Getting high is as old as time. But it wasn’t always doing lines in the toilet stall with your new bestie, or watching Netflix with a joint.Ancient civilisations and Indigenous cultures have sought to reach highs, or non-ordinary states of consciousness, for millennia. They often used medicinal plants or body-based techniques to get there—such as breathing exercises, chanting, singing and dancing.
Holotropic Breathwork is a breath-based therapy technique borne out of these ancient rituals, and can help you reach a high without substances. Czech psychiatrist Stan Grof and American psychotherapist Christina Grof pioneered it in the late 1970s, and its popularity continues to grow today.“Stan Grof wanted to bring these [ancient] methods into the present,” Liliana Vasquez-Mock, a holotropic breathwork practitioner and transpersonal psychologist, told VICE. “For example, how Indigenous traditions come into altered states through the use of drumming and breathing, or vibrating and dancing,”“Holotropic breathwork is one technique for exploring the qualities and content of the mind and opening it up to a greater potential,” Nigel Denning, a holotropic breathwork practitioner and Course Director of Mind Medicine Institute's Certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies, told VICE.“It’s a great tool to explore the workings of the self and the psyche.”
Holotropic Breathwork is a breath-based form of therapy that uses fast breathing exercises, evocative music and bodywork to help you explore your mind and release emotional blocks. When you do holotropic breathwork, the practitioner guides you, the breather, to the point of hyperventilation and, ultimately, a non-ordinary state of consciousness.The Grofs argued that non-ordinary states of consciousness “mobilise an inner radar” that finds the material in our psyche with the strongest emotional charge, and surfaces it for processing.
What is holotropic breathwork?
“Whether the information you find is good or bad, just treat it as information and curiosity and don’t take it too seriously,” Denning said.“Holotropic” is a neologism that means “moving towards wholeness”, and that’s exactly what holotropic breathwork aims to do. “Moving towards wholeness is really the goal of the work, to explore and understand the self,” Denning said.
Stanislav Grof was among the many clinicians and researchers who studied LSD and psychedelic therapy in the 1960s.“[Stan] talked about psychedelics and the holotropic as important for the study of the mind. In the same way that the microscope is important for the study of medicine and biology, and the telescope for astronomy,” Denning said. Yet when the U.S. government banned LSD in 1968, Grof’s career as an LSD psychotherapy researcher and clinician ended.He moved to the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, California, where he and his wife Christina started to experiment with inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness without substances.
A brief history of holotropic breathing
“Breathing techniques were and are a very, very ancient tradition in a number of different spiritual practices, so they started doing hyperventilation with people,” Denning said.By the late 1970s, the Grofs had pioneered holotropic breathwork as a radical new form of therapy.The Grofs acknowledged that their work stood on the shoulders of giants: Breathwork has long been understood to change our biology, and breathing exercises have been used for centuries in yoga sutras, Asana work, pranayamic practice, Tibetan meditative practices and more.
Whether we’re seeing a doctor, psychiatrist or sexologist, we’re always seeking answers about our bodies and minds. Why does my bag of bones ache and creak? Why can’t I focus? Why don’t I want to bonk my partner? We trust the all-knowing expert to give us, the ignorant patient, the answers we need.Holotropic breathwork flips this dynamic. It emphasises that we all have the capacity to heal ourselves—we just need the right setting and support to do so. “We work with the principle that we have a self-regulating inner healer,” Vasquez-Mock said. “Holotropic breathwork allows us to be in a place of deep inner connection where we can understand: ‘what do I really need?’”
The basic premise of holotropic breathing
In this way, the holotropic breathwork practitioner is less your expert healer, and more your co-adventurer as you journey into your psyche. “[We want to] create the container of safety to allow whatever is within the person to emerge, and support them in integrating that in a way that's meaningful,” Denning said.Stanislav Grof also argued that hyperventilation and holotropic breathwork can help us tap into unexplored realms of the psyche. One of these is the perinatal realm, where we can access memories from our birth. He posited that while we aren’t aware of these memories in our everyday, conscious states, they profoundly shape who we are.“There is some suggestion that intra-uterine [and birth] experiences affect later development,” Denning said. “In holotropic breathwork sessions, people will often contact these pre-cognitive states and recognise the ways that their personality or experience of the world has been influenced by these powerful, pre-cognitive experiences.”Carla Scully, a 30-year-old hospitality worker and poet, said she experienced rebirth in her first breathwork session.“I saw myself coming out of the birth canal and being put into my mum’s arms. My dad was there with his arms around us. I felt the immense love and joy from them at my arrival,” she told VICE.Breathers can also tap into the transpersonal realm of the psyche. Stan Grof argued that, in this realm, our consciousness transcends our body, ego, linear time, and three-dimensional space. So you might contact or start to identify with animals, plants, and people at different points in history.
“You may experience yourself being… someone else in another time of history. If it's true or not, we cannot really tell you. But this is the material that your psyche is trying to release,” Vasquez-Mock said.Ultimately, Stanislav Grof argued that by having perinatal, transpersonal and other holotropic experiences, we can reach our full human potential.“That means becoming aware of the pre-cognitive states that can constrict you… and inform the way that you make choices in life. In holotropic breathwork, you free yourself of those reactive states,” Denning said.
So what actually goes down in a session? Holotropic breathwork generally takes place in groups over three hours. Participants pair off and alternate between the roles of “breather” and “sitter”.Breathers are invited to lie on a mattress and wear eyeshades. “They're encouraged to relax with a short relaxation script, and are invited to breathe deeper and faster,” Denning said. A curated music set aids the breather’s journey towards hyperventilation and a non-ordinary state of consciousness.While the breather travels to their inner psyche, the sitter plays the proverbial second fiddle.“They make sure the space is protected, that people aren't walking on their mattresses or getting too close. If the breather needs to go to the bathroom or drink some water, someone’s there,” Denning said. “I've always found it to be just as beautiful and profound to [be a sitter] and care for someone in such a vulnerable space,” Scully said.
