Holotropic Breathwork – Definition + Purpose

Psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud believed that trauma, memories, and other vital experiences are stored down in our unconscious minds. Even though we are not fully aware of these experiences, they influence our behavior, decisions, and any fixations that we might have. By accessing these experiences and bringing them to the surface, we may be able to let go of them and have more control over our decisions and behavior. 

But how do you access the unconscious? Sigmund Freud said it could be done through talk therapy. But another psychiatrist had other ideas in mind: holotropic breathwork. 

What Is Holotropic Breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork is a breathwork practice that uses deep, fast breathing, music, and the encouragement to let your inner feelings come to the surface. You can’t just do this breathwork in your living room, but you can still access retreats and groups practicing this breathwork today. 

Who Invented Holotropic Breathwork? 

Stanislav Grof, along with his wife Christina Grof, developed Holotropic Breathwork in the 1970s. But Grof is just as well-known for his work experimenting with LSD. 

Grof was trained as a psychoanalyst, but believed he could reach a person’s unconscious without Freud’s methods of talk therapy. He experimented with reaching the unconscious through experimental methods, including LSD. While Grof noted that LSD could induce an altered state of consciousness, this state of consciousness wasn’t too far off from a state one could achieve without drugs. 

Grof experimented with using LSD therapeutically until the substance was banned in the US. Then, he turned his focus to breathwork. The aim was to bring about a non-ordinary state of consciousness, similar to the one experienced while using LSD. At this time, Grof believed that patients could access an “inner radar.” This radar points to the most important or relevant experience for the moment. That experience is only determined in the moment, and only accessed through the inner radar. 

Although Holotropic Breathwork was created (and trademarked) in the 1970s, it is still practiced by many people around the world today. But you can’t just sit down in a chair, start breathing, and say that you’ve practiced Holotropic Breathwork. The process is a lot more complicated than that. 

How To Perform Holotropic Breathwork

If you want to practice Holotropic Breathwork, you’ll most likely have to find a group with a certified facilitator. (Remember, Holotropic Breathwork is trademarked!) The facilitator will help guide the group throughout the practice, including any post-breathwork activities like mandala drawing or mindfulness meditation

Keep in mind that practices last for 12 hours consisting of multiple three-hour sessions. 

Sitters and Breathers 

Not everyone in the group is practicing the actual breathwork. The group consists of pairs of “sitters” and “breathers.” The breathers, obviously, are practicing the breathwork. Sitters sit next to the breather and hold space for them throughout the practice. They may offer support if needed. While this might seem like the sitter is doing “nothing,” they have an important role. When else do you get to sit and be present with someone for such a long period of time? 

After each three-hour session, the roles are reversed. 

Sitters

The sitter sits (obviously) as the breather lies down next to them. Each session begins with breathwork and grounding practices to arrive in the space. The music consists of drums that start to beat faster and you speed up your breathing. Breathers start to deepen, and increase the speed of, each breath. This is done for an extended period of time to allow maximum oxygen to enter the body and for the mind to enter the “non-ordinary state of consciousness.” 

Breathers

At one point during the session, the breathers are encouraged to follow their inner wisdom. That might mean using a different type of breath to lead them through the session. Maybe they feel the urge to produce certain sounds – these are allowed and encouraged. The breather may also want to move their hands or shake their body. Movement is also allowed and encouraged. 

The experience that you have during the breathwork will depend on how you feel in the present moment and any experiences that your unconscious might be storing. 

As the session starts to wind down, the breather will be encouraged to come back to a normal state of consciousness. After they open their eyes, they might be instructed to draw mandalas or reflect on their experience in another way. Then, the roles are reversed for the next session. 

This is certainly not a practice that you would do every day. If you are interested in trying Holotropic Breathwork, you may want to look for retreats or other opportunities to engage in these sessions over the period of a weekend or week. 

What Happens During Holotropic Breathwork: A Review

After Reddit user TraumaCanBeHealed performed holotropic breathwork, here is what they had to say:

“It seems like it enhances body awareness. I felt a lot of blockages in my body which I could resolve. I felt relaxed afterwards, like after a massage. I think the blockages were suppressed anger stored in the muscles. I also came to a point where I felt sadness and I was feeling like I had to puke it out. But I was too scared of that. I think I reached my sadness really deep in my core but I was too scared of getting overwhelmed and puking. I think you really need to be ready for that and have the stability for integration. I think this method pressures this too much. And I don’t really had any long lasting effects from it. So, I can’t recommend it to anyone. Maybe at the end of your healing journey. Freeze types should focus more on human relationships.” 

Is Holotropic Breathwork Safe? 

Results from some studies on Holotropic Breathwork suggest that it can reduce anxiety and increase self-awareness. However, other research suggests that there are risks tied to Holotropic Breathwork, including the increased risk of seizure of psychosis. Before signing up for a retreat with Holotropic Breathwork, do further research and be safe. 

  • Consult a doctor. Holotropic breathwork is not a gentle breathing practice, and the results of the experience are far from gentle. A session may lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide, leading to other physiological changes. People with cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure may be at risk. Talk to a doctor before trying Holotropic Breathwork. 
  • Assess your goals. Again, the results of Holotropic Breathwork are intense. (Doing anything for 12 hours can be intense!) You may face experiences that are traumatic or find yourself overwhelmed. Talk to a facilitator or someone who has experienced Holotropic Breathwork to see if the practice will align with your intentions.
  • Try other forms of breathwork first. If you would prefer something more gentle or accessible throughout the day, try other types of breathwork. Box breathing, guided meditations, or yoga nidra may be good places to start.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.