Holotropic Breathwork™*: An Experiential, Theoretical Account

By Caitriona Jackson

Holotropic Breathwork ™ is a powerful method of therapy and self-exploration, developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof over 18 years. It has been used in workshops and seminars all over the world. It combines the use of a simple tech­nique of deep accelerated breathing, evocative music and a system of bodywork aimed at release of pent up emotions and blocked physical energy.

My brief when asked to write this article was to include experiential as well as the­oretical material. I will include, therefore, at this point, an account of a Holotropic Breathwork™ experience which I think gives the flavour of what a typical workshop might include. This description was written by a participant attending a workshop for the first time.  I include her story with her full permission.

A Holotropic Breathwork™ Experience

It is a Friday evening. I am here for a preparatory session with the facilitator of the Holotropic Breathwork™ workshop I am about to attend tomorrow. I glance around nervously at the other new people. They seem normal enough – none look as tense as I feel.

After introductions the facilitator gives a description of how tomorrow’s workshop will be organised. Then comes a background of the origins of the work and a detailed description of the range of experiences possible with this work. A lot of it passes me by. There’s too much information, I can’t take it in.

Suddenly, as Caitriona is describing what she calls a BPM 2 experience my heart begins to pound. She has my full attention now. Her description of this stage of labour as experienced by the foetus has a strong effect on me. She talks of the intense emotional and physical pain, the feeling of being trapped, crushed, no hope, no way out. How horrific it is for the foetus to experience a huge threat and danger in a place that until now had seemed safe and nourishing. It all sounds strangely familiar to me. I feel hot, sweaty, uncomfortable. I want to go home.

On my way home I’m wondering if I really want to do this workshop. When I dis­cussed it with my therapist it seemed right, a good idea. I know I need to move into my body more. I know I’m quite stuck in myself, in my life and especially in my intel­lect. But now I’m beginning to realise I might feel pain, real pain.

I arrive next morning at the big old house by the sea. I meet some others and we sit in the kitchen by the range and drink tea. There is a general feeling of cama­raderie and lots of jokes.

At 9.30 I sit in a circle with seven others and Catriona asks us to share a bit. Some have done quite a few workshops and I am reassured to listen to them. One woman talks of how she still feels nervous before a workshop and goes on to describe the benefits for her of the work. She seems nice and I’m delighted when she asks me to be her partner for the day.

We choose a spot in the room. We talk about what our needs might be and agree that I will be the ‘breather’ first. I lie down, and now I feel very frightened. My heart thumps. My palms are clammy. What’s going to happen? Am I mad? I could be at home right now walking the dog.

Caitriona guides us through a short relaxation and into the deep fast breathing. Music starts to play, softly at first, then more loudly. I breathe like mad. The music is intoxicating. Powerful rhythmic drumming. My body begins to move. I’m not in charge of it. I swivel and gyrate on my mat. Can this be me? I feel really good. My body alive with energy. I want to laugh and laugh. A belly laugh bursts out of me, followed by another and another. I can’t stop. My belly hurts. I am hysterical. This isn’t fun anymore.

Suddenly I am weeping and crying. Deep sobs wrack my body. I feel intensely alone. I am very small. I’m in my cot, it is dark and I am cold and wet. There is nobody there. Nobody will ever hear me. My crying is a desperate cry. Please somebody come. I cry for a long time and finally just lie there exhausted. I feel deeply sad for myself, and somehow sad for everybody. All of us abandoned and unheard.

After a while I become aware of the sounds in the room around me. I begin to breathe again, deep and fast. This time I breathe for a long time before anything hap­pens. I see flashes of colour inside my eyes. I feel myself engulfed in intense heat. I am aware of my feet. They seem enormous and are boiling hot. They are dancing, pounding out a rhythm on hot sands. I am in a circle of strangely dressed people, all of them clapping and drumming. I dance and dance inside the circle. I am my feet, nothing else. Tapa, tapa, tapa tapa tapa. I pound out the rhythms of life. I am engulfed, consumed. A deep sound starts in my belly, swells up and I let it go. Deep and gutteral, it carries me along. I see it pouring from my mouth in a fiery torrent. My mouth stretches wide to let it out. My feet pound. My mouth chants and howls. Words come: “I am life, I am here.” I scream them out, triumphant, ecstatic.

Eventually I lie quietly on my mat again. My body is limp. I feel scoured of energy. I am deeply peaceful and yet I also feel a deep sadness in my gut. I feel sad and lov­ing and protective towards myself. I need some human contact and ask my sitter to hold my hand. Her gentleness brings more tears and I cry for a while. I listen to the music which is now haunting and meditative and begin to feel restless.

