Holotropic Breathwork, A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy
Written by Stanislav Grof & Christina Grof

Breathwork – The New Frontier in Self-Exploration

Review by Gunnel Minett

Breathwork is the generic term for a range of therapy techniques based on the modification of the normal breathing pattern. Among the more widespread techniques are; certain Yoga techniques such as Pranayama and other exercises in Hatha Yoga, the ancient Chinese technique of Chi Gong, neo-Reichian breathing (developed initially by Wilhelm Reich), Rebirthing, (initially developed by Leonard Orr, Sondra Ray and others), and a number of Guided Breathwork techniques developed from the Rebirthing technique but with different theory and therapeutic framework, as well as Holotropic Breathwork, developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof. What they have in common is the utilization of the breath to initiate a therapeutic process aimed at healing both body and mind.

It has been known throughout human history that by changing the breathing pattern we can initiate what are commonly called ‘altered states of consciousness’. It has been practiced in shamanic traditions all over the world and has survived in its purest form in the Eastern traditions where breathing techniques are well integrated in various healing traditions. In the West a number of modern Breathwork techniques emerged in the 1970s, many of them associated with the ‘New Age’ movement. Among these new techniques Holotropic Breathwork is one of the most established and widespread.

For anyone interested in Holotropic Breathwork this book offers a very extensive and detailed overview. Holotropic as well as other forms of Breathwork offer a completely new approach to psychotherapy, offering a body-oriented approach (using the breath to initiate the therapeutic process). Still, as the authors point out, Holotropic Breathwork builds on earlier discoveries made by Freud, Jung and others. Particularly interesting here is the recognition and use by Holotropic Breathwork of the transpersonal aspect of psychotherapy developed by Jung, which conventional psychotherapy generally does not recognize.

Apart from an overview of the theoretical framework, the book also offers a number of practical details of how to conduct a session. One of the essential parts of Holotropic Breathwork is that the breathing is combined with music and body work. The music is used to trigger the unconscious to bring up memories and other experiences of a transpersonal kind. The music needs to be played very loudly and ideally consists of unfamiliar material, mainly ‘world music’. The actual breathing session is usually quite cathartic with screaming, violent body movements and other ways of acting out of trauma. This means that Holotropic Breathwork requires a particular environment and the authors go into great detail as to how to achieve this and why it is necessary. Most sessions are conducted in groups run by facilitators, with the participants taking turns to assist the person who is breathing.

The basic principle of Holotropic Breathwork is that the changed breathing pattern initiates a natural healing process. A key concept here is the idea that the person involved in the process knows best how to heal their past trauma. Provided that the environment is safe and supportive the breather will be able to go through this process and achieve a positive result. This unguided approach means that the length of a session varies and is determined by what the process brings up. Sessions generally last between three to five hours.

Although the book goes into great detailed regarding the Holotropic technique, it contains only two pages, in an appendix, dealing with other breathing techniques. This is disappointing after nearly 40 years of the parallel development of a number of Breathwork techniques. There’s a missed opportunity here for a comparative review of the role of Breathwork in psychotherapy and how to optimize the technique. According to the authors the music is essential to achieve the intended results. However, the effects are the same in Rebirthing based sessions, where music is not part of the process, the process usually lasts only one hour and the
session is generally very quiet.

Holotropic theory prescribes that the breathing pattern should be left unguided and allowed to find its own rhythm whereas in Rebirthing the emphasis is on guiding the breathing in order to achieve optimal openness, relaxation and release. One result is that cramps and painful experiences are more typical in Holotropic than other forms of Guided Breathwork. The authors rightly point out that hyperventilation, which often leads to painful cramps, needs to be better researched. According to conventional medicine hyperventilation should be treated with medication to avoid causing serious harm to the patient. However, within both the Holotropic and Rebirthing based techniques this is believed to be not always the case. In an article I wrote for the Holotropic Breathwork Associations magazine, the Inner Door, I differentiated between Hyperventilation and Superventilation. In my view, one of the main differences between Hyper and Superventilation is that the latter lacks the anxiety that usually accompanies Hyperventilation. The safe environment ensured during a Breathwork session enables people to cope with this natural change in breathing pattern, which when triggered by a traumatic event and in the absence of assistance, will lead to Hyperventilation.

One of the main differences in the approach between the Holotropic and Rebirthing based techniques, regarding cramps and cathartic aspects, is that the latter focuses on guiding the breath so that cramps and emotional outbursts are expressed entirely through breathing rather than via acting out as in Holotropic Breathwork. By simply providing support to intensifying the breathing in a open way such experiences can be experienced as intensely as in Holotropic Breathwork.

This belief in the unguided natural healing process in Holotropic Breathwork and Leonard Orr’s version of Rebirthing also needs to be more critically reviewed. Firstly it is very difficult to not guide the ‘natural healing process’. By simply reading this book, or attending a Holotropic Breathwork group and getting the basics explained at the beginning, will set an agenda for the actual process. Secondly, based on my 30 plus years of experience with Breathwork, my conclusion is that when the breathwork process alone is regarded as sufficient it tends to diminish the positive outcome of the process.

As the authors rightly point out Leonard Orr’s theoretical framework is too simplistic to be taken seriously. Rather than being a fresh contribution to psychotherapy, Orr’s approach has lead to cult-like groups with very clear, albeit strange beliefs (such as physical immortality). This is why most of the currently successful Rebirthing-based Breathwork techniques have moved away from Orr and developed their versions of the breathing technique and own theoretical framework, which is far closer to conventional psychotherapy and often includes the latest developments in Psychobiology and Neuroscience. So for Stanislav and Christina Grof to dismiss all Rebirthing-based techniques because of Orr’s is to simply ignore the development of Breathwork that has taken place in most parts of the world outside USA.

In summary this book offers a very comprehensive overview of Holotropic Breathwork. Its main weaknesses are the absence of comparisons with other similar techniques and a stronger effort to anchor the theory of Holotropic Breathwork with the ever-growing research in Neuroscience and Psychobiology. These fields do offer very interesting empirical support for some of the various other forms of Breathwork. In my view Breathwork does genuinely represent a new frontier in psychotherapy, but in order for it to truly realize this claim, the various techniques will need to move away from competition and into cooperation, both with each other and with psychotherapy as a whole.

State University of New York Press, 2010, Paperback, 221 pages, illustrated, ISBN 978-1-4384-3394-3