Holotropic Breathwork: A Pathway to Wholeness

Can breathing be transformative?

Kyle Buller is a Wanderlust Mentor. Join him and other luminaries at a festival this summer! Find out more | 2016 lineup | Buy tickets   

“The life force or spirit of an organism has been associated with the breath… only through breathing deeply and fully can one summon the energy for a more spirited and spiritual life.” – Alexander Lowen

“Now bring your attention to your breath and notice what’s happening in your body as you breathe in and out. Start to connect your in and out breaths and allow the circles of breath to flow fully through your body. As you connect each breath, begin to breathe deeper and more intensely. Intensify your breathing and let yourself go with the flow of your breath and the music on your journey today.”

The music begins, and I start to breathe as deeply and intensely as I can, in through my nose and out through my mouth. The loud, African-inspired drumming music vibrates throughout my whole body, and I feel an electrifying energy rise up from my root chakra, into my abdomen, up my spine to the crown of my head, and down into my hands. My body is buzzing. I feel all of the cells in my body are coming to life and dancing. What unfolds next I could never have prepared myself for, no matter how much I had tried.

A Weekend of Self-Exploration

It was October of 2010, and I had just signed up for a one-credit weekend workshop that was offered through my college. The course description had caught my attention:

Holotropic Breathwork, a technique for self-discovery developed by Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina Grof. Holotropic Breathwork opens a path to deep personal exploration through a synergy of five simple elements: group process, intensified breathing, evocative music, focused bodywork, and expressive drawing. The process fosters profound awareness of material ranging from incidents in our personal history to events in the cosmos. This awareness brings deeper understanding of ourselves, our relation to others, and even existence in the universe. This helps us gain increased comfort in daily life and a spiritual intelligence that fosters calmness and optimism amidst the difficulties of the world.

I was excited, and I began talking to other students who had participated in the past. Many of them mentioned that it was an intense experience, but also transformative and healing. One student told me that Holotropic Breathwork was not like the breathwork that one performs in yoga or meditation practices. He told me that it could produce a psychedelic-like experience, but without the need to take any substance. This statement intrigued me, but I was skeptical. He shared his experience, and I was blown away about what he had reported—seeing fractal visions and reliving a past-life experience. I thought myself, “there is no way breathing can produce a psychedelic-like experience.” I just could not believe that.

A Brief History of Breathwork

Breathwork has played an important role in many cultures throughout history. In fact, many languages have words that describe the physical breath and spirit or soul of a person interchangeably. The Latin word spiritus was used to describe the physical intake of air (breath), but also translated to spirit or soul. The Greek word pneuma translates to air/breath, and was used interchangeably for spirit or life energy. The Greeks believed that the breath was connected to the mind and that both the spirit and mind were closely related to each other. The Sanskrit word prana, which also embodies the spirit and breath connection, means both the physical air and breath and also means the sacred essence of life in Hindu philosophy.

The alteration of breathing patterns has been widely known to foster profound changes in human consciousness. Changes in consciousness can occur when holding the breath for a period of time, when using many deep or shallow breaths, and utilizing fast paced breaths similar to hyperventilation. Many different methods are used in various cultures. Some are highly sophisticated, such as pranayama breathing in the Indian tradition of yoga. Pranayama breathwork is used for increasing prana or life energy, which aids in awakening and healing the body and mind. Similar techniques of breathwork can be found within practices of Kundalini yoga, Sufi practices, Buddhist meditation, Taoist meditations, Siddha Yoga, and Tibetan Vajrayana.

The re-emergence of breathwork in Western culture began during the 1960s with Leonard Orr, who discovered a rebirthing breathwork while sitting in a hot tub experimenting with breathing patterns. By so doing he provoked a powerful experience that made him believe he had relived part of his birth.

The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich also researched breathwork. Reich developed a therapy called “character analysis vegetotherapy,” which consisted of using deep circular breathing to explore emotions. Reich’s work inspired many in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, who saw breathwork as a way to explore the psyche and access repressed memories and emotions. A student of Reich, Alexander Lowen, developed a technique called “Bioenergetics.” This involved assuming different body postures and exercises while utilizing deep breathing techniques. Another major development in Western breathwork was the work of Stan and Christina Grof, who co-created Holotropic Breathwork.

Check back for Part 2 of this series, where we will explore the history of Holotropic Breathwork. 

kyle-bullerKyle received his B.A. in Integral Psychology from Burlington College in Burlington, Vermont. During his time there, Kyle studied and researched the healing potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness, specifically the healing potential of Holotropic Breathwork. Kyle also has an interest in somatic psychology and shamanic healing techniques. Kyle integrates his expertise of healing in the mental health field by sharing his knowledge and supporting at-risk teenagers in crisis and young adults experiencing “extreme states.” Kyle also started SettingSun Wellness, a wellness group based out of Burlington, Vermont that offers Transpersonal Breathwork workshops, cacao gatherings, and other wellness related events/workshops.