Holotropic Breathwork as a Therapeutic Intervention for Survivors of Trauma: An Autoethnographic Case Study

In: What Happened? Re-presenting Traumas, Uncovering Recoveries
Author: Peter Bray
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1 Introduction

In June, 2010, I was presenting a paper at an international transpersonal psychology conference in Moscow.1 As part of the experience I had elected to attend a two day Holotropic Breathwork (HB) workshop led by Stanislav Grof, one of the founders of transpersonal psychology.2 As a simple ritualised process, HB harnesses the innate capacity for individuals to realise their potential for deep inner healing through the expression of energies that lead to the realignment and/or correction of trauma.3 Paralleling the humanistic concept of self-actualising, it assumes that willing participation in breath work will permit access to a heightened state of consciousness allowing a spontaneous response to ‘the wisdom of whatever emerges.’4HB is often facilitated in large groups sub-divided into paired participants alternating between the roles of active ‘breather’ and caring ‘sitter.’5 Since the technique aims at the achievement of ‘wholeness, healing, and wisdom,’ the effectiveness of the session rests fundamentally upon the individual’s readiness to trust in the process and embrace the potential for personal transformation.

As a scholar of Grof, I had some idea of what the experience of a self-subscribed, rather than ‘prescribed,’ session might be like.6 However, prior to my first HB encounter I found myself becoming so distracted by intrusive thoughts concerning my father’s rapidly deteriorating health and my family in England that I nearly abandoned it as a frivolous waste of my time. A few months earlier I had spent what I had supposed was our final Christmas together. Dad had just turned 89, and in the first wheezing hug he ominously and prophetically alerted me to his breathlessly short timeline, ‘I won’t make 90,’ he rasped. Whilst his intellect remained cynical and obstinate, a persistent and debilitating frailty pressed upon him and, in only a few months, he was admitted to a local cottage hospital where he painfully lingered until he died.

This chapter will consider HB as an adjunct to trauma therapy and outline how this method of guided, accelerated therapeutic breathing and body work may relieve and release energy caused by experiences that, as Danielle Schaub notes, are pre-conceptual traumas laid down in the body like the ‘scribbled layers of anxiety over loss and abandonment’7 and etched onto the psyche. It will present the process, theoretical principles, and expected outcomes of HB while examining some of the common questions put to its practitioners. A final section provides an autoethnographic case account that describes the experience of controlled breathing combined, with the hyper-stimulation of the auditory system, in a typical session to ‘access repressed memories, perinatal experiences, and archetypal imprinting.’8

Presently the therapeutic potential of HB as a ‘professionalised’ psycho-spiritual intervention is still regarded as apocryphal, in the sense that it has yet to be fully validated by empirical studies. However, Joseph Rhinewine and Oliver Williams argue that ‘prolonged, deliberate overbreathing … capitalize upon the effects of hyperventilation on the central nervous system to facilitate development of a temporary, benign, and potentially therapeutic state of altered consciousness,’ which may be ‘a useful therapeutic modality in treatment of psychiatric disorders.’9 Similarly, even as this account of the HB experience is limited by its personal perspective, there is also a place here to valuably consider the positive post-traumatic growth potential of HB for survivors of trauma.10

2 Principles of Accelerated Breathing, Trauma Release, and Integration

Devised as a largely pre-verbal, experiential, and client-centred psychotherapeutic method of self-exploration in the mid-1970s, and first offered as a structured training programme in 1987, Stanislav and Christina Grof’s version of breath work draws upon spiritual practices that include yoga, meditation and the Indian practice of Pranayama, Buddhist Vipassana and Zen techniques, and incorporate Alexander Lowen’s bioenergetics, Arthur Janov’s primal therapy, and Wilhelm Reich’s bodywork.11 However, HB does not focus primarily upon trauma recovery. Curiously described as ‘industrial strength meditation,’ HB is practiced equally by survivors of trauma and by people with no known history of it. ‘The primary injunction in Holotropic Breathwork is not to “go into the trauma” but “do the breathing until you are surprised by what emerges.”’12

A Principles and Theory

Traditional models of psychology tend to limit the psyche to the largely consensus reality narratives of the biological and postnatal construct of the Freudian unconscious. Psychoanalysis stresses content over process and the interpersonal over the intrapsychic. However, based upon an assumption that what is already happening in a person’s process is self-healing, HB seeks to directly connect the client to these internal processes as they are happening in the here and now.13 Originating in the philosophical and mystical traditions of the East, Carl Jung’s ‘collective unconscious,’ and data collected from his own clinical observations and experiences of non-ordinary states of consciousness, Stan Grof draws upon an expanded cartography of the psyche that adds the perinatal and transpersonal domains to the standard biographical realm of experience.14 He suggests that it is from within these three dimensions of human consciousness that one fully appreciates the experience of HB. ‘Phenomena from all these domains are seen as natural and normal constituents of the psychological process; they are accepted, and supported without preference.’15

Representing a form of psychic radar, or Jung’s concept of the Self, Grof and Grof locate agency within the individual’s ‘inner healer,’ whose sole purpose is to serve the integration of the whole person by bypassing the intellect.

