A tight chest.
Shortness of breath.
Symptoms of respiratory infections, yes, but also symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness means living in a way that's focused on the present moment. But when we're focused on things in the past that we can't let go of or future things that haven't happened yet, it can be hard to focus on the present. These past and future worries can be stressful and lead to that fast, uneven breathing we're all familiar with.
This is why it's so important to detox not just your physical body but also your mind, your heart, and your soul.
Breathwork is a way to hack our nervous system (when it feels, literally, nervous) and get back to our grounded, strong, powerful selves.
As Old as Breath Itself
Breathwork isn't new.
For about as long as humans have drawn breath, the conscious act of controlling and regulating breath has been a meditative practice.
Dozens of cultures practice some form of breathwork, and languages from around the world use the same words for "life" or "spirit" and for "breath." Here are just a few examples:
- Spiritus, Latin
- Prana, Sanskrit
- Qi (chi), Chinese
- Ki, Japanese
- Hā, Hawaiian
- Ruach, Hebrew
- Pneuma, ancient Greek
One form of breathwork that has been gaining steam recently is Holotropic Breathwork. This practice is becoming popular as both a spiritual practice and a practical one. But what is it? And does it work? Let's find out.
Why Is Breathwork So Important?
Not only can controlled breath improve mental and physical health, but it can also be used to enter an altered state of consciousness to help induce a feeling of deep relaxation and unlock energy.
Depending on age and size, the average human takes roughly 20 thousand breaths each day. But most of the time (if not always), that function is autonomous — we don't think about it.
How often do we stop to regard the breath, breathe with conscious purpose, or even take time to be grateful that we can? Often, we don't — and the result is that we ignore our singular keystone of vitality: the act of breathing itself.
Breathing is autonomous because of its essential vitality. It supplies us with the oxygen we need to live, and it filters toxins and waste out of the body. It single-handedly maintains every function requisite for life.
The unfortunate reality is that most of us aren't getting it right when it comes to proper breath control.
What Is Holotropic Breathwork?
From the Greek holos (whole) and trepein (to turn or move), the name "Holotropic" means "moving toward wholeness."
First developed and pioneered by Dr. Stanislav Grof in the 1970s, Holotropic Breathwork was used as an alternative to LSD. The declaration of the War on Drugs meant that substances with little study behind them (like psilocybin and LSD) garnered criminal status and became federally regulated (psilocybin and LSD are still classified as Schedule I substances), putting a damper on the research that Dr. Grof had been working on.
With these substances banned, Grof and his wife, Christina, set out to find something that would deliver the same antidepressant and antianxiety effects of LSD without the need for a drug. Grof's research ultimately led him to discover this breathing technique.
Rooted in the millennia of societies that came before and documented in some form by nearly every society of the global majority, breathwork finally started to become mainstream through Grof's work and modern reporting.
A study from 2013 documents the results of 11,000 people who participated in holotropic breathwork sessions over a period of 12 years. The results suggest that it can be used to treat a wide range of psychological and existential life issues. Many participants reported significant benefits related to emotional catharsis and internal spiritual exploration. Throughout the entire study, no negative reactions were reported.
How Does Holotropic Breathwork Work?
At its most basic roots, Holotropic Breathwork is everything that thousands of years worth of societies and peoples already understood breathwork to be.
The Holotropic Breathwork experience is not dissimilar to the ceremonies surrounding ayahuasca or peyote. The technique combines controlled, accelerated, breathing with certain types of music. Through Holotropic Breathwork, practitioners can achieve an altered state of consciousness and can even explore their minds from an alternate perspective.
Holotropic Breathwork usually occurs with the eyes closed and lying down. Most sessions are conducted in a group setting by trained facilitators. These facilitators guide people through the class, and they do it by controlling the pace of breathing as meditative music plays in the background.
Unique to Holotropic Breathwork is the partner-oriented practice. Participants are paired with one acting as the breather and the other as the sitter. The breather lies on a mat and begins the breathing exercises. The sitter's responsibility is to support the breather as he or she goes through the exercises and to ensure comfort without interference.
A typical Holotropic Breathwork practice is divided into two sessions where the breathers and sitters take turns supporting one another.
During the first part of practice, breathers work to transition the control of their breathing process from unconscious (autonomous) to conscious (behavioral). These rhythms, combined with the varied inhalations and exhalations, are meant to induce a deeper state of consciousness and relaxation. As the music and breathing become more intense, the breather may experience expanded consciousness. The session ends with meditative music, and then the practitioners switch roles.
Once the final session is concluded, participants are offered a few minutes of recovery and integration. They can share their feelings and use artwork to express their sensory experience during the session and are often asked to journal or prepare a way of reflection for when they return to everyday routines and society.
According to anecdotal evidence (including that from millennia of civilizations across the globe), the true breakthrough of breathwork is that hearts are opened and participants confront their feelings and achieve vivid, personal insights into their lives.
Why Practice Breathwork?
While the health benefits of Holotropic Breathwork can't be understated, it is, at its core, an emotional and spiritual practice.
Whether Holotropic Breathwork is the answer for you specifically or you want to explore more options, some form of breathwork should be essential on your self-care list. Breathwork is a critical — and often overlooked — component of mindfulness.
No matter which form of breathwork you practice, integration back into your everyday routine is also crucial. Healthy eating and supplements like CBD can support mindful living too. As you strive for mindful living, healthy habits are crucial.
Trust your ancestors, lock into your breath, and do the difficult work of feeling your emotions, accepting them, and allowing new room for growth rooted in their validation.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is presented purely for educational purposes and is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of any condition. As always, consult your doctor before introducing a new supplement or routine.
* Trademark is property of Grof Transpersonal Training.
THE BREATH IS THE LIFE; Lucis Trust; accessed July 2022
About Holotropic Breathwork®; accessed July 2022
Who Is Stanislav Grof? Meet the Psychedelic Pioneer and Father of Holotropic Breathwork; Psychedelic Spotlight; accessed July 2022
How does Holotropic Breathwork work?; Holotropic Association Europe; accessed July 2022
All About Your Lungs; reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD; WebMD; accessed July 2022
A Clinical Report of Holotropic Breathwork in 11,000 Psychiatric Inpatients in a Community Hospital Setting; James Eyerman, MD; MAPS Bulletin Special Edition; accessed July 2022