Holotropic breathwork for emotional healing and altered states
A lot of people take risky measures to access altered states of consciousness. Did you know that you can induce similar states using only your breath?
Holotropic Breathwork involves breathing in a pattern that influences the breather’s emotional state, produces a dreamlike awareness, and can even lead to altered states of consciousness similar to states that psychedelics would induce. The creators, psychiatrists Stanislav and Christina Grof, developed the technique in the 1970s as a mode of therapy for certain mental conditions.
Today, people seek out holotropic breathwork for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with mental illness. People claim that breathwork has led to things like spiritual awakenings, physical body healing, reframing negative thought patterns, trauma healing, and improved outlook.
During your breathwork session, you may experience a range of things like:
- Tingling in your body, especially in the extremeties
- Sensation of warm or cold
- Dreamlike visions
- Emotional release (crying, anger, etc.)
- Deep relaxation
What is happening to your body during holotropic breathwork?
Some practitioners will tell you that what you experience from breathwork -- the dreamlike state, tingling in the extremities, shaking, emotional releases, etc. -- come from complete oxygen saturation throughout your whole body.
That’s not the case, though. Most people with healthy lungs will measure an oxygen saturation in the 95-100% range without trying, which means your cells are almost always saturated with oxygen through normal breathing patterns.
What actually happens during breathwork is that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in your blood rapidly drop and stay low for an extended period of time. When your CO2 levels drop too low from metabolic conditions, kidney disease, lung disorders, etc., you can experience symptoms like delirium, confusion, hand tremors, and more. It’s similar to what you experience when you accelerate your breathing on purpose for an extended period of time.
Is Holotropic Breathwork dangerous?
Healthy people tend to have positive experiences with breathwork. Some report mental or trauma healing, psychological breakthroughs, release of emotional blocks, improvements in self-esteem, and more.
It is less common but possible that people can experience things like distress, emotional spiraling, or panic attacks. Sometimes, past emotional trauma can emerge, which can be difficult to work through. That is why it is crucial to have a qualified facilitator guiding the experience.
There are some populations for whom Holotropic Breathwork is not recommended. If you have a history of mental illness, psychosis, mood disorders, discuss potential risks with your doctor and the facilitator before deciding to do a breathwork session.
How to do holotropic breathwork
As with psychedelic drugs, it is possible to have a “bad trip” with breathwork. For that reason, it’s a bad idea to put on a YouTube video and try it alone.
Most often, breathwork happens in a group setting. Typically, you will pair off and one person will do the breathing pattern while the other observes. Since intense emotions can arise from holotropic breathwork, having an observer makes the breather feel safe to experience whatever feelings may come. The observer may alert the facilitator if the breather starts emotionally spiraling. Most of the time, the observer doesn’t have to do much of anything.
The person doing his or her breathwork will lie comfortably on a mat, eyes closed. The facilitator may provide an eye pillow or cloth so that the breather experiences total darkness. Then, the facilitator will demonstrate the breathing patterns and guide the breathwork session.
The science behind Holotropic Breathwork
Breathwork has not been extensively studied as a therapeutic tool, but a few small studies have been published. Here’s what the science says so far:
- Holotropic Breathwork along with traditional methods of addiction treatment was effective against addiction and resulted in extended abstinence. This was a small study though, involving only four participants.
- It is hypothesized that Holotropic Breathwork, used in conjunction with psychotherapy, will speed up progress in certain populations.
- A small pretest posttest study of 40 people found that a series of six Holotropic Breathwork sessions over 12 weeks had positive psychological and spiritual effects and did not adversely affect any of the participants.
- Current knowledge about breathwork shows its potential as an adjunct therapy for anxiety and depression.
- When Holotropic Breathwork was used alongside psychotherapy, it was shown to reduce death anxiety and increase self esteem, as compared to the control group, who received only traditional psychotherapy.
More research is needed, but it shows promise as a potential therapeutic tool or complementary therapy.
Typically, the facilitator will play patterned background music that helps ease the listener into altered states, with changing rhythms and instrumentation that complement the phase of the session.
The length of the session varies by facilitator, but you can expect a holotropic breathwork session to last 1.5-3 hours from introduction through group discussion.