As the process is unfolding, this ‘inner healer’ manifests therapeutic wisdom which transcends the knowledge that can be derived from the cognitive understanding of an individual practitioner or from any specific school of psychotherapy or body work.16

As a unifying principle the inner healer has an innate capacity to access different dimensions of experience and intelligently prioritise and attract those unconscious materials that have the greatest emotional charge, and are most available for conscious processing and integration. Thus, in order for healing processes to occur and be truly effective, the breather allows the inner healer to take command. It is an act of immense trust and, similar to the concept of resilience identified in Monica Hinton’s scholarly chapter, its conscious activation reinforces the individual’s capacity to positively use it to cope in the future.17 Thus, experienced over a number of sessions, the breather develops a confidence, trust, and belief in the process and in the autonomous healing of the Self.18

Grof (1985, 1996, 2000) has demonstrated that disturbances and experiences at any stage of the intrauterine and birth processes may be reactivated by psychological trauma which prompts the unconscious to reveal events from this foundational memory system and reactivate and focus them through biographical, perinatal and transpersonal lenses.19

Stan Grof’s assertion that the birth process has the potential to leave a traumatic scar in the perinatal domain of the psyche suggests that the foetus is conscious and forms memories that constellate around corresponding systems of condensed experience. Organised around the four consecutive periods of delivery in childbirth, this process describes dynamic experiential patterns of the deep unconscious called the Basic Perinatal Matrices.

The perinatal domain creates an experiential bridge between the other domains and provides a rich source of illustrative material for the subsequent creation and sharing of mandala art in the group work that follows the session. In the second biological, postnatal domain of experience, participants may effectively resolve past conflicts, confront repressed memories, and reintegrate and clear traumas. Whilst, in the third, transpersonal domain, information is accessed outside of the normal boundaries of the ego and body, space and time. In this Jungian domain HB participants may have conceptually challenging spiritual, mythological and archetypal encounters that include out-of-body experiences and past life memories, identification with other life forms and a sense of oneness and connection with the collective unconscious.

As the therapeutic design of HB is to make contact with stored core memories and their attendant affect and/or connect with the collective transpersonal universe, unsurprising in any one session the breather might encounter a spectrum of archetypal materials with themes related to death and rebirth, the struggle toward transcendence and transformation, and experience a deep sense of connectedness to others and the cosmos. One of the advantages of HB is the autonomous nature of the healing. Individuals are encouraged to freely express and interpret their experiences ‘without any specific language or worldview.’20 Thus, HB participants may remember and relinquish their own birth trauma and any associated negative beliefs about themselves or the world.

B Breathing

In their practice Stan and Christina Grof validate the almost universal importance of breath and breathing from ancient and pre-industrial societies and their use of breathing techniques in religious ritual and healing practices. They note that these techniques ‘cover a very wide range from drastic interference with breathing to subtle and sophisticated exercises.’21 The language of breath and breathing, they suggest, reflects human beings’ intimate and evolving relationship with breath and breathing practices that provide access to, and linkage between, the human body, nature, the psyche, and the spirit.22

The practice of focused breathing, like breath meditation, is a universal method of awakening the spirit or soul.23 Equally, the ancient Greek and Indian words pneuma and prana, like chi in Chinese medicine, describe both air, breath, spirit, and the essence of life and the Japanese word ki is a central principle in martial arts and spiritual practices. Similarly, the Hebrew word ruach, encompasses breath and creative spirit, and New Zealand Māori use the word hau to explain the presence of air, breath, and the essential spiritual ingredients of life. Unsurprisingly, the Grofs propound that, throughout time, human beings have efficiently used breath work to create multi-consciousness states that have provided essential pathways inward to the Self. They describe this psychologically rich experience as ‘holotropic,’ an experiential and actualising phenomenon that impels the organism toward wholeness.24

Originally modified by Stan Grof from his psychedelic therapy with Vietnam veterans, HB employs a traditional pattern of accelerated deep breathing that synchronises continuous circular inhalation and exhalation. Employing evocative music, breathers are brought into a receptive trance-like state of consciousness in which they access a broad spectrum of controllable consciousness experiences without the use of drugs.25 Once the goal of reaching an altered consciousness has been achieved the breathing technique is no longer required, or indeed relevant.26

‘Holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface,’27 and much of that content is stored as energy in different parts of the body. It has deep roots in the archetypal architecture and historical domains of the collective unconscious and in ‘ancestral, racial, collective phylogenetic, and karmic memories.’28 Put simply, whilst the components of HB may create similar conditions for each session group, each participant will have unique ‘highly specific and personally relevant’29 experiences. Thus, HB positively and constructively reframes hyperventilation syndrome from a pathological phenomenon associated with involuntary and benign contractions of the muscles in states of extreme hypocarbia, to a form of over breathing that contacts an organismic healing mechanism that assists the body to process ‘unconscious material with [a] strong emotional charge.’30 Indeed, voluntary hyperventilation could be useful in ‘standard treatments for anxiety disorders.’31

In the moment, this combination of controlled over breathing, physical and emotional intensification, and relaxation is claimed to change an individual’s chemistry in such a way that the blocked ‘energies associated with various traumatic memories … emerge into consciousness and [can] be integrated.’32 This implies that exposure to transpersonal material and a ‘willingness to express fully the emerging emotions and physical energies are prerequisites for good integration,’ which then reduces the power of the subconscious to influence subsequent behaviours.33

Once the subconscious material is consciously experienced in a benevolent and welcoming environment, previously held ideas, self-limiting definitions and self-destructive impulses can cease to hold with the same power. Thus we become freer to define ourselves more by our possibilities and less by our limitations.34

