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.
As with osteopathy and homeopathy—and to some extent, Jungian analysis—in Holotropic Breathwork, symptoms are expected to get bigger—or be amplified—as a means of resolution: this is called a ‘healing crisis’. This is quite different from the medical model, where the elimination of symptoms—sometimes without anyone even knowing the cause—is often standard.
Grof believes that a symptom is like an interference pattern—it represents the ‘edge’ of another reality or gestalt that is trying to emerge.[v] The problem is that that other reality doesn’t match this reality very well. For example, a panic attack might be the psyche’s attempt to heal an earlier trauma; it certainly has many features of a birth process (claustrophobia, constriction, fear, elevated heart rate, etc.). The problem, therefore, is not the panic attack, but the context in which it is happening. If it happens when you’re driving a car, or sitting at your desk in the office, it is considered pathological. But if it happens in a safe and supportive environment, where it is possible to experience it fully, then underlying gestalt can be resolved, and it is considered healing. In a world where the dominant model of healing encourages the suppression symptoms, it’s not surprising that any technique that encourages the amplification of symptoms will be controversial.
I have certainly seen people get into some very challenging territory in Holotropic Breathwork sessions, but they might well have got into even more difficult situations had those energies erupted in ordinary life. At intensive times of change in one’s life there can be mood swings, active dreams, and deep anxiety. Many people come to a Holotropic Breathwork workshop during such periods of transformation; therefore it may appear to a casual observer that Holotropic Breathwork has caused this unsettlement, rather than being a method of processing it.
Many come to Holotropic Breathwork as a last resort. I have worked with many clients who were in recovery from abuse by the psychiatric profession, or from manipulative shamans or yogis, and who only found a safe, non-judgemental space in a Holotropic Breathwork workshop. I have also worked with many people who were in recovery from the abuse of psychedelics, which can create a very complex and challenging psychological state. It is not surprising that Holotropic Breathwork attracts such people, for the safety, depth, and respect for the client that it offers. But it would be a mistake to believe that Holotropic Breathwork induces a difficult experience in people who would not otherwise encountered it. My general experience is that people find that they can resolve issues in a Holotropic Breathwork session that they just couldn’t resolve anywhere else.
I am not denying that Holotropic Breathwork is a deep, and at times emotional, process. But deep experiences are not always painful or dark (though these do seem to get the most press). I have seen many people, in a Holotropic Breathwork workshop, liberate their ability to laugh deeply, learn to cry profoundly, move parts of their bodies that have been frozen for years, experience ecstasy for the first time, and find a quietness and peace that they have never touched in ordinary life.