Holotropic Breathwork - Experiences & More
By Anonymous

This purpose of this post is to describe my experiences and impressions about Holotropic Breathwork (HBW for short). HBW had been mentioned in an earlier post to this group. I replied to it and offered to describe my experiences if anyone was interested. I got quite a few requests for more details from both the alt.out-of-body group and the alt.conciousiness group. I'll post my response to the out-of-body group and hopefully it will be cross-posted to alt.conciousness.

The brief summary

My initial intent at the time was to describe my first experience in a lot of detail. However, since then I have had three HBW sesssions, each radically different in the details yet similar in the overall processes. Describing one experience in minute-by-minute detail would be too much like relating a long dream: infinitely more interesting to myself than the reader. So, instead of relating one HBW session in detail, I'll describe the process and use my experiences for examples.

The short description is that a group of people gather together for the day and take turns breathing like crazy for a couple hours, and have intense physical, emotional and (sometimes) spiritual experiences. Sometimes those people recall highly charged and "forgotten" events (e.g. child abuse), and sometimes "nothing" seems to happen at all.

How it's done

The day starts in the morning with introductions and an orientation by the facilitator. Then the group breaks up into pairs. One person of each pair will be the "breather" and the other the "sitter" for the morning, the roles switching in the afternoon (The sitter watches and "supports" the breather during the session). The facilitator talks the breathers through a relaxation exercise, then the lights are dimmed, loud music starts up, and the breathers, laying on their backs, start to breath, deeply and quickly, for two hours. The breathing initiates a shift to an alternative state of consciousness. The breather attempts to do nothing more than "be" with the breathing and whatever comes up -- no matter how uncomfortable. During that time the music becomes increasingly more intense (I remember some African drumming), then calming down finally to something like harp music and vocals. During the two hours the facilitator walks around the room assisting with each pair if necessary, sometimes with body work if a breather is having a particularly intense session -- this might be screaming and thrashing about, or simply being 'stuck.'

At the end of each two hour segment the breathers get up and draw a mandala to express the experience (though, personally, my hands would usually be shaking too much to hold the crayon or marking pen). There would be a light lunch and then the roles would switch between the breather and the sitter. At the end of the day everybody gathers together and relates their experiences.

Where HBW is from

HBW developed from the work of Stanislov Grof. He started as a Freudian psychiatrist in Checkoslovakia. He was sent some LSD-25 -- at that time it was used to demonstrate to the psychiatrist what a psychotic episode was supposed to be like, who would then (in theory) be able to better understand the patient. He took it and it blew his mind! For the next fifteen years or so he did a lot of research with LSD on all kinds of patients and on himself and (it seems) on friends. He discovered that patients who took LSD in the right environments tended to have astounding healing experiences -- much more dramatic than possible with Freudian "talking". His research seems to have covered thousands of LSD sessions. He developed a system to describe the experiences and healings that people were experiencing. When LSD became illegal, Grof looked for an alternative. He was working at Esalen around then, exposed to all kinds of alternative healing stuff -- possibly meditation, pranayama yoga, rebirthing, etc, and undoubtably experienced many of them personally. He came out of that with breath -- along with evocative music -- as a tool into that alternative state of conciousness. There was a post from someone a couple weeks ago who has experienced both LSD and HBW, saying that while the feelings of LSD and HBW are very different, the experiences are similar.

Grof's system: Very briefly (this is described in detail in his book The Holotropic Mind), Grof claims that the primal determinators of a person's life experiences are formed at birth, the time when we will experience the most intense feelings we will ever have in our lives. He describes four basic archetypal processes that match four parts of the birth process, the free-floating-in-the-womb stage, the compression/contraction stage, the pushing out stage, and the being-out-and-separated stage (note: these are MY words for these stages, not Grofs). In the LSD or HBW session, people tend to have experiences reflecting one or many of these stages. And in life, too. For example Grof would compare the feeling a person might have of pushing and pushing and never getting anywhere with their lives to being 'stuck' in the second stage. In taking LSD or doing HBW, that person might experience more directly that ‘stuckness' and without normal conciousness as a crutch, be able to work through it.

