Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Self-Exploration

The Universal Heart. The little individual heart finding its way back to the big Universal Heart, from a Holotropic Breathwork session.  (Anne Høivik)

The following is excerpted from
Healing Our Deepest Wounds: The Holotropic Paradigm Shift, published by Stream of Experience Productions.

Holotropic Breathwork is an experiential method of self-exploration and psychotherapy that my wife Christina and I developed at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, in the mid -1970s. This approach induces deep holotropic states of consciousness by a combination of very simple means -- accelerated breathing, evocative music, and a technique of bodywork that helps to release residual bioenergetic and emotional blocks. The sessions are usually conducted in groups; participants work in pairs and alternate in the roles of "breathers" and "sitters."

The process is supervised by trained facilitators who assist participants whenever special intervention is necessary. Following the breathing sessions, participants express their experiences by painting mandalas and sharing accounts of their inner journeys in small groups. Follow-up interviews and various complementary methods are used, if necessary, to facilitate the completion and integration of the breathwork experience.

Mother Kundalini. Identification in a Holotropic Breathwork session with a small child resting in a papoose on the back of a woman with a fiery garment, wrapped in a star mantle.  The artist wrote: “I was both the mother and the child.  I loved this Great Mother deeply, I loved my mother, I loved every creature, every sentient being”  (Katia Solani)

In its theory and practice, Holotropic Breathwork combines and integrates various elements from modern consciousness research, depth psychology, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual philosophies, and native healing practices. It differs significantly from traditional forms of psychotherapy, which use primarily verbal means, such as psychoanalysis and various other schools of depth psychology derived from it. It shares certain common characteristics with the experiential therapies of humanistic psychology, such as Gestalt practice and the neo-Reichian approaches, which emphasize direct emotional expression and work with the body. However, the unique feature of Holotropic Breathwork is that it utilizes the therapeutic potential of holotropic states of consciousness.

The extraordinary healing power of holotropic states -- which  ancient and native cultures used for centuries or even millennia in their ritual, spiritual, and healing practices -- was confirmed by modern consciousness research conducted in the second half of the twentieth century. This research has also shown that the phenomena occurring during these states and associated with them represent a critical challenge for current conceptual frameworks used by academic psychiatry and psychology and for their basic metaphysical assumptions. The work with Holotropic Breathwork thus requires a new understanding of consciousness and of the human psyche in health and disease. The basic principles of this new psychology were discussed in another context (Grof 2000, 2007).

Imprisoned Aggression. Suppressed anger trying to find release and expression, and then experienced in identification with an archetypal feline predator in a Holotropic Breathwork session. (Albrecht Mahr)


Essential Components of Holotropic Breathwork

Holotropic Breathwork combines very simple means -- faster breathing, evocative music, and releasing bodywork -- to induce intense holotropic states of consciousness; it uses the remarkable healing and transformative power of these states. This method provides access to biographical, perinatal, and transpersonal domains of the unconscious and thus to deep psychospiritual roots of emotional and psychosomatic disorders. It also makes it possible to utilize the mechanisms of healing and personality transformation that operate on these levels of the psyche. The process of self-exploration and therapy in Holotropic Breathwork is spontaneous and autonomous; it is governed by inner healing intelligence rather than following the instructions and guidelines of a particular school of psychotherapy.

Engulfment. The onset of the process of psychospiritual death and rebirth experienced as engulfment by a grotesque archetype figure in a Holotropic Breathwork session.  The skull represents the imminence of death, the root system and the snake, the placental circulatory system. (Peg Holms)

Most of the recent revolutionary discoveries concerning consciousness and the human psyche on which Holotropic Breathwork is based are new only for modern psychiatry and psychology. They have a long history as integral parts of the ritual and spiritual life of many ancient and native cultures and their healing practices. Basic principles of Holotropic Breathwork thus represent rediscovery, validation, and modern reformulation of ancient wisdom and procedures, some of which can be traced to the dawn of human history. As we will see, the same is true for the principal constituents used in the practice of Holotropic Breathwork -- breathing, instrumental music and chanting, bodywork, and mandala drawing or other forms of artistic expression. They have been used for millennia in the healing ceremonies and ritual practices of all pre-industrial human groups.

