to each client.

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  • 4. Is Holotropic Breathwork addictive?

    We have certainly seen some people seem to get hooked on Holotropic Breathwork. But we have to be careful here. Many people come to Holotropic Breathwork as a last resort, or when they are in a psycho-spiritual crisis. In such cases, an intensive period of inner work is not just desired but essential for them. They may want or need to give their lives over to their inner process for a period of time. For other people, a holotropic workshop may be the only place they have found in which they can truly be themselves, and where they can give expression to some very big energies they have been struggling with. Then there are other people, like myself, who consider Holotropic Breathwork a spiritual practice, and try to do it at least a couple of times a year, much as one would a meditation retreat. But although I have seen plenty of people practice Holotropic Breathwork intensely for a period of time, and some people who seem perhaps too attached to it for a while, I have seen no one ‘addicted’ to it.

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  • 5. Is there a prescribed ‘order’ of experience?

    We have seen many newcomers to Holotropic Breathwork arrive at a workshop with fixed ideas about what they have to experience or will experience, as if they’d been given instructions by their therapist. (One person even arrived with a map of his body, drawn by his therapist, showing me where his ‘stuff’ was.) But in Holotropic Breathwork, there is no prescribed order of experience, and no way to predict what will emerge. Facilitators stress over and over again: let go of your agenda and be willing to be surprised. The inner healer will select the issue you will explore, the healing you will experience, and the lesson you will learn.

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  • 6. Does Holotropic Breathwork require bodywork?

    Holotropic Breathwork facilitators are trained to help participants with a form of support that is sometimes called, and often confused with, bodywork. Increasingly, however, this is called “Focused Energy Release Work” rather than “bodywork”. It is available to clients, if they request it, during a session or at the end of a session. It is used requested by participants when they feel stuck, ungrounded, or perceive that their session hasn’t completed.

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  • 7. Does Holotropic Breathwork cause you to have an out-of-body experience?

    It is certainly possible to have an out-of-body experience in a Holotropic Breathwork session. Most Holotropic Breathwork sessions, however, are exceptionally embodied. In fact, this may be one of the most valuable aspects of Holotropic Breathwork. Because the breather is lying down, on a mat, with someone nearby to ensure that he won’t get hurt, it is possible for his body to do whatever it needs to do. This is quite a different injunction, for example, than in a meditation retreat, where the exact physical posture for practice may be prescribed. In a Holotropic Breathwork workshop you can express yourself physically in just about any way imaginable. More to the point, you can allow your unconscious to express itself physically, in any way it wants to. Thus participants can have fully embodied spiritual experiences, quite idiosyncratically expressed. I have seen no practice that marries the transcendent and the immanent, or the spiritual and the physical, so effectively.

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  • 8. Do participants leave the workshops ‘ungrounded’?

    After any dramatic experience, there is a risk of being ‘ungrounded’. People returning from an ashram or meditation retreat, and even from a therapy session or massage, can be ungrounded. Deep experiences are often unsettling, and it can take some time to integrate such experiences with ordinary life. This is why Holotropic Breathwork sessions are usually offered in overnight retreats, and at minimum in day-long retreats. A residential set-up helps people go into the experience more deeply, and gives them more time to complete the experience. Good facilitators make sure that people are sufficiently grounded before they leave a workshop, and are available to help them after the workshop if necessary. Holotropic Breathwork facilitators will often refer people to an appropriate therapist for continued support and integration of their experiences (and many therapists refer clients to Holotropic Breathwork as an adjunct to their therapy).

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  • 9. Does Holotropic Breathwork induce an “altered state of consciousness”?

    The term ‘altered states’ was widely used in the early days of the transpersonal movement, but with its suggestion of abnormality or pathology, it has become less and less favoured. The term “non-ordinary states of consciousness” is preferred, as it does not judge these states positively or negatively. Grof also tends to call these states of consciousness simply “holotropic”, which means “moving toward wholeness.” In other words, Holotropic Breathwork simply opens us to a state of consciousness that helps move us toward wholeness.

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  • 10. Is Holotropic Breathwork violent?

    From years working as a therapist and a Holotropic Breathwork facilitator, and from my own personal journey, I have learned that there are violent feelings, desires, and reactions in each of us. The question is to what extent we know about these and can work with them skilfully, as opposed to being surprised by them, projecting them onto others, or acting them out in the world.

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  • 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.

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  • 12. Does Holotropic Breathwork go too deep?

    First, there is no question that Holotropic Breathwork allows people to have deep experiences, and to some extent, it catalyzes these experiences. Remember that the client is always in control of the mechanism that drives the depth of the process: breathing. No one is forced to go deeper than he wishes.

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