What is Holotropic Breathwork? How the Power of Breath can Heal & Transform You
Updated: Mar 31
Most of us give little thought to what makes us who we are. What mechanisms in our brain, acting together, create our moods, personalities or reality.
The truth is, in each moment, what we believe to be 'real' is an incredible and not fully understood subset of neurological programs running between a subconscious and conscious mind.
Those interactions may be flowing in a state of harmony.
Or they may exist in vibrations of chaos. Broken. Out of balance.
Stressors build over time.
Issues grow deep roots, dragging us down, becoming hidden from our conscious.
What troubles and confuses, causes us to choose hatred and fear. It stagnates growth, remaining misunderstood and unresolved.
Things can become infused and stuck.
We assume, incorrectly, that the conscious mind, our rational brain, plays the biggest role in who we are.
That we are in control of what we do and what we think, at any given moment.
But this couldn't be further from the truth.
We underestimate the subconscious and even conscious forces at play that help shape the decisions we make in each moment of every day.
We can thank the subconscious mind to protect us from danger. And we can thank our prefrontal cortex and our complex ego's that block harmful ideas from penetrating the inner workings of our minds. Our ego's tell us who we are and how we should present ourselves in any given moment.
But our ego, if left unchecked, can prevent good things from coming home.
Our ego has the power to prevent our growth.
The problem is, our subconscious mind and our ego, by definition, are hard to track down. They are mechanisms difficult to understand and impossible to control...
But what if these interconnected autonomous systems could be unraveled?
What would we find?
Well, it turns out much more than we could ever expect. With benefits abound.
A few months back, my good friend Scott sent me another email. This time asking if I'd be interested in joining him a Holotropic Breathwork session in Vancouver. It would be a guided session and he really wanted to try it.
My first reaction as was "Holo-what? ...What IS Holotropic Breathwork?"
It turned out Stan Grof, a clinical psychiatrist who facilitated over 4500 LSD sessions with patients until LSD became illegal, was a living legend in his own right.
With over 60 years experience in Holotropic states of consciousness, also called 'non-ordinary' states of consciousness, Stan Grof developed the use of breath, one's own breath, to reach similar states only previously thought possible via LSD.
This clearly was groundbreaking work.
It turned out Grof was one of the founders and ultimate experts in a field of research I did not even realize existed.
Here is the same podcast in youtube version.
This podcast blew me away. But I was sceptical.
How much of what Stan Grof was saying was actually true?
Could one really experience what Grof described during the Tim Ferris interview?
It seemed I had no choice but to sign up for my own Holotropic Breathwork session.
All I can say is...what an incredible day.
It became clear to me that Holotropic Breathwork can help each of combat and overcome the stresses and struggles of life.
Holotropic Breathwork is a mind altering and awe-inspiring experience that will literally change your very understanding of reality and of something much bigger connecting us all.
But what is Holotropic Breathwork Really?
What can it do? How does it work?
Enter Carolyn Green, a facilitator for Holotropic Breathwork for 20 years.
Carolyn was our facilitator at one of the sessions I attended and rather than me taking you through my personal experience, I thought who better to ask than an expert in the field.
Carolyn agreed to be interviewed and now for the first time we include it here. Holotropic Breathwork on The-Inspired.com.
I hope you enjoy the interview and the many insights Carolyn provides in what truly is a remarkable yet still not widely known form of therapy, medicine and healing.
1. Where does the history of Holotropic Breathwork come from?
Carolyn Green: "Stan Grof is a world class scholar as well as being at the forefront of the first psychedelic era in the West.
The California Institute of Integral Studies held a 2 day event that went over all his contributions to science and philosophy.
He was informed by decades of early primary research. He studied and experimented with many approaches to accessing holotropic states using many world traditional approaches.
As a founder of transpersonal psychology he has been in contact and informed by amazing practitioners and academics.
All these he put in service of designing Holotropic Breathwork surpassing all of them in empowering the person and enabling their deep psyche to unfold.
