Holotropic Breathwork™

Holotropic States can be accessed in many different ways. One of those is Holotropic Breathwork™, a substance free, technology developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof following Stan’s years of clinical research into the therapeutic use of LSD. They found that if the right set (mindset of the individual) and right setting (the therapeutic container of the experience) were in place then the Holotropic experience would be exponentially beneficial to the individual due to the inherent safety.

At Caledonian Holotropic safety is our top priority. Our team have had years of self-exploration in Holotropic states, as well as going through a rigourous training and certification with various training bodies including, Grof Transpersonal Training. We love this work and we love holding a safe space to allow you to go as deep as you need.

A Holotropic Adventure has 3 key components:

Preparation

There is quite a bit of work that goes on before any Holotropic experience. Reading this is a sign that something is catching your attention and there is a reason for that. It could be your call to the hero’s adventure. There is a comprehensive medical questionnaire you will complete which we will assess and discuss with you during your pre-workshop consultation. You will receive a guiding letter to put you in the best place to getting the most from your experience – setting up your base camp if you like.

You will be invited to journal your thoughts and your dreams because as soon as you make the commitment to attend an event the cogs click into place and start to turn. You will be invited to be mindful around what you put into your body – the more you do around your personal housekeeping the clearer the messages will be from the unconscious. You will be asked to start forming your questions and intentions for the work –  Why am I doing this? What do I want to get out of it? If you have the answers to these questions you have a better chance of getting what you need. This is what we call creating the mindset. And then, when you have formed your intentions we invite you to let them go and that opens us up to whatever the Inner Healer wants to bring just a little bit more.

A week before your adventure we get together online for final preparation where we all share where we are at. We go through the Holotropic Agreements and ask you to sign up to them – they contribute to keeping us all safe. We explain the inquiry tool we use that acts as our compass as we navigate the internal terrain – the Awareness Positioning System – a term coined by Tav Sparks. We also cover what things you need in your backpack for your own comfort and safety.

Session – Holotropic Breathwork™

So, after the preparation we are good to go. In Holotropic Breathwork there is a sitter for every breather and a facilitator is in the room at all times. We talk about the different roles of breather, sitter and facilitator and how each one supports the experience before we set off, so everyone knows what they are doing and what is expected of each other.

The Holotropic Adventure is an internal experience and it all happens on your mat with your eye shade on. All that the breather needs to do is breathe a little bit faster and a little bit deeper than normal in a circular way i.e. with no gaps or pauses.

The sitter is the breather’s first line of safety. They are on hand to provide cushioning, water, tissues, support the breather in getting to the lavatory and to provide physical support if requested. The intention of the sitter is that of witness and to keep the breather safe. Very often the breather can sense this support and it allows them to drop deeper into the process. The role of the sitter can be just as rewarding as the breathwork experience itself. What a gift to give and receive.

The facilitator holds the safety awareness of the group  and is there to support, support, support.  They are on hand to provide energy focussed bodywork if requested. The resistance they provide can really help the breather to “push through” something. They co-create the container/crucible/setting in which the magic happens before, during and after the session.

The session is usually around 3 hours and has an intentionally composed music set. The first hour has a fast beat and supports the deeper faster breathing. After 20 -40 mins of this, very often, you enter the Holotropic State. The second hour of music is big and loud and epic and supports the Adventure. The third hour supports the homecoming – the Hero’s return.

Integration

At Caledonian Holotropic we appreciate that what needs to happen before and what needs to happen after a session is just as important as the session itself. In that spirit we take integration seriously too. Integration is about bringing the gold of the experience back home in a way that you can use it to make beneficial changes in your life. If integration didn’t happen one can get lost in peak experience after peak experience and not much change happens on the ground.

As soon as your session completes, you will be invited to create a mandala or collage of your adventure to capture, non-verbally, important messages or insights the Inner healer has brought to the threshold of your consciousness for your attention. If hung in place where you will regularly see them, they can provide insights days and weeks after your experience. We encourage you to journal before you leave. The journaling and artwork help support your verbal sharing with the group. We check in with you before you leave to make sure you are back and grounded in this 3D world. We let you know how you can support your own integration and your well-being back home.

