Holotropic Breathwork
What is it & Why it is Needed

Holotropic Breathwork is a powerful psychospiritual 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 often refers to Holotropic Breathwork in his writings as “Holotropic Therapy”, we usually prefer to talk about it primarily as a tool for self-exploration, rather than a psychotherapeutic technique per se. This is because Holotropic Breathwork has proven to be of significant benefit not only in times of psychological difficulty, but also when we generally feel well, but still experience curiosity, a yearning for adventure and for a deeper understanding of ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. Some of us may even develop an interest in the possibility of opening ourselves up experientially to a transcendent dimension of reality, in which case Holotropic Breathwork will also be of exceptional value. Thus it follows that psychological difficulty (or even dysfunction) on the one hand, and spiritual awakening and enlightenment on the other hand, may well be seen as two extremes of a single spectrum of human mental functionality.

What Does “Holotropic” Mean?

   Now, lets take 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” [holo] meaning “whole”, and “τρεπειν” [trepein] meaning “trend”. The word “holotropic” thus means “trending towards wholeness”.[1] It reflects the fundamental idea 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 pertains primarily to our self, or, generally speaking, to the inner experiential reality with which we subjectively identify. This idea of a holotropic process being intrinsic to our human nature is consistent with many psychological schools, notably with the work of Carl Gustav Jung, with Developmental Psychology (Piaget), Humanistic Psychology (Maslow), Integral Psychology (Wilber) and Transpersonal Psychology in particular. Perhaps even more importantly, it widely resonates across both Western and Eastern philosophical schools, and is central to all great spiritual traditions worldwide.

So, how does Holotropic Breathwork fit in here? Its quite simple and natural. 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 higher levels of health (psychological, but also physical), the only question that remains is: how do we remove any obstacles which hinder this 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. It thus opens up a window of opportunity for accelerating our overall development. You will learn more about how this is achieved in the chapter on the method of Holotropic Breathwork.

Psychospiritual Transformative Practice

   We previously stated that Holotropic Breathwork is a psychospiritual transformative practice. So what do we mean by that? A couple of things can be derived from those words. Firstly, there is the connection of the psychological and spiritual domains of our existence. When we think of the psychological component of ourselves, what we usually mean is actually the psychodynamic aspect of our mind, in other words the interplay between the various parts of our personality – memories, motivations, intentions, patterns of emotions and thoughts – all of these mostly emerging freely from the depths of the unconscious mind. As we all know from personal experience, these internal parts can sometimes conflict with one another, and the degree to which they do, largely determines our overall wellbeing. Most of us also know that some of these internal conflicts can be really persistent. The introduction of expanded (holotropic) states of mind can, if well facilitated and integrated, add a very wholesome, new dynamic to this whole situation. Often it is experienced as introducing “the missing piece of the puzzle”.  Others may describe it as adding a missing cogwheel into the workings of a clock, which can now start functioning and moving forward: a developmental process is activated. This is where transformation comes in. Depending on the unique conditioning of every person, this developmental process may sooner or later result in a major transformational event, marked by a radical shift in perceptional capacity, opening the gateway for the individual to a whole new, vast dimension of experiential reality. This radical event in a human beings life has been recognized across many 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, lets complement our understanding of what Holotropic Breathwork is by examining the term experiential psychotherapeutic technique. Nowadays, the popularity of all kinds of psychotherapeutic approaches and techniques is on the rise, so everyone roughly knows what we are talking about when discussing Psychotherapy. Perhaps we could say that it all started already in prehistoric times, where the predecessor of present-day 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 trustworthy peers, sharing with them their heartaches, and, by virtue of expressing themselves and sharing their pain, finding relief and inner reconciliation. All this has been preserved in many cultures up to the present day. The value of this kind of simple sharing of ones suffering within a context of trust and respect has lost nothing of its important healing power.

