REPORT: 
Heavy Breathing
 – The Transpersonal Psyche

by Aidan Maloney

Dr. Stanislav Grof, MD, who along with Christina Grof, invented Holotropic 
Breathwork, gave a two part seminar in Dublin in July. The first part
 consisted of a public lecture in Taney Hall on Saturday the 5th of July,
 entitled “Observations from Modern Consciousness Research”. The second 
part was a seminar for professionals on Sunday 6th July in the Engineers’
 Club on Clyde Road, entitled “Implications for Therapy, Healing and
 Medicine”. It is a tribute to Dr. Grof’s ability as a public speaker that he 
spoke – apart from meal breaks – for about nine hours and held his 
audience’s attention with his provocative and stimulating theories.

Holotropic Breathwork is a means of inner exploration using non-ordinary 
states of consciousness for healing and transformation. Holotropic
 Breathwork combines controlled breathing, and evocative music
 (drumming, chanting, etc.) to evoke a non-ordinary state of consciousness.
 The theory is that by this means the person releases blocked traumas,
 expresses emotions and that this facilitates healing, spiritual growth and 
somatic changes.

“These states allow mobilisation of the spontaneous healing potential of 
the psyche.”

The method encourages the person to trust their own inner wisdom
 without the need for interpretations from someone else. Everyone’s
 experience is unique and each session can have a totally different content. 
During the breathwork session, one person (the breather) has the inner
 experience, and the other (the sitter) provides attention and support. Later 
in the day they reverse roles.

In his first lecture Dr. Grof gave a summary of how he had come to invent 
the technique. He claims that Holotropic Breathwork touches the deepest 
levels of the unconscious, helping to contact unfinished issues, old
 traumatic memories and feelings from biographical life, birth, pre-birth and 
the transpersonal level. The primary focus for his discoveries is on pre-
birth, birth and the transpersonal. Grof discovered through experiments
 with psychedelic drugs that people regress to four perinatal stages which 
he calls the basic perinatal matrices.

30 p63

These correspond to four stages of
 delivery. Stage one is pre-labour and can be either pleasant or unpleasant
 depending on the type of pregnancy. Stage two represents the first stage of
 labour where the pressure on the baby is inwards. As a result of this 
inward pressure the baby begins to exert an outward force to escape the
 womb and move down the birth canal. Finally in stage four the baby is
 born.

Grof attributes an awareness to the baby going through these four stages
 and deduces this awareness from the accounts of people who have been 
regressed by either psychedelic means or trance methods. From this
 perspective the birth process is perceived as either more or less traumatic 
depending on the degree of difficulty experienced by the baby. These 
primary experiences are prototypes for the rest of a person’s life and will 
be repeated until the trauma is healed.

Grof’s theory is impressive because it takes the Freudian model and finds 
the origin of our mental and emotional life, not in childhood, but prior to it 
in the womb. He is able to fit many of Freud’s categories to the four
 matrices and to interpret Freudian theories as the childhood manifestation 
of the birth blueprints.

Equally interesting is his claim that if a person is regressed further back, 
one encounters a collective unconscious that reveals a common symbolism 
that transcends time and place. Grof claims that a Japanese, in a regressed 
state, who has no personal experience of Western theology, can articulate a
 crucifixion story closely resembling the Christian one. Similarly, a Western
 European can describe an ancient rite from a South American Indian tribe.
 This claim, if substantiated, provides circumstantial evidence for Jungian 
concepts of the collective unconscious and the prevalence at an
 unconscious level of a common universal symbolism mediated in different
 forms by culture. This is the transpersonal dimension of his psychology.

Grof also claims that some of these non-ordinary states correspond to 
mystical and spiritual states experienced by mystics and other types of
 spiritual seekers down through the ages. His investigations of rituals and
 ceremonies in ancient cultures convinced him that their purpose was to 
induce these states and make them available to participants, sometimes to 
very large numbers of people. Our industrialised, scientifically oriented,
 western culture has relegated and denigrated such practices and failed to 
appreciate their spiritual and healing aspects.