I rest for a while, then Caitriona comes to check that I’m feeling finished and clear. I feel the calm of her presence. I decide I’m ready to go and do some drawing. My partner accompanies me to the kitchen and I draw two pictures in quick succession. For once I’m not intimidated by the blank page. The colours call to me and there is great satisfaction in expressing on paper some of what I have experienced.

Others are now joining us in the kitchen and as lunches are unpacked I realise I’m ravenously hungry. After lunch there is time for a quick walk on the beach and then it’s back in to repeat the process.  This time my partner does the breathing and I sit with her.

An intense few hours follows. My partner has a dramatic time with a lot of thrash­ing about and noisy release. I try to be there for her. At times I am moved to tears by the intensity of what I see happening with her and with the sounds in the room around me.

My partner is the last to finish. Caitriona does some bodywork with her to help her clear some energy still in her shoulders.  I am stirred upp by the power of it all.

We all have a snack together in the kitchen. Some are finishing their drawings. Finally we all gather together to share our experiences and our drawing. I am feel­ing physically exhausted. Emotionally I feel quite raw – I am still astounded that I was able to let go to such an extent. I feel very connected to this group of people who were strangers 24 hours ago. I am touched by the open way some people talk of their experiences and this helps me to be more open than usual myself.

Caitriona gives us some guidelines on how to look after ourselves over the next few days. Goodbyes and hugs follow and the day is over.

As I make my way home I feel lighter and brighter in myself despite my tiredness. I still have a sense of awe that I was able to express myself and experience my own body and emotions in such a deep way. I look forward to seeing my therapist and taking time to make more sense of what happened.

Miriam’s story gives and example of the diversity of the themes which may be expe­rienced in Holotropic Breathwork™. Her account certainly illustrates the extent to which it is a powerfully experiential way of working. The work is generally offered in a group context, ideally in a small group for optimum safety and intimacy. While the emphasis is on an individual internal journey, the support and encouragement offered by the other group members is an integral part of the experience.

Miriam’s description of her experience when acting as a sitter highlights the impor­tance of this reciprocal role. As the group divides into pairs (each deciding who will breathe first) the breather’s partner sits with her throughout her session, providing her with full attention and attending to her needs and safety. The experience of sit­ting can be as rewarding and touching an experience as the breathing experience itself.

The faciliator does not interfere in the process of the breather. Her/his work role is to watch over the workshop making sure the participants are safe and offering help and reassurance when requested. She will support and offer guidance to the sitter when necessary. The facilitator will also check with each individual towards the end of the session to ensure each has had a satisfactory completion. If there is uncleared energy still present in the body the facilitator will offer bodywork as a means to unblock and release it. The facilitator also guides the sharing at the end of the work­shop and provides suggestions on how to integrate and ground the experience as well as guidance on how to care for the self in the immediate aftermath of the work­shop.

Participants may choose to do Holotropic Breathwork™ for a variety of reasons. Some, like Miriam, may come to the Breathwork from the background of their own individual therapy. They may wish to access repressed memories or to experience the freedom of being able to abreact safely and fully. Some come with an awareness of pre and perinatal material that needs to be dealt with. A number of participants may use Holotropic Breathwork™ as a vehicle to deepen and expand their spiritual practice. It is important to note here that the material experienced in a session may not match the conscious presenting agenda of the participant. In the non-ordinary state of consciousness induced by Holotropic Breathwork™ there is a kind of auto­matic selection process directed from within the unconscious of the breather. In this process the participant’s own unconscious self selects the material for the ses­sion. When experienced over a number of Holotropic Breathwork™ sessions this process tends to produce increased self-trust in the breather and a belief in the power of her/his own autonomous healing process.

A preparatory session is held on the evening before a workshop in order to prepare the participants for the range of experiences the)’ ma)’ encounter. This session also gives them a theoretical framework within which to make sense of their experience. For the purposes of this article I will give here a somewhat shortened account of the main areas covered.

For the sake of clarity Stanislav Grof divides the range of experiences possible in a Holotropic Breathwork™ workshop into four categories or sections:

A. Sensory
B. Biographical
C. Perinatal
D. Transpersonal

A. Sensory Experience: This generally occurs in the early stages of the session as
the breather begins to move into a non-ordinary state of consciousness. It may involve any experience of a heightened sensual kind. This may be pleasant or unpleasant and may involve any or all of the 5 senses. Breathers may experience colour flashes, hear sounds not actually present, have body sensations such as vibra­tions of the body, a heightened sense of touch, experience smells not in the room and have unusual taste experiences.

B. Biographical: The breather may re-experience any event from birth to the pre­sent time and release any associated unresolved physical or emotional energy. In regressing to earlier stages of biographical life the breather may adopt the gestures, body language, facial expressions and behaviour relative to the particular stage.

