Tripping on Breath
Experiencing Holotropic Breathwork.
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Having spent many years researching the various philosophic facets relating to psychedelic substances, I was delighted to receive an invitation to visit Vermont in order to gain familiarity with Holotropic Breathwork. This is a method devised to induce an altered state of mind and body for the purpose of self-healing and exploration, using not exogenous chemicals but instead, at its core, mere breathing and music. Despite a little initial dubiousness on my part, I was surprised as to how simple it was to enter a trance through this method, a method that almost anyone can safely undergo without the risks associated with the illegality relating to certain drug use. I say safe and simple, but the experience and bodily reactions are certainly not always mild—quite the contrary, as we shall see.
I will give an overview of the origins and method of Holotropic Breathwork, followed by an account of the trance experience I underwent myself, as well as the philosophy behind it all. Czech psychiatrist Stan Grof, with his late wife Christina, devised the practice of Holotropic Breathwork and offered an associated theory in which to frame the experiences, a theory that fused philosophy, mysticism, and psychology—I shall add some additional philosophic points of note. I must qualify all this by saying that I am not a specialist in breathwork, I am not a trained facilitator thereof, I am simply a philosopher interested in altered states giving you here my own particular perspective on this novel method of therapy and exploration.
Stan Grof (b. 1931) is a pioneer in the Western use of psychedelics for therapy. From the 1950s, Grof developed psychedelic-assisted therapy using primarily LSD to treat traumas of various kinds, conducting more than 4000 sessions. Despite their success in therapy, the use of psychedelics started to become illegal in the 1960s, culminating in 1970 when Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in the US, which prohibition then rippled across the globe (though the tide is now turning). As Grof knew the value of altered (or non-ordinary) states of consciousness for therapy, he immediately sought to discover a method for inducing them without these now-prohibited drugs.
He and his wife Christina developed this at the Esalen Institute in California, testing various methods on volunteers. In their 2010 book, Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy, the Grofs explain that these approaches “included both breathing exercises from ancient spiritual traditions under the guidance of Indian and Tibetan teachers and techniques developed by Western therapists.” They then proceeded “to simplify this process as much as possible.”
Christina Grof was more instrumental in developing the accompanying musical aspect of the process, described below. Since then, the Grofs used and trained others in this “holotropic” (holos: whole; trepein: moving towards) form of breathwork—there exist other varieties as well. One couple they trained, Elizabeth and Lenny Gibson, were the ones who invited me, and a group, to their Dreamshadow Transpersonal Breathwork workshop-resort within the lusciously verdant forest-strewn area of Vermont.
So what happened? What is the method? I shall be concise to begin with, then expand on some aspects afterwards.
One builds rapport with the gathered group and gains instruction from the trained facilitators.
One finds a partner from the group. This partner “sits” for you during your session (in case you need water, lavatory, etc.), and then, another day, you sit for your partner. There are also other trained facilitators in the room who can provide help if needed.
For one’s breathing session, one lies down on a mat wearing an eye mask in the room darkened with the windows covered, amongst the others.
One undergoes a brief relaxation exercise from a facilitator, a meditation where one is calmly told to relax one’s muscles, releasing tension from toes to top.
Loud music from a high-quality sound system begins to play. More details on the music will be given below.
Concurrent to the start of the music, one starts to simply breathe quickly and deeply. There is no absolute method to this, and facilitators trust you to find your own pace. One starts off breathing quickly, like a bird flapping its wings to take off, and after some ten minutes or so, one can breathe more slowly, more like a bird soaring.
After some minutes, one enters a trance for around four hours—described below.
Some breathers express themselves rather vividly, to put it lightly. Loud wailing, screaming, even growling can be heard. Some people flail about. My reserved (repressed?) British and Scandinavian side ensured that I kept my cool whilst breathing. (There seems always to be an element of agency involved, unlike certain psychedelic-occasioned states.)
