Holotropic Breathwork

An Overlooked Path to Healing Experiences?

Susan McBride and Mark Cornfield
Magazine Issue
May/June 2024

In a large, inviting basement of a rather ordinary home on an ordinary street, I attend my first holotropic breathwork session. I’m nervous and excited to experience holotropic breathwork, a process of hyperventilation that’s done intentionally, in a structured setting, with the support of darkness, loud music, and trained guides. Although breathwork is an ancient practice, this form was developed in 1975 by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof—one of the founders of transpersonal psychology. As a pioneering researcher of the clinical uses of LSD, he developed holotropic breathwork to continue his work with non-ordinary states of consciousness despite the ban on psychedelic medicines imposed in 1970.

A few of my friends, when I told them I’d be doing this session, shared their skepticism about my engaging in what is, at first glance, a rather weird sort of therapy. They had difficulty seeing the credibility of some of Grof’s theories, such as that our perinatal experience may be influencing our adult lives. I’m grateful for their concern, but I trust the people who’ve steered me in this direction and am ready to try a different path to healing.

As my session begins, those of us who are breathers—who’ll be hyperventilating to induce a non-ordinary state of consciousness—are lying on mats with our eyes closed or masked in a darkened room. I’ve partnered with a sitter, who’ll be devoting their attention to me throughout the session. She’s there to help in whatever way I need, including giving me water, tissues, or assistance in walking to the bathroom—but only if I request such things.

One of the facilitators starts by leading us through a relaxation exercise to help us open up and let go of our fears, agendas, and bodily tensions. Afterward, we’re asked to breathe more quickly and deeply, allowing any feelings, images, sounds, and movements to surface. The message is “breathe until you’re surprised,” then welcome the sensations that arise in your body and mind, then breathe even more rapidly and deeply to amplify your process. This should help foster a shift in my consciousness to give free reign to my inner healing intelligence, guiding me to whatever internal experience it has in store for me today.

Evocative music intensifies the process. In the first hour, we’re bombarded with loud, fast, rhythmic music, often with prominent drumming, to encourage us to breathe faster and deeper. This can open the door to a non-ordinary state, sometimes accompanied by bodily reactions, such as shaking for no apparent reason or lying in complete stillness. In the second hour, the music becomes more dramatic to facilitate potential emotional breakthroughs, which can manifest as anything from cathartic tears to intense laughter to moans or screams. In the last hour, we bask in quiet, peaceful, or spiritual music to move us toward completing our process and returning to our everyday, ordinary state of mind.

Breathwork sessions typically last three hours. Near the end, I’m approached by a facilitator who checks how I’m doing physically and emotionally, and whether my process is complete. Like some of my fellow breathers, I’m aware of feeling energy uncomfortably stuck in my body: I have a headache with some tension in my neck. The facilitator offers to provide bodywork, but before touching me, she asks for permission, which I grant. She places her hand on my forehead and asks me to push against her hand while she provides resistance. I feel a release of tension in my head and a wave of sadness. I begin crying and let her know I’m now feeling the energy between my shoulder blades. She then offers resistance in that area. As I push into her hands, I experience a powerful release of physical and emotional tension. After the tension and emotions have cleared, she encourages me to begin my integration process by drawing a mandala as a visual representation of my experience.

Later that day, I transition from being the breather into being the sitter for the person who sat for me in the morning. Even though I’ve been coached on how best to do this, it’s challenging. My job is to “hold space”—to devote my full attention to my breather and respond to any of her requests while ignoring my own intuitions about what I think she might need or benefit from. As a trauma-informed therapist, that means I have to leave all my therapy skills outside the room and engage in what’s called “doing not doing.” My breather may look as if she’s freezing, but I’m not to give her a blanket unless she asks for one. I’ve been cautioned that trying to help in ways she hasn’t expressly asked for could bring her out of her process.

It’s now evening, and each of us has the opportunity to share our experience with the group. Putting words to what’s just happened while others witness, with the facilitators sometimes offering feedback, is a vital step in the integration process. I find myself learning a great deal from what others share, including experiences that emerge from Grof’s Cartography of the Human Psyche, a concept integral to his work, which assigns to four realms the types of experiences people commonly have.

Sensory realm. Victoria shares that most of her experience was about being aware of her body temperature. She said she was so cold she needed three or four blankets on her and then would throw them all off as she began sweating profusely. Further, she was aware of an odd mixing of sensory perceptions—she was seeing and smelling the music—a phenomenon known as synesthesia. Experiences from the sensory realm vary widely but often involve our senses in ways that might seem impossible in ordinary mind. For Victoria, a math teacher who tended to ignore the needs of her body, this experience brought self-compassion. “I want to be able to pay more attention to my environment and my body’s needs,” she said.