C Body Work

In their review of transpersonal theory and practice, Mark Kasprow and Bruce Scotton suggest that the application of altered breathing patterns provides opportunities for ‘alternative state changes to occur’ that through therapeutic bodywork ‘powerfully release the energy that is raised and thus influence deeper changes in the body and personality/psyche.’35 In this context they employ Ralph Metzner’s definition of an altered state of consciousness ‘as a change in thinking, feeling, and perception, in relation to one’s ordinary, baseline consciousness that has a beginning, duration, and ending.’36 Thus breathing, accompanied by auditory stimuli, prepares the individual to side-line psychological defences permitting the Reichian ‘character armor’37 of unassimilated and unintegrated physical traumas to find profound release.38 In her powerful chapter, Schaub’s describes how, in her distress, the body/mind connection was severed so that the body might simultaneously hold the trauma and armour itself ‘to avoid more blows’ and ‘hide the gaping wound to everyone ….’39 According to Reich, as psychosomatic symptoms originate in old physical insults – such as memories of painful operations, accidents, diseases, childbirth or a past life injuries or death – the physical tensions that they create can be released as muscular bioenergetic discharges in the body, or by the cathartic release of blocked emotional processes. Thus, in post breath work, if the breathing has not resolved all of the emotional and physical tensions activated during the sessions, a technique of ‘bodywork,’ often referred to as ‘focused energy release work,’40 is employed to intensify and then release any uncomfortably trapped emotional material that has emerged during the session. Energy release work is an essential part of HB and ‘plays an important role in the completion and integration of the experience.’41

However, even as energy release work may assist participants to become less stuck, more grounded, and finished in the session they may still have to integrate memories ‘of that situation … in which the repression of the instinct occurred.’42 Martin Boroson, Jean Farrell, Nienke Merbis, and Dara White suggest that body work is effective because it employs sympathetic physical contact.43 As the profound psychosomatic structure and psychological meaning of past traumas intensify everyday tensions and pains, immediate physical and psychic relief is achieved simply by repeatedly amplifying the blockages physically, by vocalising emotions as they arise, and then relaxing:

A client might also want physical resistance for a particular gesture in order to intensify the feeling in it. But this physical resistance does not involve doing something to the client, and it is never ever intended to overwhelm the client. It is simply meeting the client where she is, and encouraging her to go a bit further, if she wishes.44

The issue of re-emerging traumatic memories and experiences, however, does raise the spectre of re-traumatisation. Citing psychiatrist Ivor Browne’s article ‘Unexperienced Experience’45 the Grofs respond to this important issue by advancing that the breather does not re-experience the actual trauma, but only their original emotional and physical reaction to it. Thus, traumatic events ‘recorded in the organism, but not fully consciously experienced, processed, and integrated’46 are responded to simultaneously in their original form in full age regression and are rationally accounted for and understood from the maturity and experience offered by an adult perspective in the here and now. HB trainer Kylea Taylor observes that because HB allows the trauma to emerge unhindered it can be correctively experienced and metabolised through the healing connections of the anaclytic process.47 It should be noted that HB only induces the experience of trauma if it is there to begin with.48 Furthermore it is suggested, breathers in the process of reliving traumatic memory are not suffering as much as experiencing and vocalising the relief of purging the emotional and physical pain from their bodies.49

D Safety and Effectiveness

There are wide differences of opinion within the transpersonal community as to the appropriateness of doing transpersonal work with psychotic individuals. Jung, Wilber, and Grof and Grof have argued that transpersonally oriented therapies are not appropriate for psychotic individuals, whereas Lukoff and others suggest that transpersonal psychotherapy may be particularly appropriate for psychotic disorders, even serious ones.50

To establish a level of safety in which to access holotropic experiences, HB self-referring participants are asked to ‘voluntarily’ screen themselves pre-session for contraindicating physical and psychological conditions such as pregnancy, epilepsy, glaucoma, hypertension, stroke and heart problems, psychosis, severe personality or panic disorders, and known sensitivity to the sudden emergence of repressed material and/or the effects of mild hyperventilation.51 The literature suggests that similar screening tools are used with mandated clients but presumably these are used in close consultation with a trained professional. It is also assumed that as most participants are self-selected they are more likely to be able to safely predict their positive capacity to manage their own internal processes and are consequently more forgiving and/or effective in their self-healing.52 Kasprow and Scotton note that any informal screening or evaluation should also include an assessment of the breather’s ‘spiritual experiences, developmental level, premorbid functioning, and interest in exploring the symptoms.’53 This information identifies and locates psychotic symptoms so that appropriate ‘education, reassurance, psychotherapy focusing on biographical issues that may arise, and mental training such as meditation can help the patient move through and eventually integrate the psychotic state.’54

Even with the possibility that individuals may be exposed to a ‘dangerous layer of existence best permanently avoided,’ or that ‘neither the inner healer, nor the best facilitator can guarantee that no problems will ever arise,’55 the final outcome still largely rests with the participant’s ability, sympathy, and willingness to surrender to the process, the setting, arrangements of the session, and the quality of its facilitation and support. That said, James Eyerman’s study of more than 11,000 HB in-patients over 12 years impressively concludes that there was not ‘one single reported adverse sequelae,’ making it ‘a low risk therapy’ for ‘patients with an extremely broad range of psychological problems and existential life issues.’56 An earlier study concurred that as an experiential oriented psychotherapy, HB may be useful ‘particularly with long term psychotherapy patients,’ because it reduces death anxiety and increases self-esteem that may be at ‘the root of sometimes seemingly intractable psychological problems.’57 Similarly, others like Michael Weir and Christine Perry who have used HB for patients with chronic histories of recurrent depression, ptsd, alcohol dependence and anxiety, and panic disorders, and whose conventional treatments had been previously unsuccessful, found that, although not a ‘cure-all’ for ‘treatment focused on symptom resolution,’ it can be ‘a powerful tool for self-exploration and personal growth.’58

It is perhaps because of Stan Grof’s longstanding commitment to transpersonal psychology and research into holotropic states of consciousness that he has increasingly distanced his practice from others that claim empirical therapeutic success without the support of a rigorous theory. He is, for example, particularly scathing of Leonard Orr’s respiratory methodology of ‘rebirthing,’ which he claims has a ‘painfully incomplete’59 conceptual framework and whose theory is speculative and simplistic. Yet even as his controversial trade marking of HB therapy may safeguard clients and guarantee a quality service, it also appears to promote a message that HB is an exclusively Grofian discipline. Sadly, it is a message that appears at odds with the philosophical and humanistic roots of transpersonal psychology, the altruistic concepts of healing, and the philanthropic and free spirited practices of immaterialist cultures from which HB derives its energy.