Journey into and Through Mother Fear. Drawings from a Holotropic Breathwork session in which the artist - as a child and also as an older, wiser accompanying adult - relived her birth, from entering the mouth of the Mother Dragon (above) through through fully facing the fear, and then the dissolving of the Dragon’s head allowing safe passage  (below). (Jan Vannatta)


The Healing Power of Breath

In ancient and pre-industrial societies, breath and breathing have played a very important role in cosmology, mythology, and philosophy, as well as being an important tool in ritual and spiritual practice. Various breathing techniques have been used since time immemorial for religious and healing purposes. Since earliest times, virtually every major psychospiritual system seeking to comprehend human nature has viewed breath as a crucial link between nature, the human body, the psyche, and the spirit. This is clearly reflected in the words many languages use for breath.

Crucifixion. Vision of crucifixion in the final stage of the birth process in a Holotropic Breathwork session.  The artist said “The experience showed me clearly how many levels of reality can be woven together and that God or The Great Spirit is behind it all.” (Anne Høivik)

In the ancient Indian literature, the term prana meant not only physical breath and air, but also the sacred essence of life. Similarly, in traditional Chinese medicine, the word chi refers to the cosmic essence and the energy of life, as well as to the natural air we breathe using our lungs. In Japan, the corresponding word is ki. Ki plays an extremely important role in Japanese spiritual practices and martial arts. In ancient Greece, the word pneuma meant both air or breath and spirit or the essence of life. The Greeks also saw breath as being closely related to the psyche. The term phren was used both for the diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in breathing, and mind (as we see in the term schizophrenia = literally split mind).

In the old Hebrew tradition, the same word, ruach, denoted both breath and creative spirit, which were seen as identical. The following quote from Genesis shows the close relationship between God, breath, and life: "Then the Lord God formed man {Hebrew adam} from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." In Latin the same name was used for breath and spirit -- spiritus. Similarly, in Slavic languages, spirit and breath have the same linguistic root.

In the native Hawaiian tradition and medicine (kanaka maoli lapa'au), the word ha means the divine spirit, wind, air, and breath. It is contained in the popular Hawaiian aloha, an expression that is used in many different contexts. It is usually translated as presence (alo) of the Divine Breath (ha). Its opposite, ha'ole, meaning literally without breath or without life, is a term that native Hawaiians have applied to white-skinned foreigners since the arrival of the infamous British sea captain James Cook in 1778. The kahunas, "Keepers of Secret Knowledge," have used breathing exercises to generate spiritual energy (mana).

Death and Rebirth. Death and rebirth followed by the experience of hieros gamos - sacred union - of the Feminine and Masculine in a Holotropic Breathwork session. (Anne Høivik)

It has been known for centuries that it is possible to influence consciousness by techniques that involve breathing. The procedures that have been used for this purpose by various ancient and non-Western cultures cover a very wide range from drastic interference with breathing to subtle and sophisticated exercises of various spiritual traditions. Thus the original form of baptism practiced by the Essenes involved forced submersion of the initiate under water for an extended period of time. This resulted in a powerful experience of death and rebirth. In some other groups, the neophytes were half-choked by smoke, by strangulation, or by compression of the carotid arteries.

Profound changes in consciousness can be induced by both extremes in the breathing rate, hyperventilation and prolonged withholding of breath, as well as by using them in an alternating fashion. Very sophisticated and advanced methods of this kind can be found in the ancient Indian science of breath, or pranayama. William Walker Atkinson, American writer, who was influential in the turn-of-the-century (1890s-1900s) spiritual/philosophical movement wrote under the pseudonym Yogi Ramacharaka a comprehensive treatise on the Hindu science of breath (Ramacharaka 1903).