Near the end of the session, “bodywork” is offered through the words of a friendly, warm, trained facilitator. This is a kind of powerful massage directed to any painful locations in the body to aid the further release of tension, etc.
Mandala report: When one leaves the main room, one sits at a table to draw or paint one’s experience on a piece of paper with a circle (mandala) already sketched thereon.
Later in the day, or on later days, the group gathers so that each person can describe their experiences with mandala at hand. Interpretation from others is discouraged. It was interesting to note that every experience was rather different, though certain themes did reappear.
Ideally, one would repeat this process over days, weeks, or years.
We respect the privacy of others by not propagating their experiences, which can, at times, be highly personal. The therapeutic side of breathwork seemingly often involves regression to early incidents of trauma. But I am happy to provide my own experience as it was only positive.
The drumming begins. I start breathing quickly, deeply, with an open mind—I struggle to believe that simply breathing heavily whilst listening to music can elicit an experience analogous to the powerful ones I have had via psychedelics. The music usually goes through four phases: from percussive-dynamic, to powerful instrumental music, to (after about one and a half hours) ethereal masses, oratoria, requiems, finishing with soft emotional harmonies to light jazz or the like. The music should be relatively unknown so as not to create associations in the listeners’ minds, and it should generally avoid song (in a familiar language at least) for the same reason. The music elicits emotional response, of course, but it also acts to partially mask the loud noises made by other breathers.
Despite the darkness, I feel safe, cared for by my sitting partner and the lovely group generally. After about five minutes or so, I feel, for a moment, tingling, sparkly sensations in my hands and arms, the paresthesia related to hyperventilation. Then I slip into some kind of trance state wherein I feel exceptionally comfortable. I feel at times as if my body is floating upon a warm cloud or bathing within a liquid heaven. I then “see” a tunnel of triangles, and thereafter for a while, the triadic valknut symbol seen on Viking structures, which some have speculated represents the king of the gods, Odin.
These images are somewhat akin to the hypnagogic hallucinations many experience on the cusp of sleep. But I also had an entirely different type of imagery: I kept finding myself in mundane situations where there was some trivial problem to sort out, then suddenly realizing this situation was not real with the relief that I had nothing to resolve. For instance, someone had put a sign above a window slightly too far to the right. These mildly irritating mini scenarios played out a few times not as hypnagogic visions but more as immersive video replays. Until the end, I never really had the profoundly-aesthetic visions one can have under psilocybin or DMT. These were less intense.
Yet, towards the end of my session, as I slowly exited from the trance, I pulled back the eye mask to rub my eyes. Then, with eyes always closed, a vision detonated as powerful as any had under psychedelics and far beyond the common eye-rubbing phenomenon known as phosphenes: I witnessed intense golden lightning stream forth through my periphery of vision that quickly covered all my inner sight. It then resolved itself into a magnificent floating eye made of golden undulating light, as if gazed at from a one-eyed god. Within the eye were swaying forms of blue light, of a luminescent shade of blue that harmonized beautifully with the golden yellow surrounding it. All of this lasted for about half a minute.
Part of the reason for this vision, I speculate, was that I knew that a thunderstorm was headed our way (in fact, it flooded parts of Vermont, almost canceling my flight back). But, the breathwork, music, duration (it really did not seem like four hours at all), and visuo-sensory deprivation conceivably had a combined effect unto the phosphene phenomenon in allowing for this intense vision as well. Whatever the explanation for experiences such as these—and there is no adequate physiological explanation currently available—it was certainly a vivid, aesthetically potent vision. It was also, I realize, not part of the orthodox understanding of breathwork; rubbing one’s eyes was never suggested in the training.