An online meeting is scheduled for a week after your session and the group comes back together for further supportive sharing. Additional online meetings can be booked for further integration support.

We look forward to welcoming and accompanying you on your Holotropic Adventure.

12 Frequently Asked Questions

The following are some common questions regarding Holotropic Breathwork. All answers given are based on the article “12 Things you should know about Holotropic Breathwork” written by Martin Boronson with Jean Farrell, Nienke Merbis, and Dara White.

Does Holotropic Breathwork involve the use of drugs?

No.

Grof was one of the earliest and most respected researchers into the clinical use of LSD. A Freudian analyst and psychiatrist, he became convinced that LSD had therapeutic value as a catalyst for the healing potential of the unconscious. Grof conducted LSD treatment at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague from 1960 to 1967, and continued this work at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He worked with psychiatric patients, cancer patients, and drug addicts, as well as with artists and scientists who were curious about the deeper dimensions of their minds.

At the time, there were a variety of ways of working with LSD, but Grof’s method was remarkable for the use of a very safe setting and its inner focus. This involved the patient lying down with eyes closed, listening to music, and being attended at all times by two clinicians. Thus the focus was on inner experience, rather than interactive or psychodynamic experience, and on accessing the unconscious experientially, rather than intellectually, verbally or analytically. Grof observed and reported remarkable therapeutic benefits for his patients from this process. Furthermore he realized that these states of consciousness were not nearly as non-ordinary as they seemed: most pre-industrial cultures had some culturally-sanctioned way to enter these states, periodically, to promote healing or find wisdom, using things like drumming, natural psychedelics, meditation, or fasting as the catalyst.

Grof’s clinical research into LSD was extremely promising, but because of the street use of the drug, and its promotion by less sober figures such as Timothy Leary, the non-clinical use of the drug was banned in the U.S. in 1967, and clinical research ended in 1975. So he turned his attention to other methods of inducing a non-ordinary state of consciousness, and settled on the use of deep, fast breathing. This is the basis of Holotropic Breathwork™. Although Holotropic Breathwork has some of the similarities, in setting and intention, of Grof’s work with LSD, a Holotropic Breathwork session absolutely does not involve drugs. As with many forms of yoga, it is powered by simply breathing, at a rate controlled by the client.

Is the Facilitator the healer?

The primary principle of Holotropic Breathwork is that healing comes from within the client. In the holotropic model, this is taken to an unprecedented level of trust. Facilitators are not considered to be healers or even therapists. Rather, they are more like mid-wives, there to support a process that has an inherent wisdom. Facilitating a Holotropic Breathwork workshop is intense practice in ‘not knowing’. I recall Grof saying that the reason the training to be a facilitator takes a minimum of two years is that it takes at least two years to realize how little you know.

Grof believes that there is an inner ‘radar’ function in the psyche that, when given the opportunity, can choose the most relevant experience we need, in that moment, for our evolution.[i] No one can know what that experience is, in advance. For example, consider a client locked in a pattern of anger at her mother: what would be the best prescription for her? A bio-energetic therapist might encourage her to express her rage. A Buddhist teacher might encourage her to practice compassion. A Jungian might encourage her to dialogue with the image of her anger. A Kundalini yogi might encourage her to channel the anger into a higher form. But a Holotropic Breathwork facilitator would say simply, “keep doing the breathing and find out what is emerging for you.” The answer is specific to the client and to the time.

It is always tempting to think we ‘know best’. This is particularly true for anyone in the helping professions. But the Holotropic Breathwork facilitator is trained in not-knowing. Of course, many people have great gifts in their chosen modalities, whether cranio-sacral therapy, reiki, bioenergetics, psychodynamic psychotherapy, or cleansing auras, but in a holotropic workshop these would never be applied to a client’s process. To ‘heal someone’ is a beautiful thing, but in the context of a Holotropic Breathwork workshop, it would be considered an abuse of power. Each participant should leave a Holotropic Breathwork workshop feeling personally empowered: having discovered that he himself has answers within—not that so-and-so is ‘a great healer’. The Holotropic Breathwork facilitator is not expected to do the healing and should not promote the idea of being a healer. The facilitator of a Holotropic Breathwork session is there to help, support and encourage clients to find their own way.

