The consciousness-expanding experience of a psychedelic drug trip – without the drugs. If you’ve never experienced holotropic breathing, you might doubt it’s even possible. But those who have first-hand experience using the technique know that a mind-expanding psychedelic vision is possible even without the classic psychedelic substances.

You might have come across breathwork if you’ve ever looked into alternative ways of improving well-being, especially healing from trauma.While there are several different techniques out there, holotropic breathing stands out among them as particularly powerful and effective for bringing about the kinds of deep insight that lead to healing.

What Is Holotropic Breathing?

You might not be familiar with the specific technique of holotropic breathing, as it’s still relatively new. But it shares its roots with other types of breathwork that have been done for centuries for therapeutic and spiritual benefits. Holotropic breathing is considered a New Age form of breathwork that employs conscious controlled breathing to create a state of altered consciousness that can open up insights and lead to healing.

The technique comes from Stanislav and Christina Grof and was created in the late 60s to achieve the same profound outcomes of LSD-assisted therapy, without of course the LSD which had been made illegal. Holotropic itself means “moving toward wholeness.”

And that’s what the therapy seeks to help practitioners do – to integrate experiences that can help them learn about themselves and discover better mental and emotional health.

Holotropic Breathing vs Traditional Breathwork

Holotropic breathing differs from other types of breathwork in a few key ways. Those interested in trying holotropic breathwork are not encouraged to learn the technique on their own, as with the Wim Hof Method. Instead, holotropic breathing is done in sessions with an experienced facilitator. Among other key components of Grof’s technique are elements of the setting that make the work more effective, like music and the group experience following a session.

And unlike Clarity or Rebirthing Breathwork, the holotropic breathing technique doesn’t use circular breathing, where there are no pauses between the in-breath and out-breath. Holotropic breathing involves more defined and rapid breaths to produce the experience.

What Holotropic Breathing is Like

A holotropic breathwork session as we’ve seen involves more than just the breath, which is only one of several components that make up the whole process. Music, a sort of mental map, bodywork, art, and a group experience all are critical pieces to getting the full benefits of this therapy.

Before beginning, the facilitator sets expectations by mapping out where the practitioner might find themselves in their psyche during the experience – from beyond the past in their adult life or childhood, to even their own birth. There is little other guidance for the breather, so having some ideas about what to expect is helpful before diving in.

While lying down during the session, the breather is accompanied by a sitter – something akin to a spotter at the gym, who helps ensure safety by monitoring for even breathing to avoid hyperventilation. Music is played that starts rhythmic, usually drumming, then later becomes evocative and more reflective. This mirrors the typical trajectory of the holotropic breathwork journey.

The entire experience may last up to a few hours, including before and after the breathwork portion itself. The breathwork is generally characterized by a number of accelerated breaths, rapid and even. Guidance is provided by the facilitator for the proper rhythm, but participants are not instructed on what to look for or what they might find in their altered state. Everyone is encouraged to allow whatever comes up to be worked through. Preparation, and integration following the experience, are important to deal with the intense emotions that often come up. And a crucial part of this integration in holotropic breathwork is openness – no judgment is made about anything that comes up during a session.

After a session, there is a distinct focus on creative expression to further integrate the experience – mandala drawing specifically. A group discussion takes place as well which leads to deeper understanding and insights from the experience.

Applications of Holotropic Breathing

Because holotropic breathing brings about an altered state that allows for deep personal exploration, it can be an excellent option for people wanting to work through lingering emotional issues.

Areas of the mind normally inaccessible to us in normal, waking consciousness become possible to explore in the dreamlike, non-ordinary state of consciousness brought about using this technique. And by accessing memories of trauma or energy blockages, the negative emotions associated can be released.

Rather than using psychoactive substances to reach an altered state of consciousness – which of course aren’t always an option – holotropic breathwork makes it possible to achieve a profound psychedelic experience using no substance at all. From PTSD to resolving birth trauma, this breathing technique has helped people with a variety of mental and emotional health concerns.

Participants report feelings of oneness, connection with the universe, and a life-after-death kind of experience that seem to match the effects of psychedelic substances. These feelings of continuity and awareness of a higher spiritual existence contribute to profound and long-term healing.

Things to Consider

The holotropic breath experience is self-directed, and outcomes do vary by individual. No specific instructions are given on what to focus on, so whatever emerges is said to be the right thing for the person at that time. That said, it may not be the best treatment for everyone – the breathing technique can alter blood chemistry temporarily as normal breathing patterns are changed. Generally, anyone with a history of heart condition or seizures, or who is pregnant, would be advised to avoid holotropic breathwork. There has yet to be extensive research on the long-term effects of this technique, so there is still some skepticism and hesitation.

Even so, the benefits may outweigh any potential risks – especially in cases where mental illness has become debilitating and another treatment is either unavailable or ineffective. Of course, the best thing is to consult a medical professional or coach first to find out if it’s a good fit. In any case, instructors offering holotropic breathwork must be certified, with several hundred hours of training on the method. And it isn’t recommended as entirely replacing any traditional therapy, but could be a very helpful complementary practice.

So in the proper setting, and with an open mind, holotropic breathing can be the drug-free treatment to unlock healing for things like emotional distress, trauma, or addiction for good – naturally and in alignment with centuries of breathwork tradition.