Holotropic breathwork, just like the many other techniques and discoveries of Stanislav Grof , the American psychiatrist born in Czechoslovakia in 1931, had its beginnings in his native city of Prague. Already towards the end of the 1950s, in a clinic of the psychiatric hospital in the Bohnice district, Grof had started to conduct therapeutic experiments using LSD, a psychedelic substance produced by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz. It was during sessions with volunteers that the psychiatrist noted that in the final phase of the experiment, when the substance’s psychoactive effects started to wear off, some of the participants would start to breathe heavily. After discussing this with them, he found out that they did so spontaneously, wanting to extend the effect of the substance. Since he was also actively participating in the experiments, he quickly realized that this improvised method was effective.
Soon, Grof had become one of the most esteemed researchers of LSD. In 1967, he immigrated to the US, where he continued his research on the therapeutic properties of psychedelics. LSD was removed from legal circulation that same year, but American research institutes, such as the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, which Grof became head of, could still use it for scientific purposes. It wasn’t until the Americans completely banned LSD in 1973 that the scientist, deprived of permanent employment, accepted the invitation of the Esalen Institute in California (at the time a leading centre of the New Age movement, which was growing more and more popular in the West). There, he shared his experiences with LSD, evoking fascination as well as frustration in young students. Most of them could not follow his example, as they sought to stay on the right side of the law. So in 1975, together with his future wife Christina Grof (1941–2014; a yoga teacher who was raised in Hawaii), he developed a new, psychedelic-free technique to achieve altered states of consciousness: holotropic breathwork. From that point onward, thousands of visitors to the Grof Transpersonal Training Center in California experienced their second birth (meaning that they re-experienced the moment they had left their mother’s womb), freed themselves of early childhood trauma, or had mystical experiences, including turning into objects or animals. Remarkably, all of this was able to occur after a series of quick, deep breaths.
Of course, if the technique was that easy, why were participants paying over $300 dollars for a single three-hour session? After all, anybody can lie on the floor, close their eyes, and inhale a bit more air than usual, while listening to loud rhythmic music (even if it’s Pharrell Williams). This, however, is the fascinating truth: the method really does work. That’s why it was safer to have somebody experienced next to you, such as Grof, in case you unexpectedly start speaking in Aramaic or some other forgotten language, or jump out of the birth canal straight into the hands of a midwife somewhere in central Poland during the communist times of first secretary Edward Gierek, or in the era of Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa.
Holotropic breathwork continues to the present day. At the beginning of each session, the participants – usually in the dozens, but quite often in the hundreds – choose partners. Half of the participants lie on the floor and start to breath rapidly with closed or covered eyes, while the other half support their partners by talking to them or holding their hand as needed. Supervising the group are a dozen or so experienced caregivers, making their rounds through the room (each caregiver must complete a two-year training programme and pass an exam).
The music is really loud, like in a nightclub. This is, in part, to help those breathing fall into a trance, and in part to drown out their shouting. Within 15 minutes, many of them start screaming like crazy; some of them feel physical pain, while others experience suppressed memories and trauma. All of this takes about an hour, and only then does the music start to gradually slow down, until it is completely silenced during the participants’ recovery. That same day, they share their experiences with other participants of the session. They might draw a mandala, sketch their personal visions (an idea of Grof’s, dating from when he was working in Prague alongside a number of painters participating in experiments with LSD), or simply tell each other what they experienced. The following day, they switch roles ; now it’s their turn to support their partner in the ‘movement towards the whole’ (the word ‘holotropic’ is derived from the Greek holos, meaning ‘whole’, and trepein, meaning ‘movement towards something’).
Holotropic breathwork takes advantage of the long-established phenomenon of hyperventilation. The increased amount of oxygen in the blood changes its chemical composition and affects the functioning of the brain. In the opinion of Stanislav Grof, the altered (or as he prefers to call them, ‘exceptional’) states of consciousness experienced in this manner allow each of us to discover those parts of our psyche that we are not aware of on a daily basis, and that we don’t take advantage of. Therefore, they offer not only therapeutic value, but also boost creativity. Additionally, they let us do away with our burdens and release our inner hidden potential hidden. All we need to do is breathe.
The therapeutic value of holotropic breathwork seems to have been confirmed, although its creator has already been honoured twice (2000 and 2007) in his native country with the Bludný balvan (‘Erratic Boulder’) award, given by Czech scientists for the highest level of... nonsense. On the other hand, he received the prestigious Vize 97 (‘Vision 97’) award from the hands of Václav Havel, for both overcoming the boundaries of traditional knowledge and making a significant contribution to the development of spirituality. At the age of 87, Stanislav Grof is still working and ‘moving towards the whole’.
Translated by Mark Ordon
A high five for “Przekrój”? Or maybe a ten? By supporting PRZEKRÓJ Foundation, you support humour, reliability and charm.
Choose your donation