Many clients do come to a Holotropic Breathwork workshop wanting ‘to be healed,’ or with an unconscious need to find a guru. This can be a trap for both client and facilitator. But a good facilitator will resist that projection, and gently encourage the client to look for an answer within. Of course, some facilitators do have a strong healing presence, or may be gifted in ‘seeing’ or understanding. But all good Holotropic Breathwork facilitators should keep that firmly in check: the practice of being a facilitator is of not-knowing, and giving space to individuals to find the answers themselves.

Is Holotropic Breathwork a kind of shamanism?

There are many ways in which Holotropic Breathwork resembles shamanism. As in shamanism, participants in a Holotropic Breathwork workshop go on a journey into a non-ordinary state of consciousness to find healing. Music is played to support this journey. But there are many differences between Holotropic Breathwork and shamanism. First, there is no roadmap for the Holotropic Breathwork journey: participants are not asked to imagine an entrance to a shamanic world, and don’t begin their holotropic journey with an intention to work on a specific problem or question. It certainly makes sense to look for a spirit guide or power animal at a shamanic workshop, for these are typical features of the shamanic world, but to do this in a holotropic session would constrain the process. In a holotropic session, the whole world of possible spiritual experience, from any tradition (and from no tradition), is available to each client.

One of the most remarkable features of Holotropic Breathwork is that people can have so many different kinds of experiences, and are free to interpret them differently, without any specific language or worldview. I have seen Christians having Buddhist experiences, and Hindus having Christian experiences. I have seen atheists have shamanic experiences and shamanic practitioners have Sufi experiences. (I even remember a Catholic priest having a Christian experience, and expressing surprise and delight to discover what his faith was really about.) I have also seen people have experiences that seem to pull from many different traditions at once, and have seen some people have experiences from no tradition yet identified. So although Holotropic Breathwork has many features that are similar to shamanism, it is much bigger and broader. In this sense, it is a truly post-modern practice.

Is Holotropic Breathwork addictive?

We have certainly seen some people seem to get hooked on Holotropic Breathwork. But we have to be careful here. Many people come to Holotropic Breathwork as a last resort, or when they are in a psycho-spiritual crisis. In such cases, an intensive period of inner work is not just desired but essential for them. They may want or need to give their lives over to their inner process for a period of time. For other people, a holotropic workshop may be the only place they have found in which they can truly be themselves, and where they can give expression to some very big energies they have been struggling with. Then there are other people, like myself, who consider Holotropic Breathwork a spiritual practice, and try to do it at least a couple of times a year, much as one would a meditation retreat. But although I have seen plenty of people practice Holotropic Breathwork intensely for a period of time, and some people who seem perhaps too attached to it for a while, I have seen no one ‘addicted’ to it.

There is probably not a single practice that, in the hands of an addict, can’t be used addictively. Holotropic Breathwork is definitely not appropriate for people who are actively addicted to anything (whether a drug, alcohol, food, or behaviour), as it tends to bring to the surface just that material that the addict is trying, through the addiction, to suppress; this increased conflict could increase addictive behaviour. But once an addict is in recovery, Holotropic Breathwork can be extremely healing, helping the recovering addict work through the suppressed material, and perhaps discover the deeper patterns that gave rise to their addiction.

Is there a prescribed “order” of experience?

Many newcomers to Holotropic Breathwork arrive at a workshop with fixed ideas about what they have to experience or will experience, as if they’d been given instructions by their therapist. There is no prescribed order of experience, and no way to predict what will emerge. Facilitators stress over and over again: let go of your agenda and be willing to be surprised. The inner healer will select the issue you will explore, the healing you will experience, and the lesson you will learn.

There is also a common misperception that clients must first clear personal trauma, then work through birth trauma, and then, if they’re lucky, might have a transpersonal experience. This is an understandable misunderstanding of Grof’s work, for he did suggest this as the general order of discovery in a holotropic process. However on a case by case, session by session, basis, it doesn’t work like that. Many people have very powerful spiritual experiences in their first session: these experiences may give them the incentive to continue, an overview of their process, or the tools they need to continue. Some people’s first sessions are entirely transpersonal, and this might continue for many sessions, until they realize that the next edge for their growth is in their personal life, or in their personal history.