C. Perinatal: The term perinatal means around birth. This category of experience includes material from conception to the time immediately after birth. Perinatal phenomena occur in four distinct experimental patterns which Grof calles the Basic Perinatal Matrices (B.P.M.) Each of the four matrices is closely related to a partic­ular stage of the womb and birth experience.

Each BPM may be experienced on 2 levels:

1. The reliving as a biological and physical level of pre-birth, birth and post birth experiences
2. A parallel process on a psychological/spiritual level which Grof calls the death re­birth process.

As the breather works through the different stages of the physiological birth process with all its intense physical and emotional pains she/he may also simultaneously experience a profound sense of ego-death, a death of the old self and ways of being, and a re-birth, an emergence into a new self. This new self can be experienced as transcendant, expanded and having a deep sense of connection and loving compas­sion towards all. These two aspects of the perinatal process are interlinked and inter­changeable.

The Four Basic Perinatal Matrices (B.P.M.s.)

B.P.M. 1. The Amniotic Universe

This B.P.M. refers to the time in the womb from conception up to the onset of labour.

A positive early womb experience may be felt as a blissful oceanic state with no boundaries. The foetus has all needs met automatically. There is a sense of union with the mother. The experience may connect into a sense of the bounty of nature, of lush tropical paradise, orchards and scenes of plenty. There is an important spiri­tual aspect of B.P.M. 1, often described as a profound feeling of cosmic unity and ecstasy where everyday perceptions of time and space fade away and we become ‘pure being’.

The positive womb experience forms the basis for a deep sense of security and self-esteem in the adult.

A negative womb experience may include an experience of a toxic womb, where mother is ill or has a bad diet, smokes, or abuses alcohol or drugs. Emotional rejec­tion by the mother may also be a distressing aspect of the negative womb experi­ence.

This experience may develop into scenes of wasted, polluted landscapes, chemical warfare or even a sense of threat by demonic presences, malevolent entities or extraterrestrial influences.

The negative womb experience may manifest in adult life in states of rage and powerlessness, paranoia, problems with boundaries and low self-esteem.

B.P.M. 2.  Expulsion from Paradise

This matrix refers to experiences from the start of the first labour contractions, before the cervix opens. B.P.M. 2. is characterised by specific physical symptoms and manifestations. There can be enormous tensions throughout the body, with a sense of crushing pressure on the head and body accompanied by spasms of intense pain. Blotching and rash­es on the skin may occur.

This physical state is accompanied by severe emotional pain. There is a sense of despair and loneliness, a feeling that there is no place to go, no escape or exit is pos­sible. There is an all-pervasive sense of attack and danger.

These feelings may be paralleled by or develop into images of hell, unbearable emo­tional and physical suffering, spoiled contaminated nature, swamps, stinking rivers, poisonous fruit etc.,

There may also be indentification with archetypal figures such as Prometheus, or St. John of the Cross, or the Buddha’s 4 passing sights.

People strongly influenced by this aspect of B.P.M. 2. often suffer from a sense of meaningless, a lack of initiative, deep depression and an inability to enjoy anything.

B.P.M. 3. The Death – Re-birth Struggle

In this matrix the cervix opens and the foetus begins the slow passage into the birth canal. At this stage the infant’s head is wedged into the pelvic opening and the labour contractions increase in power and strength. An adult reliving this aspect of the birth process experiences the pain and pressures of  B.P.M. 2. with increasing intensity. Incredible amounts of energy stream through the body condensing and releasing explosively. There is a sense of a vicious struggle for survival. Conflicting and clashing energies are experienced. As well as feelings of claustrophobia, con­finement, terror and aggression there may be a sense of sexual excitement. Feeling of extreme suffering may be translated into sexual arousal.

The despair and hopelessness of B.P.M. 2. are now tempered by a sense of hope, a sense of engaging in a struggle that may be productive – there is light at the end of the tunnel.

On a transpersonal level there may be identification with destructive deities such as Kali, Shiva or Mars or with mythological figures representing death such as Osiris, Persaphone or the crucified Jesus. The symbolism of the B.P.M. includes scenes of hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.

Clashing energies of extreme pleasure and pain may culminate so that they merge into a single undifferentiated state of rapturous, volcanic ecstasy. Adults influenced by unresolved material from this matrix may suffer from conditions that involve vio­lent aggression and violent self-destructive behaviour. Sexual problems, obses­sive/compulsive disorders and phobias also seem to have roots in this matrix.

B.PM.  4. The Death – Re-birth Experience

This matrix includes the culmination of the birth canal struggle, the moment of birth itself and the situation immediately following delivery.