Christina Grof has held the feminine principle equally in this paradigm. She was the DJ who understood it was not the purpose of the music to provoke experience but provide a supportive background in a trajectory that followed the decent into the depth and re-emergence at the pace of breath as entheogen.
She was the driving force behind the spiritual emergence movement and network.
Christina Grof descended and emerged from her own addiction to lay the foundation for innovators such as Gabor Mate using psychedelic medicines in addiction recovery (See The Thirst for Wholeness).
Christina Grof also brought to the paradigm the sensitivities of a woman who’d been sexually abused as a young woman and the imperative to create safe containers for deep work.
She had her own kundalini awakening and taught about that in the 1970s when yoga, kundalini and chakra’s were uncommon in North America.
Lastly, she had a spiritual guru from India help make Holotropic Breathwork free of imposed cultural and spiritual traditions while being open to all spiritual traditions or those adverse."
2. What is Holotropic Breathwork?
Carolyn Green: "Holotropic Breathwork is a form of psychedelic medicine without the use of a drug or plant medicine.
Holotropic, as a form of breathwork, is a word that Stan Grof coined to replace the term psychedelic with its association with entertaining visual hallucinations, and illegality with the much more important concept of the deep psyche ‘moving towards wholeness’.
The point of Holotropic Breathwork is depth healing and transformation of the psyche – even those psyche’s that have not gone through distress received a mental health label.
Stan realized in the 1950s that when people used psychedelics in therapeutic settings with a basic understanding of the process, the experience, when properly supported, accelerated the movement of the psyche towards wholeness, ie more complete integration of mind, body and spirit.
Whether the holotropic state has been achieved by an laboratory produced entheogen, a plant medicine or breath as medicine, an inner process is activated that brings in the deep wisdom and energy of the psyche and often releasing and healing undigested and still active wounds that are usually outside our everyday awareness.
The principles of 'set' and 'setting' used for Holotropic Breathwork are based on what was used for the original psychedelic medicine sessions that Stan and others developed.
'Set' refers to a person having the right mindset going into a session.
In Holotropic Breathwork and any psychedelic medicine, work it is critically important so that the person understands the kinds of experiences that can arise and how these experiences – as weird as they may be – are healing and transformative.
Set is important because if what can happen during a session is not understood or expected beforehand, the participant can become frightened and disoriented, derailing the healing potential and experience.
In the 60’s people were exposed to psychedelics without their consent or knowledge via spiked punch drinks and alleged unethical secret tests conducted by the CIA.
But when patients voluntarily undertake a holotropic session with an accurate understanding of what is happening in their psyche, they can let any experience arise and be fully expressed without great risk and discomfort.
That is, even if a past painful experience or difficult emotion arises, it will be healing, and not a re-traumatizing experience.
So besides ensuring that participants have the set or mindset to make the most of the non ordinary state experience, participants need many features of the setting that are simple but all contribute to the ‘breather’ being able to fully experience the healing potential of Holotropic Breathwork.
Key to understanding Holotropic Breathwork is that it is a standardized approach.
Everyone is doing Holotropic Breathwork around the world to the same high standards of set and setting as Stan and Christina designed and taught the approach.
There are many descriptions from around the world. If a facilitator is GTT certified you can be sure that you are experiencing the same process as if the Grofs themselves were hosting the session.
http://www.thesecretofbreath.com – Carolyn Green's website
The setting for non ordinary (altered state) inner journey work is quite similar between the different types of psychedelic medicines.
A person needs to be able to fully attend and cooperate with the experience arising from within without distractions from the environment.
It’s easier to distract someone who is using breathwork as an entheogen so talk is minimal, there is a powerful sound scape to support breathing and journeying, there is skilled facilitation should a session need active support including body release work from the facilitator, integration support with drawing/ journaling as well as food to ground, to safely leave the setting without feeling intoxicated.
Grounded ordinary states are useful for driving and landing airplanes!"
