What is it & why it's needed?
* This same principle can be found in other words too, like the word „entropic” meaning „trending towards chaos”, or „heliotropic” meaning „moving toward the sun” (used with reference to plants that tend to follow the movement of the sun).
What is Holotropic Breathwork
Holotropic Breathwork is a powerful psycho-spiritual transformative practice, originally developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof. Another way of looking at it would be as an experiential psychotherapeutic technique. Although Dr. Grof has been often referring to holotropic breathwork in his writings as „holotropic therapy”, we usually prefer to talk about it primarily as a tool for self-exploration, rather then a psychotherapeutic technique per se. This is because holotropic breathwork has proven to be of significant benefit not only at times of psychological difficulty, but also when we are feeling generally well, but still are experiencing curiosity, yearning for adventure, and for a deeper understanding of ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. Some of us may even develop interest in the possibility of opening ourselves experientially to a transcendent dimension of reality, in which case holotropic breathwork will be also exceptionally helpful. Thus it turns out that psychological difficulty (or even dysfunction) on the one hand, and spiritual opening and enlightenment on the other, may well be seen as two extremes of a single spectrum of human mind functionality.
What Does “Holotropic” Mean
Now, let’s have a closer look at the terminology. The central concept of the whole process is captured in the word holotropic. It consists of two Greek words: „όλο” [ólo] meaning „whole”, and „τρεπειν” [trepein] meaning „trend”. The term „holotropic” thus means „trending towards wholeness.”* It follows that the idea here is, that as human beings, we start off in a state of fragmentation and then aspire to achieving ever greater degrees of wholeness, or completeness. This notion here pertains primarily to our self, or, generally speaking, to the inner experiential reality with which we identify. This idea of a holotropic process being intrinsic to our human nature is consistent with many schools of psychology, notably with the work of Carl Gustav Jung, with developmental psychology (Piaget), humanistic psychology, and transpersonal psychology in particular. Perhaps even more importantly, it widely resonates across both Western and Eastern philosophical schools, and is central to all of worlds Great Spiritual Traditions.
So, how does holotropic breathwork fit in here? It’s quite simple and elegant. Since we now know, that there is an intrinsic, ever-active tendency in us to move towards ever greater levels of completeness (or integrity), and we also know that this movement towards ever higher levels of wholeness can be viewed as analogous to moving towards greater levels of health (psychological, but also physical), the only question that remains is: how do we remove any obstacles to this natural process?
This is where holotropic breathwork comes in. Holotropic breathwork is a sophisticated, yet startlingly simple and elegant method for temporarily removing a substantial part of the obstacles that usually block, or at least significantly hinder the self-healing process naturally occurring in our organism, thus speeding up our overall development. You will learn more about how this is achieved in the section on the Method of holotropic breathwork.
Psycho-Spiritual Transformative Practice
We stated before that holotropic breathwork is a psycho-spiritual transformative practice. So what do we mean by that? A couple of things can be derived from those words. First we have the connection of the psychological and spiritual domains of our experiential existence. When we think of the psychological component of ourselves, what we usually mean is really the psychodynamic aspect of our mind, in other words the interplay between the various parts of our personality, motivations, emotional and thought patterns, and the forces emerging from the depths of the unconscious mind. As we all know, the degree to which these conflict with each other largely determines our emotional wellbeing.
The introduction of expanded (holotropic) states of mind can, if well facilitated and integrated, add a very wholesome new dynamic to the whole situation. Often this is experienced as introducing „the missing piece of the puzzle”, or it could be described as adding the missing cogwheel to a clockwork, which now can start functioning and moving forward. This is where transformation comes in. Depending on the unique conditioning of every person, this developmental process may sooner or later result into a major transformational event, marked by a radical shift in perceptional capacity, opening the way for the individual to a whole new, vast layer of experiential reality. This radical event in a human being’s life has been recognized across all cultures and spiritual traditions as the initial Spiritual Opening (not to be confused with Awakening, or Enlightenment, in the sense of advanced stages of human spiritual maturity).
