Theoretical Framework


  1. Transpersonal Psychology and Grof’s Extended Cartography of the Psyche
  2. Systems of Condensed Experience – COEX Systems
  3. The Perinatal Domain
             – Psychospiritual Death and Rebirth
             – Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM)

        4. Beyond the Perinatal and on The “Inner Radar”

Considering the theoretical framework of holotropic therapy, the best strategy by far will be to go out, hit the local public library, dig up a few of Stanislav Grof’s books and see for ourselves what Dr. Grof has been trying to tell us over the course of his 60-year-long professional career. Nowhere else will we find the theory of Holotropic Breathwork explained so clearly and comprehensively. As already mentioned elsewhere, Grof has been drawing upon multiple scientific disciplines, and philosophical thought systems stemming from manifold sociocultural domains. He also drew from the work of numerous individual thinkers, theorists and spiritual leaders. Many of these brilliant minds were his friends and colleagues, others influenced him through their published work, most notably perhaps Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. Having said that, we must add that the primal source of Grof’s work is based on medical science, namely Psychiatry, which is his original field of expertise.

So, let’s delve into it! The following is a brief summary of a few of the most prominent concepts of the theoretical framework that informs holotropic practice. In this way, we gain an initial insight into the ideas that underpin our understanding of the many unusual experiences to be encountered during our practice, as well as the impact these can have on our everyday lives. 

May this serve as an inspiration to you to keep exploring and garnering more understanding, be it on this website, or from other sources. There is no shortage of written, as well as audio-visual content available, elaborating on this extraordinarily intriguing topic.[1]

Transpersonal Psychology

   Let’s begin with a brief history of the developments in modern Psychology. In the mid-20th century, a new thought movement emerged in the field of Psychology, which became known as Humanistic Psychology. Sometimes this movement is regarded as the third force of Psychology, as it sought to overcome the limitations of the first and second forces, namely Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis, respectively. While Freud and his Psychoanalysis eventually ended up revolving somewhat disproportionately around the darker realities of the human psyche, the new pivotal element introduced by the humanistic approach was a recognition of the individual’s inherent human drive toward self-actualization – the process of realizing and fulfilling one’s own creative and spiritual potential. It is this same idea of self-actualization that was somewhat later adopted and expanded upon by the emerging branch of Transpersonal Psychology, which then became known as the fourth force. While Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are considered the founders of Humanistic Psychology[2], it is again Abraham Maslow, together with Anthony Sutich and Stanislav Grof, who, at the dawn of the 1970s, forged the fundamental tenets of Transpersonal Psychology.

Both Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologists were closely interconnected with the Human Potential Movement. This movement took as its premise the belief that through the development of “human potential”, people can experience an exceptional quality of life, filled with happiness, creativity, and fulfillment.[3] Another prominent characteristic of the transpersonal movement was its ideological link to the teachings of the Eastern spiritual traditions and their systems of mind-cultivating practices, oriented towards the realization of advanced stages of mind and personality cultivation, and their understanding of such a realization as being equivalent to the fulfillment of the most fundamental purpose of a human being’s life. Holotropic Breathwork itself, being one of the signature therapeutic applications of Transpersonal Psychology (besides, perhaps most notably, Psychedelic Therapy) can thus be seen as a Western counterpart, or, strictly speaking, a complement, to the ancient Eastern spiritual practices. Lastly, Transpersonal Psychologists and practitioners have also established a constructive link to living shamanic traditions, particularly those using “plant medicines”.[4]

Right, enough of history! Now we are ready to take a closer look at the basic concepts of Stanislav Grof’s theoretical work…

Grof’s Extended Cartography of the Human Psyche

   Working right from the beginning of his career in the field of experimental psychedelic research, Grof soon discovered that the established psychological models of the human psyche cannot offer a functional, or at all sensible framework for the observations he made with his patients on a day-to-day basis. People undergoing Psychedelic Therapy were reporting experiences for which traditional Psychology and Psychiatry had no explanation whatsoever, except for labeling them as delusional, irrelevant, and pertaining to a state of mental illness. Grof, being a careful observer, and having undergone psychedelic experiences himself, was not ready to settle for these conventional rationalizations. Having spent the first 14 years of his career conducting several thousands of high-dose psychedelic sessions with psychiatric patients — observing, describing and evaluating, as well as interviewing the subjects and recording their reports — Grof was now ready to formulate what later became known as his extended cartography of the human psyche. It is this cartography that serves us in our holotropic practice as the primary reference frame for our personal experiences. It helps us to orient ourselves on the path of self-exploration and is an essential tool for facilitating an effective integration of the newly accessed material after an experiential session.