Interestingly, sessions present many levels of the psyche at the same time, in a fascinating, holographic way. And as with dreams, each session can contain a prelude or hint of things to come. An example of one participant, a devout vegetarian, having a holotropic session in which the image of a Big Mac appeared in his mind, fleetingly, much to his amusement. In his next session, several days later, he had a full-blown transpersonal experience in which he experienced himself as a lion, hungrily devouring the raw meat of a just-killed animal.

Holotropic Breathwork simply brings up exactly the experience we need right now, in the moment, from whatever level of consciousness. Whether this is a ‘therapeutic’ experience or a ‘spiritual’ experience is irrelevant. Whether it seems to be from the past is also irrelevant. Whether it is literal or metaphoric also doesn’t seem to matter much. What matters most is simply having that experience, that day. The session gives you a glimpse of the archetypal structure of the present moment, and brings you, very efficiently, to the next stage of your development.

Does Holotropic Breathwork require bodywork?

Holotropic Breathwork facilitators are trained to help participants with a form of support that is sometimes called, and often confused with, bodywork. Increasingly, however, this is called “Focused Energy Release Work” rather than “bodywork”. It is available to clients, if they request it, during a session or at the end of a session. It is usually requested by participants when they feel stuck, ungrounded, or perceive that their session hasn’t completed.

Most participants complete their sessions without needing any such help. But if someone does want help, a facilitator will respond creatively and empathically to whatever the client asks for. More often than not, this means simply placing a hand gently on the shoulder for encouragement. Sometimes a facilitator will suggest that the client amplify what is already happening. This could be physical amplification but could also be expressive amplification. It might mean simply encouraging a client to vocalise a sound, or explore an image, that she is already experiencing. 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.

 A Holotropic Breathwork facilitator would never ever physically intervene in a session without the client’s permission—unless there were imminent danger that the client would hurt himself or someone else.

Does Holotropic Breathwork cause you to have have an out-of-body experience?

It is possible to have an out-of-body experience in a Holotropic Breathwork session. Most sessions, however, are exceptionally embodied. In fact, this may be one of the most valuable aspects of Holotropic Breathwork. Because the breather is lying down, on a mat, with someone nearby to ensure that they won’t get hurt, it is possible for their body to do whatever it needs to do. This is quite a different injunction, for example, than in a meditation retreat, where the exact physical posture for practice may be prescribed. In a Holotropic Breathwork workshop you can express yourself physically in just about any way imaginable. More to the point, you can allow your unconscious to express itself physically, in any way it wants to. Thus participants can have fully embodied spiritual experiences, quite idiosyncratically expressed. Holotropic Breathwork can effectively marry the transcendent and the immanent, or the spiritual and the physical.

Do participants leave the workshops ‘ungrounded’?

After any dramatic experience, there is a risk of being ‘ungrounded’. People returning from an ashram or meditation retreat, and even from a therapy session or massage, can be ungrounded. Deep experiences are often unsettling, and it can take some time to integrate such experiences with ordinary life. This is why Holotropic Breathwork sessions are usually offered in overnight retreats and, at minimum, in day-long retreats. A residential set-up helps people go into the experience more deeply, and gives them more time to complete the experience. Good facilitators make sure that people are sufficiently grounded before they leave a workshop, and are available to help them after the workshop if necessary. Holotropic Breathwork facilitators will often refer people to an appropriate therapist for continued support and integration of their experiences (and many therapists refer clients to Holotropic Breathwork as an adjunct to their therapy).

In some ways, Holotropic Breathwork actually offers a superior form of grounding. Facilitators commit to staying with a client until the client has reached a reasonable level of closure with the session. Most people finish their session within 2 to 3 hours, but facilitators understand that the ending of a session cannot be imposed arbitrarily: each session has its own internal logic.

More to the point, there is no one ‘method’ of closure. It is also not just a matter of time. A Holotropic Breathwork facilitator encourages each client to find the unique symbol (i.e. expression, realization, image, or need) that completes their journey and helps them feel ready to return so as to bring about an authentic closure on issues.

Sometimes, of course, a journey cannot be completed in one session—some journeys last lifetimes—but there can at least be appropriate closure on that particular leg of the journey. However, shutting down a session prematurely is like asking Jason to return home without the Golden Fleece because his dinner is getting cold. To allow people find their own way back is both more empowering, more ethical, more satisfying, and ultimately, much more efficient.

