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Holotropic Breathwork at the Intersection of Meditation and Psychedelic Substances

Here is a thoughtful paper by Cary Sparks, co-director of Grof Transpersonal Training , that presents very well where holotropic breathwork stands within the spectrum of practices using non-ordinary states of consciousness for self-exploration, self-acceptance, self-love, and self-transformation.

Have a good read!

Recently, Michael Pollan, Peter Coyote and Rebecca Solnit spoke at a bookstore event for the paperback release of Michael’s newest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. This best seller has fostered mainstream awareness of the current, “second wave,” of psychedelic research and its therapeutic potential to the mainstream. Peter Coyote, in addition to his long experience with consciousness-change, and his many other accomplishments, is an ordained Zen priest.  Rebecca Solnit is a gifted activist whose writing and podcasts contribute to current social awareness about feminism, indigenous culture, and much more.

The first topic of the evening threaded through the entire conversation: If long-term meditation practice was climbing the mountain to reach the peak, did that make use of psychedelics the equivalent of taking a helicopter? Was one better than the other?

Initially, they agreed that the view is the same no matter how you get there. Later, it was pointed out that while psychedelic experiences can take you to the peak, they often don’t let you stay there. It takes the work of practice, either through meditation or by other means, to attain the self-awareness that allows one to spend time on the mountaintop. Peter also pointed out that one of the benefits of sitting in meditation is what comes through the body, a frequently overlooked but necessary ingredient of personal transformation.

This would have been the perfect segue to discuss Holotropic Breathwork (HB), which offers experiencers the benefit of both the view and the climb. In his book, Michael writes about preparing for one of his psychedelic journeys by having a Holotropic Breathwork session.

Holotropic Breathwork resides at the intersection of meditation and psychedelics, and has benefits of both, including what happens in one’s body. It is a non-drug way to reach psychedelic states. According to Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS (who is also certified in Holotropic Breathwork ®), “Dreams are psychedelic, meditation can be psychedelic, non-drug techniques like Holotropic Breathwork, like hyperventilation, like ecstatic dancing— all sorts of things are psychedelics. Marijuana is a psychedelic, MDMA is a psychedelic.”

Holotropic Breathwork has been referred to as “meditation on a freight train” or “meditation on steroids.”  Like meditation, HB increases mindfulness, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.”

In a Holotropic Breathwork session, the basic instructions are to begin in an open, receptive body position on your mat; have as few expectations as possible; breath deeper and faster than you normally do; listen to the music; and allow yourself to follow wherever your process takes you – with your emotions, movements, sound, inner vision, thoughts, awareness, insights – any way whatsoever that doesn’t harm self or others. We trust the inner healing impulse of the individual and the group to bring us the exact right set of experiences during the session, and for that time and place in our lives, and we follow where it takes us. Trained facilitators are there for support but not to guide, direct, control or change the session. Breathing partners, or “sitters,” who alternate roles with the “breather,” provide additional non-interfering support. Both help keep the breather physically safe in their space, on the mat and in the room, and are essential to the process.

Holotropic Breathwork is an embodied practice. Paying attention to the body is key. While some sessions bring the breather little or no movement or sound, many sessions are quite physically active. Practitioners encourage participants to “stay with” any expression with their body or voice, and to exaggerate it.  This can intensify contact with the emerging material until some sort of resolution is achieved and the person feels complete for that session. This is how we work through what emerges in one’s “process” and is one of the key self-healing factors in Holotropic Breathwork.

Holotropic Breathwork is frequently self-integrative. As with psychedelics and meditation, it commonly provides massive amounts of personal material that can be addressed in, and significantly accelerate, therapeutic practices. However, in Holotropic Breathwork, the integration is often a natural part of the session. Tav Sparks, co-director (with the author) of the Holotropic Breathwork facilitator training program, talks about three ways a session can work with the psyche: it can resolve something that you were already aware of and had been working with; it can bring to the surface something that you were not aware of and integrate it within the session; or it can give you awareness of a pattern that will require further deep personal work to resolve – either through additional Holotropic Breathwork sessions, other therapeutic methods, ongoing meditation or other practice, or all of those.

In a workshop setting, or by alternating individual sessions, Holotropic Breathwork provides another surprisingly powerful benefit.  Sitting for others as they go deeply into an expanded state of awareness—submerging into their own consciousness, and perhaps further into connection with their source of inspiration—is in itself a transformative experience. For some, sitting is more powerful than their breathwork sessions. In addition, learning to sit in the manner of holotropic practice is an upgrade to any personal interaction where non-directive support is of value—i.e., most of them.

Many who have already come into contact with non-ordinary states through psychedelic work report that they were quite surprised by the power of their Holotropic Breathwork experience.  They found that the breathwork would take them to as deep a place as the medicine (substance) work. They were able to access similar or related material and report the breathwork to be of equal or greater value to them.

I wish it had been possible to communicate all of this during the short amount of time these three brilliant thinkers had with their audience of more than 400, whose interest in consciousness, and in personal and social transformation, brought them to the event. As a practitioner of Holotropic Breathwork for over 30 years, I know the tremendous value and potential of this practice.  With the cultural explosion in recent years of mindfulness, especially through meditation and yoga, and the current psychedelic renaissance, Holotropic Breathwork is also increasingly sought after. Those of us who work with the practice look forward to Holotropic Breathwork being recognized as an equal or—dare we suggest—even more valuable way of both scaling the mountain and appreciating the spectacular view from the peak.

Cary Sparks, co-director, Grof Transpersonal Training and author of Incensed: The Novel