Can Holotropic Breathwork Mimic a Psychedelic Experience?
Can Holotropic Breathwork Mimic a Psychedelic Experience?
After LSD was outlawed in the United States in the late 1960s and all research on the substance was shut down, the renowned LSD-facilitated therapy researcher Stanislav Grof sought new ways to access similar non-ordinary states of consciousness. He came up with a breathwork practice that is at once simple and dramatic, involving deep and fast breaths that can bring on a vivid, dreamlike state.
The practice, which Grof named Holotropic Breathwork—“holotropic” means “moving toward wholeness”—is a powerful tool for self-exploration, healing, and growth. It’s founded upon the same principles as established psychedelic-facilitated therapies, meaning it should be done under the guidance of a licensed facilitator and with careful attention to safety, ethics, respect, and set and setting.
We talked to Stacia Butterfield, a Holotropic Breathwork facilitator with nearly two decades of experience through Grof Transpersonal Training, to learn what goes into a Holotropic Breathwork workshop and what people can expect to get out of the technique.
A Q&A with Stacia Butterfield
Stan Grof was a pioneer in LSD research beginning in the 1950s in what’s now the Czech Republic. He came to the US in 1967 and worked at Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, which is where the last government-funded psychedelic research programs were in the 1970s. When research funding dried up, Grof continued his consciousness studies at the Esalen Institute, where he was a scholar-in-residence for thirteen years and offered monthlong workshops.
In the early days of Esalen, as Stan and Christina Grof were developing—although I think of it more like midwifing in—the process of Holotropic Breathwork, they experimented with a lot of different breathing techniques to access altered states of consciousness. (There are many very effective breathwork techniques that originated around the world: breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, holding the breath for certain counts, etc.)
They settled on this very simple process of breathing a little bit deeper, a little bit more fully, and a little bit more effectively. And that was it. They wanted to keep the process simple in order to allow people to let go of any mental process around it. The Grofs didn’t want people thinking so much about doing it the right way that they’d miss the point: to mobilize unconscious material and allow for it to surface.
Stan coined the word “Holotropic” to describe this breathwork. The word comes from the Greek “holos,” meaning “wholeness,” and “trepein,” meaning “orienting to.” It means “moving toward wholeness,” referring to non-ordinary states of consciousness that have healing potential.
Holotropic Breathwork is a practice of self-exploration in non-ordinary states of consciousness. It looks and feels uniquely different for each person. The process includes deep breathing, sound or evocative music, attention to set and setting, and—most importantly—trust in the intrinsic and unique healing intelligence of the breather.
People begin with their eyes closed, lying back. The idea is to quiet the mind, relax the body, and go in without any expectations, trusting that this session is going to be guided by your own inner healing wisdom. As the music rises, you begin to breathe in the way I described: fully and deeply, for up to three hours at a time.
It’s critical to approach this work with a beginner’s mind and a willingness to surrender to the non-ordinary state. It can take time to feel brave enough to soften and open up to whatever comes up: Holotropic Breathwork often brings up whatever emotionally charged material is closest to the threshold of consciousness that day. It’s easy when that experience is blissful, colorful, or cosmic. It’s more difficult when the material that comes up is challenging.
The body can hold trauma, and the body can also release trauma: When it does, it might look like shaking or rocking, and people might make sounds. Sometimes that movement looks strange from the outside, but we trust that the surfacing material is guided from within, and we encourage breathers to move in a way that feels right for them. Breathers typically innately know what to do. And if they don’t, they begin learning how to trust their impulses toward healing and get better at working with what arises without judgment. It’s an adventure in consciousness.
I think of Holotropic Breathwork as the slow-food movement of breathwork. You don’t just sit down for twenty minutes in a class. A workshop takes a full day, about eight to twelve hours. (There are also weekend-long workshops and six-day workshops that are wonderful.) We do Holotropic Breathwork as a full-day event for two reasons: First, because the work is done in dyads; you take turns with a partner. And second, because any good non-ordinary state work includes good preparation and integration. These experiences are very different from ordinary reality.
Preparation: The workshop begins with an opening share circle, followed by a preparation session. We describe the range of potential experiences one might have in the session, including physical sensations, visuals, intense emotions, and shifts in perception such as profound insights or meaning making of important life events. After that comes finding a partner.
Breathwork: In pairs, one person starts as the breather and the other starts as the sitter. Each breathing session is about two and a half to three hours long. Many people report the sitting experience to be a valuable learning opportunity—sometimes, one as powerful as the breathwork session itself. The partners exchange roles for the second session.
Integration: Each breather then has an opportunity to do some artwork after their session, and we close with a group sharing. The fact that this work is mostly done in community is, in my opinion, the secret sauce. People are so hungry for connection these days; this format is long but also nourishing. It’s such an old way of being together that people usually make deep and trusted connections with one another in an easy and natural way.
Not everyone who comes to a Holotropic Breathwork workshop has a spiritual experience. But I do believe if you engage in some kind of regular systematic approach to spirituality, you will eventually go beyond the material plane and into the spiritual realm. The core of all the great spiritual traditions is the ultimate identity of the individual with the Divine—that’s something you have to go inside yourself to experience.
One of Stan Grof’s major contributions to his field is that we need a cartography of the psyche that includes and legitimizes this spiritual dimension. One of the most powerful and healing non-ordinary state experiences is that of cosmic unity, or a felt sense of oneness: with nature, with other people, with the divine in various forms. To have a direct experience of that—in Holotropic Breathwork or through some other practice—can be a real game changer for people.
The more I do this work, the more convinced I am that it is all about integration. Once breathers have landed back in ordinary reality, they are invited to do some artwork. This is a beginning gesture of anchoring the inner experience in the outer world. Then breathers share the meaningful parts of their session in a closing circle. This is often a favorite part of the whole journey: holding space for each other with regard, tolerance, and tenderness.
There can be a tendency to want to have the meaning of a session all figured out by the end of the workshop. I tend to caution against this and encourage people to stay open and curious about their experience for at least the next few days. If they can do that, material will often continue to unfold, in the form of dreams or further insights, making it possible to get a bigger picture of what is wanting to emerge.
These experiences, as visceral as they can feel in the moment, do fade. Finding ways to keep the insights alive can be important. People tend to know what works for them: journaling, painting, time in nature, chanting, bodywork, a good therapist, collaging, sharing with a trusted friend. Whatever it is, do it. These insights are gifts from our psyche, and they deserve our attention.
Stacia Butterfield is a Holotropic Breathwork practitioner and Grof Transpersonal Training facilitator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Butterfield takes a bodywork-centered approach to the integration of deep inner work, which she has applied at Holotropic Breathwork workshops, at ibogaine clinics, and in ketamine-assisted and MDMA-facilitated therapy trainings.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.