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  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.      


Stan Grof's reserch and holotropic breathwork  

An into to Stan Grof's research on holotropic states and the method he developed based on it.

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