Holotropic breathwork uses accelerated breathing and music to help you increase self-awareness and cope with past traumas.
Even if you’ve practiced breathing exercises in the past, the term “holotropic breathwork” might not be familiar to you. Unlike other wellness practices like meditation and yoga, there’s not enough evidence that holotropic breathwork is helpful.
However, it can be used to help ease the symptoms of different mental health conditions.
Holotropic breathwork uses rapid, controlled breathing patterns and rhythmic music to induce a dream-like experience, or what’s usually referred to as an altered state of consciousness (ASCs).
It was created in the 1970s by psychiatrists Stanislav and Christina Grof after hallucinogenic drugs like LSD were outlawed in the U.S. in 1968.
The Grofs figured out a way to achieve similarly psychedelic “highs” through accelerated breathing as a therapeutic and spiritual tool — no drugs needed. They believed that this intense meditative state could help people heal by opening up the mind for deep exploration and releasing past trauma.
The word holotropic comes from the Greek words “holos” or “whole” and “trepein” which means “to move in the direction of something,” together translating to “moving towards wholeness.”
It’s based on a theory that largely rejects treating psychological symptoms as a disorder or disease, which distinguishes it from most other western approaches to mental health.
The goal is to access parts of your psyche that can’t be reached under normal conditions. Stanislav Grof even believed that holotropic breathing could allow people to relive past-life events.
If traditional mental health treatments haven’t helped, an alternative like holotropic breathwork might be something to consider.
Despite the lack of clinical support for holotropic breathwork as a treatment for mental disorders, many people who practice holotropic breathwork agree that the technique has allowed them to access deeper levels of consciousness and heal naturally from past trauma.
It’s used to relieve mental health conditions and their symptoms, like:
- substance use disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- negative thinking
- chronic stress
- avoidance behaviors
However, this is a small study that was performed with 20 participants, and more research is needed.
A 2011 case study investigated holotropic breathwork as a possible form of treatment for people with substance use disorders and found some promising results.
Some people claim that holotropic breathwork relieved them of their psychological distress and lead to great personal growth after just one session, while others use it as a regular practice over the span of many years.
However, it should be reiterated that the research on holotropic breathwork is pretty sparse and requires much further investigation.
The most important guideline for holotropic breathing is to never attempt it by yourself.
One-on-one and group sessions can only be led by people certified in holotropic breathwork by the Grof Foundation, which includes a 600-hour training course.
During the session, you’ll likely be paired with a “sitter” who observes and can provide support, but won’t interfere during your breathing unless you’re in severe distress or have a medical emergency.
A core principle of holotropic breathwork is that the experience is largely self-led, and you’re encouraged to focus on whatever bubbles to the surface. Trauma that needs healing will emerge naturally during accelerated breathing, not through outside direction.
But first, the “sitter” will lead the group through the necessary steps:
- Lie down on a mat for the whole time you’re breathing.
- Close your eyes and begin to breath faster, deeper, and evenly as the rhythmic music plays in the background. There should be no time between inhales and exhales.
- Make any movements or sounds that come naturally, but keep your eyes closed.
- Continue the rapid breathing — this can last minutes or hours.
- When the time comes, switch roles with your partner who will now be the “breather.”
- After the breathwork is complete, the group will talk about their emotions and draw mandalas that creatively represent their experience. Any reflection or introspection you share is left open-ended and won’t be interpreted by the practitioner.
Sessions typically last between 2 and 3 hours.
Proceed with caution if you decide to try holotropic breathwork because there can be some physical side effects associated with it.
Since the experience of holotropic breathwork can be intense and bring up unsettling emotions, some professionals recommend seeing a traditional talk therapist, too.
What can be illuminating and freeing for some can be scary and traumatic for others, especially in cases where past trauma is relived. That’s part of the reason why holotropic breathwork remains a controversial practice and should always be done with at least one other person.
Accelerated breathing can lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide and can cause significant physical symptoms such as:
- shortness of breath
- numbness in the limbs
- racing heartbeat
Consider consulting a primary care doctor or avoiding holotropic breathwork entirely if you have:
- a condition you take medication for
- panic attacks
- heart attacks or cardiovascular issues
- a recent injury or surgery
Holotropic breathwork isn’t recommended for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
The verdict on the legitimacy of holotropic breathwork has yet to come in, at least in terms of clinical research. As we’ve laid out, there are some studies with promising findings and people who have embraced it, but much more investigation into its possible risks and rewards is needed.
If you’re affected by past trauma, chronic stress, or substance abuse and haven’t found success with traditional mental health treatment, holotropic breathwork might be a useful alternative.
Reach out to your doctor to further discuss the risks and potential benefits. If you decide to give it a try, search here to find a certified holotropic breathwork practitioner near you.