Shorter Breathwork Sessions
By Ted Riskin

Published in The Inner Door Vol. 16 No. 1 (2004)

Since beginning the Grof Transpersonal Training, when people would mention doing individual Holotropic sessions, I felt a little confused. How could an individual session be called Holotropic Breathwork™ when the participant would not experience the full Holotropic process? He would miss the opportunity of being a sitter and of participating in the sharing group, and in most cases would not experience the full three-hour session and mandala drawing as well. On the other hand, there are always people who might benefit from breathwork, but who would not end up at a workshop. They might be unable to free up a whole day, they might refuse to work in a group, or might even be unable to attend a workshop because of observing the Sabbath.

For these people, I would occasionally experiment with individual sessions, more or less following the rebirthing model, and explaining that we weren't doing Holotropic Breathwork™. I usually saw these sessions as being an inferior product to the workshop experience. Then, at the June 2001 Global Inspiration Conference of the International Breathwork Foundation, I got to hang around with plenty of practitioners for whom this was their normal way of offering breathwork, including representatives of 21 different schools. They certainly didn't feel that they offered an inferior product. I also met Carol Lampman, who had developed a process that she called Breath Therapy, combining her training in Reichian Process Work and hypnotherapy with her experiences of Integrative, Cathartic, Hendricks, and Rebirthing Breathwork (see her website at Carol invited me to be her guest at a Level I training, and I subsequently attended and helped teach Level II, as well as beginning her 3-module Masters program.

As a result of working with Carol and my own experimentation, I have found that there are ways to maximize the value of an individual session of approximately one hour. First, unlike the Holotropic model, which emphasizes an openness to any outcome that the Inner Healer might select, in a shorter session you might ask the breather to write down an intention. You may be surprised by how often her experience will be in alignment with her intention. After the session, she can also write down an affirmation that will help bring what she learned into her life.

Another way to speed up the process is to forego the relaxation that we typically do before the breathing session. Carol likes to start people with a slow circular breathing, imagining the breath moving up the back on the inhale and down the front on the exhale. Similar to the induction phase in hypnosis, this process can be a nice way for the beginning breather to start, helping him to gently connect with the body and giving you a chance to check in with him before switching to the faster and deeper breathing. Or, you can play a dance song and invite him to dance vigorously to ground the body and get the breathing going. After the song, or when he is ready, he can lie down and immediately go into the fast and full breathing. I have been using dancing instead of the relaxation for one of the sessions at each workshop, and it has been well received, not to mention an opportunity for the group to connect in a fun way. For people whose emotions tend to be blocked, or who tend to go unconscious, I might offer a chance to start by hitting a 36' x 32' x 24' foam block covered with cloth that I use in my Core Energetics practice. After whacking that thing with a tennis racquet and making sound as long as they can, clients seem more able to get into the flow of the breathing without getting sleepy.

Another difference in a short session is that I am more likely to intervene in the process. While things work best when we honor the Inner Healer, it can sometimes be useful to also address the "Inner Defender." Left to her own devices, the breather can often spend lots of time with the brakes on, sometimes even many sessions. While the resistance to process may be the Inner Healer's determination that the breather isn't ready to go deeper, I think that sometimes it is the Inner Defender that has taken control. How can we expect the Inner Healer to work its magic before the person has even entered the nonordinary realm? Though it is a wonderful thing when the breather slips by the resistance on her own, I believe there can also be value in the therapist's judicious intervention towards letting go, especially if you have already built up a relationship. Of course, this perspective is one reason why I don't call these sessions Holotropic Breathwork™. Another benefit of intervening is that processing trauma while dissociated can be retraumatizing, while helping the breather stay present and grounded in the body can help her reclaim her power. You can also be on the lookout for ruts and seemingly nonproductive loops.

When there is resistance to maintaining a full breath, I tend to remind and encourage the client. If the resistance persists, I may ask him to have a temper tantrum, a technique that any of the neo-Reichian therapies would prescribe for opening blocked energy, involving kicking the legs, hitting with the arms, moving the head back and forth, and yelling, with the intention to "let go." Another intervention might be to support the breather's movements; for example, if he is arching his back, supporting him with a towel or roller can help him really let go to the stretch. And I will even do some cognitive processing or energetic release work in the middle of a session, though I try to be aware if the breather wants to talk as a way to avoid what he is feeling.

Since most of us offer workshops monthly at most, individual breathwork sessions can allow someone to be helped in a more timely way. I had one client who was having severe panic attacks and decided to breathe weekly. In the initial sessions, she was able to feel her terror with my support, letting go of her fear of the fear. Bodywork helped her stay present with the feelings. She then started to connect the anxiety to childhood feelings of abandonment. In the third session she experienced her observer self that could stay calm while the other self freaked out. Because she could talk with me during the session, we were able to develop her "inner adult" and form affirmations such as "I value myself and that's enough." By the fourth session, she was having more transpersonal experiences, some that related to her panic, and others that provided calming imagery. Further insights, which were supported by immediate dialogue, concerned the meaning of courage, taking responsibility, her inherent goodness, dealing with her inner critic, and handling the negative energy of others. To anchor the ability to stand up to the inner critic, she got on her feet, hit the foam rubber cube, and yelled "Back off!" Though she also benefited from attending a Holotropic workshop during this time, using these shorter sessions clearly gave her something that she would not have received otherwise.

Besides using shorter sessions for individual work, I have been offering workshops with them as well. One format includes two sessions of about 80 minutes each, using sitters as we do in the Holotropic model, combined with another integrative process such as SoulCollage™ or intuitive painting. Besides allowing these wonderful combinations of modalities, the format allows me to end the workshop by around 6:00 pm, permitting those who cannot get away for 12 or 13 hours to experience the work and obviating the need to deal with dinner. I also offer a 4½ hour workshop called "Focus Breathwork," that includes an opening circle, two breathing sessions, and a closing sharing. I believe this is a great way for people to get a taste of the process without a huge commitment of time, and some of them subsequently register for the full Holotropic workshops. Some examples of people for whom this may have been the only entry into breathwork are therapy clients who were leery of anything out of the ordinary, and a woman who came with her brother to a No Frills workshop after seeing a presentation to her college class.

What about music? Sometimes I will do an individual session without music, which makes it easier to include other types of processing in the middle. Otherwise, I have been compressing my Holotropic music sets into versions that range from 45 to 95 minutes, following the same basic trajectory. These shorter music sessions are being used in several breathwork training programs. (If you would like music for shorter sessions, please contact me.) Typically, I will use a 50 to 60 minute session for individual work and 80 minutes for the workshops.

While nothing will replace the beauty of the Holotropic model in my heart, I have been finding the shorter breathwork sessions to be surprisingly useful. You too might be surprised at how much can be accomplished in such a short time.



This article originally appeared in The Inner Door Vol. 16 No. 1 (2004), published by the Association for Holotropic Breathwork International.


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