Holotropic Breathwork for Visionary Transformation
Holotropic Breathwork® is based in part on psychedelic research of the late 1960s, which I was involved with through the “hippie” subculture of 1968 – 1975. I used to grow my own magic mushrooms and use them for self discovery. When I learned about a year ago from Carolyn Green of British Columbia, Canada that similar psychedelic work could be done without drugs I was totally fascinated to experience it. Holotropic Breathwork is a powerful breath oriented approach to a psychedelic experience for self-exploration and personal growth. It often leads to positive transformation and enhanced creativity. Carolyn Green is a certified facilitator of Holotropic Breathwork® which was designed by Stanislav and Christina Grof, early consciousness researchers. They created the method in order to continue Stan’s exploration of human consciousness after psychedelic drugs were made illegal in the late 1960s.
I attended one of her workshops in late 2018 and it was an amazing event. This article outlines my experience with the amazing visionary technique known as “Holotropic Breathwork”.
My Experience with Holotropic Breathwork.
The session was held in the Sunset Labs in downtown Victoria BC, a facility which is also used for ecstatic dance groups. It is equipped with a superb sound system featuring deep bass subwoofers that can accurately reproduce drumming that one can feel deep in the belly. Music is an important part of Holotropic breathwork and the music genre ranged from tribal drumming to vocal and some classical music as well. The music is concert loud so sound levels were monitored in decibels to protect hearing. Everyone was equipped with eye shades so that the experience was free of visual distractions and they could travel “inwards” more easily.
After an orientation talk and opening circle, the session started with the logistics of making sure we had clearly defined spaces to lay down on the floor with comfortable padding such as one uses for camping, heavy blankets and water for drinking. Each spot was provided with a chair and/or cushions for the sitter who would help the person doing the breathing. Hand signals were used by the “breathers” rather than words so that the person could remain in an altered state without activating the thinking process through vocalization. There was a hand signal to call in a facilitator, receive a drink of water or kleenex and to request assistance to be led to the washroom.
We were instructed in the breathing technique which involved simply breathing in and out without a pause between inhale and exhale with breathers encouraged to find their own accelerated pace.
My first experience was sitting and helping someone who started before me. Actually I had help from another sitter, so two of us observed and offered water and a trip to the washroom. You could tell he was going through a powerful experience. I wondered what motivated him to breath. We never had to remind him, he just enthusiastically kept up his regular deep breathing. Food was available but we were instructed not to bring the food close to the breathing person because it would provide sensory input that might distract them from deep visioning. Eventually the breather opened his eyes, took off his eye shade about 15 minutes ahead many of the others. He said he was complete and eventually drifted off to the kitchen for a snack. People finish whenever they feel their session is complete and are checked out by a facilitator..
Later it was my time to lie down and breathe. I was offered an eye shade which I initially turned down but later started to wear so that there were no distraction from light. The tribal drumming music started I felt a sense of joining a shamanic tribal practice. I started breathing deeply but not quickly and within just a few minutes I was in a deep altered state. A visionary “void” opened above my forehead … it felt like a whole world waited there. A person with big glasses appeared in the void and was motioning me to enter. I found I could drift upwards but the void then appeared as a space above me. I could see groups of people playing and dancing within that void but I was unable to enter it. Occasionally other visions would appear of geometric patterns filling the whole visual field beneath the eye shades. I had wondered how people kept up their breathing without coaching but I quickly discovered why. Whenever I stopped conscious breathing the fascinating visions would begin to diminish … a small amount of attention to breathing and they were back! My mind was mostly blank of thoughts during the experiential voyage.
Then I felt I needed to dance so I motioned for someone to support me. They held my hand for balance because I felt unstable but after a minute I could dance on the spot to the music. The typical session would not include dancing except as it arises from within and as I do ecstatic dance weekly it was a natural expression for me. I was lost in the dancing for a few minutes until the visions deepened. Then I lay back down and continued breathing. I drifted into a deep meditation state where I felt like I was a spirit floating around the room but without visions. Then the music drifted into a classical genre I love. I dissolved into the complexity of the music. Classical music is a tool I use for meditation and the selections of music seemed absolutely perfect!
After a time I needed help to get to the washroom and was guided there by a person who held my hand and another who walked forward while I put my hands on their shoulders in front of me for guidance. When I got to the washroom I lifted my eye shade off and they let me go in on my own. When I emerged I put my eye shades on and was led back to my mat and continued the visionary work. I have urinary difficulties being an older man and was unable to return to the deep visions I had been experiencing. I needed another trip to the washroom so I decided that the experience was over so I sat up and took off my eye shade. Everyone at completion has a conversation with the facilitator to make sure they are finished, or perhaps want to continue. Guidance is always offered at this stage. Otherwise the assistance that breathers receive is carefully matched to the needs of the session and the breathers desire for help.
It was an amazing experience that was as deep as a magic mushroom experience of two years ago. Eventually I was led to a table to draw a mandala of my experience. But I could not really draw! I am a writer but not good at drawing beyond the “stickman” phase of childhood. I was encouraged to draw regardless but I turned down the opportunity. The breathwork experience was truly amazing and visionary for me!
The Grof Holotropic Breathwork Approach
Here are some official descriptions of the standardized Grof Holotropic Breathwork Approach.
Many people know Dr. Stanislav Grof as a pioneering researcher in the clinical use of LSD in psychotherapy. Others know him as the founder, with Abraham Maslow, of the movement known as transpersonal psychology. He is, in the opinion of Ken Wilber, “arguably the world’s greatest living psychologist.” Many people have also heard of the technique that he developed with his wife, Christina Grof, called Holotropic Breathwork™. This visionary work integrates insights from modern consciousness research, anthropology, various depth psychologies, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual practices, and mystical traditions of the world. The name Holotropic means literally “moving toward wholeness” (from the Greek “holos”=whole and “trepein”=moving in the direction of something).
The process itself uses very simple means: it combines accelerated breathing with evocative music in a special set and setting. With the eyes closed and lying on a mat, each person uses their own breath and the music in the room to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This state activates the natural inner healing process of the individual’s psyche, bringing the seeker a particular set of internal experiences. With the inner healing intelligence guiding the process, the quality and content brought forth is unique to each person and for that particular time and place. While recurring themes are common, no two sessions are ever alike.
“SITTERS” AND “BREATHERS”
Additional elements of the process include focused energy release work and integration practices such as mandala drawing. Holotropic Breathwork is usually done in groups, although individual sessions are also possible. Within the groups, people work in pairs and alternate in the roles of “breather” and “sitter.” The sitter’s role is simply to be present and available to assist the breather—not to interfere, interrupt, or try to guide the process. The same is true for trained facilitators, who are available as helpers if necessary.
We all got together when everyone’s session had ended and went round the table to speak of what happened to them in the session. Most people had deep visions too. Many had drawn remarkable mandalas with the intricacy of their visions woven into the colours and shapes.
Long term the workshop left me feeling much healthier, deeply grounded and embodied. I do healing work based on the gentle harmonic rocking bodywork called Trager, blended with Sufi healing, a sweeping gently down the body with the hands. I call it “Harmonic Resonance Bodywork”. My sense of intuitively “knowing” how to work with clients was improved. I am often suggesting deeper breathing to clients during bodywork sessions to help people let go of stress and be present in their hearts.
Holotropic Breathwork is a safe visionary experience that I would highly recommend for personal growth and to improve health.