Ian Iott - 'breath of life' - flickr.com/photos/another_point_in_time/ - Flickr Creative Commons

Entering A Psychedelic State — Without Psychedelics: Inside Holotropic Breathwork

Ian Iott - 'breath of life' - flickr.com/photos/another_point_in_time/ - Flickr Creative Commons


by Kevin Franciotti

on December 17, 2014

“Now start to increase the speed of your breath. Breathing faster and deeper each time.” Dr. Stanislav Grof is instructing a room full of attendees who are about to embark on a three-hour journey using a powerful technique called holotropic breathwork. With his very calm and deliberate manner of speaking, Dr. Grof leads a brief relaxation exercise before signaling the onset of catalytic music that aids the immersive experience. The music starts playing over a powerful sound system — a loud and fast rhythm centered on drums and pulsing beats. For the next three hours, the ‘breathers’ will be utilizing the power of this technique in the hopes of reaching a profound and non-ordinary state of consciousness.

Holotropic breathwork saw its genesis in the mid-1970s. Grof developed the technique in collaboration with his now-late wife Christina, though his previous work with LSD provided a vital context for framing the technique in a therapeutic context. Part of this context included the name itself. Its roots are derived from the Greek words holos, meaning ‘whole’ or ‘wholeness,’ and trepein, meaning ‘to turn towards,’ thus holotropic, or ‘moving towards wholeness.’ At 83-years old, Grof continues to facilitate a handful of holotropic breathwork retreats and training programs every year around the world. 

Grof defines the holotropic states as those that are beyond normal waking consciousness, having a mystical quality to them that can sometimes be reached through meditation and use of psychedelic drugs, and in some cases through spontaneous emergence. Grof argues that these states have inherent healing mechanisms, similar to a body’s immunological or histological response to physical distress. Setting an intention for healing and psychospiritual growth when accessing the holotropic states initiates a process of self-repair of the psyche, he explains.

In 1971, as psychedelic drugs became increasingly popular in the recreational sphere, the federal government began to crack down. This put a halt to research Grof was leading on psychedelics for the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. (He began volunteering for the first LSD experiments shortly after Albert Hofmann’s discovery of the compound.) However, he had learned enough about the relationship between the psyche and the healing power of non-ordinary states of consciousness that he was able to develop a non-drug technique to reach those states. The theory of consciousness he developed became a crucial addition to the field of Transpersonal Psychology, and by the late ’70s the early stages of what would later become a full-blown certification in “Grof Transpersonal Training” began with small structured holotropic breathing sessions, primarily among therapists.

“Holotropic breathwork is a simple, elegant technique that made it even clearer that the healing is within,” wrote Rick Doblin, executive director of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), in an email to Reset.

Doblin was one of the first graduates of the formal certification program, and even helped organize a training retreat for a group of international therapists in Austria. Doblin credits Grof with sustaining the foundation of the practice of psychospiritual growth and healing through non-ordinary states following the termination of clinical psychedelic psychotherapy programs.

“Holotropic breathwork was the connecting thread between prohibition and the psychedelic research renaissance,” Doblin said. “Stan and Christina’s work has been fundamental to training many of the current researchers investigating psychedelic psychotherapy, including the Principle Investigators of our [MAPS] South Carolina and Canadian MDMA-PTSD studies.”

Going Holotropic With Stan Grof

As the music starts, I wonder if this is really going to do anything. How can deep breathing cause a powerful LSD-like experience? I’m at a holotropic breathwork program called “The Journey of Self-Discovery: A Holotropic Breathwork Experience” at a yoga retreat center nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. After reading about seemingly miraculous healing brought on by LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions in Grof’s book, LSD Psychotherapy, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to attend. After Grof’s remarkably engaging introductory lecture followed by Q&As,  60-something attendees have split off into groups led by Grof-certified facilitators. Despite my skepticism, the music envelopes me almost instantly.

Grof’s guided relaxation, though brief, is enough to shift my focus inward and I rely on the breath as a vehicle. My personal meditation practice has taught me to remain aware of the breath for centering and becoming mindful of the present moment, but this is different. For one it’s much faster. I’m not used to breathing like this and after a couple of minutes I feel my body start to tingle. I keep breathing. Soon my whole body feels like it’s buzzing, a pleasant vibration that begins to distract me. The euphoria tempts me to take it further, but I slow my breathing, content with this physical sensation. The feeling begins to fade and I ask my guide to help me to my feet so I can use the restroom. My conscious state certainly feels non-ordinary; my gait is unsteady and though my vision seems fairly unaffected, my surroundings appear as if I have just woken up from a dream.

I return to the room and lie back down, immediately re-engaging with the music and immersing my body in deep, rhythmic breathing. As the tingling returns, I continue to breathe deeper and faster, and the feeling intensifies. I recall that the guides recommended I ‘listen’ to my body and that there may be times where I desire physical pressure. My body is buzzing more intensely than before and I feel my forearms begin to curl from hyperventilation. My breathing slows due to this distraction, but after a few moments when the buzzing calms and my forearms relax, I again intensify my breathing. I call for support from my guide and ask for pressure, but I seem to have hit a psychosomatic block that I am unable to break through.

My breathwork session may not be as overwhelmingly powerful and transformative as some of my peers; I observe them at times so immersed in their experiences that their bodies shake uncontrollably and they roll around on the ground, screaming violently and signaling for physical interventions from the guides and facilitators.

I choose not to force the breathing anymore and instead lie still, contented with relaxed breathing until I feel tired. I turn to my side and fall asleep. When I awake, the music has become more melodic and calm. I turn to my guide and exclaim, “I think I’m done.”

The holotropic breathwork experience is intuitive, like having a one-on-one conversation with the mind and body simultaneously. While a drug-induced experience or a spontaneous emergence of a non-ordinary state of consciousness can sometimes forcefully collide with unpleasant psychological content, using the breath as a vehicle of engaging these states offers a uniquely adjustable experience. As Doblin explained in his email, “Holotropic breathwork is a more controllable process, since you’re starting and stopping on your own.”

Any exploration into seldom-exposed aspects of the psyche can be challenging, even without chemically-aided catalysts.

Dublin continued, “The voluntary nature of it is courageous in ways different from taking a psychedelic drug since it requires more of a letting go than being overwhelmed. However, the same voluntary nature means that it’s sometimes difficult to overcome your own defenses and delusions.”

For people undergoing psychological crises or those seeking sustained growth and healing of deep unresolved issues, the adventure of self-discovery that comes with non-ordinary states of consciousness can be profoundly influential in shaping personal lives. Many integrate lessons learned in their inner-healing breathwork sessions to their professional roles.

“Breathwork has added a major dimension to my work as I go deeper in the psycho-spiritual realm,” writes a psychiatric nurse and Grof-certified holotropic breathwork facilitator who led one of the small groups during the weekend program I attended. “Breathwork goes beyond the process of complete letting go and giving up the feeling that I am in charge. It has taken me to an awareness of a greater consciousness that has changed my life, both personally and professionally. There is a deeper freedom that lets the spirit work beyond my usual comfort zone.”