Experiential Psychotherapeutic Technique
Finally, let’s complement our understanding of what holotropic breathwork is by taking a look at the term experiential psychotherapeutic technique. Nowadays there is certainly no shortage of all kinds of psychotherapeutic approaches and techniques. Perhaps we could say that it all started already in the ancient times, where the predecessor of today’s psychotherapy would be an intimate conversation with a wise, elderly member of the family or community, perhaps ones grandmother, a priest or a shaman. People would naturally seek out the kind, empathic and accepting presence of their most experienced and wise peers, sharing with them the aches of their heart, and thus finding relief and inner reconciliation. All this has been preserved in many cultures to the present day, and the value of this kind of simple sharing of one’s suffering, in a context of trust and respect, has lost nothing from its important healing power.
In modern times, we have seen much systematic development in the field of psychotherapy, particularly after Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung contributed their groundbreaking observations, theories and psychoanalytic methods. Much of this late development has occurred in the work of Stanislav Grof, who became acutely aware of the limitations of the mostly verbal therapeutic approaches of his predecessors. Drawing on his expertise in psychology and psychiatry, a remarkable acquaintance with an array of other scientific disciplines, knowledge about ancient indigenous shamanic traditions, Eastern spiritual traditions with their systems of transformative practices, some Western mystical schools, as well as his own systematic clinical research with psychiatric patients, Grof eventually realized that for any psychotherapeutic technique to be truly effective, it has to step out of the constraints of merely verbal/analytic processing, and expand to include the realm of non-ordinary states of consciousness, where the healing process, if properly supported, can happen on all the levels of our existence (bodily, emotional, conceptual and spiritual) simultaneously and spontaneously, and, most importantly, through actual lived experience, rather than just talking. The method of holotropic breathwork emerged out of this knowledge and understanding, the same kind of knowledge and understanding that world’s indigenous shamans and many other traditional healers have guarded for millennia.
Is There a Need for Holotropic Therapy?
When it comes to emotional wellbeing, our psychological and physical health, most of us naturally understand that we need to keep those aspects of our lives in the best possible shape, in order to have a good and happy life. Most of us intuitively experience our bodies and minds as ourselves, and so it comes rather naturally that we want to keep them healthy, strong and well functioning, possibly free of suffering and capable of growth, development and regeneration. Everybody wants to be happy and healthy. So yes, any kind of an effective tool for stimulating development and healing processes in us is good and useful.
But there’s more to it. Holotropic breathwork, like any kind of authentic and effective spiritual practice, can bring benefits that wildly exceed the boundaries of mere individual health and happiness. Once we achieve a certain degree of inner integration, the wholesome effects begin to be naturally overflowing from our inner self into the world around us, through intention, speech and action. This principle has been well known for thousands of years in spiritual traditions and their systems of practices, like Buddhism or Yoga. It is the result of the holotropic process, you know? Through exploring our inner realities, discovering more and more previously disconnected inner parts of our selves, getting to know them, and accepting them into our ever more integrated, authentic self, we become increasingly whole – including both the bright, and the dark aspects into our maturing self.
But it doesn’t stop there. As we keep going with our practice, a true miracle begins to unwind right in front of our eyes, in our bodies and minds; as we continue gaining insight from the holotropic states, it becomes increasingly self-evident to us, that what we previously saw as „out there”, „outside” or „other”, is actually an integral part of our expanding self. A truly Copernican revolution in how we perceive the world! Not only does this constitute a quantum leap in our personal freedom, since we now begin to see that it is actually our very own mind, that creates the world we live in, but, even more importantly, since we now perceive the world as being a part of ourselves, we instinctively start to relate to the environment, nature, and everybody around us, with the same intuitive care and loving attention that we would naturally pay to ourselves. This is the true benefit of holotropic practice. This is where humanity needs to take its next step forward.
Well then, see you on the mat!