Holotropic Breathwork (from Greek holos “whole” and trepein “to turn or direct towards a thing”, meaning “moving toward wholeness”) is a practice that uses breathing and other elements to allow access to non-ordinary states for the purpose of self-exploration. It was developed by Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof. Holotropic Breathwork is intended as an approach to self-exploration and healing that integrates insights from modern consciousness research, anthropology, various depth psychologies, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual practices, and mystical traditions of the world.
The method comprises five elements: group process, intensified breathing, evocative music, focused body work, and expressive drawing. The method’s general effect is advocated as a non-specific amplification of a person’s psychic process, which facilitates the psyche’s natural capacity for healing.
Holotropic Breathwork is usually done in groups, although individual sessions are done. Within the groups, people work in pairs and alternate in the roles of experiencer (“breather”) and “sitter”. The sitter’s primary responsibility is to focus compassionate attention on the breather.
Participants in Holotropic Breathwork sessions report a wide variety of experiences. From observing many people in nonordinary and expanded states of consciousness, Grof developed what he considers to be a “cartography” of the psyche, which describes four main categories of experience.
Sensory and Somatic: This experience includes various hallucinatory phenomena, such as visualizing images or geometrical patterns. More commonly, participants report a greater awareness of and ability to act out somatic processes and bodily impulses, such as assuming postures, dancing or moving in specific ways, and making sounds. They may also claim to feel where energy is blocked or streaming, consistent with the belief in vitalism.
Biographical and Individual Unconscious: As in more traditional therapies, participants may revisit unresolved conflicts, repressed memories, and unintegrated traumas. Participants report that this deeper processing can be more effective at clearing trauma, especially as it relates to subtle ways that trauma is held in the body.
Perinatal: Along with most other Breathwork practitioners, and in disagreement with John Locke’s claim that the infant after birth is a tabula rasa, Grof believes that the birth process is a traumatic event that leaves powerful residue in the psyche. Participants in Holotropic Breathwork sessions report having images, emotions, physical sensations, and cognitions that convince them that they are remembering aspects of their own birth. Some claim that these experiences help them release the birth trauma, including deeply held negative beliefs about themselves or the world.
Transpersonal: Referring to the possibility of accessing information outside the normal boundaries of the ego and body, transpersonal experiences reported in Holotropic Breathwork sessions include past life memories, experiential identification with other life forms, out-of-body experiences, oneness, encounters with spiritual archetypes, and connection with the collective unconscious.
One aspect of Grof’s extensive theory is the belief that there is a connection between a person’s life experiences and experiences in the birth process. Grof separated this process into four stages known as the Perinatal Matrices:
Amniotic Universe — The womb. The only world that life knows at this point. Blissful feelings of peace and joy, in a healthy womb.
Cosmic Engulfment; No Exit — Equilibrium disturbed; contractions begin. Unbearable feeling of being stuck in hell with no way of escaping.
Death versus Rebirth Struggle — Second clinical stage of childbirth; intense struggle for survival.
Death versus Rebirth Experience — The child is born. Intense ecstatic feelings of liberation and love. New world begins.