Holotropic breathwork helps individuals achieve healing through non-ordinary states of consciousness.

Holotropic breathwork helps individuals achieve healing through non-ordinary states of consciousness. Image source: Flickr user cea +.

In 2008, holotropic breathwork facilitator Martin Boroson wrote an article for Inside Out trying to dispel some of the more controversial myths surrounding the decades-old breathing practice. Holotropic breathwork is best known as a technique to achieve psychedelic-like states without using psychedelics, but Boroson was attempting to get at the technique’s deeper healing aspects.

When asked whether holotropic breathwork goes “too deep,” Boroson answered that people do indeed have deep, sometimes intense experiences, but that is an important element of the healing. The idea is fairly simple, if unconventional: only by amplifying certain aspects can you resolve them. In clinical terms, this is called a “healing crisis” in which you temporarily experience a worsening of symptoms as your body flushes out toxins or negative energies. A healing crisis can happen on a physical, emotional, or mental level, but the idea is generally the same—it gets worse before it gets better.

To clarify, a healing crisis is not par for the course with a holotropic workshop, but an intense experience is one of the therapy’s more famous qualities. Holotropic means “moving toward wholeness,” and the breathwork can perhaps be best explained as a practice of opening to a state of consciousness that moves us toward wholeness. Stanislav Grof, LSD pioneer and creator of holotropic breathwork, supported the idea that non-ordinary states of consciousness are inherently therapeutic because they help one tap into the collective unconsciousness and “the healer within”—not unlike some psychedelic-assisted therapies. As the breather, you guide yourself through the exercise at a pace and rhythm you’re comfortable with—you are always in control of your own experience.

The components of holotropic breathwork are fairly simple, but they coalesce into a formative force: elevated breathing for an extended period of time (usually 2-3 hours), laying on the ground, listening to rhythmic music, and doing it with a sitter.

Fast-Paced Breathing

The backbone of holotropic breathwork is a deep, fast-paced, rhythmic breath. Research from the 1940’s by psychologist Wilhelm Reich first showed that restricted breathing corresponds to a multitude of physical, emotional, and mental diseases, and deep breathing can open up those emotional and psychological blockages. This basic idea is echoed throughout many cultures—from the Hindu idea of prana to Chinese chi to Greek pneuma, societies throughout history have considered breath to be a powerful healer.

Fast-paced breathing is not only the cornerstone of holotropic breathwork, it’s also its most controversial aspect. In the Western medical community, rapid breathing is considered hyperventilation, which is pathologically categorized as dangerous because it causes carpopedal spasms in the hands and feet. However, this danger lies mostly in uneven breathing—in typical hyperventilation, you exhale more than you inhale, causing a rapid reduction of carbon dioxide in the body. As long as you maintain an even breath, you’ll maintain sufficient levels of air (remember, you can always back off if you ever feel out of control). It is true that breathing quickly can cause tension or pain, but by applying careful pressure to the body, you can effectively release tension that may have built up in your body for years.

Rhythmic Music

The music used in a holotropic breathwork session can range from classical symphonies to indigenous sacred music to electronic pieces, but overall, the music is rich and uplifting with a pulsing rhythm. This focus on rhythm is not accidental. Research shows that drumming decreases anxiety, eases chronic pain, and boosts immunity, and perhaps most interestingly, drumming helps you access the unconscious. Studies have shown that drumming at certain rhythms—3-5 beats/seconds, specifically—produces theta waves, the slower-moving brainwaves produced in deep meditative states and the REM sleep phases associated with dreaming.

While the specific pieces may vary, the music generally follows a narrative arc—a session will open with slower, trance-inducing music, then increase rhythmic intensity to what’s called “peak” or “breakthrough” music. After the peak, the intensity slows into emotionally moving “heart music,” and then into a final stage with calm, meditative music. This changing intensity is designed to support and mirror what practitioners experience on their inner journey.

Laying on the Ground

Laying down during a holotropic exercise provides several benefits. First, it allows you to focus on the inner experience because—unlike more traditional sitting meditations or pranayama exercises—there’s nothing you have to do physically. This idea will resonate with anyone who’s attended an ayahuasca ceremony, where participants lay on a mat for a whole night to allow for maximum contact with the unconscious.

Laying on the ground also provides the freedom to move in whatever manner you feel called to. That could mean anything from rolling to undulating to writhing on the floor, letting go of muscular tension as it surfaces. This also often includes making noises like crying, yelling, or groaning. Such extreme gestures are normal and encouraged—feeling free to follow your unconscious and amplify any symptoms is key to the process.    

Beyond the freedom from regular body constraints, laying on the ground is, sensibly, very grounding. Laying down on the ground—sometimes called earthing—has been shown to reduce pain, promote relaxation, and improve sleep. This may be because you’re effectively aligning your own frequency with that of the earth’s (7.8 Hz), which is the same frequency as alpha waves, the brain waves associated with deep relaxation.

Having a Sitter for Support and Bodywork

While it’s possible to undergo holotropic breathwork one-on-one with a certified facilitator, sessions are usually held in groups. In a traditional session, each person pairs up with a partner  and they alternate who is the breather and who is the “sitter.” A sitter is available for support throughout the session and can provide simple bodywork, like holding your hand or applying bodily pressure if you find tension building in certain parts of your body. Every session also has additional floaters, or facilitators, who manage the room overall. This setup provides a safety net, with each person being monitored by a partner in addition to the facilitators providing assistance to anyone who needs it.

In general, doing holotropic breathwork with a group also offers the opportunity for a more complete integration afterward. Some sessions include mandala drawing or small group sessions where individuals share their experiences. Doing it in a group opens the door to good follow-up and ensures you’re not left with an experience you don’t know how to process.

Focusing on the Inner Experience

“In a world where the dominant model of healing encourages the suppression of symptoms, it’s not surprising that any technique that encourages the amplification of symptoms will be controversial,” Martin Boroson wrote in response to the question about whether holotropic breathwork is too intense. But the particular elements of holotropic breathwork combine to create a supportive environment to process intense emotions. The rapid breathing technique and rhythmic music amplify symptoms and help you tap into non-ordinary states of consciousness. Laying on the ground provides freedom and comfort, and a sitter and facilitators provide any needed support. Ultimately, the focus of a holotropic breathwork session is on the inner experience: the healing comes from within. You are in charge of connecting to your inner unconsciousness in order to find the best way of healing in that moment.This is not a traditional therapy because in holotropic breathwork, you are your own therapist. The point is—no one can heal you but you.