Meditation and mindfulness practices are no longer exclusive to religious and spiritual people. Countless scientific studies have documented the benefits of things like breathwork on anxiety, anger, rumination, depression, well-being, and cognitive function.

One such practice is holotropic breathwork, a breathing technique designed to help you heal from trauma and grow as a person. Holotropic breathwork can take you to a natural psychedelic state without illegal drugs.

Keep reading to learn more about holotropic breathwork as part of our Breathwork Guide series.

What is Holotropic Breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork is a breathing technique with psychotherapeutic benefits. The word “holotropic” essentially means to move toward wholeness. Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof, two transpersonal psychologists, created holotropic breathwork in 1975 to replace LSD in therapy.

The technique involves intensive breathing similar to hyperventilation. The therapist will play music and provide support during the practice to alter your state of consciousness. Completing holotropic breathing sessions can help you release emotions and trauma to heal and grow.

The fast breathing lasts between a few minutes to a few hours, depending on your needs and the facilitator’s methods. The objective is to reduce the amount of oxygen in your body to alter your consciousness. Having a facilitator can ensure you stay safe during the practice.

After the session, you will draw a mandala or do something else to express yourself creatively. You will discuss your experiences with the facilitator.

What is Trauma?

Holotropic breathwork moves you toward wholeness by helping you confront, accept, and move past trauma. Trauma results from distressing events that lead to a negative mental or physical response. Some manifestations of trauma include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Dissociation
  • Insomnia
  • Indigestion
  • Emotionlessness
  • Feeling out of control
  • Nightmares

Sometimes, people forget their trauma consciously and store the event in their subconscious mind. You might find triggers that spark a physiological response and not know their source.

Through holotropic breathwork, you can access these subconscious memories. Then, you can discuss the events with your facilitator to understand and move past the trauma.

How Does Holotropic Breathwork Affect the Mind?

According to holotropic breathwork practitioners, hyperventilation helps you access different levels of consciousness. Besides trauma, you can recall your birth and past life experiences.

Even if you don’t believe in past lives, you can see different memories and explore your mind to learn more about yourself.

During the act, you might instinctively feel panicked. It can get physically and mentally uncomfortable as you force out oxygen and change your state of being. Holotropic breathwork can leave you lightheaded, and it conjures an intense emotional response.

Conscious mind like psychedelics after practicing holotropic breathwork
Conscious mind like psychedelics after practicing holotropic breathwork

Benefits of Holotropic Breathwork

Facilitators use holotropic breathwork to treat conditions like:

  • Addiction
  • Anger
  • Anxiety 
  • Asthma
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Fear of death
  • Hostility
  • Inflammation
  • Lack of purpose
  • Low self-esteem
  • Migraines
  • Poor blood circulation
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Premenstrual tension
  • Stress
  • Trauma

A 1996 study found that holotropic breathwork reduced distress from low self-esteem and death anxiety. While it did not reduce psychological issues from relationships, the researchers concluded that this technique could aid in some afflictions.

This 2007 study discovered that holotropic breathwork affected central nervous system activity, and it helped reduce avoidance behaviors. However, they believed it should be used in conjunction with traditional therapy.

A 2013 report documented that consistent practice of holotropic breathwork helped most practitioners connect to a higher power, reduce stress, and achieve emotional and physical catharsis. Nobody had adverse reactions, but 82% had transpersonal experiences.

One 2014 study showed that holotropic breathwork could improve exercise performance and training effectiveness. Another found anti-inflammatory benefits from hyperventilation.

This 2015 study reported that practitioners of holotropic breathwork had positive character, temperament, and self-awareness changes. They became less needy, overly accommodating, angry, and hostile. Furthermore, they had a steadier temperament and a reduction in interpersonal problems.

Should I Practice Holotropic Breathwork?

Most people can safely practice holotropic breathwork. Nonetheless, you should ask your doctor before a session if you have one of these conditions:

  • Angina
  • Aneurysms 
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Heart attacks
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Panic attacks
  • Psychosis 
  • Recent surgery or injury
  • Retinal detachment
  • Seizures
  • Severe mental health issues

Furthermore, you should talk to your doctor if you take any medications or are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you have a mental illness, your doctor may recommend practicing it with ongoing therapy to prevent the worsening of symptoms from recalling painful memories.

How to Practice Holotropic Breathwork

Ideally, you should practice holotropic breathwork with a facilitator trained in the practice who can help you work through emotions. The process goes as follows.

You will lie or recline on your back. You start by taking deep belly breaths. Stick out your stomach as you inhale to gather as much air as possible. Then, push it out quickly. Repeat the deep breaths until you reach your full lung capacity, going faster and deeper with each change.

The goal is to control your breath manually rather than automatically. By focusing on your breath, you can clear your thoughts and acclimate to the process.

After deep breathing for a few minutes, you can pick up the pace. Breathe as fast and deep as possible. When your oxygen depletes during your exhale, inhale deeply again. You should feel like you are hyperventilating.

It should feel like you aren’t taking in enough air because you are hyper-oxygenating yourself without absorbing the oxygen.

The facilitator will play evocative, therapeutic music to help induce an altered consciousness. The session can last up to two hours.

While it happens, you might laugh, cry hysterically, see memories, get visions, feel relaxed, or even achieve spiritual awakening. You might access your inner wisdom and solve some problems you’ve been having.

Once your breathing session has finished, you will draw a mandala to represent your experiences. Then, you discuss the events with the facilitator. They will encourage you to understand your experience by asking you to elaborate and explain further.

Final Thoughts

Holotropic breathwork is a powerful, psychedelic-like experience that can help you grow from trauma. By practicing it with a trained facilitator, you can better understand yourself in a safe environment.

If you’re curious about trying this technique, look for a holotropic breathwork facilitator near you. Happy breathing!