Such states can be induced through psychedelics or breathwork or
 drumming or combinations of the above. He invented Holotropic 
Breathwork as a natural – as distinct from psychedelic – method of trance 
induction. Holotropic Brcathwork has its roots in ancient healing rituals
 where non-ordinary states of consciousness are used for healing and
 spiritual transformation. Its proponents claim that it draws on such 
traditions as Shamanism and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu mysticism. This 
would appear to represent quite a spiritual cocktail. The term “holotropic”, implying wholeness, was chosen to reflect the idea that inner growth, 
healing and a sense of connection develop on an inward journey

The second day of his seminar had two parts. The first part consisted of presentations of the four matrices through art and the interpretation of the various pieces of art as representations of the four matrices. This is a most 
stimulating session where one’s amazement at the power of the paradigm is
 only rivaled by admiration for the artist’s creativity.

The second part was devoted to the psychopathology syndromes related to 
the matrices. Figure 2 presents an analysis for each Basic Perinatal Matrix
 showing related psychopathological syndromes.

Schizo matrices img p65

The Transpersonal Psychology developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof
 over the past twenty-five years is a most intriguing and rich source of
 inspiration. The theory is grand and comprehensive. However there are a 
number of irritating questions. The existence of a common universal 
symbolism is completely intriguing. However interpretation of trance
 recollection is similar to dream interpretation. No one has come near 
exhausting the pliability of such material to fit whatever mould one 
applies. The recollections emerging from these states are not presented
 with the clarity and neatness implied by the theory and rely heavily on the 
a priori model of meaning applied to interpret them.

There Is also an Impression that the concept of “past lives” is somehow
 validated by the fact that people recount stories and exhibit signs of
 “living” in these past lives while undergoing a breathwork session. While
 fascinating to observe, it still does not provide any validity to the objective 
existence of a past life, It merely demonstrates that people exhibit such 
phenomena, Equally, just because people under psychedelic influences 
experience mystical states is not proof of a mystical reality. It seems to me
 to be the equivalent of prodding a brain with an electrode and producing a
 vision of heaven’s existence. Unfortunately this only casts doubt on heaven’s existence
 outside the neurones that were excited by the probe.

In Grof psychology, birth is a dangerous and traumatic experience. It
 seems to be virtually impossible to evade trauma. I felt that a caesarean
 birth was to be highly recommended after hearing the catalogue of trauma 
that an emerging baby faces. This would seem to go against the grain of
 contemporary theories of the advantages of natural birth – but they may be 
wrong. Considerable awareness is attributed to the baby or embryo in the
 womb and one can only speculate on what it implies about the
 acceptability of abortion.

The perinatal matrices are paramount in establishing the paradigm for the 
individual’s life. The role of the mother is paramount in these stages of a 
person’s life, therefore it raises serious questions about the current trend
 whereby mothers minimise the importance of full-time attention to their 
role as mother in order to combine it with a career at this strategic stage of
 a child’s existence. Although there were over a hundred people at the
 seminar there must have been no feminists because in the sessions where 
questions were invited no one seemed to share this concern either for
 mother or child.

The impression is given that Grof’s Transpersonal Psychology is researched 
and scientifically validated. The impression is misleading because to 
investigate even a small part of the theory scientifically would be a
 mammoth task. I think it deserves attention in its own right like a theory
 of the universe is accepted for its power to explain rather than insisting it
 has to be scientifically verified before we can consider its usefulness. I am
 however uncomfortable that this impression is given.

Finally it is not entirely clear what are the benefits of Holotropic
 Breathwork. Painful events of the past (“unfinished business”) can be 
revisited at an emotional/physical level. Strong feelings such as anger, grief
 or sadness are often expressed, leading to a deep sense of relief. A session
 may also include an experience of the birth trauma or an exploration of the
 mystical realms. Many people experience joy, ecstasy, and a sense of 
freedom in their body. There are however many techniques – less dramatic 
techniques – that offer similar experiences.

It is not suitable for people who have cardiovascular problems, major 
psychiatric history, glaucoma, recent fractures or injuries, acute infectious 
diseases, or ironically, are pregnant. Holotropic Breathwork is not intended
 as a substitute for psychotherapy – so what exactly is it?