Specific techniques involving intense breathing or withholding of breath are also part of various exercises in Kundalini Yoga, Siddha Yoga, the Tibetan Vajrayana, Sufi practice, Burmese Buddhist and Taoist meditation, and many other spiritual systems. Indirectly, the depth and rhythm of breathing is profoundly influenced by ritual artistic performances such as the the Balinese monkey chant or Ketjak, the Inuit Eskimo throat music, the Tibetan and Mongolian multivocal chanting, and the singing of kirtans, bhajans, or Sufi chants.

More subtle techniques, which emphasize special awareness in relation to breathing rather than changes of the respiratory dynamics, have a prominent place in Buddhism.  An?p?nasati is a basic form of meditation taught by the Buddha; it means literally "mindfulness of breathing" (from the Pali an?p?na = inhalation and exhalation and sati = mindfulness). Buddha's teaching of an?p?na was based on his experience using it as a means of achieving his own enlightenment.  He emphasized the importance of being mindful not only of one's breath, but using the breath to become aware of one's entire body and of all of one's experience. According to the An?p?nasati Sutta (sutra), practicing this form of meditation leads to the removal of all defilements (kilesa). The Buddha taught that systematic practice of an?p?nasati would lead to the final release (nirv?na or nib?na).

An?p?nasati is practiced in connection with Vipassana (insight meditation) and Zen meditation (shikantaza, literally "just sitting"). The essence of an?p?nasati as the core meditation practice in Buddhism, especially the Theravada school, is to be a passive observer of the natural involuntary breathing process. This is in sharp contrast with the yogic pranayama practices, which employ breathing techniques that aim for rigorous control of breath. An?p?nasati is not, however, the only Buddhist form of breathing meditation. In the Buddhist spiritual practices used in Tibet, Mongolia, and Japan, the control of breathing plays an important role.  Cultivation of special attention to breathing also represents an essential part of certain Taoist and Christian practices.

In the development of materialistic science, breathing lost its sacred meaning and was stripped of its connection to the psyche and spirit.  Western medicine reduced it to an important physiological function. The physical and psychological manifestations that accompany various respiratory maneuvers, have all been pathologized. The psychosomatic response to faster breathing, the so-called hyperventilation syndrome, is considered a pathological condition, rather than what it really is, a process that has an enormous healing potential. When hyperventilation occurs spontaneously, it is routinely suppressed by administration of tranquilizers, injections of intravenous calcium, and application of a paper bag over the face to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide and combat the alkalosis caused by faster breathing.

In the last few decades, Western therapists rediscovered the healing potential of breath and developed techniques that utilize it. We have ourselves experimented with various approaches involving breathing in the context of our month-long seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. These included both breathing exercises from ancient spiritual traditions under the guidance of Indian and Tibetan teachers and techniques developed by Western therapists. Each of these approaches has a specific emphasis and uses breath in a different way. In our own search for an effective method of using the healing potential of breath, we tried to simplify this process as much as possible.

We came to the conclusion that it is sufficient to breathe faster and more effectively than usual and with full concentration on the inner process. Instead of emphasizing a specific technique of breathing, we follow even in this area the general strategy of holotropic work -- to trust the intrinsic wisdom of the body and follow the inner clues. In Holotropic Breathwork, we encourage people to begin the session with faster and somewhat deeper breathing, tying inhalation and exhalation into a continuous circle of breath. Once in the process, they find their own rhythm and way of breathing.

We have been able to confirm repeatedly Wilhelm Reich's observation that psychological resistances and defenses are associated with restricted breathing (Reich 1949, 1961).

Respiration is an autonomous function, but it can also be influenced by volition. Deliberate increase of the pace of breathing typically loosens psychological defenses and leads to a release and emergence of unconscious (and superconscious) material. Unless one has witnessed or experienced this process personally, it is difficult to believe on theoretical grounds alone the power and efficacy of this technique.

