Unlike Other Breathing Exercises, Holotropic Breathwork Is Meant To Be Done With A Partner

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There are a lot of trendy treatments out there that promise to bring a new level of awareness to your mental health. But there’s one in particular that’s been popping up all over social media as of late, even though it’s not exactly new: holotropic breathwork.

Holotropic breathwork is a breathing practice where you do fast, controlled breathing patterns, usually in a group setting, to help influence your mind and emotions, says Matthew Johnson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, who is researching holotrophic breathwork.

The name derives from the Greek words holoswhich means whole, and trepein, which means moving in the direction of something.It was developed by psychiatrists Stanislav and Christina Grof in the 1970s as a way for people to develop an altered state of consciousness without using drugs. The idea is that it can push people toward positive transformation and wholeness. It’s also used as a tool in therapy, and it’s now even being studied as a potential treatment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Got questions on how, exactly, this all works? Here’s what you need to know.

What does holotropic breathwork do?

Holotropic breathwork is not going for a calming effect and instead has a goal of reaching a psychedelic type of experience, per Johnson. “It may not necessarily be easy, and it will be intense,” he says. “But it can be an opportunity to explore one’s own mind in a useful way.” It’s meant to trigger intense emotions, sensory changes, and insights.

It is different from other breathing exercises, BTW. It’s meant to be done in pairs and overseen by someone who has been specially trained in holotropic breathwork, explains Laurane McGlynn, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and certified holotropic breathwork facilitator who offers weekend workshops.

The sessions are usually set to specific kinds of music and can go on for up to three hours. “Of all of the different breathing exercises, holotropic breathwork is more on the evocative and energetic side,” Johnson says. “The breathing is definitely heavier than some other varieties.”

What happens during holotropic breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork sessions are typically done in groups, with people pairing off. One person is the breather, who actually does the breathing exercise, while the other is the sitter, who is essentially there to observe. “The sitter’s role is simply to be present and available to support the breather—not to interfere, interrupt, or try to guide the process,” McGlynn says. “In addition, trained facilitators are available to offer support or body work—focused release work—as needed or requested by the breather.”

During a session, the room is usually darkened, and cushions, mattresses, and blankets are available for the breather to use. One session usually lasts from two and a half to three hours, and there’s a schedule from start to finish. “In the first hour of a breathing session, music with fast rhythms, such as drumming music, is used to support breathing,” McGlynn explains. “In the second hour, more dramatic pieces of music are used to facilitate breakthroughs. In the last hour, slow or spiritual music is played.”

The breather has closed their eyes and lies down on a mat. They use their own breath and the music in the room “to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This state activates the natural inner healing process of the individual’s psyche, bringing him or her a particular set of internal experiences,” McGlynn says. While there can be recurring themes with holotropic breathwork, she points out that “no two sessions are ever alike.”

As for what this feels like, there’s a range. “At more extreme levels, someone can feel removed from themselves, like they’re not in their own body or they might actually feel more in touch with their own body,” Johnson says. “There is often sobbing and people may cough up a lot of phlegm. Sometimes folks will feel like they’re purging the body of toxins or negative thoughts.”

At the end of the session, the breather is encouraged to create a mandala (geometric configuration of symbols) to visually represent their experience, McGlynn says. There may also be a group discussion at the end where people can share their experience.

Can you do holotropic breathwork on your own?

Not really. Certain elements have to be in place for the breathing exercise to be actually considered holotropic breathwork, according to McGlynn. “If it is shorter or done alone, then it is not holotropic breathwork,” she says.

Why is partnering up so important? “If a person encounters material that may be difficult to process, they do not have any support to process or integrate that experience,” McGlynn explains. “Holotropic breathwork offers a safe and supportive setting to process the experiences a breather may encounter during their session .” That’s where the sitter comes in.

If you want to give it a shot, McGlynn recommends visiting the Grof Transpersonal Training website to find a list of names of certified facilitators near you.

What are the benefits of practicing holotropic breathwork?

TBH, there isn’t a ton of research out there right now about how holotropic breathwork can treat mental health conditions. But at least one small 2015 study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that participants felt more self-aware after undergoing a session.

There is a ton of anecdotal evidence to back up this practice, though. “Participants who have experienced holotropic breathwork report that therapeutic benefits can include healing anxiety and depression, release of trauma, opening to compassion, courage, and love, and connection to expanded states of consciousness, and the spiritual realm,” McGlynn says. “Breathers often describe experiencing a death or rebirth experience.”

Still, in terms of any actual science behind this, there’s next to nothing, Johnson says. However, he’s hoping to change that by studying the potential role of holotropic breathwork in treating PTSD.

Is holotropic breathwork safe?

While holotropoic breathwork is generally considered safe, it isn’t for everyone. Because it can cause a strong physical and emotional reaction, McGlynn says certain groups should not attempt it, including people who are pregnant, have heart disease or a history of heart attack, severe hypertension, epilepsy, osteoporosis, asthma, and recent surgeries and physical injuries.

People with asthma may be able to participate, but they’ll usually need to make sure they have an inhaler with them, McGlynn advises.

If you’re interested in trying holotropic breathwork but you have an underlying health condition, check in with your primary care doctor first, just to be safe.

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