Does Holotropic Breathwork induce an “altered state of consciousness”?

The term ‘altered states’ was widely used in the early days of the transpersonal movement, but with its suggestion of abnormality or pathology, it has become less and less favoured. The term “non-ordinary states of consciousness” is preferred, as it does not judge these states positively or negatively. Grof also tends to call these states of consciousness simply “holotropic”, which means “moving toward wholeness.” In other words, Holotropic Breathwork simply opens us to a state of consciousness that helps move us toward wholeness.

In recent years the term “extraordinary states of consciousness” has come into being, which suggests the beauty and possibility of such states. Such states of consciousness—like dreams—are always present; they are only extraordinary if we aren’t already aware of them. Holotropic Breathwork simply brings us into deeper dimensions of the present moment, revealing a bit more of the colourful spectrum that is reality, right now.

Is Holotropic Breathwork violent?

There are violent feelings, desires, and reactions in each of us. The question is to what extent we know about these and can work with them skilfully, as opposed to being surprised by them, projecting them onto others, or acting them out in the world.

Certainly Holotropic Breathwork allows people a safe opportunity to work with their own anger and rage. Clients feel confident that they will not hurt anyone, including themselves. They are permitted to make as much noise as they wish. Thus, they are really free to vent their violent feelings. Anyone wandering into a workshop, without understanding this, might assume that the work is violent. But what is usually happening is just a dramatic enactment of the interior of the human psyche, which of course includes violent feelings. Just because people can experience violent feelings in a holotropic session doesn’t mean that the process is violent. Most people who attend a Holotropic Breathwork workshop have made a decision to face the truth of themselves, including their shadow, so that they can be more peaceful in their ordinary lives.

Certainly, engagement with anger can be challenging for people. Many, after years of being depressed, or disconnected from their anger, discover so much anger that they need to learn anger management techniques, or take up a sport, just to process or handle this upsurge of feeling. But while this upsurge of anger can be challenging in the short term, in the context of healing, it is progress.

A Holotropic Breathwork facilitator would never make the expression of angry feelings an agenda for a client. The expression of angry feelings is merely one of the many possible experiences that might emerge in a session. Indeed many Holotropic Breathwork sessions are peaceful, joyous, or playful. Of the thousands of Holotropic Breathwork sessions, there has been alot of anger expressed, but even more sadness, grief, vulnerability, gentleness, wisdom and wonder.

Is Holotropic Breathwork just about re-living trauma?

One of the most common misperceptions about Holotropic Breathwork is that it is only about recovery from trauma. In the past people who came to Holotropic Breathwork workshops were often those who were particularly depressed, ‘stuck’, or emotional. They were often those people who had suffered the most severe trauma. They were referred to Holotropic Breathwork workshops by their therapists because they were not making any progress, or because the therapists couldn’t handle the intensity of the process.

Holotropic Breathwork is practiced by people in recovery from trauma and also practiced by people who have no known trauma. There is a Zen teacher who refers people to Holotropic Breathwork when their meditation practice gets stuck. Holotropic Breathwork is a very effective partner with other forms of personal development. It has been used in the context of leadership development, interfaith dialogue, and gender reconciliation. 

Holotropic Breathwork is a modern way for us all to explore the deepest dimensions of ourselves: sometimes that involves healing what happened before, and sometimes that means discovering what is happening beyond. But always, it means touching what is truly happening right now.

Yes, Holotropic Breathwork does seem to offer people the possibility of recollected memory and an extraordinary opportunity for catharsis. And it is often a history of trauma, or the onset of symptoms from a trauma, that drive an individual to a path of self-discovery. But Holotropic Breathwork is not primarily about trauma. Nor would a Holotropic Breathwork facilitator encourage a client to ‘believe’ a recollected memory as fact, for two reasons. First, it is always up to the client to interpret the experience. Second, Holotropic Breathwork sessions, like dreams, usually contain a mixture of elements, both biographical and symbolic, which can be very hard to separate. This is not to say that a recollected trauma did not happen, merely that it is not the role of the Holotropic Breathwork facilitator to set an agenda or interpret experience, and the goal of the workshop is never just ‘trauma recovery’.

