STAN GROF'S RESEARCH AND HOLOTROPIC BREATHWORK Randall Sexton, M.D, P.h.d.
Holotropic Breathwork is a healing and therapeutic tool developed by a major pioneer in the field of psychology and consciousness studies today. It is a method in which deeper breathing is used to catalyze therapeutic effects—As a whole, it is an approach that contains many elements that are recognized as healing or therapeutic in a variety of traditions. It is also practiced within a paradigm which expands on that of traditional Western psychology and psychiatry today. This article is a brief introduction to Holotropic breathwork, and the paradigm that it builds on. It also alludes to how Holotropic Breathwork can be understood beyond a purely therapeutic endeavor. It is based primarily on Stan Grof's lectures which I participated in during training as a breathwork facilitator, as well as his books. Holotriopic Breathwork was jointly developed by Stan Grof, a Czechoslovakian psychiatrist and his wife Christina. Stan Grof, originally educated as a Freudian psychoanalyst, was one of the main pioneers in psychedelic research and therapy (in particular LSD) during the 1960s. This is a fascinating epoch that can only briefly be referred to here as a backdrop to the development of Holotropic Breathwork. Two main areas of interest to Holotropic Breathwork emerged from his research at that time, and are discussed in great detail in a number of his books. These are the potential for healing, learning, and deep personal transformation that non-‐ordinary states of consciousness provide, and the need for a new map of the mind based on experiences in these states. Stan Grof Non-ordinary states of consciousness Non-‐ordinary states of consciousness are not given much attention in our culture today. Though there has been some research on them, such as sensory deprivation, meditation, and the potential for certain substances to radically alter awareness, they are generally not a primary area of concern for research. Because we are so unfamiliar with idea of non-‐ordinary states of consciousness, I will use a little time to try and explain what is meant by them. We are basically familiar in our everyday reality with two main states of consciousness—the waking state and the sleep state. However, with a little consideration we also realize that even the waking state contains qualitatively different states of awareness that can be colored by for example our level of energy and emotional state. Non-‐ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC), are
states where our awareness is radically changed in comparison with everyday functioning. Though there can be many “non-‐ordinary” states, Stan Grof's work emphasizes a particular group of such states that has been revered in many cultures, and which can give a deeper insight into oneself and reality. He has termed such states as “Holotropic.” Based on Greek roots, this term refers to a movement towards wholeness. In such states, the experience of time and space, of ones own identity, as well as the nature of reality may radically change. This can include a greater sensitivity to sights, sounds and emotions, as well as a richening of inner visual imagery, or the outright experience of what seems to be non-‐ordinary realities. Often, the nature of such states is difficult to describe in words, as they somehow touch on a realm outside of rational thought. Just as the term holotropic refers to a movement towards wholeness, holotropic states are considered potentially integrating and healing. The exact nature of such integration or healing varies from person to person, but often results in some sense of coming home to oneself, and a greater ease in relationship with the outer world. Many people may have experienced such states spontaneously, during some extreme physical or mental situation, or through actively seeking them out. Though Western culture does not have a tradition or language for such states, other than possibly some forms of art, they have been an integral and important part of many cultures. These cultures have sought to cultivate such states through different means. Some of the ways this has been done is through fasting, certain forms of music, isolation, breathing techniques and plant medicines. These techniques have often been considered sacred knowledges within these cultures, and used in an organized and sanctioned setting for personal or collective needs. A new map of the inner landscape Based on his research on holotropic states, Stan Grof saw a clear need to widen the framework used within Western psychology for understanding the mind and its disorders. Within Western psychology, our biographic history, along with our genetic predispositions, provides the sole basis for understanding our psychological makeup. Stan's work clearly showed that this perspective, which his formal training was based on, needed to be radically changed. In his expanded model of the psyche, and its potentials for pathology as well as for transformation and growth, he has added two important new dimensions to the current model of Western psychology, the perinatal and transpersonal. The perinatal includes memories, experiences and life patterns having a relationship to biological birth, while transpersonal themes are primarily embedded in collective and archetypical patterns of the psyche.
