What are ‘ Holotropic’ states of consciousness and how does breathwork activate them? In the landscape of introspective practices Stanislav Grof has played a pioneering role in plumbing the depths of human consciousness and creating a new cartography of the psyche: Holotropic Breathwork.
Grof’s Early Career and Psychedelic Research
As a young graduate with an MD from Charles University of Prague, Grof became interested in psychoanalysis which led him to pursue a doctorate from the Czechoslovakian Academy of Science. Grof began his career working as a psychoanalyst and in the early 1950’s was part of a psychiatric team that received early access to LSD, then provided by Sandoz Laboratories.
At that time LSD was categorized as a ‘psychotomimetic’ because of the belief that its effects mimicked schizophrenia and that it provided researchers with a model with which to understand different types of psychosis.
In order to find out more about the effects the substance would have on their psychiatric subjects, Grof oversaw psychotherapeutic sessions involving LSD and became convinced that it was “a catalyst which made it possible to explore the depths of the human psyche.”
In 1956 Grof first experienced the effects of LSD himself, prompting him to realize that the prevailing beliefs about the nature of consciousness were mistaken. In his own words, “It became clear to me that what they were teaching in universities about consciousness being a product of the brain… simply was nonsense.”
Expanding our Cartography of the Psyche
As a result of his work with LSD-assisted therapy as well as his own psychedelic experiences, Grof’s career turned decisively towards non-ordinary states of consciousness.
Traditional psychiatry and psychology is concerned with what Grof calls the “post-natal biographical experiences of a given individual,” which includes the personal unconscious as described by Sigmund Freud. According to this perspective all psychological contents originate after our birth because humans are born tabula rasa, that is, as a clean slate.
The personal unconscious is then derived from our biographical history and is simply a repository of all experiences which an individual has either suppressed, rejected as unacceptable, or forgotten. Under this model the psychological functioning of a human being can be explained in its entirety by understanding the “interplay between biological instincts and influences that have shaped our life since we came into this world.”
Grof identified two major regions hitherto seldomly explored and which non-ordinary states of consciousness could help illustrate. The first is the perinatal, which refers to the region of the unconscious that “contains the memories of what the fetus experienced in the consecutive stages of the birth process, including all the emotions and physical sensations involved.” Grof was significantly influenced by the work of Otto Rank who had first described the trauma of birth as a critical experience in the formation of our psyche.
Grof went on to create a system that described four distinct stages in the process of biological birth: the four perinatal matrices. The underlying premise of this model is that as fetuses we are acutely aware of our environmental conditions and that our experiences during the process before and during birth act as a blueprint for the emotional and psychological profiles that we exhibit later in life.
The second region of the psyche that Grof studied is the transpersonal, which relates to the kind of experience in which “consciousness transcends the boundaries of the body/ego and the usual limitations of linear time and three-dimensional space.” Psychedelic experiences, out of body experiences, near death experiences, psi phenomenon, and mystical experiences are all closely related to the transpersonal aspect of the psyche.
Along with many others, Grof identified in the great spiritual traditions of the East a deeper understanding for consciousness, going as far as saying that “they have the real maps of the psyche because they focused for centuries on systematic explorations of the psyche in a very similar way to how we (in the West) practice science.”
Holotropic States of Consciousness
Within the vast array of experiences that can be called non-ordinary states of consciousness, there is a large subset which Grof coined a term for, namely, holotropic states. The term “holotropic,” is derived from the Greek words holos, meaning whole; and trepein, meaning ‘moving toward or in the direction of something.’
Grof noticed that many of the experiences that psychologists identified as disorders in fact had the potential for transformational effects on the individual experiencing them. This awareness led him to describe these experiences as holotropic. Holotropic states are those non-ordinary modes of consciousness which can help an individual move toward wholeness and integration with the greater, deeper being that we are.
Holotropic experiences have been an intimate part of a number of spiritual and mystical traditions from around the world which use what Grof calls “technologies of the sacred” as procedures capable of inducing this special form of awareness. These technologies include the use of fasting, sleep deprivation, social and sensory isolation along with other physiological and ritual interventions, not to mention psychedelics and sacred plant medicines which Grof considers “by far the most effective tool in inducing healing and transformative non-ordinary states.”
After having worked for years with psychedelic substances, Grof, along with his late wife Christina developed a method by which individuals can access the holotropic state without the use of psychedelic substances. This method is called Holotropic Breathwork, and uses a combination of breath patterns, evocative music, and energy releasing bodywork to produce the healing and transformative effects that holotropic states can produce.
Through his work with holotropic states, Grof recognized that individuals having holotropic experiences are activating “the self-healing intelligence of the psyche”. One of the ways in which this principle manifests itself is through what both he and Christina Grof called ‘spiritual emergence’, and ‘spiritual emergencies’.
These are experiences characterized by “changes in consciousness and in perceptual, emotional, cognitive, and psychosomatic functioning, in which there is a significant transpersonal emphasis in the process, such as dramatic death and (re)birth sequences, mythological and archetypal phenomena, past incarnation memories, out-of-body experiences, incidence of synchronicities or extrasensory perception, intense energetic phenomena (Kundalini awakening), states of mystical union, and identification with cosmic consciousness.”
Reevaluating Transformational States of Consciousness
A key insight Grof had about these experiences is that while Western medicine categorizes them as symptoms of mental illness and even psychosis, they have the potential to transform a person’s life in an overwhelmingly positive fashion.
Because these episodes can cause significant disruption to a person’s ‘normal’ functioning, their usefulness might be discarded when not seen as part of a greater motion toward human development. In fact, Grof’s understanding of the function of therapy and therapists is grounded on the acknowledgement that humans possess a profound “inner healing intelligence”, and that the role of therapeutic facilitators is to support the process of healing that emerges naturally. Grof does however make an important caveat which underlines the need to identify the nature of the crisis, so that it does not lead to any kind of medical endangerment.
Grof approaches the conundrum of existence from the perspective that we are not aware of the entirety of our beings. He sees humans as exhibiting a paradoxical nature not unlike the wave-particle duality observed in physics.
A Lasting Legacy
Grof’s active role in the emergence of key movements within the fields of psychology and consciousness studies, including his long term residency at the Esalen Institute in California and his continuing work at the California Institute for Integral Studies have contributed to the increasing awareness that humanity is at an impasse in it’s psychological and spiritual development.
As Grof points out, our crises are symptomatic of a deep disconnection from ourselves and from the world we live in.
Marco Orozco is a musician, writer, and cultural programmer from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He is an avid student of language, psychology, history, mythology and economics.