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.
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.
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?