Explaining these two dimensions in detail is beyond the scope of this article. In brief, Stan Grof's model provides an explanation for possible deeper roots to many common psychosomatic and psychological symptoms, including common conditions such as asthma and depression. His research and experience with individuals utilizing holotropic states has shown that many such conditions have roots both in biological birth and the transpersonal dimension. He has also shown that there seems to be some relationship or thread linking current life situations, biographic history, biological birth and transpersonal themes. Within holotropic states, these links and relationships may emerge as inner imagery, bodily experiences and memories. One example he gives is how an individual with asthma may during a series of holotropic session re-‐experience a whooping cough she had as a child, being born with a choking umbilical chord around her neck, and a past life experience of being hanged—demonstrating the associations between biographic, perinatal and transpersonal experiences. The transpersonal dimension Transpersonal experiences are a large set of possible experiences within holotropic states. These may grant access to what Jung termed as archetypes of the collective unconscious—Archetypes such as the wise old man, the hero, the anima or the animus. Though they may have obvious relationships to ones life, they often do not have clear biographic explanations, and are therefore termed transpersonal. Often, they bring the individual beyond his or her usual everyday identity, granting an expanded sense of identification with other individuals, animals, plants, or a sense of contact with non-‐material beings. These states of awareness may include a greater sense of interconnection within creation, or even a sense of identifying with creation as a whole. Though Stan Grof, and others who have worked with these states see them as potentially transforming for the individual, initial access to them may be felt as frightening, as they often involve some dissolution of ones normal sense of self. This is why work with techniques that grant access to these states, such as Holotropic Breathwork, is carried out with important preparation and in an environment which provides a safe and relaxing setting in which these states can be experienced and integrated. Based partly on Stan Grof's work, as well as the work of other central figures in psychology such as Abraham Maslow, a new psychology gradually developed during the sixties seventies and eighties. This movement has been called Transpersonal psychology. In essence, Transpersonal psychology emphasizes the
importance of transcendent states of awareness. It recognizes our natural longing for experiences that bring us beyond our everyday sense of identity, and the potential such states hold for health and healing. Transpersonal psychology, science and culture Though many of the insights gleamed from Stan Grof's work are radical and new within Western psychology, the terrain that he describes has been well known in many indigenous and spiritually oriented cultures. These cultures have had, and in many cases still continue to have, a language and framework within which (what we have called) holotropic states and transpersonal psychology are a natural part. Non-‐ordinary states of consciousness may indeed have not been so “non-‐ordinary” in such cultures. It is only in the absence of an existing framework within our culture that pioneers in modern psychology, such as Stan Grof, have used the arena and language of psychology to describe what for many have been known as an integral part of existence. In our culture we may describe transpersonal experiences as an aspect of the psyche. In other cultures and frameworks, these may be considered realities which are equally, if not more, real than the world of our senses. This brings us to, what for me, is an important point. As Holotropic Breathwork has emerged from within psychology and therapy, the language we use to explain it is colored by this tradition. This article is an example. Terms such as “the psyche”,“therapy” and “healing”or the release of “traumas” are the language of our therapeutic culture. However, I think that this might have a tendency to only give a superficial understanding of what Holotropic Breathwork, and similar approaches might provide. In my understanding of Stan Grof's work, these approaches provide for us what indigenous shamanic cultures, spiritually oriented eastern traditions, and mystery schools have done for thousands of years. Exactly what that is, is difficult to put in words, and is something that basically needs to be experienced. By putting it into the words of a particular system, there is a tendency to misconstrue it. I am reminded of the experience of a well-‐known anthropologist, Michael Harner, when he asked the Jivaro shamans of Eastern Ecuador to tell him about shamanism. They refused to tell him anything, only saying that the only way for him to learn of it was to experience it himself. The Holotropic Breathwork Method When it was no longer possible to do research and therapeutic work with psychedelics in the late 1960s, Stan Grof began to look for new approaches that
might carry a similar therapeutic potential. During part of this time, he was a resident scholar at Esalen, a fertile growing ground for new approaches in psychology. It was here, and during work with groups in other parts of the world, that Stan and Christina gradually developed Holotropic Breathwork as we know it today. Here follows a brief description of Holotropic Breathwork: Usually Holotropic Breathwork is done in small groups of around twenty people. However, in some cases, especially when Stan Grof is present, there can be large groups of over a hundred people doing breathwork together. Participants are given an introduction to the work before participating, often the evening before a session. This includes some information about the background of Holotropic Breathwork, holotropic states, and effects people may experience during or after the breathing — such as powerful emotional or physical states. During Holotropic Breathwork, participants work in pairs with one lying on a mattress during the session, and their paired "sitter" remaining available for practical or emotional support. A session starts with a short guided relaxation led by a trained facilitator, after which breathers are encouraged to gradually begin to breathe more deeply, and to let go to the ensuing journey that unfolds. Music, which is used throughout a session, usually lasting 2-‐3 hours, plays an important role in Holotropic Breathwork, providing a soundscape that helps breathers open into their experience. The breather is encouraged to stay with his or her own inner experience throughout this time, and the facilitators and sitters will not disturb a breather unless asked for some help. However, a session may, often towards the end, include some form of bodywork guided by the needs of the breather. After a session breathers are encouraged to draw a mandala (circular drawing) inspired by their session. Later, participants gather to share from the experience. Facilitators generally do not try to analyze the experience. This is a time to check in with the breather on how they are feeling, and support whatever they may have experienced. Though focus is generally on the importance of the breath, Holotropic Breathwork contains a rich network of elements that are recognized as therapeutic and healing within a variety of traditions. In addition to the breath itself, which is utilized in other traditions such as Yoga and mindfulness meditation, the effect of music, the use of bodywork, as well as art and creativity for integration are all well known therapeutic tools also recognized in Western psychotherapy. Another important element integral to Holotropic Breathwork is the effect of working in a group. A group often provides energy and dynamic which is not otherwise available. This may be one reason that healing, shamanic and spiritual work in cultures around the world has been done in groups.
Collective consciousness evolution Though Holotropic Breathwork is an approach that can be therapeutically valuable, many who practice it, find that they develop a new relationship with the natural world that is more in tune with ecological values. Stan Grof, in an online seminar this spring, has described our current global crisis as a crisis of consciousness. It is our collective state of awareness that to a great degree underlies many of the problems in the world today. He does not see the astrological significance of the upcoming end of the Mayan calendar as an end to the world, but as a period in which a transformation of consciousness on a collective level is both possible and needed. We have a long history in which we have neglected the realities inside ourselves, and focused on exploring and controlling the outer world. At the same time, a growing number of people today find that the ideals of our culture have not provided them with the inner satisfaction they seek, and are actively searching out new ways to experience themselves and the world. Holotropic Breathwork is one such way. Possibly the answer to our current crisis, lies, not in exclusively continuing to attempt to change the world out there, but to also cultivate a deeper contact with the world within us. Ultimately, maybe it is the same thing. In taking care of the world within, we can find our natural place on a more harmonious world that we share.