Whether Grof's analysis is the "correct" model for the experience or not, it's very clear that something happens in HBW that is both profound and possibly transforming!

The Physiology

My first assumption was that long term hyperventilation results in oxygenation of the body. Makes sense, right? Wrong! The opposite is true. According to some HBW material I have, the process is something like this: Quick, deep breathing results primarily in loss of carbon dioxide (C02) from the blood though the lungs. Since C02 dissolved in blood in normal amounts results in a mild acidity, removing it through rapid breathing causes the blood to become more alkaline than normal. Alkaline blood is a poor carrier of oxygen (02). Therefore, in hyperventilation, the blood loses BOTH 02 and C02. The tissues -- and most relevently the brain -- become mildly 02 deprived. In normal circumstances, a low 02 level is acommpanied by high C02 level. It's the high C02 level that triggers our need to breath deeply (try breathing into a paper bag for a couple minutes ... ). Hyperventilation fools that system by removing the C02. I suspect that the HBW experience might be a mild and less traumatic version of the near death experience.

My experiences

First of all, a caveat: I am reporting my experience. Every person in the groups I have participated in had radically different experiences from the other participants, and those experiences radically different from other times they have done it. One person will report that "nothing" happened, and another will have experienced God. In other words, Your Milage May Vary.

Each time I lay down to begin breathing, I get filled with a feeling of intense dread. I have the urge to grab my things and run out the door! I thought at first that my dread was for the physical exhaustion that is possible with HBW, but last time realized that's not it. (I never feel dread when I'm about to go out drinking -- and that's much harder on my body than HBW!). Instead, I suspect, some part of my Self is terrified of impending change that might occur.

I tend to be a "good" breather, which I think means that I breath very fast and very deep and keep it going most of the time. I think this results in some pretty profound experiences. After a short while, my hands, face, and perhaps my feet get tingley and numb. My hands actually start to curl up into a rigid cramp called tetany. Occasionally that cramping will extend into my arms, and down into my feet, and I need help from my sitter to help straighten my hands out. It's amazing to me that, by my second HBW session, the tetany has begun to diminish during the breathing, and will probably disappear completely.the next time I do HBW. I had always thought tetany was a biological fact associated with hyperventilization, but not so. The experience of feeling my hands work through the tetany and ‘open up' is incredible. A great heat seems to grow up my arms, my hands start to get hot and, after a while, start to vibrate violently. In my second session the main thing I did was hold my arms in the air above me and just feel them vibrate. After that session, I had the uncanny but distinct feeling that there was somehow more "me" in my hands and arms than before, and I noticed that I could see the veins in my palms more clearly! Although it's been about two weeks since my last session, my hands still feel warmer than usual. Actually they feel rather hot. Other people have reported their creative and healing abilities opening up when tetany is worked through.-- it's too soon for me to tell.

During the beginning period -- and sometimes in the rest of the session -- my brain drives me crazy. "Nothing's happening. No pictures yet -- maybe that's a picture. Listen to the music, no watch my breathing, I wonder if I'll have to pee soon." And so on and on. It doesn't seem to matter what's really going on, the brain just spins out its stuff. In my second session I ended up in a state where I was almost screaming out loud with every breath, hitting the mat with my hands -- and my brain was going "mmm, maybe this is an experience ... but I don't see any pictures yet so maybe ... blah blah ..."

While the session is driven by the breathing, the most intense experiences seem to arise out of the calm moments between heavy breathing (I suspect that during the slowed breathing the 02 level in the brain drops further but the C02 level hasn't risen enough yet to trigger the need to breath more deeply). It's during those times that a mesmerizing story or vivid picture or intense feeling might present itself and begin to rule the experience. It's hard to describe how vividly the experience seems to take over! At one moment I'm breathing heavily, and a few moments later I'm sobbing loudly or laughing or screaming in rage. My sense of self / ego, the part that worries about the other people in the room or cares if I'm making a fool of myself, seems to shrink to a small part along with my thinking brain, and watches from afar. My brain still chatters, but it's so removed from the immediate experience that it ceases to matter very much.