3 The Elements and Course of a Typical Holotropic Breathwork Session

Five, or six, fundamental elements contribute to a typical two to four hour session of HB. These include a pre-session presentation of Stan Grof’s holotropic theory and the HB method, the use of accelerated breathing, music, body work, and subsequent creative expression through mandala painting, and supportive group discussion. Taylor intimates that the reassuring linear progression of this method helps trauma survivors to more effectively process the timeless and fragmentary contents of painful traumatic memories as they emerge.60

The first element of HB involves practical and psychological preparation to participate. Before the breathing experience, en masse participants receive a briefing on transpersonal psychology’s conceptualisation of the HB experience, the validity and potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness and, framed by Grof’s cartography of the psyche, a generic description of how they might uniquely encounter the unfolding of the psyche. This brief, largely theoretical tour of the biographical, perinatal and transpersonal dimensions of experience requires listeners to readjust their existing world-views and signals the need to willingly submit to authorities both within and beyond the Self. This is also an opportunity to technically instruct the participants in their symbiotic roles as sitters and breathers, to highlight their responsibilities to each other, and to raise any physical and emotional concerns related to real or potential contraindications.61

Applying anthropologist Victor Turner’s concept of ritual as a vehicle for social transformation, Taylor specifically conceptualises the sessions for survivors of trauma as having three stages of experiential ritual: a ‘pre-liminal’ preparatory stage; a ‘liminal’ participatory stage that explores the dynamic of liminality and communitas which facilitates protective and therefore unconstrained group submission to the authority of the ritual and connective healing; and, a ‘post-liminal’ stage which offers integration and ‘aggregation.’62

On entering the session the pre-liminal stage foreshadows the experience and grounds the participants in the practical and social tasks of preparing their spaces with bedding, negotiating with their sitters, and settling to the threshold experience of guided relaxation and breathing. As trained facilitators oversee the group, each breather lies on their backs on mats with their eyes closed, carefully watched over by their sitter. The second or liminal stage appears in the context of a protective ritual, setting, and contained outcomes of the breath work session. Kylea Taylor proposes that the day itself creates a sense of being ‘set apart from ordinary reality,’ as a retreat in which a supportive empathic ‘temporary relationship of intimate equals’63 akin to communitas, occurs. This creates an intersubjective relationship, a sacred and communal space, in which to safely experience the unfolding of psychic material into personal consciousness. Although it is claimed that the HB model is protective of survivors with dissociated trauma symptoms, it still relies very heavily upon the facilitators’ and participants’ capacities to responsibly understand and work within their contracts. For some, given permission to explore the unknown does not always equate to their being able to trust in the process. The reality of allowing a spontaneous and unfamiliar process to expose trauma to consciousness and reconnect the self through healing guided by an inner intelligence is likely to be considerably challenging.

In the liminal stage, the key element of HB is the breathing that directly accesses the holotropic state of consciousness. Initiated by the group facilitator, intentionally open instructions allow the breather to settle into a pattern that suits both personal style and physical comfort. ‘The experience is entirely internal and largely non-verbal, without interventions.’64 Taylor observes,

I saw some instances of severe dissociation gradually become more conscious as the body retold the story again and again … The Breathwork experience would retell the abuse with the same sounds, the same movements, the same needs for support over and over, with increasing awareness, change, and integration over a period of time. The set and setting of ritual provides protection, permission, and connection which allows change to be encountered – then tolerated – and finally, metabolized.65

Occasionally sensitive body work may be required to focus on the amplification of emerging somatic blocks until they resolve themselves spontaneously.

Stan Grof notes that for some participants faster breathing may not always induce physical or emotional tensions or dis-ease but instead may engage with those positive states more likely to arise at the conclusion of the session such as feelings of love and relaxation and an expanded sense of well-being.66

A further important ingredient of the session, music brings the participants into their breathing patterns by its own very tangible and psychologically stimulating presence. Drawn from ritual and spiritual traditions of various native cultures the music is not chosen for its entertainment value or presented for distraction or analysis but for its ability to reflect the generic process of holotropic unfolding. Arranged in five overlapping phases it begins with powerfully rhythmic pieces chosen to establish evocative and stimulating responses to support the induction and accentuate the intensity of psychic opening. Breathers are encouraged to seek full immersion in the music’s ebb and flow and to give spontaneous and free expression to their experiences. Half way through the session, when the experience tends to culminate, the music builds to a dramatic climax, then sacred ‘breakthrough music’ is introduced followed by emotionally moving ‘heart music,’ appropriately concluding with a set of peaceful and meditative pieces.67

Following their experiences participants enter a third post-liminal and integrative stage of the ritual where they are offered more conventional forms of emotional expression through physical exercise and dance to free energy accumulated in the session. Breathers are also invited to continue integrating their experiences through expressive writing and/or by painting mandalas. Although their creations may not make sense at the time this kind of work leads to realisation and subsequent psychological development.68