3. What benefits have you seen, either immediate or long term, from Holotropic breathwork? And how often do you think it should be practiced?
Carolyn Green: "Holotropic Breathwork isn’t a tool or technique that has standard benefits. It is based on the holotropic paradigm and if we shifted into a holotropic paradigm with this and other related approaches we would and should completely change the way we view health and healing.
It activates the inner healing mechanism of the psyche as only the psychedelic medicines do as powerfully. Every healing whether self or facilitated is based on the inner healing capacity of the psyche and body itself.
The benefits are completely unique to an individual.
Every Holotropic Breathwork session arises from a person’s own psyche attempting to accelerate integration and move towards wholeness by connecting to the power within and taking out the trash.
How power enters and how baggage leaves will determine the benefits.
The benefits will be different depending on what you need to integrate.
People who have shut down their emotions for example, will become less numb.
Having a full emotional range can be challenging but the benefits in terms of full rich living are EVERYTHING life has to offer in terms of life satisfaction and ability to self-actualize.
People who lack a spiritual can gain a depth to their life experience.
Most breathwork practices don’t intend people to have an altered state experience - but some do.
Rarely is the expansion of consciousness and inner journey work reached to the extent it is with Holotropic Breathwork.
Which is why these sessions need to be experienced in a facilitated session in order to be safe and healing.
My wish is that people understand that even these breathwork practices can do harm by activating the deep psyche without giving the full opportunity to clear and integrate what has been activated.
Many of the breathwork approaches out there use breath to go into non ordinary (altered) states but that doesn’t mean they all have equivalent benefit.
Over breathing can get feeling high or activate their deep psyche but many of the experiences do not have the appropriate preparation.
People are definitely being put at risk by badly designed breathwork approaches, poorly trained facilitators or the idea that you can do Holotropic Breathwork on your own.
For me it’s like the difference between getting intoxicated or drunk recreationally in a way that may have some benefit and using a psychedelic substance to clear your core issues, plug into source energy and life life fully."
4. How did you get started with Holotropic Breathwork? How long have you been a certified facilitator ?
Carolyn Green: "If you are familiar with Stan Grof and/ or Ingrid Pacey, then you will have some insight into why I consider walking into my first Holotropic Breathwork TM workshop in 1993 like winning a big lottery.
Stan Grof is the best and most scholarly of the original psychedelic psychotherapists who practiced and did ground-breaking research in the 1950’s, 60’s and early ‘70s before the psychedelic medicines were made illegal for political – not valid clinical scientific reasons.
Ingrid Pacey is the Vancouver psychiatrist who brought the MAPS trials of MDMA in PTSD to Vancouver overcoming every objection and jumping though every objection and administrative hurdle of Health Canada. She had witnessed psychedelic sessions in Australia as a medical student and so saw their effectiveness first hand.
Ingrid was in Stan Grof’s first training programs in Holotropic Breathwork as was Rick Doblin the founder of MAPS who had also been a longtime follower of Stan Grof.
It is likely that these effective medicines will gain regulatory approval in part because of the efforts of these pioneers and others like them who were not working with big Pharma but with the support of private sponsors and crowd funding.
So I was invited join a holotropic breathwork session that Ingrid was hosting by a friend who was having nightmares that may have been related to a traumatic event when she was young.
This lead to her being referred to Ingrid and invited to the workshop. She invited me, then chickened out.
So I went through the door and it was mind blowing and life changing in the most positive ways.
I first sat for a woman in that first session that quickly regressed to a young age.
She looked and sounded exactly like a toddler who had been left alone crying for her mother in the most heart rending way.
The sessions can be up to 3 hours and she spent a lot of that time in that space.
I was amazed that afterwards she returned to her usual adult persona looking tired but also refreshed. I came back the next day for my session.
In my session it was clear that there was a powerful inner healing process just below the surface of my everyday consciousness ready to emerge.
My body had been holding onto difficult emotions because there is a lot of cultural support for ‘getting over upsets’ and ‘carrying on’.