My last session seemed to center around a memory of my birth! I have no idea if it was metaphorical or literal, but it felt intensely real. At a certain point into the session (my hands cramping up, my brain chattering), I got a picture of a pregnant woman. That picture filled me with intense feeling (or perhaps I got the picture to make sense of the feeling?) and I started to yell! Each breath was a yell. I had my sitter give me leverage (my brain still able to make plans and set things up and communicate -- it's handy for that kind of stuff sometimes. I guess I'll keep it.) and I pushed against his hands above my head, yelling with every cell in my body with each push. This was not artificial in any way. There was never a logical connection like "I have these feelings if I yell maybe I'll work them out." Rather, the pushing and the yelling and the feeling and the images were all the same thing and expressed with a sensation closer to desperation than intention. I was both a baby pushing to get out and the mother pushing to give birth. I'll skip the details of the next part, except to say that I believe I experienced the intention I had as a spiritual being to choose and create my own birth. That intention was bigger than anything I have ever experienced or felt in my life.

While it's easier to describe images and pictures, some experiences in HBW seemed unconnected to thought. There would be moments where I had gone ... someplace, to a place where there were no words or pictures or thoughts and as a result the feeling was that there was no experience at all. I know that I wasn't asleep yet I would ‘wake up' from that place with a snap. Then there would be a huge rush of fear and then a wave of heat would rise through my body. Other people have described similar ‘lapses', but with different responses to them.

My Three Sessions, summarized

My first session was quite profound. All I can say is that I simply "experienced God," and also got the insight that it doesn't really matter if I experience God or not! ("God" is sort of like breathing: You're going to breathe whether or not you know what air is. When something is that ubiquitous you don't need to look for it!) I was also deeply exhausted from that session. Included in that exhaustion was the feeling that I wanted to avoid attempting out-of-body experiences (I had been trying unsuccessfully for months). I have since regained some interest (several months later) but not to the extent I had before.

My second session was odd. On one hand it seemed like "nothing happened." On the other hand I remember that I was laying there yelling and throwing my hands in the air -- so something must have happened! I guess if the brain doesn't get words or pictures then it thinks ‘nothing' is happening. I did experience the tetany dissolving, which was very interesting.

My third session was a couple weeks ago. In that session I experienced an aspect of my own birth! It also subsequenty helped trigger an out-of-body experience a few days later (see below). That HBW day was the first of six monthly sessions I will do with the same group of people. I think having a consistent group will really help the momentum build. Knowing that they will be back next time makes the experience more real, somehow.


Personally, I tend to have a frustrating combination of interest in healing/metaphysics, etc and a severe case of skepticism. I've tried lots of different kinds of healing, meditation and stuff like that, and usually do not have the trancendental experiences claimed by the adherents to whatever system I look into. So when I say that HBW is intense, I really mean it!

HBW is a very powerful tool for getting directly to parts of our inner nature and concsiousness and letting those parts work themselves out in profound ways! That inner nature is beyond words and description -- it may even be beyond reality as we perceive it -- and is thus able to break through barriers imposed by our thinking and the normal status quo of our conciousness.

I don't think HBW is for everyone. For instance I would only recommend it to those who are already involved in some kind of healing process such as therapy or meditation or art or even systematic introspection. Not having a way to deal with the "material" (charged memories or feelings) afterward might result in a sense of being tossed off a cliff holding a bag of intense stuff. Also, I suspect a lot of unconscious energies are released in the process and continue to evolve afterwards. Having a way to channel those energies would be very important.

While it's impossible not to have expectations, going into HBW with a specific agenda is a waste of time. Every session is different -- and a surprise. So far it's the biggest adventure I've ever been on!

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