Biologically the infant emerges from the darkness of the birth canal into the light of separate existence. This separation is finalised with the cutting of the umbilical cord.

People reliving this experience often get in touch with previously unknown details of birth. The grip of the forceps may be felt, the constriction of the umbilical cord around the neck, or the nausea of anaesthesia may be experienced.

Psychologically, the reliving of the moment of birth takes the form of the death – re­birth experience. The struggles and pain of B.P.M.s 2. and 3. now peak in an expe­rience of ‘Ego-Death’. There is a sense of dissolution of the self, a sense of hitting rock bottom. There may be a sense of surrender, of giving up control, of letting go. This is followed by a sense of renewal, a feeling of salvation, of compassion and love for all. There may be visions of blinding light accompanied by bliss and joy. The ego death/re-birth process is usually not completed in one Holotropic Breathwork™ session. The process requires systematic work as the experience pre­sents itself for clearing in different ways and on different levels.

A person who has successfully completed the Death – Re-birth process will experi­ence a change in outlook and world view. There tends to be an appreciation of har­mony and beauty, a sense of deep relaxation, quiet excitement, serenity and inner peace.

In conclusion, Grof’s four Basic Perinatal Matrices can be said to represent an inter­face between the contents of our individual personal consciousness with what Grof calls the ‘collective unconscious’.

The latter aspect of experience comes under the category of experience referred to as ‘Transpersonal’.

D.  Transpersonal:

Grof states that transpersonal experiences challenge the belief that human con­sciousness is limited by the range of our senses and by the environment we entered at birth. After years of research into non-ordinary states of consciousness, Grof con­cluded that a subject in this state has access to virtually unlimited sources of infor­mation about the Universe that may or may not have complements in the physical world. On a experiential level this information may present itself to a subject in a non-ordinary state of consciousness in an endless variety of ways, some of which I have detailed already in the description of each B.P.M. The range of experience may extend from identification with archetypal figures, experience of unity with all beings, identification with deities, to experience of self as a single cell, blissful merg­ing with light of cosmic energy, or experiences of energy clearing and awakening in the body’s chakras or energy centres. As mentioned already these experiences inter­face with the contents of the subject’s individual psyche in ways which are mean­ingful and relevant to the individual’s everyday reality. This connection may be immediately apparent to the subject or may take a longer period of integration and assimilation.

Systems of Condensed Experience

A system of Condensed Experience (COEX for short) is like the thread which pulls together the broad range of experiences possible in Holotropic Breathwork™ and the corresponding emotional and physical imprints that are stored in the psyche. Grof sees that these memories or imprints are organised in the psyche in a specific way which he calls a COEX system. Each COEX is made up of emotionally charged memories of experiences from different periods of our lives, having the same ‘flavour’, emotional nuance or physical sensation.

Each COEX will have many layers and one central theme that characterises it. For example, one COEX might contain all experiences to do with abandonment or rejec­tion. Another COEX system might include all life-threatening situations or situations where our physical well-being was at risk. Each COEX will be rooted in a particular aspect of the birth experience as described in the four Basic Perinatal Matrices.

Thus, a Holotropic Breathwork™ participant with a COEX system that involves expe­riences of a confining, suffocating or claustrophic nature can experience this on a Biographical, Perinatal or Transpersonal level. The experience might move from the trapped, confined, nightmarish world of B.P.M. 2. to experiences of control or dom­inance by a parent in childhood, to identification with victims of the gas chamber in Nazi Germany – though not necessarily in that order.

Grof concludes that COEX systems pervade and influence all aspects of our lives. ‘They affect our perceptions of self and others, they shape our expectations of, and response to life and are the dynamic force behind our psychosomatic symptoms. They function as a kind of script that dictates how we respond to life as well as how life responds to us. Full healing of a COEX is achieved when all its aspects have been experienced and the energy charge around each is discharged and cleared. This a much reduced and simplified ‘snapshot’ of some of the central themes of Holotropic Breathwork™. It is important to note that because of the powerful expe­riential nature of the work, it is not suitable for everybody.

Since undergoing my training as a Holotropic Breathwork™ Facilitator (which included many hours of experiential work) my new experience of human con­sciousness has been radically expanded. I see my role as facilitator and therapist less as an active agent and more in keeping with the original meaning of the Greek word ‘therapeates’ – the person who assists in the healing process. In facilitating Holotropic Breathwork™ I have the opportunity to witness the full power of the healing process enacted through the healing forces within the client’s own psyche. It continues to be a refreshing and humbling experience.

*The use of thee letters ™ indicate that the words Holotropic Breathwork are trade-marked. Caitriona Jackson is a Humanistic and Integrative psychotherapist and trainer. She trained and certified in Holotropic Breathwork™ with Stanislav and Christina Grof


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