By Grace Alano

Grace Alano

Can a new mindfulness practice help you breathe your way to a healthier 2020? There’s only one way to find out.

We’re on a mission to make the new year all about mindfulness, and that includes a lot of what we do everyday, not just spending a few minutes meditating on a cushion (although that wouldn’t hurt, either). Mindfulness means eating, exercising, and generally living in a way that’s more in tune with the present moment. With our busy, stress-filled days, we can think of nothing better. 

Breathwork isn’t new. In fact, it has been practiced for centuries. But it’s starting to gain traction in western countries as a way to control and vary your breathing in a systematic way to improve mental and physical health. Sometimes it’s used to induce or enter an altered state of consciousness to help induce a feeling of deep relaxation and unlock energy. 

Specifically, Holotropic Breathwork®* has become more popular as both a spiritual practice as well as a practical one. But what is it? And does it work? Let’s find out. 

Wait! But why is breathing so important? 

Great question. Depending on the person, each of us takes between 17,000 and 30,000 breaths a day. But inhaling and exhaling happens on autopilot – we don’t have to think about it (and imagine if we did). The result, however, is that we tend to ignore one of the biggest contributors to our overall health – the act of breathing itself. 

The truth is most of us aren’t getting it right when it comes to breathing. Or we’re just not getting it at all. That’s because proper, mindful breathing doesn’t just keep us alive – it can improve our physical health, mental clarity, and a whole lot more. Don’t believe us? Just ask the ancient practitioners of meditation or yoga – or some of the greatest warrior classes in history. They all used variations of breathing to improve mental and physical performance. 

Breathing is important for a couple of reasons: it supplies our body with the oxygen our organs and muscles need to live. It also gets rid of toxins and waste products from the body. If we’re breathing correctly, we properly increase blood circulation, which packs our bodies with more energy and gives us a clearer mind. So think about that next time you take a breath. 

What is Holotropic Breathwork®?

‘Holotropic’ comes from Greek. Broken apart, it combines the words ‘whole,’ and ‘trepein,’ which means moving towards something. 

Holotropic Breathwork® was first developed and pioneered in the 1970s by Dr. Stanislav Grof. Grof was also one of the earliest researchers of the therapeutic effects of LSD. When the US government cracked down on his research, Grof and his wife began to search for an alternative – something that would deliver the same antidepressant, anti-anxiety effects of LSD without the need for a drug. Ultimately, this led to a brand new breathing technique. 

But before you write Holotropic Breathwork® off as hippie nonsense, research suggests that the breathing practice might actually work. A report from 2013 documented the results of 11,000 people over 12 years who participated in holotropic breathwork sessions. The results suggest that it can be used to treat a wide range of psychological and existential life issues. Many people reported significant benefits related to emotional catharsis and internal spiritual exploration. Through the entire study, no negative reactions were reported. Is holotropic breathing dangerous? Turns out it’s a pretty safe bet. 

For those who want to learn Holotropic Breathwork®, it’s best understood as a breathing technique that combines a controlled, accelerated breathing state with certain types of music. Through holotropic breathwork, practitioners can achieve an altered state of consciousness and explore their minds from a new perspective.

In essence, the combination of meditative music and breathing exercises to help release stress and reduce anxiety. As practitioners become better at the breathwork, it can lead to altered states of consciousness. 

How does Holotropic Breathwork® work?

Holotropic Breathwork® occurs in a variety of settings – usually with the eyes closed and lying down. But more often than not, the practice occurs in a group setting with trained facilitators. These facilitators guide people through the class, and they do it by controlling the pace of breathing as meditative music plays in the background. 

Unique to Holotropic Breathwork® is the partner-oriented foundation. Participants are paired with one acting as the breather and the other as the sitter. The breather lies on a mat and begins the breathing exercises. The sitter’s responsibility is to support the breather as he or she goes through the exercises. The idea is to make sure the breather is comfortable without interfering. 

A typical Holotropic Breathwork® session is divided into two stages. During the first phase, breathers work on their breathing patterns as they inhale and exhale to rhythmic music. These rhythms, combined with the varied inhalations and exhalations, are meant to induce a deeper state of consciousness and relaxation. 

During the second stage, things start to become more emotional. This is accomplished by transitioning to more powerful music and switching breathing patterns to achieve what practitioners call “the breakthrough stage.” While the health benefits of Holotropic Breathwork® can’t be understated, it is, at its core, an emotional and spiritual practice. According to the people who love it, the real magic happens during the breakthrough as hearts are opened and participants confront their feelings and achieve vivid, personal insights into their lives. 

When the breakthrough stage concludes, participants are eased back into the “real world.” After a few minutes of meditation, participants do something unique to Holotropic Breathwork® – they share their feelings, expressing what they saw and experienced during the session. These discussions are completely up to each practitioner, but they add a therapeutic aura to the  session. 

Whether you want to give Holotropic Breathwork® a try or not, we highly recommend doing some form of breathwork this year. It’s a critical – but often overlooked – component to mindfulness. The very act of being present to your breathing can lead to physical, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing like you’ve never experienced.

* Trademark is property of Grof Transpersonal Training