In modern times, the world has seen much systematic development in the field of Psychotherapy, particularly after Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung contributed their groundbreaking observations, theories and psychoanalytic methods. A substantial part of this evolution occurred in the work of Stanislav Grof, who became acutely aware of the limitations of the mostly verbal therapeutic approaches of his forerunners. 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, 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 met with understanding and support, can take place on all the levels of our existence (bodily, emotional, conceptual and spiritual) simultaneously and spontaneously – in other words, through actual lived experience, rather than only by talking. The method of Holotropic Breathwork emerged out of this knowledge and understanding; the same kind of knowledge and understanding that the worlds indigenous shamans and authentic traditional healers have been safeguarding 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 shape possible, in order to have a fulfilled and happy life. Most of us intuitively experience our bodies and minds as ourselves, and so it comes rather naturally that we wish 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 effective tool for promoting development and healing processes in us is undoubtedly good and useful.

But theres more to it. Holotropic Breathwork, like any kind of authentic and effective spiritual practice, can provide benefits that wildly exceed the boundaries of mere individual health and happiness. Once we achieve a certain degree of inner integration, the wholesome effects of our practice begin to overflow naturally 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, such as Buddhism and Yoga. It’s the holotropic process at work, you see? Through exploring our inner realities, discovering increasing numbers of previously disconnected inner parts of ourselves, getting to know them, and including them into our ever more integrated, authentic self, we become increasingly whole – accepting both the bright and the dark aspects of the psyche into our maturing self.

But it doesnt stop there! As we keep going with our practice, a true miracle begins to emerge right before our eyes, in our bodies and minds. As we continue gaining direct insight into the nature of consciousness itself [2], 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, conscious 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 which 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 how humanity needs to take its next step forward.


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The promise that is the basis of the term “Promised Land” is contained in several verses of Genesis in the Torah. In Genesis 12:1 it is said:

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

In other words: “Go and have an adventure!”

“While the traditional model of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis is strictly personalistic and biographical, modern consciousness research has added new levels, realms, and dimensions and shows the human psyche as being essentially commensurate with the whole universe and all of existence.” Grof, 1985, Beyond the Brain

Some indigenous peoples have been using psychoactive plants (and sometimes animal products) for healing and spiritual purposes for thousands of years. Many of them developed original, elaborate contexts for this, both theoretical and practical. These so-called shamanic traditions can be found within tribal communities all over the world, with the Amazonian region being the richest, both in quantity and variety.

Abraham Maslow’s book “Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences” is widely recognized as the initiatory paper of Humanistic Psychology.

You can find a list of Stanislav Grof’s books in the Study section of this website. There is also a list with additional recommended reading, links and further information sources in the Integration section.

Since bodywork obviously involves some degree of physical contact, it is important to say that, in Holotropic Breathwork, bodywork is always initiated by the breather, and never takes place without the breather’s consent. GTT certified facilitators are carefully trained in Focused Energy Release Work and are required to follow high ethical standards in their practice.

An exception here may be a single-participant session, with only the breather and a qualified facilitator present. Even single-participant sessions, however, can be conducted with a sitter present, in addition to the facilitator.

Holotropic Breathwork® is an internationally registered trademark, and only holders of a GTT certificate have the right to use it for their public practice.

The popular term “set & setting” which is now widely used in Depth Psychology and psychedelic circles, was originally coined by Timothy Leary in the early 1960s.

In the ancient Chinese Taoist tradition, the term Wu-Wei is to be found. Among its English translations we find the likes of “non-doing”, or “effortless action”.

The cited verses appear in the seminal, most ancient Taoist text Neiye (內業) or Inward Training. The text describes breath meditation techniques and qi (氣) circulation.

Excerpt taken from Harold D. Roth’s book Original Tao.
(credits: Wikipedia)

Quantum mechanics is a difficult subject, and few, if any, people really understand it in its entirety. Fortunately, a number of authors have done a fantastic job in popularizing the basic ideas involved, e.g. Amit Goswami, Fred Alan Wolf, Michio Kaku and Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1975), among others. As to general systems theory, Fritjof Capra delivered a good and accessible introduction in his books The Turning Point (1982) and The Web of Life (1996).

Tav Sparks deceased on August 9th, 2020.
Rest in Peace, Tav.

