Holotropic breathwork: the benefits and risks   

What if I told you that you had a hidden power within yourself?

What if you had the power to change your mind, heal your psyche, and build your self-actualization?

What if I told you this could all be achieved without a drug or any arduous exercise?

What if I told you it was all in your lungs?

You have this amazing power of breathing. And there are these incredible schools of breathwork that teach you how to control your breath in order to achieve deep, inner awareness and even healing.

There’s a special type of breathwork called holotropic breathwork that can help you heal your mind, improve your spirit, and even induce a psychedelic experience.

Amazing. All you need to do is breath.

But what is holotropic breathwork? How is it different than regular breathwork? Is it dangerous? How can you practice holotropic breathwork?

I know! There’s so many questions. That’s why I wrote this article. Here, I’ll explain all the ins and outs of holotropic breathwork and how it can change your life.

Let’s count in to 4, breathe out, and begin.

Wait! What is breathwork?

Great question! Let’s tackle this first.

Breathwork is the practice of controlling your breath in order to achieve deep, inner awareness and even healing.

There are a number of different techniques used in breathwork, from shamanic breathwork to clarity and vivation breathwork. Each uses their own pattern of breathwork and techniques to achieve a higher sense of connection to our spiritual awareness by entering an altered state of consciousness.

Holotropic breathwork is a type of breathwork. It’s gotten a lot of buzz in recent years because of its powerful psychedelic effects.

What is holotropic breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork is a breathing system where you use rapid but controlled breathing patterns to alter your mental, emotional, and physical states.

Holotropic breathwork is practiced in sessions where participants will induce altered states through this controlled breathing. These altered states provide participants with great insight and spiritual healing.

Holotropic Breathwork: The Grof Foundation

Holotropic breathwork is a patented therapeutic process that can only be led by certified instructors from The Grof Foundation. These instructors have to go through 600 hours of training before they’re certified, meaning that any participant is in very safe hands.

Holotropic breathwork can be quite spiritual but is distinct from psychedelic breathwork in that its origin and aim are therapeutic first and foremost. Again, it’s taught by instructors with a therapeutic perspective.

The aim of holotropic breathwork is to allow the patient to self-heal, and improve their spiritual and psychological well-being. Through the use of these quick, rapid breaths, the breather elevates their oxygen in the blood (a process called hyperventilation).

This hyperventilation causes participants to reach different levels of consciousness during holotropic breathwork sessions, allowing patients to access deeper parts of their psyches, which causes emotional healing.

This healing leads to improved self-awareness, allows patients to work through past traumas and even “past life” experiences. It’s a powerful and profound source of healing that is derived from your own self-power!

The history of holotropic breathwork

Where does holotropic breathwork come from? How did we figure out how to use our own breath to trigger elevated consciousness?

It comes from two psychiatrists who drew inspiration from a surprising source: LSD.

You see Stanislav Gof and his wife Christina Gof were studying altered states and consciousness in the 1970’s. They had researched and LSD to induce altered mind states, as a form of psychological therapy.

Unfortunately for them, LSD was banned.

This led them to try and figure out new ways to induce altered states of mind. They created holotropic breathwork as a natural way to create many of the same therapeutic benefits that LSD had in their patients.

Their work focused on patients who suffered from psychiatric illnesses, addiction, and chronic illnesses.

Today, the Grof Institute continues the work of the Grofs by teaching Holotropic Breathwork to students around the world.

Why is it called holotropic?

The word “holotropic” comes from the Greek words “Holos” (whole) and “trepein” (to move forward).

The meaning of holotropic, therefore, is “moving toward wholeness.”

What is holotropic breathwork based on?

Holotropic breathwork is a type of breathwork.

Breathwork is a system of breathing practices where a user consciously alters their breathing patterns in order to influence their mental states.

Holotropic breathwork, in particular, is a type of breathwork that was developed for therapeutic benefits. It was developed to stimulate a psychedelic experience.

Holotropic breathwork is based, at its core, in meditative breathing practices that have been around for thousands of years.

These traditional forms of breathwork are based around using breath and forms of meditation to shift stagnant, blocked or negative energies in the body, in order to make room for positive energy.

It’s all based around using your lungs as a form of spiritual purification.