In her very personal and deeply reflective account of struggle with the long-term energetic impulses of trauma, Marie France Forcier’s chapter explains how the l accumulation of trauma in the body over time can be allowed release and healing through artistry and expression.69 The powerful recognition that her ptsd ‘had been infiltrating my creative work’ and to intentionally ‘let the phenomenon happen and to consciously develop it,’ was wonderfully intuitive.70 It has subsequently led her as a choreographer and artiste to the liberating and transformative notion that she has ‘gained far too much insight into understanding of the power of memory-informed movement to return to my earlier choreographic dispositions.’71

Finally, participants are encouraged to share some of their experience within a group. This needs careful management by the facilitators to minimise interpretation or analysis at a time when the fresh experience may not have fully emerged into understanding or been reconciled. Nevertheless, the Grofs suggest that ‘Jungian amplification in the form of mythological and anthropological references can be very useful in the discussion of the holotropic experiences, as well as the mandalas.’72

4 Holotropic Breathwork and Trauma

HB sessions tend to draw participants who have intentionally and willingly chosen to bring their addictions, neurotic and psychosomatic disorders, communication problems, and life crises to be explored in alternative states of consciousness.73 Through a form of catharsis it offers the opportunity to relinquish physical and emotional blockages associated with prior trauma.74 However, how survivors of trauma are served by the combination of hyperventilation and the hyperstimulation of the auditory sensory system to induce a hypocapnia that ‘directly affects regional and local cerebral hemodynamics that can modify the functional state of brain structures’75 is still something of a mystery.

What distinguishes the psychology of HB from many psychotherapeutic approaches is that it bypasses verbal communication in favour of the direct expression of emotions. Also, by recognising the existence of a higher cosmic consciousness, it privileges a personal spirituality that extends beyond the purview of many organised religions.76 In addition, unlike conventional experiential psychotherapeutic approaches and spiritual systems, HB does not use analysis or interventions based on a priori theoretical constructs.77 Although an overall facilitator may ‘explain the method, create the safe setting, support the process, and work with people if they experience any difficulty,’78 the work is mainly done within the dyads and later in groups that provide the opportunity to share experiences and insights. As the trained facilitators only function as helpers, when required, the participants become their own therapists either as ‘responsive and non-intrusive’ sitters who ‘ensure effective breathing, create a safe environment, respect the natural unfolding of the experience, and provide assistance in all situations that require it,’79 or as breathers invited by the intervention to immerse themselves in their own intelligently guided inner processes.

In order to see just how HB intensifies the symptoms of trauma to relieve them and how it can be used as an adjunct to therapy, one must understand what Grof and Grof identify as trauma. In their work they distinguish two forms of trauma that require very different interventions in their HB sessions. The first they describe as ‘trauma by commission,’ which accommodates a range of frightening and personally destructive abuses and situations that they define as ‘external intrusions that had damaging impact on the future development of the individual.’80 These correspond to the widely regarded view that as unconscious ‘foreign elements’ traumas have the capacity to ‘be brought into consciousness, energetically discharged, and resolved.’81 However, the second manifestation of trauma they identify as ‘trauma by omission’ stems from a lack of physical and emotional contact ‘essential for a healthy emotional development’ early on in life.82 In the latter ‘Grof advocates close physical contact and the expression of care once the breathing and bodywork have been completed.’83 Consequently, if a participant with this form of trauma agrees to be deeply regressed to an appropriate level of holotropic consciousness they can then be offered simple, non-threatening, and ethical physical contact as a ‘corrective experience’84 to expose and melt resistance and heal this trauma of omission. In the specific context of HB these corrective experiences lead to healing connections as opposed to re-traumatisation.85 This intervention borrows from the theory and practice of ‘fusion therapy’ devised by Pauline McCririck and Joyce Martins who initially used this method to meet their clients’ desires for attention and satisfaction triggered by alienating therapeutic relationships that replicated earlier deficits in their object relations development.86

For breathers with ‘a history of sexual abuse, physical contact is a very sensitive and charged issue’ and it takes a while for trust in, and acceptance of, the process to build before they can totally participate in its process.87 This may also prove problematic for sitters with their own intimacy issues or similarly unmet needs. However, Kylea Taylor remarks with Wilfried Ehrmann that, alongside its ‘very strong catalytic effect,’ in the group context there is a ‘feeling of safety in receiving physical touch that would be difficult to achieve in a one-on-one therapy session.’88 Taylor also notes that as the holotropic state creates a bi-modal consciousness in the breather or, as Stan Grof notes the simultaneous experience of ‘two very different realities’ as a witness and experiencer, the presence of a sitter provides an additional ‘compassionate witness’89 that serves to correctively balance the reliving of the trauma experience by objectively acknowledging and affirming the subjective experiences of the breather’s inner witness.

Assuming that trauma is undigested or ‘unexperienced experience,’ Taylor endorses ‘community and ritual’90 as significant elements of HB to loosen personal defence mechanisms enough to permit the recovery of trauma stored in the psyche. In practical terms, she suggests that without a relational community of sharing and support the survivor dissociates from and represses the experience without satisfactory resolution. From her experience as a HB facilitator working with trauma survivors, Taylor concludes that human beings elicit ritual to help them manage rites of passage, absorb difficult changes in their lives, and achieve closure. She advances that because the group work of HB functions as a ritual, a commitment or an invitation to enter unknown territory, it ‘offers the same benefits that ritual has offered to groups of individuals from the beginning of history.’91 She also notes that as trauma survivors already have highly developed psychic resources, or acute senses because of their need to maintain a level of hypervigilance, the safety of the ritual and the presence of the sitter and potential interpersonal support in the group make it possible to naturally harness their inner resources without becoming overwhelmed.92 As loss and grief, two fundamental aspects of trauma recovery, are simultaneously awakened, contained, and metabolised, so survivors receive a corrective re-experiencing of the trauma and can move to a more stable and integrative state in the final stages of their work, where rituals of bereavement can have a more effective impact.