Fun Fact

According to Wikipedia “The last country to produce LSD legally (until 1975) was Czechoslovakia”.

Skeletal formula and ball-and-stick and space-filling models of the lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) molecule.
(credits: Wikipedia)

The word “psychedelic” consists of two Greek words: “ψυχή” [psukhḗ] meaning “mind, soul”, and “δῆλος” [dêlos] meaning “manifest, visible”. Thus the word “psychedelic” means “mind-manifesting”.

The famous Flammarion Engraving depicts a man, clothed in a long robe and carrying a staff, who is at the edge of the Earth, where it meets the sky. He kneels down and passes his head, shoulders, and right arm through the star-studded sky, discovering a marvellous realm of circling clouds, fires and suns beyond the heavens. It has been used as a metaphorical illustration of either the scientific or the mystical quests for knowledge.

That is to say, insight into the nature of the actual “substance” of the mind, as opposed to merely the internal dynamics of it.

This same principle can be found in other words too, like the word “heliotropic” meaning “moving toward the sun” (used with reference to plants that tend to follow the movement of the sun).

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This is to say that, during the transpersonal experience, we may, for instance, experientially identify with some other being, e.g. an animal or a person, in contrast to our usual identification with our regular self. During this experience, we will be fully and intimately aware of that being’s mental and physical constituents and characteristics, as it experiences them in and of itself. However, we may also experientially transcend the associated sense of “I-ness” itself. This is the “self-reflecting” aspect that remains constant across both the examples considered — experiencing yourself as the ordinary “you”, as well as the “you” being the animal or other person. The psychedelic or holotropic experience may, on occasion, move beyond this sense of “I-ness” altogether. At that point, there is no “you”.

In the theory of Psychoanalysis, we have the classic categories of id, ego and superego. Roughly speaking, the id represents unconscious biological drives, the superego internalized rules of conduct from childhood (personal hygiene training, boundary enforcement, etc.), and the ego a self-aware “I”, functioning as a balancing mediator between the other two. In the expanded, holotropic state of consciousness, we may, for instance, have a vivid experience of identifying simultaneously with our regular self and the self of our father, resulting in a new perspective on our relationship with our actual father, as well as the relationship of the respective internal sub-personalities (ego and superego). At other times, our experience may exceed the boundaries of the psychoanalytic model (if, for instance, we happened to be previously familiar with it, and tended to view the internal workings of our mind through its optics) so dramatically and to such a degree, that it would render the entire Freudian conceptual construction completely irrelevant. Consequently, it would be necessary for us to adopt a broader, more comprehensive image of our self.

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All illustrations on this page are from the world famous, one and only Stanislav Grof ‘s psychedelic paintings collection.

Having a psychological origin or cause rather than a physical one.

When searching for a psychotherapist for this particular kind of combination, it is important to bear in mind that not every psychotherapeutic approach will work well here. It is important to find a therapist who has integrated the transpersonal approach into his or her conceptual framework.

This may include not only Holotropic Breathwork, but also Psychedelic Therapy, certain types of shamanic healing approaches e.g. the “Yagé” ceremonies of the South American indigenous people, or any other kind of therapy based on the holotropic principles, as described by Transpersonal Psychology.

This particular principle is understood to be of prime importance, specifically under the ethos of the Grof Transpersonal Training school. In other types of breathwork, or with practitioners who decided to diverge in their practice from the GTT methodology, you may sometimes encounter facilitation practices where the facilitator enters physical interaction with the participant on a more autonomous basis. Whether this is for the benefit of the participants or not is subject to ongoing debate, but at GTT (and Holotropic Bohemia), we, as facilitators, always err on the side of self-restraint.