How do you practice holotropic breathwork?

You practice holotropic breathwork in a session which can last several hours.

Each session has a licensed instructor who oversees a group of learners.

When you start a session, you’ll be put into pairs, with one of you being a “breather” and the other a “sitter.”

The “breather” will take part in the breathwork, whilst the “sitter” observes and acts as a source of support and comfort to the “breather”, especially if they begin to encounter intense feelings and emotions.

So what does a holotropic breathwork session look like?

Here’s a general rundown:

  1. Each session lasts 2-3 hours.
  2. Participants are paired up into breathers and sitters.
  3. The instructor chants breathing instructions. Your breathing becomes rhythmic, fast, and deep.
    • The speed and rhythm of your breathing increase as the session goes on.
  4. The “breather” will lie on a mat throughout the session, protecting them from falling due from the intense breathing.
  5. Rhythmic music (such as drumming or chanting) will be used to help participants enter into altered states of consciousness. Meditative music is then used towards the end of the session, to help the ‘breather’ come back to a more grounded state, and eventually back to full consciousness.
  6. Once the session is complete, participants will discuss their experiences and draw mandalas.
    • Drawing mandalas allows the participants to work through past traumas that have resurfaced. It also helps ground participants after the intense holotropic breathwork session.
  7. The sessions are open-ended, and there are no expectations on what each person will experience or achieve during their breathwork. In the following session, the “sitter” and “breather” will swap roles.

What does holotropic breathwork feel like?

In a word: overwhelming.

Holotropic breathwork can stimulate psychedelic changes, elevated states of consciousness, intense emotions, and profound physical feelings.

It’s intense.

Taking part in holotropic breathwork can feel daunting at first, especially if you’ve never used breathwork before.

The techniques used, such as rapid breathing, can be unsettling for some people, but using a trusted practitioner to guide you through the process will make it much easier. Although you may feel uncomfortable in the beginning, learning to push through (at your own pace) will eventually lead you to practice the breathwork correctly, and gain the full benefits from each session.

The thought of entering into an altered state of consciousness can also be scary for some people, but many describe it as more of a dream-like state than being in an altered state of mind. This state allows you to delve into deeper dimensions and see things differently to how you normally perceive them.

During a session with a good practitioner, you should feel comfortable enough to talk through your concerns and also have a system in place which allows you to stop and take a break from a session if it becomes too overwhelming.

Can holotropic breathwork cause a psychedelic experience?

It can.

A psychedelic experience is a temporarily altered state of consciousness.

What are the common signs of a psychedelic experience?

  • Visual hallucinations
    • These can be with eyes closed or eyes opened.
  • Audio hallucinations
  • Time distortions
  • Mystical experiences
  • Feelings of oneness
  • Ego death
    • This is the loss of subjective self-identity and can be a profoundly life-changing experience

Dr. Grof specifically created holotropic breathing in order to mirror the psychedelic experiences that are caused by drugs such as LSD.

Holotropic breathwork, when performed correctly in a guided session, can indeed cause visual hallucinations, mystical experiences, feelings of oneness, and other elements of psychedelic experiences.

Yes, holotropic breathwork can indeed induce a psychedelic experience.

What’s the difference between holotropic breathwork and psychedelic breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork is a type of psychedelic breathwork.

Holotropic breathwork refers to a specific school of breathwork only taught by the Grof Institute. Psychedelic breathwork is a more generic term that encompasses many different schools of breathwork.

So, if you see a “psychedelic breathwork” course being advertised, you could safely assume that it is relatively similar to a holotropic breathwork course, but the emphasis may be more spiritual.

With a holotropic course, you know that you’re being taught by a licensed instructor with over 600 hours of experience.

What’s the difference between holotropic breathwork and shamanic breathwork?

Shamanic breathwork is based on using your breath to go on a journey to your inner core. The shaman Rudá Iandê describes the journey:

“Through your breath, you can go even deeper, to places beyond the realm of your intellect. You can awaken, for example, ancient memories kept in your DNA.

“You can use your breath to awaken the latent potential inside of you; things like your creativity, memory, and will power.

“And through your breath, you can also communicate with all your organs and with every part of your body to align and potentialize them.”