Biographical realm. James is somewhat upset as he shares that his journey took him back to the death of his mother when he was five years old. It was as if he was reliving it. When experiences like these emerge during breathwork, it often provides the breather with a chance to reprocess such events in a way that may bring relief. The healing can emerge from allowing an emotional release, understanding the process from a more self-compassionate point of view, or offering consolation to a younger part of oneself—in James’s case, the bereaved five-year-old.

Perinatal realm. Reginald is frustrated and somewhat disappointed as he describes feeling stuck in his head the whole time and unable to go deep. To my surprise, the facilitators relate his experience of stuckness to the fetal experience of early labor, when the uterus is contracting but the cervix is closed. Grof theorized that we may carry perinatal and transpersonal experiences unconsciously in our body, in implicit memory. When Reginald heard this interpretation of what he shared, he visibly relaxed. “Maybe I was actually processing something important,” he said. “I’m realizing that I often have a sense of stuckness in my life.”

Transpersonal realm. Transpersonal experiences are beyond our encapsulated body and our biographical experiences. Ed experienced himself as a lion on the velds of Africa. Tara felt she was channeling energy from her deceased grandmother. George experienced himself as a soldier in battle and was convinced he’d been reliving an experience from a past life. Although such experiences—including so-called mystical experiences—sound strange, they can be powerful, influencing what people might deem as the meaning of their life or how they cope with the inevitability of death.

I leave my first holotropic breathwork experience knowing that a deeper wisdom lies beneath the thinking mind. The safety I felt in this soothing setting with trained and certified facilitators, as well as with the others in the group, allowed me to move beyond my fight-flight-freeze response and connect with my body. I felt physically and emotionally calmer afterward, buoyant in a way that was apparent to people I encountered in the days and weeks that followed.

I met my partner, Mark Cornfield, at a holotropic breathwork session. Though we were each drawn to breathwork for different reasons, we’ve both had significant benefits from it.

I came to breathwork feeling stymied in my work at a children’s mental health agency and in my attempts to overcome certain health issues. For me, it provided insights into myself and a deeper understanding of how my birth process affects my current life. I believe being born is often the first traumatic event we endure and that if we understand that process better, we may be able to see similar patterns in our life, including how to anticipate change rather than simply reacting to it.

Mark came to breathwork feeling emotionally numb and unable to connect with his passions. Important parts of him seemed to have gone missing since his teenage years. He’d hoped that working with disturbed children and becoming a psychiatrist might resolve these issues, but instead, he simply got better at helping others—not himself. He sought out holotropic breathwork to get him out of his head. Ultimately, it helped him understand his stuckness in new ways and see a path to more inner connectedness.

Mark and I attended many retreats together, participated in many facilitator-training modules, and held years of holotropic breathwork workshops in our home. We’re now in our sixth year of running Ketamine Learning Experiences, residential retreats for therapists and physicians to learn about ketamine and how to work with clients in altered states of consciousness.

Even though we’ve moved into the world of ketamine, a full day of our five-day retreat is devoted to holotropic breathwork. Why? Because the foundational principles of breathwork—especially an understanding of the inner healer, the cartography of the human psyche, and the stance of doing not doing—offer sage guidance to providers who want to work with non-ordinary states of consciousness, regardless of how participants might arrive there.

For some participants, the experiences facilitated by holotropic breathwork are just as profound as any that can be accessed through psychedelic medicines. It’s not unusual to hear someone say, “Wow! Who needs psychedelics when there’s breathwork?” In the heat of the current cultural conversation about the resurgence of psychedelic-assisted therapy, we encourage practitioners not to overlook holotropic breathwork as an important learning tool and a stand-alone method for accessing non-ordinary states of consciousness. With the right training and support, we can facilitate healing by mindfully harnessing the power of what our bodies already know how to do so well: breathe.

Susan McBride, RN, MTS, RSW (retired), is a registered nurse and registered social worker who was in private practice for 20 years. She trained in Imago Relationship Therapy, EMDR, holotropic breathwork, and ketamine-assisted psychotherapy.

Mark Cornfield, MD, FRCPC, is a community-based psychiatrist trained in Imago Relationship Therapy, EMDR, holotropic breathwork, and ketamine-assisted psychotherapy.