The Incredible Healing Power of Holotropic Breathwork

Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives in 
Psychotherapy and Self-Exploration


The Universal HeartThe little individual heart finding its way back to the big Universal Heart, from a Holotropic Breathwork session.  (Anne Høivik)

The following is excerpted from
 Healing Our Deepest Wounds: The Holotropic Paradigm Shift, published by Stream of Experience Productions.

Holotropic Breathwork is an experiential method of self-exploration and psychotherapy that my wife Christina and I developed at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, in the mid -1970s. This approach induces deep holotropic states of consciousness by a combination of very simple means — accelerated breathing, evocative music, and a technique of bodywork that helps to release residual bioenergetic and emotional blocks. The sessions are usually conducted in groups; participants work in pairs and alternate in the roles of “breathers” and “sitters.”

The process is supervised by trained facilitators who assist participants whenever special intervention is necessary. Following the breathing sessions, participants express their experiences by painting mandalas and sharing accounts of their inner journeys in small groups. Follow-up interviews and various complementary methods are used, if necessary, to facilitate the completion and integration of the breathwork experience.


Mother KundaliniIdentification in a Holotropic Breathwork session with a small child resting in a papoose on the back of a woman with a fiery garment, wrapped in a star mantle.  The artist wrote: “I was both the mother and the child.  I loved this Great Mother deeply, I loved my mother, I loved every creature, every sentient being”  (Katia Solani)

In its theory and practice, Holotropic Breathwork combines and integrates various elements from modern consciousness research, depth psychology, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual philosophies, and native healing practices. It differs significantly from traditional forms of psychotherapy, which use primarily verbal means, such as psychoanalysis and various other schools of depth psychology derived from it. It shares certain common characteristics with the experiential therapies of humanistic psychology, such as Gestalt practice and the neo-Reichian approaches, which emphasize direct emotional expression and work with the body. However, the unique feature of Holotropic Breathwork is that it utilizes the therapeutic potential of holotropic states of consciousness.

The extraordinary healing power of holotropic states — which  ancient and native cultures used for centuries or even millennia in their ritual, spiritual, and healing practices — was confirmed by modern consciousness research conducted in the second half of the twentieth century. This research has also shown that the phenomena occurring during these states and associated with them represent a critical challenge for current conceptual frameworks used by academic psychiatry and psychology and for their basic metaphysical assumptions. The work with Holotropic Breathwork thus requires a new understanding of consciousness and of the human psyche in health and disease. The basic principles of this new psychology were discussed in another context (Grof 2000, 2007).


Imprisoned AggressionSuppressed anger trying to find release and expression, and then experienced in identification with an archetypal feline predator in a Holotropic Breathwork session. (Albrecht Mahr)


Essential Components of Holotropic Breathwork

Holotropic Breathwork combines very simple means — faster breathing, evocative music, and releasing bodywork — to induce intense holotropic states of consciousness; it uses the remarkable healing and transformative power of these states. This method provides access to biographical, perinatal, and transpersonal domains of the unconscious and thus to deep psychospiritual roots of emotional and psychosomatic disorders. It also makes it possible to utilize the mechanisms of healing and personality transformation that operate on these levels of the psyche. The process of self-exploration and therapy in Holotropic Breathwork is spontaneous and autonomous; it is governed by inner healing intelligence rather than following the instructions and guidelines of a particular school of psychotherapy.


EngulfmentThe onset of the process of psychospiritual death and rebirth experienced as engulfment by a grotesque archetype figure in a Holotropic Breathwork session.  The skull represents the imminence of death, the root system and the snake, the placental circulatory system. (Peg Holms)

Most of the recent revolutionary discoveries concerning consciousness and the human psyche on which Holotropic Breathwork is based are new only for modern psychiatry and psychology. They have a long history as integral parts of the ritual and spiritual life of many ancient and native cultures and their healing practices. Basic principles of Holotropic Breathwork thus represent rediscovery, validation, and modern reformulation of ancient wisdom and procedures, some of which can be traced to the dawn of human history. As we will see, the same is true for the principal constituents used in the practice of Holotropic Breathwork — breathing, instrumental music and chanting, bodywork, and mandala drawing or other forms of artistic expression. They have been used for millennia in the healing ceremonies and ritual practices of all pre-industrial human groups.


Journey into and Through Mother FearDrawings from a Holotropic Breathwork session in which the artist – as a child and also as an older, wiser accompanying adult – relived her birth, from entering the mouth of the Mother Dragon (above) through through fully facing the fear, and then the dissolving of the Dragon’s head allowing safe passage  (below). (Jan Vannatta)


The Healing Power of Breath

In ancient and pre-industrial societies, breath and breathing have played a very important role in cosmology, mythology, and philosophy, as well as being an important tool in ritual and spiritual practice. Various breathing techniques have been used since time immemorial for religious and healing purposes. Since earliest times, virtually every major psychospiritual system seeking to comprehend human nature has viewed breath as a crucial link between nature, the human body, the psyche, and the spirit. This is clearly reflected in the words many languages use for breath.


CrucifixionVision of crucifixion in the final stage of the birth process in a Holotropic Breathwork session.  The artist said “The experience showed me clearly how many levels of reality can be woven together and that God or The Great Spirit is behind it all.” (Anne Høivik)

In the ancient Indian literature, the term prana meant not only physical breath and air, but also the sacred essence of life. Similarly, in traditional Chinese medicine, the word chi refers to the cosmic essence and the energy of life, as well as to the natural air we breathe using our lungs. In Japan, the corresponding word is ki. Ki plays an extremely important role in Japanese spiritual practices and martial arts. In ancient Greece, the word pneuma meant both air or breath and spirit or the essence of life. The Greeks also saw breath as being closely related to the psyche. The term phren was used both for the diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in breathing, and mind (as we see in the term schizophrenia = literally split mind).

In the old Hebrew tradition, the same word, ruach, denoted both breath and creative spirit, which were seen as identical. The following quote from Genesis shows the close relationship between God, breath, and life: “Then the Lord God formed man {Hebrewadam} from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” In Latin the same name was used for breath and spirit — spiritus. Similarly, in Slavic languages, spirit and breath have the same linguistic root.

In the native Hawaiian tradition and medicine (kanaka maoli lapa’au), the word ha means the divine spirit, wind, air, and breath. It is contained in the popular Hawaiian aloha, an expression that is used in many different contexts. It is usually translated as presence (alo) of the Divine Breath (ha). Its opposite, ha’ole, meaning literally without breath or without life, is a term that native Hawaiians have applied to white-skinned foreigners since the arrival of the infamous British sea captain James Cook in 1778. The kahunas, “Keepers of Secret Knowledge,” have used breathing exercises to generate spiritual energy (mana).

Read the rest of the article here: Reality Sandwich

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