Liberation. Experience of psychospiritual death and rebirth in a Holotropic Breathwork session .  The old personality structure has fallen apart, out of it emerges a new self (or Self), connected to the spiritual domain.  Dismemberment is a frequent motif in the initiatory experiences of novice shamans. (Jaryna Moss)


The Therapeutic Potential of Music

In Holotropic Breathwork, the consciousness-expanding effect of breath is combined with evocative music. Like breathing, music and other forms of sound technology have been used for millennia as powerful tools in ritual and spiritual practice. Monotonous drumming, rattling, chanting, instrumental music, and other forms of sound-producing techniques have always been the principal tools of shamans in many different parts of the world. Many pre-industrial cultures have quite independently developed drumming rhythms that in laboratory experiments have remarkable effects on the electric activity of the brain (Goldman 1952, Jilek 1974, 1982; Neher 1961, 1962). The archives of cultural anthropologists contain countless examples of trance-inducing methods of extraordinary power combining instrumental music, chanting, and dancing.

In many cultures, sound technology has been used specifically for healing purposes in the context of intricate ceremonies. The Navajo healing rituals conducted by trained singers have astounding complexity that has been compared to that of the scripts of Wagnerian operas. The trance dance and extended drumming of the !Kung Bushmen of the African Kalahari Desert have enormous healing power, as has been documented in many anthropological studies and movies (Lee and DeVore 1976; Katz 1976). The healing potential of the syncretistic religious rituals of the Caribbean and South America, such as the Cuban santeria or Brazilian umbanda is recognized by many professionals in these countries who have traditional Western medical training. Remarkable instances of emotional and psychosomatic healing occur in the meetings of Christian groups using music, singing, and dance, such as the Snake Handlers (Holy Ghost People), and the revivalists or members of the Pentecostal Church.

Some spiritual traditions have developed sound technologies that do not just induce a general trance state but have a specific effect on consciousness and the human psyche and body. Thus the Indian teachings postulate a specific connection between certain acoustic frequencies and the individual chakras or energy centers of the human body. With systematic use of this knowledge it is possible to influence the state of consciousness in a predictable and desirable way. The ancient Indian tradition called nada yoga or the way to union through sound is known to maintain, improve, and restore emotional, psychosomatic, and physical health and well-being.

Examples of extraordinary vocal performances used for ritual, spiritual, and healing purposes are the multivocal chanting of the Tibetan Gyotso monks and of the Mongolian and Tuva shamans, the Hindu bhajans and kirtans, the Santo Daime chants (Ikaros) used in the ayahuasca ceremonies, the throat music of the Inuit Eskimo people, and the sacred chants (dhikrs) of various Sufi orders. These are just a few examples of the extensive use of instrumental music and chanting for healing, ritual, and spiritual purposes.

We used music systematically in the program of psychedelic therapy at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and have learned much about its extraordinary potential for psychotherapy. Carefully selected music seems to be of particular value in holotropic states of consciousness, where it has several important functions. It mobilizes emotions associated with repressed memories, brings them to the surface, and facilitates their expression. It helps to open the door into the unconscious, intensifies and deepens the therapeutic process, and provides a meaningful context for the experience. The continuous flow of music creates a carrier wave that helps the subject move through difficult experiences and impasses, overcome psychological defenses, surrender, and let go. In Holotropic Breathwork sessions, which are usually conducted in groups, music has an additional function: it masks the noises made by the participants and weaves them into a dynamic esthetic gestalt.

In order to use music as a catalyst for deep self-exploration and experiential work it is necessary to learn a new way of listening to music and relating to it that is alien to our culture. In the West, we employ music frequently as an acoustic background that has little emotional relevance. Typical examples would be use of popular music in cocktail parties or piped music (muzak) in shopping areas and workspaces. A different approach used by sophisticated audiences is the disciplined and attentive listening to music in theaters and concert halls. The dynamic and elemental way of using music characteristic of rock concerts comes closer to the use of music in Holotropic Breathwork. However, the attention of participants in such events is usually extroverted and the experience lacks an element that is essential in holotropic therapy or self-exploration -- sustained focused introspection.