5 Unblocking Trauma: An Autoethnographic Case Account of Holotropic Breathwork

According to the work of psychiatrist Binarová Denisa, as a ‘first-breather,’93 I am likely to have an experiential style, personality properties, attitudes, and values that will, at the conclusion of the session, invite me to be more accepting of previously rejected ideas and opinions, increase my purpose in life, and enable me to have a deeper understanding and acceptance of others and my immediate world.

A Introduction

The following notes describe my first experience of HB. Although I had some prior knowledge of its overarching ‘holotropic’ theory, I did not know or have any real expectations of its facilitation or what my process might be like. Nevertheless, my privileged familiarity with the Grofs’ work, not to mention my careful completion of the self-assessment questionnaire, the pre-breathwork advertising and the briefing on the holotropic cartography of the psyche made it almost impossible not to imaginatively anticipate what was about to happen. My inner radar or ‘inner healer’ may not have been compromised but my conscious self was increasingly anxious about doing HB right.

As the experience responds to the unique needs of the individual, what I have recorded is consciously, to paraphrase Pat MacEnulty, an act of therapy intended to inform, entertain, heal, and communicate the possibilities of our human and divine natures.94 Nevertheless, I am hopeful that you will regard this subjective account as a typical experience and myself as a typical participant whose struggle, retrospectively, was relatively benign. Not in itself a powerful healing process, not quite an ‘unstoppable flow of released emotion,’95 rather a witnessing, and gradual amelioration and exorcism of a shared pain, an unblocking or breakthrough – an unfolding metaphor, a becoming seed of an experience of future possibilities.96 Or a moment, and then a memory, birthed to create change. For others the process was clearly proving more expansive, energetic, and alarming. As a sitter it takes a considerable shift in worldview to understand that, like drawing poison from a wound, the external manifestations of healing look and sound far more disturbing than the profound relief that attend the grunts, laughs, and roars towards freedom.

In the following account I have included Stan Grof’s largely instructional contemporaneously noted verbatim – in the left-hand column – against my own account completed within a few days of the experience.

B Beginning to Breathe97


As the events of the session further unfolded and my father’s death became a reality, I returned to my world disoriented and dreamy. I didn’t draw a mandala to help me understand myself or integrate the experience. I didn’t want to be busy or overly analytical, and I did no further work at the session. I sought my sitter and our small group and reassuringly moved off from the claustrophobic hotel interior into the lush exterior of a Moscow park. Sitting on the grass surrounded by laughing company I was grounded and felt a sense of my own ‘realness.’ Aware that I could not integrate what had happened to me by relying on intellectual verification alone, I became cognisant of the session’s solace and its support in the management of the difficult events that surrounded my father’s death. I had allowed my process to lead me and it was only later that my need to really confirm dad’s death and talk to my family anxiously asserted itself. However, in the intervening hours I was deeply peaceful and in my tenuous connection to dad I was sufficient.

6 Endnote: Breathe-Through

Concluding their article, ‘Twelve Things You Should Know about Holotropic Breathwork™,’ Grof certified facilitators Martin Boroson, Jean Farrell, Nienke Merbis, and Dara Whitemost summarise the benefits of participation in a workshop session as follows:

In a Holotropic Breathwork workshop, people experience a place of deep safety and profound trust, often for the first time. They learn to take time out from ordinary life for their deeper concerns and dreams. They learn how to bear witness to their own suffering and the suffering of others. They learn how to support one another through a dramatic process of unfolding. They learn that the enormous spiritual treasures of the Kosmos are available in each of us. They learn to trust their inner healer. They learn that experiencing their truth is the quickest way to wholeness. They learn to be compassionate to themselves and others. They learn to celebrate their uniqueness and respect other peoples’ differences. They learn that it’s okay to feel little and vulnerable, and that it’s okay to feel big and powerful. They learn to empathize with everything in the created universe as part of themselves, and they learn that they too are part of everything. They learn how to trust the deep wisdom of their own psyche, and to stay open to its ever-evolving story.108


  • Binarová Denisa. ‘The Effect of Holotropic Breathwork on Personality.’ Czech and Slovak Psychiatry 99.8 (2003): 410414.

  • Boroson Martin, Jean Farrell, Nienke Merbis and Dara White. ‘Twelve Things You Should Know about Holotropic Breathwork™.’ Inside Out 55 (2008) viewed 19 August 2018 HYPERLINK https://iahip.org/inside-out/issue-55-summer-2008/twelve-things-you-should-know-about-holotropic-breathwork.

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  • Bray Peter. ‘A Broader Framework for Exploring the Influence of Spiritual Experience in the Wake of Stressful Life Events: Examining Connections between Posttraumatic Growth and Psycho-Spiritual Transformation.’ Mental Health, Religion and Culture 13.3 (2010): 293308.

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  • Grof Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research.Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

  • Grof Stanislav. When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities.Boulder CO: Sounds True Inc., 2006.

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  • Jackson Caitriona. Holotropic Breathwork™: An Experiential, Theoretical Account.’ Inside Out 29 (1997).

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  • Mijares Sharon G. ed. The Revelation of the Breath: A Tribute to Its Wisdom, Power, and Beauty.New York: SUNY, 2009.

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  • Tarnas Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York: Viking, 2006.

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PhD, Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for Counsellor Education at the University of Auckland. Peter has recently edited a number of interdisciplinary volumes and articles that reflect his developing interest in spirituality, heroic identity and the transformational aspects of loss and trauma.


Peter Bray. ‘Consciousness Revolution: Transpersonal Discoveries That Are Changing the World’ (Paper presented at the 17th International Transpersonal Conference, Moscow, June 23–27, 2010).


