Method

“Doing Non-Doing”

When your body is not aligned,
The inner power will not come.

When you are not tranquil within,
Your mind will not be well ordered.

Align your body, assist the inner power,
Then it will gradually come on its own.
[1]

When your body is not aligned,
The inner power will not come.

When you are not tranquil within,
Your mind will not be well ordered.

Align your body, assist the inner power,
Then it will gradually come on its own.
[1]

Perhaps it is because of the word “breathwork” that people, mostly those who have never had the opportunity to experience a Holotropic Breathwork workshop before, often get the impression that the method consists simply of doing some very specific type of breathing, which causes our consciousness to switch into an “altered state”. Well, while the rationale behind this impression may seem reasonable enough (and, to be fair, there actually is some truth in it), this can by no means be deemed an adequate, let alone comprehensive description of what Holotropic Breathwork really is. Linked with this image of manipulating the breath, with the goal of altering mental function, is the following underlying subtle presumption: to engage in the holotropic process means somehow deviating from “reality”, imposing a change, something slightly unnatural, on oneself. The tempting thought might even arise at times that it is we ourselves who are somehow doing this whole “holotropic healing thing”.

However, if we are to engage in holotropic practice in any way meaningful, then this approach will not serve us well! Should we choose to cling to this standpoint, it will increasingly obstruct us. In fact, it’s the important task of every dedicated spiritual aspirant to work towards gradually letting go of even the subtle layers of this doing attitude. In reality, entering the holotropic state of consciousness is much more like gently immersing oneself in a stream (or sometimes unexpectedly jumping right into the middle of it), and allowing oneself to be carried away by the flowing water wherever it happens to flow at that particular time and place. With breathwork, we never know where the stream is going to take us – are there wild rapids, or deep, calm crystal-clear waters ahead? We can only find out by trying it for ourselves …

It’s like life itself, isn’t it? We might live comfortably with the impression that we are in control, that we are steering the course of events in our chosen direction. On a certain level of aprehension, this might well be true, especially if we are currently living a reasonably happy and successful life. But as soon as we run into obstacles, or even just take our self-reflection one step further towards greater sincerity, we quickly begin to realize that we really don’t have all that much control over where life will take us in the next instant. Those people who have proceeded to the more advanced stages of the path to enlightenment, also seem to be progressively more willing to admit to this realization. Perhaps then we can try to join them for a moment. Let us also confess that it’s by no means a piece of cake to gather enough courage and inner integrity to, at least temporarily, attempt to give up our notion of doing, and actually to leap into the stream of expanded consciousness (or life itself) around the next meander, as deep or as wild as it will probably become. But then again, we love our stream of life passionately, and deep down intuitively know that it can take us to places of greater prosperity, health, and intellectual and spiritual realization. So it is apparent that we are left with basically two options – either we try to stick to some relatively comfortable place on the dry river bank, attempting to forget about the Promised Land that may await further downstream, and hoping that floods will somehow not return any time soon; or alternatively, we can start learning to swim. As it turns out, there are even professionally led swimming courses available – they are called Holotropic Breathwork workshops.[2]

Set & Setting

   What we have just described as being the appropriate attitude and approach towards holotropic practice, constitutes the core part of the “set” (short for “mindset”) for the practice to take place within.[3] And while there is certainly more to consider regarding a proper holotropic mindset, this makes a good starting point. You will learn about other subtle aspects of a good holotropic mindset as you progress with your practice. Let’s examine the “setting” part now.

Protected Environment

   As our practice unfolds, we slowly begin to appreciate the intriguingly fine line between doing and letting go in the holotropic process, and the crucial role of allowing ourselves to incline towards the latter and away from the former. It becomes increasingly obvious why the most important thing needed to be done in order to actually benefit from the process is to secure for ourself an environment that is safe, supportive, protective, caring, accepting, reliable and trustworthy. It is this type of environment that will permit us (and everybody else in the workshop) to let go into the expanded state and allow intuitive healing wisdom to take over and lead the process. While it is always the trained facilitator who is in charge of creating and sustaining the appropriate environment, participants are also most welcome to join in. They can possibly contribute by a smile, caring attention, or sense of humor, to whatever degree they feel naturally comfortable. In fact, one of the most important parts of a professional facilitator’s training is to learn and practice how to create and sustain a good, proper setting for a holotropic session.