I realized that I’d ‘stuffed’ difficult emotions and experiences rather than fully digesting and releasing them. I was sitting on a mother-load of transformational gold.
Once that process ran its course the wounding I’d accumulated would have been transformed and integrated, I would have more access to the deep wisdom of my psyche and the power within to live as fully as I was capable.
I've had my share of difficult experiences in life but I was not particularly suffering when I started Holotropic Breathwork.
But I felt like my breathing was tight and I couldn’t figure out why, or how to get at it without any exercise or physical therapy.
I was also a physiotherapist doing health research at the time so this was a puzzle for me. I was not using anything to numb out as I'd stopped using anything mind altering years before.
Recreational use in my 30s caused more problems than fun and I believed I was at risk of a serious addiction based in part on my physiology and in part on remote family history.
So I do not have a dramatic lifesaving story. But, without Holotropic Breathwork, I would probably have bumbled along in life as most of us do without having the opportunity to work through my core issues. I could have lived quite close to the surface.
I think of my first encounter as like winning the lottery because I got access to my authentic self, my own source of power within, healing that it is difficult to buy even now as the post prohibition psychedelic era has started.
Even though that has all changed, few of the people I talk to who go through the underground or tourist destination retreats have received support comparable to that which I received from Ingrid Pacey first based on Stan Grof’s work.
After about 5 years of attending regular HB workshops with Ingrid Pacey and her partner Wendy Barrett, I went to a weekend workshop led by Stan and went straight into the training.
I completed in the training in the minimum 2 years however I’d done much more breathwork before hand. It is still shocking to me how many of those who offer to hold space for others have not done their own work or undergone training that gives them the basic training that has become a worldwide network of expertise for 30 years.
Not only that, so many of the knock offs actually undermine their participants healing experience because they apply skills from techniques that may work in ordinary states of consciousness but cause serious derailment and even harm.
For example, if people have worked with someone who intervenes when a session becomes deep or active, it can be hard for them to recover the ability to follow the inner guidance and move through active intervention.
I’ve been facilitating HB since 1999 so this is my 20th year.
Facilitating has been equally as powerful as my own journey and life transformation.
I have to show up clean (putting nothing of my own stuff into another’s journey) and open to whatever arises in anyone’s experience in a way to take on the responsibility for their safe return to a grounded ordinary state of consciousness.
It is the most daunting and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I get to see everyone as pure consciousness evolving towards wholeness.
There is no greater enterprise or more rewarding work for me and I absolutely believe that depth psychology work is necessary to evolve humankind and find a new way to live sustainably on the planet."
-end of interview-
Thank you Carolyn
Thank you Carolyn for your 20 years of service helping to bring the incredible healing and transformative powers and experience of Holotropic Breathwork to the world.
I hope our readers take the time to dig into this experience for themselves.
To say the least, Holotropic Breathwork has literally changed my perspective in how I see myself and the world around me.
Its ability to tap into the subconscious mind and remove our egos is truly a state of mind all should experience.
The benefits of transformative healing were real for me and for the friends who all joined us for the session.
The feelings of inner peace, acceptance and love acted as a guiding light and continued as an after glow lasting for weeks, if not months following the session.
Holotropic Breath Work truly is awe-inspiring and humbling. But like any great experience it can not be written about fully to truly give it justice.
It must, like all great things, be experienced.
If you are interested in more information and in signing up for a holotropic session near you here are those same links we provided earlier above:
http://www.thesecretofbreath.com – Carolyn Green's website
In addition, be sure to checkout the Joe Rogan interview with Michael Pollan.
Pollan, with the help of Joe Rogan and Tim Ferris have helped promote the defacto benefits of psychedelics, or substitutes such as Holotropic breathwork, as treatment to a variety of health issues and mental health conditions to mainstream audiences.
It is our hope this article further promotes the awareness and benefits for those in need.
Thanks again for reading www.the-inspired.com and I hope this helped someone out there.
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Until next time, stay inspired.