Miles A. Vich, ‘Some Historical Sources of the Term “Transpersonal,”’ Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 20 (1988): 107–110. In this article Vich notes that Abraham Maslow began using the word ‘transpersonal’ which means ‘across or beyond the individual person or psyche’ – to describe his new approach to psychology in his correspondence with transpersonal psychology’s co-founder Stanislav Grof in the mid 1960s.


Sharon G. Mijares, ed., The Revelation of the Breath: A Tribute to Its Wisdom, Power, and Beauty (New York: suny, 2009), 105.


Stan Grof, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Self-Exploration,’ viewed 4 February 2018, https://www.wisdomuniversity.org/grof/module/week3/pdf/Holotropic%20Breathwork.pdf.


Kylea Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork (Santa Cruz, C.A.: Hanford Mead Publishers, 2007), 10.


Over the last half century Stanislav Grof has written a number of books that have outlined his cartography of the psyche such as: Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy (Albany: State University New York Press, 1985); and The Holotropic Mind: The Three Levels of Human Consciousness and How They Shape Our Lives (New York: Harper Collins, 1993). However, Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy (New York: suny, 2010), written with Christina Grof, provides a rationale and a description of the intervention in practice.


Danielle Schaub, ‘Reading myself and worlds: Coping strategies in the face of cumulative trauma’ in this volume.


Mark C. Kasprow and Bruce W. Scotton, ‘A Review of Transpersonal Theory and its Application to the Practice of Psychotherapy,’ The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research 8 (1999): 20.


Joseph Rhinewine and Oliver Williams, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: The Potential Role of a Prolonged, Voluntary Hyperventilation Procedure as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy,’ Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 13.7 (2007): 772.


Ibid., 773; according to Rhinewine and Williams, ‘Only three studies appear to meet commonly accepted minimum criteria of methodological sophistication to be considered as constituting reliable empirical evidence … and only one of these has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.’


Nicola Crowley ‘Holotropic Breathwork™ – Healing Through a Non-Ordinary State of Consciousness,’ Royal College of Psychiatrists website, 6, viewed 4 February 2018, http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/crowleyholotropic1.6.05.pdf; Grof and Grof and Grof, Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach.


Martin Boroson, et al., ‘Twelve Things You Should Know about Holotropic Breathwork™,’ 55 Inside Out (2008): 1–5.


Gilles Brouillette, ‘Reported Effects of Holotropic Breathwork: An Integrative Technique for Healing and Personal Change,’ viewed 4 February 2018, http://www.grof-holotropic-breathwork.net/page/doctoral-dissertations.


Peter Bray, ‘A Broader Framework for Exploring the Influence of Spiritual Experience in the Wake of Stressful Life Events: Examining Connections between Posttraumatic Growth and Psycho-Spiritual Transformation,’ Mental Health, Religion and Culture 13.3 (2010): 293–308.


‘Association for Holotropic Breathwork™ International,’ Viewed 4 February 2018, http://www.grof-holotropic-breathwork.net/page/2182480:Page:678.




Monica Hinton, ‘What Enables Resilience after Traumatic Childhood Experiences?’ in this volume.


Caitriona Jackson, Holotropic Breathwork™: An Experiential, Theoretical Account,’ Inside Out 29 (1997).


Bray, ‘A Broader Framework for Exploring the Influence of Spiritual Experience,’ 298.


Boroson, et al., ‘Twelve Things You Should Know,’ 55.


Grof, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives.’


Rubye Lee Cervelli, ‘An Intuitive Inquiry Into Experiences Arising Out of the Holotropic Breathwork™ Technique and its Integral Mandala Artwork: The Potential for Self-Actualization’ (PhD diss,. Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, 2009), 20–21.


The Latin word spiritus means: soul; courage; vigour; and breath, and is related to the word spirare: to breathe.


A central principle in the theories and practice of humanist psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, ‘self-actualisation’ also provides both motive force and an explanation for benefit-finding in the wake of traumatic experiences. Peter Bray, ‘Trauma and Growth: The Psychology of Self-Actualisation and Positive Post-Traumatic Processes,’ Trauma and Meaning Making, eds. Danielle Schaub and Elspeth McInnes (Oxford, England: Inter-Disciplinary Press, In Press).


Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof, The Stormy Search for Self (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1990), 144.


Wilfried Ehrmann, ‘Some Critical Issues in Holotropic Breathwork,’ viewed 16 March 2013, http://www.stanislavgrof.com/pdf/Critical%20Issues%20in%20HB_Grof.pdf.


Grof and Grof, The Stormy Search for Self, 269.


Grof and Grof, Holotropic Breathwork: a New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy, 69.


Ibid., 67.


Ibid., 168–169.


Rhinewine and Williams, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: The Potential Role of a Prolonged, Voluntary Hyperventilation Procedure,’ 771.


Grof, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives,’ 16.


Ehrmann, ‘Some Critical Issues in Holotropic Breathwork.’


Oliver Williams, ‘The Healing Potential of Holotropic Breathwork,’ viewed 4 February 2018, http://rebecoming.org/healing-potential-of-holotropic-breathwork/.


Kasprow and Scotton, ‘A Review of Transpersonal Theory,’ 20.


Ibid., 17; Paraphrasing Ralph Metzner, ‘Therapeutic Application of Altered States of Consciousness (asc),’ Worlds of Consciousness, Vol. 5, eds. M. Schiliclitiny and H. Leunes (Berlin:vwb, 1995).


Grof and Grof, Holotropic Breathwork: a New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy, 68, 173.