For the interested reader, several academic papers elaborating on the topic can be mentioned:

Laurel Watjen: An Argument for the use of Holotropic Breathwork as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy   (PDF)

Sarah W. Holmes, Robin Morris, Pauline Rose Clance, R. Thompson Putney: Holotropic breathwork: An experiential approach to psychotherapy (PDF)

Tanja Miller, Laila Nielsen: Measure of Significance of Holotropic Breathwork in the Development of Self-Awareness (PDF)

A long-term study with 11 000 participants was completed by James Eyerman at the Stress Center of Hyland Behavioral Health, Saint Anthony’s Medical Center in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 2001 (starting in 1989). The study was concluded with the following: “Among the 11 000 inpatients, the experience was well tolerated. There were no reports of problems at the end of the sessions. Nursing staff reported no untoward sequelae or complaints following the breathwork during this 12-year period.”

detailed study report

Holotropic Breathwork practitioners oftentimes regard this navigating function as “the inner healer”, or “the inner healing intelligence”, especially in the GTT community. However, the concept of an innate ability of humans to progress towards greater levels of inner integrity, health and completeness (under the presupposition that obstructions to this process are removed, or at least temporarily kept at bay), is not unique to the holotropic conceptual framework. There is, for instance, a corresponding concept to be found in Hindu philosophy, although it’s framed quite differently. It is the concept of Ishvara. Ishvara can be understood as the Supreme Being, a personal god/Self of every individual, who chooses each instant of a devotee’s life, selecting experiences moment by moment from the individual’s “karmic storehouse”, with regard to the devotee’s optimal spiritual development.

Subtle energy is a concept of a natural force currently not recognized by Western science. It was, however, widely adopted across multiple spiritual and medicinal systems all over the world. Among the most well known systems utilizing this concept are Taoism and Yoga, where subtle energy is regarded as “Chi” or “Prana”, respectively. In Sanskrit, Prana essentially means breath, “life force”, or “vital principle”.

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

In real life, however, many partial deviations occur from this general, ideal structure. A 24-hour-long delivery with the use of anesthetics will have a different impact on the psychological formation of the fetus than a spontaneous and uncomplicated delivery, or e.g. a delivery via Cesarean section.

Stanislav Grof conducted more than 4500 LSD-assisted therapeutic sessions. While not all of these were completed as early as the time when he formulated the concepts of COEX Systems and Basic Perinatal Matrices, these concepts remain as relevant for the work with holotropic states of consciousness today, as they were back in the ‘70s.

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

Amnion is the innermost membrane that encloses the embryo of a mammal, bird, or reptile.

The concept of psychospiritual death and rebirth is specifically relevant to Psychology, Mythology (the universal myth of the “Hero’s Journey”, as described notably by Joseph Campbell, currently being also powerfully popularized by Jordan B. Peterson), Christianity, and Eastern spiritual traditions and practices. In each of these contexts, ego death will have a slightly different meaning or emphasis, although they are all complementary, and pertain to the general idea of death and rebirth. We can also find an equivalent concept in Shamanic traditions, where it is connected to the so called “shaman’s illness” and the experience of “dismemberment”.

Bear in mind that this rather extreme example comes from experimental research with sustained administrations of very high doses of LSD, and involves a person with a serious psychiatric diagnosis. It gives, however, a good example of how far holotropic therapy (in this case psychedelics-assisted) can potentially reach.

Now and then, cases are even reported in which people undergoing particularly turbulent episodes of surfacing difficult COEX systems, seem to be attracting external situations they apparently can be in no control of, e.g. perhaps unexpectedly occurring accidents or calamitous events, which nonetheless appear to be complementing their subjective experiential realities with striking relevance.

These types of events would fall under the category of so called synchronistic occurrences, a concept originally outlined by Carl Gustav Jung. To the present day, we don’t have much satisfactory understanding of this phenomenon and the concept of synchronicity has been criticized by some as rather unscientific. Scientific or not, it remains true that those who have encountered a major synchronicity at first hand in their lives, usually have little doubt about the significance of the event.

The occurrence of this kind of mismatch is sometimes called “cognitive dissonance” and it counts in Psychology and Psychiatry as a cause of extreme psychological discomfort. Hence we have our personality set up in such a way as to prioritize the avoidance of such a state by all means.

Grof elaborated on the concepts of both COEX Systems and Basic Perinatal Matrices already in his first book Realms of the Human Unconscious, originally published in 1975, which was shortly after he was forced by the new legislation to abandon his psychedelic research.