Holotropic Breathwork: How Breathing And Music Can Improve Your Wellbeing

Find out more about holotropic therapy and its benefits.

We live in a time when spirituality is making a comeback, and meditation and mindfulness are becoming important tools in achieving good mental health. Now, amidst the myriad methods of expanding one’s awareness and consciousness, one relatively new method is standing out. Today, we take a look at holotropic breathwork and how it might just change your life.

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What Is Holotropic Breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork is a breathing technique that combines a controlled, accelerated breathing state with certain types of music. Through holotropic breathwork, practitioners can achieve an altered state of consciousness and explore their minds from a new perspective.

A class of people in a mindfulness meditation session
(Credit: Getty)

What Does ‘Holotropic Breathwork’ Mean?

The word ‘holotropic’ comes from the Greek words holos, which means ‘whole,’ and trepein, which means ‘moving towards something.’ We can then combine holotropic, meaning ‘moving towards wholeness,’ with ‘breathwork,’ which refers to the practice of controlling breathing to achieve an altered state.

Where Did Holotropic Breathwork Originate?

Holotropic breathwork was invented in 1976 by Czech psychiatrist Dr Stanislav Grof. He is well-known for his research into LSD and for pioneering psychedelic therapy.

In the early 70s, the Nixon administration began the war on drug abuse, with Nixon himself even declaring that drugs were ‘public enemy number one.’ As a result, Dr Grof, who had been carrying out his LSD research in the United States, lost the funds for his work. Looking for an alternative form of therapy that didn’t need drugs, he and his wife came up with holotropic breathwork.

Today, holotropic breathwork is a trademarked term and process, with Dr Grof himself continuing his research into it and even offering certification programmes.

What Is Involved In Holotropic Breathing?

Holotropic breathing is often done in groups that are led by a facilitator. The facilitator guides all participants through the breathwork, controlling the pace of breathing, encouraging chanting, and coordinating discussions after the session.

Participants are partnered up, and each person occupies one of two roles – ‘breather’ or ‘sitter.’  The breather lies down and actually undergoes the process of holotropic breathing. The sitter’s only role is to support the breather, ensuring that they feel safe and comfortable throughout the session. They’re not to interfere or even guide the breather – that’s entirely the facilitator’s job.

A class of people on yoga mats doing meditation
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The breather lies down on a mat throughout the holotropic breathwork session. During the first stage of the session, as the breathers inhale and exhale, rhythmic music such as drumming is played, encouraging introspection and altered consciousness.

In the second stage, usually about an hour or an hour and a half into the session, the music shifts to powerful, emotional notes in order to support what’s called the ‘breakthrough stage.’ Examples of the music include choir songs for masses, cinematic soundtracks, and dramatic classical pieces. During the breakthrough stage, the breather’s heart is opened, allowing them to experience vivid encounters and feelings.

After the breakthrough stage, loving and emotional music, known as ‘heart music’ is played to help ease participants back into the waking world, before switching over to music for meditation.

When participants wake up, they’re invited to express what they experienced in creative ways. They might colour mandalas, or draw their visions. What happens during the expressive phase is completely up to each breather. A group discussion is also facilitated to help the breathers talk about what they saw and felt.

Each session lasts between two and three hours on average. In the next session, breathers and sitters swap roles.

What Are The Effects And Benefits Of Holotropic Breathing?

Holotropic breathing can help people relax and release stress, and may also help reduce anxiety. It also has a great chance of leading to an altered state of consciousness as you get better at it, and may even lead to journeys of self-discovery.

Relaxed guy on couch
(Credit: Getty)

However, due to the high rate of breathing that holotropic breathwork requires, it might be dangerous for people suffering from hypertension or heart disease. People who are prone to panic attacks and seizures are also discouraged from trying it.

How Does It Work As A Therapy Treatment?

One of the original motivations behind holotropic breathwork was to help trauma victims overcome their fears. By reducing anxiety and creating a healing environment within the mind, holotropic breathwork can help practitioners open their minds to find solutions to stagnant problems, and even allow them to connect with their spiritual side.

The Gateway To Mindfulness

Whatever its claims and rationales, holotropic breathwork shares many of its characteristics with intensive meditation, and science has already shown the many benefits of meditation in reducing blood pressure and improving stress levels. It’s certainly worth a try if you’re looking for a way to transcend your current state of being, whether that means unlocking a higher mental state or just improving your life.

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