Citing, Wilhelm Reich (1949, 1961), Grof states that HB confirms Wilhelm Reich’s observation that psychological resistances and defences are associated with restricted breathing’ and that faster ‘breathing typically loosens psychological defences and leads to a release and emergence of unconscious (and superconscious) material.’ Grof, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives.’


Schaub, ‘Reading myself and worlds’ in this volume.


Kylea Taylor, The Breathwork Experience (Santa Cruz: Hanford Mead Publishers, 1994), 9.


‘Association for Holotropic Breathwork™ International.’


Wilhelm Reich, The Function of the Orgasm (New York: Touchstone, 1973), 300.


Boroson, et al., ‘Twelve Things You Should Know,’ 55.




Grof and Grof, Holotropic Breathwork: a New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy, 150–151.


Grof, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives.’


Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 19.


Boroson, et al., ‘Twelve Things You Should Know,’ 6.


Grof, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives.’


Kasprow and Scotton, ‘A Review of Transpersonal Theory,’ 17.


Ibid., 20.


Kylea Taylor, in consultation with Tav Sparks, suggests that the low failure rates of HB may result from most participants having histories of secure attachment. Kylea Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 140–141.


Kasprow and Scotton, ‘A Review of Transpersonal Theory,’ 8.


Ibid., 17.


Kate Thomas, ‘Transpersonal Experiences – A Need for Re-evaluation?’ Network 81 (2003): 15–18; Wilfried Ehrmann, ‘Some Critical Issues in Holotropic Breathwork.’


James Eyerman, ‘A Clinical Report of Holotropic Breathwork in 11,000 Psychiatric Inpatients in a Community Hospital Setting,’ maps Bulletin, Special Edition (2013): 26.


Sarah W. Holmes, et al., ‘Holotropic Breathwork: An Experiential Approach to Psychotherapy,’ Psychotherapy 31.1 (1996): 120.


Michael Weir and Christine Perry, ‘Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness in Healing and Health: The Work and Techniques of Stanislav Grof,’ viewed 4 February 2018, http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/PDF/weir-perry.pdf.


Grof and Grof, Holotropic Breathwork: a New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy, 200; Leonard Orr and Sondra Ray, Rebirthing in the New Age (Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1977). For an irreverent critique of rebirthing see: Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, Crazy Therapies: What are they? Do they work? (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1996).


Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 19–127.


‘Association for Holotropic Breathwork™ International.’


Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1969), 95–96; Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 126–136.


Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 132.


‘Association for Holotropic Breathwork™ International.’


Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 19.


Grof, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives.’


Stanislav and Christina Grof ‘Principles of Holotropic Breathwork,’ viewed 4 February 2018, http://www.grof-holotropic-breathwork.net/page/2182480.


Brouillette, ‘Reported Effects of Holotropic Breathwork.’


Marie France Forcier, ‘Investigating the Post-Traumatic Lens in the Choreographer’s Work,’ in this volume.






‘Association for Holotropic Breathwork™ International.’


Crowley, ‘Holotropic Breathwork™ – Healing Through a Non-Ordinary State of Consciousness’; Vladimir A. Emelianenko and A.V. Emelianenko, ‘Application of the Holotropic Breathwork: Psychotherapeutic Aspects,’ viewed 4 February 2018, https://www.academia.edu/14902147/Journal_of_Transpersonal_Research_Vol_6_2_._Special_Issue_Holotropic_Breathwork_and_Other_Hyperventilation_Procedures.


Eyerman, ‘A Clinical Report of Holotropic Breathwork.’


P.I. Terekhin, ‘The Role of Hypcopnia in Inducing Altered States of Consciousness,’ Human Physiology 22.6 (1996): 730–735.


Renn Butler, ‘Review of Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Therapy and Self-Exploration,’ viewed 4 February 2018, http://www.grof-holotropic-breathwork.net/group/thereadingroom/forum/topics/review-of-holotropic.


‘Association for Holotropic Breathwork™ International.’


Boroson, et al., ‘Twelve Things You Should Know,’ 6.


‘Association for Holotropic Breathwork™ International.’


Grof and Grof, Holotropic Breathwork: a New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy, 40.




Ibid., 40–41.


Weir and Perry, ‘Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness in Healing and Health.’


The Association for Holotropic Breathwork International, ‘Ethical Guidelines for Facilitators of Holotropic Breathwork,’ viewed 18 January 2014, http://www.grof-holotropic-breathwork.net/page/ethical-guidelines-for.


Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 133.


Stanislav Grof, When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities (Boulder CO: Sounds True Inc., 2006), 14–17.


Grof, ‘Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives.’


Ehrmann, ‘Some Critical Issues in Holotropic Breathwork’; Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 19.


Stanislav Grof, Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 2; Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 19–20.


Taylor, Considering Holotropic Breathwork, 120.


Ibid., 125.




Binarová Denisa, ‘The Effect of Holotropic Breathwork on Personality,’ Czech and Slovak Psychiatry 99.8 (2003): 410–414.


Kate Burton, ‘Shaping Personality Through Suffering: The Transformative Writing of Pat MacEnulty,’ in this volume.


Schaub, ‘Reading myself and worlds’ in this volume.


Discussing MacEnulty’s ‘Floating on the Darkness,’ Kate Burton’s examination and description of the burden and responsibility of carrying a parent’s trauma deftly resonates with my own unconscious and felt experiences. Similarly, my father’s trauma bound me to him right up until the end. Burton, ‘Shaping Personality Through Suffering,’ in this volume.


The following account was written on June 23 and 24, 2010. It reports the author’s experience of a Holotropic Breathwork session.


Boroson, et al., ‘Twelve Things You Should Know,’ viewed 19 August 2018 https://iahip.org/inside-out/issue-55-summer-2008/twelve-things-you-should-know-about-holotropic-breathwork.