Holotropic breathwork doesn’t have the stated aim of supporting a journey within. It’s more focused on the process of holotropic breathing in a controlled setting without necessarily focusing on awakening the potential within.

Watch the video below where Rudá Iandê explains the power of the breath inside you. Rudá Iandê has created a shamanic breathwork class called YBYTU, which focuses on meditative and spiritual breathing to align your emotions and unleash your mind.

Why practice holotropic breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork has many spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits. It’s very adept at changing a person’s outlook on life, which helps boost self-growth.

What are the benefits of holotropic breathwork?

There are a number of benefits associated with holotropic breathwork, from mental, spiritual and physical healing aspects. Taking part in holotropic breathwork can also increase self-awareness and bring about a more positive outlook on life, as one study in 2015 revealed:

“The positive self-awareness changes were supported by a significant reduction in interpersonal problems, such as domineering/controlling, overly accommodating, intrusive needy, interpersonal sensitivity, and hostility symptoms.”

Through moving into a deeper understanding of yourself, and becoming more in touch with your core self and spirit, this type of breathwork can help to address these conditions:

  • Addiction
  • Stress
  • PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Chronic pain
  • Pre-menstrual pains and tension
  • Migraine and headaches
  • Anxiety

What does the research say about holotropic breathwork?

There have been many studies that have linked holotropic breathwork to positive outcomes.

One study in 1996 showed that holotropic breathwork along with traditional therapy reduced death anxiety compared to therapy alone.

Another study of 11,000 participants showed that holotropic breathwork had a strong positive impact on the emotional and psychological states of participants. Importantly, there were no negative effects reported.

Why does breathwork help us?

Shaman Rudá Iandê shows us how beneficial spiritual breathing practices can be in his article “The air you breathe.”

“Your breath is the sanctuary where you can meet your consciousness. In this place, in your breath, you can really feel yourself. Not your concepts about yourself, nor even your transitory emotions, but your true essence, the pure particle of consciousness you are.”

Part of the benefits of practicing holotropic breathwork include deepening the trust within yourself, and the ability to be able to heal yourself using these techniques. This focus on self-improvement can lead to feeling stress relief, personal growth, and relaxation.

Does holotropic breathwork have any risks?

Holotropic breathwork can lead to old traumas and intense feelings being brought to the surface.

Additionally, if a practitioner suffers from certain illnesses or psychiatric conditions, holotropic breathing could make it worse. You should certainly consult with your doctor before beginning holotropic breathwork.

Again, the risks are quite low. As mentioned earlier, a 2013 report found that of the 11,000 people who took part in holotropic breathwork sessions for over 12 years, no adverse reactions to the practice were reported.

Although it is considered a low-risk therapy, holotropic breathwork isn’t suitable for everyone. It’s also important to note that hyperventilation, when done incorrectly or without the help of a professional can lead to carpopedal spasms in the hands and feet.

Always make sure you’re working with a trained guide when practicing holotropic breathwork.

Who can’t take part?

People with the following conditions should avoid holotropic breathwork:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Angina
  • Psychosis or panic attacks
  • Severe mental health issues
  • Retinal detachment
  • Seizure disorders
  • Recent surgery or injuries

It’s also recommended that pregnant women avoid taking part in holotropic breathwork. Before embarking on a breathwork session, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor, especially if you take medication for any ongoing illnesses.

Takeaway

If you are interested in trying holotropic breathwork, it’s best to find a reputable, trustworthy facilitator or practitioner who can guide you through the process. They can also help you in choosing the right type of breathwork setting for you, as some people prefer individual sessions rather than group work.

Don’t be afraid to discuss your concerns with the practitioner before starting your sessions, as this will allow you to proceed feeling safe and secure in the process.

When used in a safe, suitable setting, holotropic breathwork can offer a number of benefits both mentally and physically.

There is still a lot of research needed to determine how much it can impact those with certain conditions, especially psychiatric, but the research to date shows promising results in positively improving people’s outlooks on life.

Kiran Athar

Kiran Athar

Kiran is a foodie, writer and traveler. She considers herself a citizen of the world, who gets her inspiration from the people she meets along her journeys. She's currently living in Spain, where she spends her time writing, watching the shepherds and eating tapas in the mountains of Andalucía.

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