Choosing a Facilitator

   In addition to the set & setting, there are a few more important components in the method of Holotropic Breathwork. In fact, to meet the criteria required to call someone’s practice “Holotropic Breathwork”, several components are essential, while some other specific aspects need to be avoided. One of these components that we should always look for, before choosing to take part in a Holotropic Breathwork workshop, is whether the person (people) running and facilitating the workshop is certified by Grof Transpersonal Training (GTT). Only graduates of the GTT program are authorized to run workshops in the Holotropic Breathwork method.[4]

Theory

   Now, let’s briefly outline some of the other essential elements of a Holotropic Breathwork workshop. Every workshop will have a theoretical component, typically in the form of a lecture given on the night preceding the experiential part. In some cases, this is held separately, a few days in advance. During that lecture, the leading facilitator will typically cover a brief history of the method, reveal the basics of Stan Grofs unique cartography of the human psyche and explain the main principles of the holotropic process. Naturally, there will be in-depth elaboration of the practical aspects of the method, e.g. basic strategies for navigating the experience, what it takes to be a good sitter, and the specifics of focused energy-release work (bodywork), with perhaps a few practical demonstrations. Occasionally, one may even encounter a workshop where the theoretical part is squeezed into the morning prior to the entire experiential part on that same day. However, this is to be considered rather extreme, since the amount of theoretical knowledge required to be well prepared for the holotropic experience is relatively extensive (not to mention the time necessary for participants to become accustomed to each other). So this type of workshop might be best reserved for the experienced breather, if not totally to be avoided.

Sitters & Breathers

   Another unmistakable feature of Holotropic Breathwork is the dyad of “sitters & breathers”. This is something very typical of the Holotropic Breathwork working format, and will always be a part of every Holotropic Breathwork workshop.[5] Therefore, all participants will be encouraged to form working couples for that particular workshop. They then take turns in the roles of sitters and breathers. This arrangement has multiple benefits. Firstly, it contributes to the establishment of the protective and supportive context – the sitter always pays attention to his or her breather during the experiential session, handing him/her water if requested, covering the breather with a blanket should it be requested, etc. In this way, the breather knows that he/she can be immersed fully in the experience, and safely let go of control, because everything practical is taken care of at all times. There is also the supportive feeling of having a “buddy” during the whole workshop. In addition, it transpires that the experience of caring for someone who is in a holotropic state of mind is perceived by many as particularly inspiring and emotionally enriching. What’s more, simply witnessing the holotropic experience in another can often bring forth important clues as to how to make sense of one’s own process, or even be perceived as an integral part of it, without which some essential meaning would be missed. So much potential benefit is hidden in this one, simple arrangement!

Music

   Of course, it would be impossible to imagine a Holotropic Breathwork workshop without music. Music is a key driver of the holotropic experience. It facilitates a smooth unfolding of it, acts as a fantasy stimulus, and inspires and encourages the release of emotionally rich content. In Holotropic Breathwork workshops, facilitators use music tracks specifically selected for this purpose, and combine them into sets, which, again, have a specific structure. A set like that would typically have a runtime of approximately 3 hours, which in most cases reflects the natural duration of a Holotropic Breathwork-induced experience. This will be divided into 3 main parts, each part lasting for about 1 hour. The first hour features powerful and rhythmical tracks, with lots of repetitive beats and forward-moving energy, often filled with tribal motives, instruments and vocals, as well as electronic, trance-like passages. This stimulates the initial opening of the experience, motivates us to let go of control, and helps us to connect internally with the elemental forces in ourselves. The second hour will provide powerfully emotional and evocative music of all types and genres, reaching out to many different facets of the human soul and its endeavors, often dramatic, or explosively ecstatic. After reaching a climax, the music settles into a progressively relaxed and calming mode, and the entire third hour is then devoted to peaceful and soothing pieces, helping to bring the whole experience to a relaxed, pleasant and meaningful closure.

