Holotropic Breathwork
"Among the deepest and most profoundly comprehensive,
work of the spirit being offered today." - Jack Kornfield

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Holotropic Breathwork was developed by Stanislov and Cristina Grof during the 1970s and 1980s. But the early stages of its development occured in the late 1960s in Czeckoslovakia. Stanislov Grof, M.D. studied medicine and psychoanalysis at the Charles University School of Medicine in Prague in the early 1950s. In the 1960s, Dr. Grof became a principle investigator in a clinical study of the possible therapeutic potential of a psychedelic drug provided by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. He noticed that under highly controlled conditions, many subjects entered a "nonordinary state" which was "indistinguishable from those described in the ancient mystical traditions and spiritual philosophies of the East."

In 1967, Dr. Grof came to the United States to continue his research He became an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University and the Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Out of his friendships with the founders of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow and Anthony Sutich, they started a new discipline called "Transpersonal Psychology." This form of psychology addresses experiences which are outside the boundaries of our body and personal identity.

During this time, Dr. Grof began to develop his map of human experiences in nonordinary states. This included sensory, biographical, perinatal, and transpersonal experiences. In addition, Dr. Grof developed the Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs) of the birth process (BPM1-BPM4) and the an theory on the association between traumas in experienced nonordinary states call Condensed Experiences (COEX).

In 1974, after ten years of yoga practice (including Hatha Yoga and Siddha Yoga/Kundalini Yoga), Christina Grof experienced what might be called a "Kunalini Awakening" (a sudden experience of life-force energy and change in consciousness) during a meditation period led by a Siddha Yoga Master from South India. This led to a roller coaster of emotional experiences over the next year. In 1975, Christina Grof was referred to Dr. Stan Grof who helped her by staying with the emotions and moving through them.

In the late 1970s, Stan & Christina Grof got together in California and began to develop Holotropic Breathwork. Dr. Grof knew from his scientific research that transformation can occur in nonordinary states of consciousness and that the most powerful technique of inducing nonordinary states was psychedelic substances. (Psychedelic plant substances have been used in many cultures to induce nonordinary states and transformation.) However, Dr. Grof also knew that such substances involve serious risks. Therefore, the Grofs developed a safe and effective way of using one's own breath to induce nonordinary states of consciousness.

In 1980, Christina Grof founded the Spiritual Emergence Network (SEN) to help the many individuals who, like her, are struggling or had become stuck with their own inner transformation.

In the early 1980s, Stan and Christina Grof travelled all over the world conducting workshops and giving lectures related to Holotropic Breathwork and Transpersonal Psychology. By 1987 they had developed their first structured training program. Between 1987 and 1994 the Grofs facilitated Holotropic Breathwork Sessions for more than 25,000 people.

Description of Process

Holotropic Breathwork is usually conducted in a workshop or class setting. Private sessions are sometimes available as well. Before the breathwork session begins there is usually a brief period where each individual in the group expresses how they are feeling and discusses key issues in their life. This is also the time when the breathwork facilitator may provide tips to the participants and answer questions.

In a class, everyone pairs up with a partner. Each person in the pair takes turns as a breather and a sitter. The sitter provides tissues, help to the bathroom, emotional support, reminders to breathe, extra pillows and blankets, etc. at the breather's request. As the sitter, just being caring, supportive and fully present is enough to give the breather the feeling of being in a safe, loving environment.

Before the process gets underway, the breather discusses with the sitter what might be needed during the process (e.g., tissues, blankets, etc.). The breather lies down on a mat and uses blankets, if necessary, for extra warmth. The breathwork facilitator then leads a brief relaxation exercise.

The evocative music begins at this point and lasts for approximately 2 hours. The breather begins breathing faster and deeper as instructed by the facilitator. Some breathwork facilitators suggest usings a "circular breath" (meaning no pauses between the in- and out-breaths) in addition to the deeper and more rapid breathing. The breathing process is up to the breather. Some people ask their sitters to remind them to breath faster and deeper (often by a light touch of the shoulder) if they begin to fall asleep early on in the process. If pain or tension appears in the body during the process and is not resolved by the breath, focused bodywork is offered by the facilitator.

When the breathwork session is complete, the breather draws a "mandala" which is a representation of their experience. Open sharing about the mandala and the breathwork experience occurs after both persons in the pair have breathed. The sharing occurs in a completely supportive and non-judemental environment.

During the breathwork process, the breather can have quite a wide range of possible experiences. Such experiences can include deep feelings of joy or serenity, yogic sleep/meditative states, re-experience of traumas or the birth process, bodily sensations (tension, pain, warmth, etc.), crying, yelling, body movements, transpersonal experiences such as past life experiences, etc. The experiences in the nonordinary state brought on by the breathwork can be categorized as:

  1. Sensory
  2. Biographical
  3. Perinatal (birth process)
  4. Transpersonal (beyond the body and personal identity)
It is important to try and avoid directing the process to go to a particular place. Whatever happens is okay. With the help of the breath, evocative music, a safe atmosphere, relaxation, and a willingness to embrace the experiences, the unconscious part of the mind will take you to wherever you need to go for inner healing and transformation.

I have fallen asleep during some breathwork sessions. After such sessions I was extremely disappointed that "nothing happened" and that I felt I wasted my money. As it turns out, I was always stressed out and overworked during the times before the breathwork. It was the eventual realization that my body was too tense and tired to participate in the breathwork which led me to make important lifestyle changes (e.g., quitting a consulting job) so that I could go further in my healing and transformation process. I also learned that part of the reason I was falling asleep was that I was not completely willing to go into and experience the nonordinary state. It took me a while to have the willingness and courage to experience and embrace whatever comes up in the process. So even those breathwork experiences where it appeared that "nothing happenned" have been very important learning experiences for me.


As listed in The Breathwork Experience by Kylea Taylor, breathwork is contraindicated in the following cases.
  1. Cardiovascular Problems including abnormal and untreated blood pressure
  2. Glaucoma
  3. Pregnancy
  4. Recent surgery
  5. Epilepsy (Some cases may be allowed if okayed by healthcare practitioner and breathwork facilitator.)
  6. Asthma with any slight cardiovascular problem. If used, inhalers should be brought.
  7. Mental Illnesses may contraindicate breathwork participation, particularly in cases of Bipolar Depression and paranoid personality disorder. Breathwork may be contraindicated in cases of mental illness where there is not on-going support either in a residential setting or outpatient treatment. Consult with the breathwork facilitator for more information.
I would also add that I believe that persons who have active addictions (food, drugs, alcohol, etc.) should probably not do breathwork until the addiction is under control (e.g., sober). Persons undergoing an emotional or spiritual crisis should consult with the breathwork facilitator before deciding whether to participate.

More detail about the contraindications can be found in The Breathwork Experience by Kylea Taylor. Powerful, healing alternatives to breathwork are discussed in this book as well as on the Holistic Healing Web Page.