How is holotropic breathing practiced?
Trained facilitators are also there to support the breather, whether through words of reassurance or light bodywork. “The challenges are helping people to trust their own process, stay on the mat and continue breathing,” Denning said.While you can do individual holotropic breathwork sessions with a practitioner, Vasquez-Mock suggested group sessions.“The energy of the group carries you. [You might] feel that you’re too tired to breathe anymore, you want to rest a little bit. Then you have this wave of energy while the whole room is breathing, laughing, crying, singing or dancing. It inspires you to keep going.”At the end, participants are invited to draw a mandala and share their experience with the group. “It’s a time to give each other space [and ask] ‘what was your experience about?’ We don't judge or analyse,” Vasquez-Mock said.Denning said that after a holotropic breathwork session, people can surface new information about who they are.“[From] what we understand of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, when people have extreme state-change experiences, new neural pathways can be formed and linked for up to five days after the experience. We suggest people take it easy in the week after. Listen to their dreams, journal, and free associate with whatever comes up.”
The Grofs argued that holotropic breathwork can treat and heal anxiety, trauma and abuse; reintegrate you with family and community; and help you reclaim your purpose. Yet the benefits vary for everyone.Scully said that while her holotropic breathwork sessions have been challenging, they’ve improved her quality of life. “I've processed trauma, let go of anger and forgiven people. I can connect to people better and love more deeply. I have a greater compassion towards others and myself. It's also given me this greater adoration for life, and a willingness to [face] these dark places within myself,” she said.Vasquez-Mock said that many people report improvements in their psychological health and increased self-awareness. “It gives you the feeling that you are not an individual carrying stress and problems, but are connected in a network of humans, animals, elements and nature,” she said.The Grofs also argued that holotropic experiences could benefit society at large. In Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy they wrote: “If they could occur on a large enough scale, they could increase the chances of humanity to survive the rapidly escalating global crisis.”
Benefits of holotropic breathwork
Unfortunately, holotropic breathwork isn’t for everyone. Experts said you shouldn’t try this if you have serious mental health conditions or are in a psychotic state. Ditto for folks with cardiovascular problems, significant heart disease, glaucoma, brain aneurysms or any brain injuries where executive functioning is compromised.It’s still unclear how safe holotropic breathwork is during pregnancy, and practitioners err on the side of caution. “We've had a few pregnant women through groups over the years and we tend to titrate the dose… They don't go as strongly into it and they can still have some kind of experience, but it’s not as intense,” Denning said.
Who shouldn’t do holotropic breathing?
So can holotropic breathwork make you high? Vasquez-Mock said that if your definition of high is reaching a non-ordinary state of consciousness, then yes.“Many people I receive in my workshops have been using substances. What they mostly report is that what they experience is either equal to, or sometimes more powerful than, substances,” she said.Yet it’s not the same as taking drugs, waiting an hour and glimpsing nirvana. “The breathwork takes an effort. It connects you with a lot of feelings in your body. Pain and emotions could come, so you need to be willing to keep going in order to reach that state,” Vasquez-Mock said.Scully said she’s also experienced a high from breathwork. In her first session, her face and chest started tingling, and she saw bright colours and geometrical patterns similar to what she has seen on hallucinogens. “I felt this lightness and bliss that even with substances I’d never experienced.”
Can you get high from holotropic breathing?
“We don't really have the scientific paradigm to explain that,” Denning said. “What we typically explain in a western, materialist paradigm is hallucinations and fantasies. I think there's a little more than that going on.”
While it’s easy to use breathwork to reach non-ordinary states, experts don’t recommend doing it alone. “Doing it properly takes extensive experience with non-ordinary states of consciousness, both one’s own and that of others” Denning said.In a holotropic breathwork session, a trained practitioner is there to guide and reassure you. Without their support, it could be a scarring experience. “If you regress into some kind of early developmental state, it’s hard to get out of it. It can evoke a lot of fear and anxiety, because all your ways of coping are suddenly offline,” Denning said.
Basic holotropic breathing exercises you can try at home
Just about every Tom, Dick and Amarynth is hosting breathwork sessions nowadays. Yet experts recommended seeking out practitioners who have been trained and certified by the Grof Institute.“The difference lies in the degree of time and effort we put into not influencing the experience people have,” Denning said. He said if you’re not sure of a facilitator’s credentials, ask questions. “Ask what their experience is, what they think they're doing, and where they think you need to go.”Denning also said that a leader’s over-enthusiasm can be a red flag. “They might not have a negative intent, they might just be enthusiastic about their theoretical model. But they colonize us, because it’s: ‘I've got something, I think it's great, I'm gonna do it to you and help you have the experience I had.’”Scully accidentally stumbled upon breathwork when she went to a cacao ceremony/breathwork session. After going to a few sessions, she decided to seek out certified holotropic breathwork practitioners.“If you were having MDMA therapy, you wouldn't go to someone who's done a six week crash course. You would go to someone who has trained for years in order to be able to support you best. I think the same applies here,” she said.“The biggest challenge is deciding to face what keeps us prisoner within ourselves, face that dark and commit to letting go of things in order to become a better, more whole person,” said Scully.For further reading, Vasquez-Mock suggested Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy, The Holotropic Mind: The Three Levels of Human Consciousness and How They Shape Our Lives, and The Breathwork Experience: Exploration and Healing in Nonordinary States of Consciousness.