As I gradually emerged from the trance, I was first comforted by my sitter, and then a kind, motherly voice asked if I was feeling ok and whether I wanted bodywork. I had a slight pain in my back, so I said yes, and underwent painful bliss. For me, this entire breathwork session had been highly valuable in the sense of allowing for the further exploration of the possibilities of extending consciousness and feeling; it was, for me, not (at least not obviously) psychologically therapeutic in this case. But exploration is itself therapeutic, one might argue. The possibilities and journeys of sentience are seemingly infinite, and it is consoling to know that simple techniques at our disposal—such as breathing—can aid such expeditions.
As opposed to many psychedelic-induced experiences, I found Holotropic Breathwork to be more somatic than visual, generally speaking, and more agential than passive. It is dangerous to generalize here, however, because there is a wide array of psychedelic experiences and a wide array of breathwork experiences. And that would be to compare merely the phenomenology; to compare the physiology is perhaps even more difficult because, firstly, we do not adequately know how psychedelics work on the body, and secondly, we are nowhere near to understanding how breathwork works at the physiological level—and even if we did it would be an insufficient understanding because the breather’s present environment and the breather’s past seem to play a significant part in the experience. “Set and setting” still applies.
One’s past is perhaps one of the most significant factors in the self-healing aspect of breathwork, as it may be in psychedelic-assisted therapy. Effectuating altered states of consciousness, it is reported, often brings to consciousness otherwise-lost memories. This is nothing new: Thomas de Quincey, for instance, in 1821 reported that certain exquisitely-detailed childhood experiences came to his mind via opium. What breathwork allows for is that past traumatic experiences can be relived but now in a safe, nurturing milieu—this may explain the unrestricted crying that often occurs in a breathwork room.
Stan Grof’s theory takes one even further into the past: many of his participants seemed to relive perinatal experiences: the comfort of the womb’s wet abode, to the trauma of being born, to the satiety of breastfeeding. Rather than considering these experiences of blood and milk as hallucinatory, Grof treats them as veridical memories. This, I believe, is one reason why the academe has resisted acceptance of Grofian Psychology. The idea that true memories exist of the perinatal is generally rejected, but memory is a particularly complex subject both physiologically and logically; moreover, it is related to the ontological status of the past, a question which has triggered many philosophical battles.
Grof pushes further still; his “transpersonal psychology” also promotes the idea that the mind is not produced by the brain; rather, it is received by the brain from (to use Aldous Huxley’s term) mind-at-large: a mystical, deific cosmic consciousness. Other common experiences provoked by psychedelics and breathwork involve the apparent immersion and re-identity into such an eternal consciousness, which the psychiatrist Grof considers veridical (objectively true), but the veridicality or delusion of such an experience is a matter for metaphysics; experience alone cannot determine the matter. At any rate, this latter experience may be the most therapeutic. Grof writes:
“The most powerful healing and transformation seems to be associated with mystical experience—union with other people, with nature, with the Cosmos, and with God. It is important to emphasize that these experiences need to be allowed to reach completion and be well integrated into everyday life to be healing.” (2010, p. 157)
The Dreamshadow event I attended included not only the breathwork sessions but also philosophic debates revolving around the relation between the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and breathwork. It was suggested that Grof’s enterprise could be advanced by incorporating Whitehead’s thought, an idea on which doctors Lenny Gibson and John Buchanan have already written and published.
The implication of such work is that the practice and the theory of breathwork can be separated: breathwork induces an altered state regardless of any theoretical explanation. However, the altered state naturally pushes one into enquiring about the significance of the experience, which leads to theory. And in turn, the theory can give added significance to the experience, which may add greater therapeutic benefit (consider the potential personal effects of treating a perinatal or mystical experience as an episode of mental disease as opposed to treating it agnostically or veridically).
Regardless of any philosophical, biological, or even anthropological theories seeking to understand breathwork, it is certain that it induces trance. A recent meta-analysis of breathwork suggests that it reduces stress and improves mental health, notwithstanding the lack of an adequate understanding of underlying, or supervening, mechanisms. Who would’ve thought that simply breathing to music could be such a powerful tool in the psychonaut’s repository?
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