The definition of trauma is not as simple as we think, and it may vary with both culture and era. Some people wonder whether Holotropic Breathwork might be re-traumatising; many people wonder whether any technique in which trauma is revisited is re-traumatising. Grof’s belief, however, is that the trauma only manifests in a holotropic session if it is necessary for healing. Holotropic Breathwork facilitators would never insist that someone work on a trauma, nor determine how long one should work on a trauma.

It is possible for people who are working through trauma (via any modality) to get stuck in that process for a while. Indeed, it seems that this is one way in which some people move forward: They get stuck in a particular perspective until they get so fed up with being stuck in that perspective that a new one breaks through. During the period of stuckness, however, they can certainly seem to be caught in a loop.

It is important to remember that Holotropic Breathwork, because it is not about trauma recovery, is always offering clients a new way out of old problems. The primary injunction in Holotropic Breathwork is not ‘go into the trauma’ but ‘do the breathing until you are surprised by what emerges’. In other words: ‘don’t get stuck in your assumptions.’

Holotropic Breathwork facilitators are trained NOT to impose their own assumptions on the wide-open psyche of their clients i.e. interpreting symptoms according to particular models or advising them to do particular forms of work or managing their life choices. Holotropic Breathwork is simply a loving field in which whatever needs to emerge can do so.

In many countries, Holotropic Breathwork is actually seen more as a spiritual process than a therapeutic one; workshops attract people who are primarily looking to expand their awareness. But whether the benefits of a Holotropic Breathwork are spiritual or therapeutic, the main point is that what happens in a Holotropic Breathwork session, at its simplest, is this: you get the next part of the picture.

Does Holotropic Breathwork go too deep?

There is no question that Holotropic Breathwork allows people to have deep experiences, and to some extent, it catalyzes these experiences. The client is always in control of the mechanism that drives the depth of the process: breathing. No one is forced to go deeper than they wish.

As with osteopathy and homeopathy—and to some extent, Jungian analysis—in Holotropic Breathwork, symptoms are expected to get bigger—or be amplified—as a means of resolution: this is called a ‘healing crisis’. This is quite different from the medical model, where the elimination of symptoms—sometimes without anyone even knowing the cause—is often standard.

Grof believes that a symptom is like an interference pattern—it represents the ‘edge’ of another reality or gestalt that is trying to emerge. The problem is that that other reality doesn’t match this reality very well. For example, a panic attack might be the psyche’s attempt to heal an earlier trauma; it certainly has many features of a birth process (claustrophobia, constriction, fear, elevated heart rate, etc.). The problem, therefore, is not the panic attack, but the context in which it is happening. If it happens when you’re driving a car, or sitting at your desk in the office, it is considered pathological. But if it happens in a safe and supportive environment, where it is possible to experience it fully, then underlying gestalt can be resolved, and it is considered healing. In a world where the dominant model of healing encourages the suppression symptoms, it’s not surprising that any technique that encourages the amplification of symptoms will be controversial.

People can get into some very challenging territory in Holotropic Breathwork sessions, but they might well have got into even more difficult situations had those energies erupted in ordinary life. At intensive times of change in one’s life there can be mood swings, active dreams, and deep anxiety. Many people come to a Holotropic Breathwork workshop during such periods of transformation; therefore it may appear to a casual observer that Holotropic Breathwork has caused this unsettlement, rather than being a method of processing it.

It would be a mistake to believe that Holotropic Breathwork induces a difficult experience in people who would not otherwise have encountered it. People find that they can resolve issues in a Holotropic Breathwork session that they just couldn’t resolve anywhere else.

Holotropic Breathwork can be a deep, and at times emotional, process. But deep experiences are not always painful or dark (though these do seem to get the most press). In a Holotropic Breathwork workshop, people can liberate their ability to laugh deeply, learn to cry profoundly, move parts of their bodies that have been frozen for years, experience ecstasy for the first time, and find a quietness and peace that they have never touched in ordinary life.

“The breath is a mechanism for deep intimate connection with the self. The breath connects us all to everything and everyone – we stand under the same sun and we share the same air” – Mark Baugh