In holotropic therapy, it is essential to surrender completely to the flow of music, to let it resonate in one's entire body, and to respond to it in a spontaneous and elemental fashion. This includes manifestations that would be unthinkable in a concert hall, where even crying or coughing is seen as a disturbance and causes annoyance and embarrassment. In holotropic work, one should give full expression to whatever the music is bringing out, whether it is loud screaming or laughing, baby talk, animal noises, shamanic chanting, or talking in tongues. It is also important not to control any physical impulses, such as bizarre grimacing, sensual movements of the pelvis, violent shaking, or intense contortions of the entire body. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule; destructive behavior directed toward oneself, others, and the physical environment is not permissible.

We also encourage participants to suspend any intellectual activity, such as trying to guess the composer of the music or the culture from which the music comes. Other ways of avoiding the emotional impact of the music involve engaging one's professional expertise -- judging the performance of the orchestra, guessing which instruments are playing, and criticizing the technical quality of the recording or of the music equipment in the room. When we can avoid these pitfalls, music can become a very powerful tool for inducing and supporting holotropic states of consciousness. For this purpose, the music has to be of superior technical quality and played at a sufficient volume to drive the experience. The combination of music with faster breathing has a remarkable mind-manifesting and consciousness-expanding power.

As far as the specific choice of music is concerned, we will outline here only the general principles and give a few suggestions based on our experience. After a certain time, each therapist or therapeutic team develops a list of their favorite pieces for various stages of the sessions. The basic rule is to respond sensitively to the phase, intensity, and content of the participants' experience, rather than trying to program it. This is in congruence with the general philosophy of holotropic therapy, particularly the deep respect for the wisdom of the inner healer, for the collective unconscious, and for the autonomy and spontaneity of the healing process.

In general, it is important to use music that is intense, evocative, and conducive to a positive experience. We try to avoid selections that are jarring, dissonant, and anxiety-provoking. Preference should be given to music of high artistic quality that is not well known and has little concrete content. One should avoid playing songs and other vocal pieces in languages known to the participants, which would through their verbal content convey a specific message or suggest a specific theme. When vocal compositions are used, they should be in foreign languages so that the human voice is perceived just as another musical instrument. For the same reason, it is preferable to avoid pieces which evoke specific intellectual associations and tend to program the content of the session, such as Wagner's or Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's wedding marches and overtures to Bizet's Carmen or Verdi's Aida.

The session typically begins with activating music that is dynamic, flowing, and emotionally uplifting and reassuring. As the session continues, the music gradually increases in intensity and moves to powerful rhythmic pieces, preferably drawn from ritual and spiritual traditions of various native cultures. Although many of these performances can be esthetically pleasing, the main purpose of the human groups that developed them is not entertainment, but induction of holotropic experiences. An example here could be the dance of the whirling dervishes accompanied by beautiful music and chants. It is not designed to be admired but to take people to the experience of God.

About an hour and a half into the session of Holotropic Breathwork, when the experience typically culminates, we introduce what we call "breakthrough music." The selections used at this time range from sacred music -- masses, oratoria, requiems, and other strong orchestral pieces -- to excerpts from dramatic movie soundtracks. In the second half of the session, the intensity of the music gradually decreases and we bring in loving and emotionally moving pieces (‘heart music'). Finally, in the termination period of the session, the music has a soothing, flowing, timeless, and meditative quality.

Most practitioners of Holotropic Breathwork collect musical recordings and tend to create their own favorite sequences for the five consecutive phases of the session: (1) opening music, (2) trance-inducing music, (3) breakthrough music, (4) heart music, and (5) meditative music. Some of them use music programs prerecorded for the entire session; this allows the facilitators to be more available for the group, but makes it impossible to flexibly adjust the selection of the music to the energy of the group.



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