Bodywork

   Bodywork or Focused Energy Release Work is another signature component of Holotropic Breathwork. Besides facilitating the holotropic process, it is also important for maintaining safety during the whole session. The effective release of emotional energy that is pent up in many layers in our body is crucial for the holotropic healing process. Until we actually experience it ourselves, it is hard to imagine how much emotional energy can be stored deep within the tissues of our body, and how enormous the manifestations of these energies can become, once we open up the way for them to safely and effectively express and discharge themselves during a Holotropic Breathwork session. Holotropic Breathwork often gets quite physical and can involve a lot of force and kinetic energy. Often it will be necessary to contain the active, fast-moving breather within the limited space of his or her mattress. Alternatively, the breather may feel that he or she needs to push vigorously against a barrier or “wrestle” with the facilitator’s resisting body, so that a large amount of emotional and kinetic energy may be released. At other times, pain or accumulated tension may occur in a specific part of the breather’s body. In those cases, simply having the facilitator’s hand resting on that spot for a while often leads to relief. Many more variations of the above-mentioned examples may occur during a Holotropic Breathwork session. Professional facilitators are trained to assess each of those situations and to offer an adequate amount of weight, resistance or touch. Most of them will also use various props, e.g. cushions, blankets, etc.[6]

Mandala Drawing

   The next important component of the method of Holotropic Breathwork is drawing, or painting a mandala. All participants are always encouraged to draw a mandala, regardless of their artistic skills or inclination to visual art in their everyday life. This is more like an intuitive kind of drawing, the value of which is entirely independent of how elaborate or highly stylized the picture happens to be. Some people even tend to draw multiple mandalas during a single workshop, or continue drawing in the days following the weekend. Painting and drawing are great methods of initially anchoring the holotropic experience, the contents of which may often exceed the limits of what can be described verbally.

The Sharing Circle

   Last but not least, there is the very important component of the sharing circle. No practice can be called “Holotropic Breathwork” if it does not involve the sharing circle. During the course of every workshop, we will find ourselves sitting in a circle several times, together with the facilitators and all the other participants, sharing what we have experienced on our journey to the inner realms, but mostly – listening. There is tremendous value in listening – a value that all too often goes unrecognized and underappreciated. To listen – carefully, with focused attention and authentic interest – means to give an invaluable gift, both to the person we listen to, as well as to ourselves. The sharing circle is perhaps the most ancient part of the practice, pre-dating in all probability even the discovery of non-ordinary states of consciousness themselves. Even before prehistoric people began to recognize the effects that prolonged dancing and drumming, fasting, not getting enough sleep, or eating some specific kinds of plants and mushrooms had on the way they perceived themselves and the world around them, they were gathering in the evenings around a fire, sitting in a circle … Perhaps it was in this very sharing circle where the evolution of language itself took place, when our early ancestors tried to describe to their peers where they had been that day, what they had seen, and what adventures and challenges they had encountered while exploring the world, to seek new understanding and progress on their journey through life. Who knows…?


   At this point, we understand that Holotropic Breathwork is by no means a unidimensional enterprise. On the contrary! The multitude of dimensions to be discovered in the inner realms is truthfully reflected in the complex nature of the method itself. Only after all the components come together in a harmonious and seamless way, does the method of Holotropic Breathwork come alive in all its true beauty and power.

Let’s go to the next chapter now, to equip ourselves with the knowledge of a few fundamental concepts of Transpersonal Psychology. They will come in handy once we get past the initial stages of our holotropic practice…

Holotropic Bohemia, holotropic breathwork
Study

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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.

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.

“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.