This article was commissioned by Planet Kambo and explores modern “psychedelic” breathing techniques popularised by figures such as Dr Stanislav Grof.
Learning to breathe or “getting high on your own supply” is a skill that most of us could benefit from. As breathing is central to altering effects in the autonomic nervous system, “conscious breathing” makes it possible to experience a range of responses from the rudimentary to the religious.
Although the technique dates back centuries and is common to many traditional practices, modern methods have been adapted (and trademarked) by popular figures such as Dr Stanislav Grof. Once LSD had been banned around the world in the 60s, Grof relocated to the U.S. to teach psychiatry. It was here that he began to contemplate how people could tap into the mind-expanding benefits of psychedelics without actually taking the drugs.
Grof, who is still considered a thought leader in spiritual psychology, has since taught this method of breathwork to hundreds of facilitators (a list of practitioners who are Grof-certified to teach the method can be found here), and it’s now recognised as a method for safely “exploring the subconscious.”
The various adaptations are essentially all a form of controlled hyperventilation. While other breath manipulation techniques like alternate nostril breathing (Nadī Shodhana) and 4-7-8 breath follow a particular rhythm, this breathing method just requires taking full, deep breaths as fast as you can for a long period of time, usually two to three hours. The technique is typically performed lying down with the eyes covered. Music plays the entire time, and while facilitators are present, they don’t speak much and instead let the music guide the experience.
On a physiological level these breathing methods change the flow of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body, yet on a phenomenological level – the effects can involve a “profound rebirthing.” In one of the largest studies done on the effects of this breathing method (conducted on a group of 11,200 psychiatric inpatients in Saint Anthony’s Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri, over a 12-year span), 82% of those polled reported feeling “transported to another place or time”, while 16% reported “revisiting prior life experiences.” Only 2% said that they didn’t feel anything during the session. Another study out of Denmark in 2015 found that all participants reported positive changes in self-awareness after a session. It has also been reported to help with “death anxiety” and “self-esteem.”
However plenty of people just experience a little light-headedness and have enjoyed an hour or two of zoning out to music, often in a room full of very varied responses including crying, “breathwork lobster hands” and occasionally some shouting… Unless you have underlying health conditions, Holotropic Breathwork is mostly considered safe and there have been very few deaths or side-effects. With the rising popularity of these workshops, responsible hosts and providers usually have built-in safety nets, including experienced “trip sitters.”
The Grofs argued that non-ordinary states of consciousness “mobilise an inner radar” that finds the material in our psyche with the strongest emotional charge, and surfaces it for processing. “Holotropic” is a neologism that means “moving towards wholeness”, and that’s apparently what Holotropic breathwork aims to do. By the late 1970s, the Grofs had introduced Holotropic breathwork as a “radical new form of therapy.” However they acknowledged that it stood on the shoulders of giants: breathwork has long been understood to change our neurobiology, and breathing exercises have been used for centuries in Yoga Sutras, Asana work, Pranayamic practice, Tibetan meditative practices and more.
Unfortunately, Holotropic breathwork isn’t for everyone. Serious mental health conditions such as psychosis are contraindicated as they are usually amplified. The same applies to cardiovascular problems, significant heart disease, glaucoma, brain aneurysms or any brain injuries where executive functioning is compromised. It’s still unclear how safe Holotropic breathwork is during pregnancy, and practitioners err on the side of caution. It’s also advised that these practices are experienced in a sober state, as they will have powerful synergistic effects. While it’s easy to use breathwork to reach non-ordinary states, experts don’t recommend doing it alone, and it should not be done in water (e.g. in the bath) as there is a risk of passing out.
Amidst the throng of often culturally misplaced crystals, gongbaths and cacao ceremonies, the scientific cynics have a right to be sceptical. Similarly however, the body is a vessel of experience and in an environment so often focused on the external, there is equal insight to be had in re-focusing from within.