Grof’s map introduces three general territories: biographical, perinatal and transpersonal.

The first domain – biographical – comprises all the experiential material, ranging from the moment of our biological birth, all the way to the present time. This is pretty much equivalent to what was already dealt with by Freud’s Psychoanalysis, and can also be called the psychodynamic domain. It includes experiences such as early childhood memories, memories of traumatic events e.g. accidents or abusive relationships, unresolved emotional conflicts, mutually incompatible internal drives and suppressed personality fragments, fantasies about sexual domination or submission, etc. During a Holotropic Breathwork session, people may re-experience situations from their past, which they would normally not expect to be capable of recalling, often with new levels of clarity, or insight into previously unrecognized aspects of those situations. This experiential process bears significant potential for accessing new opportunities for healing and is especially powerful when combined with verbal Psychotherapy.

The next domain – perinatal – represents perhaps the most unique component of Grof’s description of the psyche. Nowhere else, with regard to maps of the human psyche, will we find such emphasis on this period of our development. In Grof’s model, the perinatal experiential domain spans our history from the moment of conception to the event of biological birth. The idea that one could experientially access contents from this period of very early development, i.e. memories of one’s birth, or even intrauterine life, was so revolutionary that even today, several decades later, conventional Psychology still refuses to accept it. Yet, as anyone seriously involved in the study and utilization of holotropic states of consciousness would attest, these experiences are exactly what we observe time and again in people undergoing holotropic therapy. When we enter the perinatal domain, we discover that our usual ways of making sense of categories like time and space, me and not me, or body and mind, start becoming increasingly challenged. It is a domain of huge emotional and physical energies, dominated for a large part by a peculiar mixture of sexuality and enormous violent and aggressive impulses. In addition, it is a place where we may obtain a direct taste of Heaven and Hell. Roots of some of the most widespread emotional disorders may be found here, including depression, phobias and various sexual deviations. At the same time, it is in the perinatal domain that we may gain crucial, direct insights into the nature of the cyclical, universal, and all-pervading principle of (psychospiritual) death and rebirth. In that case, we may subsequently find ourselves suddenly being able intuitively to derive completely new meaning from a great deal of the world’s religious and philosophical doctrines.

The third domain is the transpersonal. This is the broadest and largest of all the three territories discussed. In fact, it may be considered limitless.[5] The transpersonal experience is typically marked by the overcoming of the usual confines of time, our physical body with its definite location in space, transcending our personality, or even the self as such.[6] We may also be confronted with the existence of other than linear causal relationships, the revelation of which may or may not take us by surprise, as well as other, previously perhaps unimaginable phenomena, e.g. the possibility of a co-manifestation of mutually exclusive occurrences within a single contextual framework (be it spatiotemporal, or otherwise). Our sense of experiential identification and subjective relating may occur anywhere in the cosmos, inner or outer, known or unknown, in the present, past or the future, or entirely beyond all these categories. Discovering and accepting the existence of the transpersonal domain ultimately means realizing that we are capable of accessing any process or phenomenon in the universe as a subjective experience, by virtue of having a mind and body. It also means that any and all boundaries in the universe – physical and mental – are ultimately illusory and, under certain conditions, subject to dissolution. This kind of realization can be tremendously liberating and enlightening, as well as, at times, deeply terrifying and disconcerting. It cannot be overstated how critically important it is for a person who embarks on the journey of exploration of the transpersonal domain (and the perinatal, for that matter), to be equipped with a thorough knowledge of at least one comprehensive map of the territory explored, but preferably of several. Grof’s theoretical work will make for a good starting point, possibly complemented with some knowledge of Ken Wilber’s writings, plus maybe, as a bonus, a limited insight into the theory of quantum mechanics and the general systems theory.[7] Of course, some acquaintance with the Eastern spiritual thought systems, especially e.g. Buddhism, Yoga, and Taoism, will be of significant benefit here as well.

Let’s zoom in one step closer now on our map, to get a slightly more detailed understanding of the territory to which our holotropic practice might take us. Within each of the broad categories of biographical, perinatal and transpersonal, further sub-structures can be identified. Once more, Grof offers some very interesting and useful conceptualizations in this respect. It is again based on his original experimental research into Psychedelics-Assisted Psychotherapy, which he conducted during the ‘60s and ‘70s in Czechoslovakia and the USA.[8]

On the basis of his observations from the extensive number of experimental psychedelic sessions[9], Grof developed several additional concepts that proved particularly useful in the understanding of the immense variety of internal experiences that were manifested in his patients during the sessions. 


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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.