Holotropic Breathwork: Everything You Need to Know


Are you looking for a natural way to find more purpose, direction, balance, and/or relaxation in your life? Holotropic breathwork (HBW) is a therapeutic breathing technique intended to help with personal awareness and emotional healing. Through breathing at a fast rate for several minutes to up to three hours at a time, holotropic breathwork sessions aim to produce an altered state of consciousness (ASC). (14)

The actual practice of holotropic breathing (HB) alters the chemical balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. Often, a ‘breather’ is guided through meditation by a ‘sitter.’ This breathing practice has been suggested to provide benefits in cases of depression, anxiety, avoidance, chronic pain, fatigue, addiction, and more. (9)(14)

Keep reading to find out what holotropic breathing is, what the technique feels like, proven benefits, possible risks, and exactly how it’s practiced.

Some people have used HBW to help manage trauma and get rid of negative thoughts. (13)

Some people have used HBW to help manage trauma and get rid of negative thoughts. (13)

Did you know?
HB has the potential to build self-awareness and a positive outlook on life. (14)

What is breathwork?

Breathwork is any practice where you mindfully manipulate your breath over a period of time for a desired outcome. (18)

Today, breathing exercises have evolved into manipulating the breath into different patterns, lengths, and repetitions of inhalation, exhalation, and retention. (4)

What is holotropic breathwork and where did it come from?

By definition, holotropic breathwork is an experimental method of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that combines deep relaxation, expansive breathing, art, music, and focused energy work. (10)(12)

Holotropic breathwork is an experiential therapeutic technique developed by two psychiatrists, Stanislav and Christina Grof, in Southern California in the 1970s. Before developing HBW, Stanislav Grof was a Freudian psychiatrist. In his studies, he realized that accelerated breathing for minutes to hours at a time could provide healing benefits. He realized that accelerated breathing for minutes to hours at a time combined with evocative music also worked as a tool to reach an altered state of consciousness for healing. (14) An article by Grof’s describes that when used in the right environment, holotropic breathwork can trigger astounding healing experiences through an altered state of consciousness (ASC). (7)

Did you know?
Evocative music is a soothing, repetitive, and trans-like harmonized sound that is played during holotropic breathwork sessions. It aims to produce pleasant memories, emotions, and responses in people. (14)

Why is holotropic breathing used?

The theory behind this deep breathing practice aims to move you beyond your body and ego and follow your inner guidance. With holotropic breathwork, a focus is described around being mindful in the present moment. And the primary goals of holotropic breathwork are to help you make improvements in your self-awareness and spiritual development. (11)

How to do holotropic breathwork

We’ve put together a description of what a session of guided holotropic breathwork may look like in a group, workshop, or retreat setting. The process of holotropic breathwork is straightforward. (22) It’s a combination of accelerated breathing with evocative music playing in a particular environment. (14)

  • Sessions are usually conducted in groups and are supervised by trained facilitators (22)
  • People are then paired off with each other within their group (22)
  • There is one ‘breather’ and one ‘sitter’ (14)
  • Sessions often start with the ‘breather’ participants’ eyes closed while laying down on a mat and practicing mindfulnessfocusing on being and living in the present moment (22)
  • Sessions may include blankets, pillows, and mattresses (22)
  • Evocative, soothing music is played during the session by a facilitator – the music can be live or recorded (14)
  • As the music begins, the breather may be instructed to breathe deeper into the stomach and without breaks (14)

Did you know?
Sessions often start with the ‘breather’ participants’ eyes closed while laying down on a mat and practicing mindfulness. (9)

  • A facilitator then guides the session, giving direction to the breather to increase the speed and rhythm of their breathing (14)
  • The breather is instructed to breathe faster and deeper while keeping their eyes closed – this is an act of hyperventilation (14)
  • The breather is told to follow their inner voice and to make and sounds move in any way that they want (14)(9)
  • The idea that is reinforced is that there is no right or wrong way to do HBW (14)
  • Breathers are encouraged to work through whatever comes up for them as they enter an ASC (14)
  • Sessions often last two-three hours in total (14)
  • After the course ends, participants are encouraged to share their experiences and discuss what happened with fellow participants or facilitators (14)(9)
  • Bodywork may follow the HB session to boost the results and to help participants process their session (14)
  • Breathers and sitters swap roles for future sessions (14)
  • Often a day of learning holotropic breathwork is 12 hours long, with four three-hour sessions (14)
  • HBW sessions do not follow a specific pattern (14)

What does holotropic breathing feel like?

As the breather in a holotropic breathing session, everyone’s experience is individual and different, though most who have tried holotropic breathwork describe it as both extraordinarily intense and cathartic. (14)

Most people report feeling tingling sensations after some time passes, and then a whole different range of emotions being experienced. (14)

The breathwork intends to allow yourself to feel the sensations that most of us push down and resist. This then leads to an emotional release and a range of potential health benefits. Your body and soul will thank you for it. (14)

Did you know?
The act of prolonged hyperventilation in HBW may lead to an altered state of consciousness and a tingly sensation due to oxygen deprivation to the brain.

What are the therapeutic benefits of holotropic breathwork?

Research suggests that the therapeutic benefits of HB may be helpful for relaxation, self-awareness, personal growth, and more. We’ve put together a list of eight health benefits linked to holotropic breathwork. (17)

  1. Improved self-awareness, self-esteem, and overall mental health (14)(17)
  2. Increased comfort (14)
  3. An immediate sense of relaxation (14)
  4. Increased compassion and support of others (14)
  5. Reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion (22)(20)(14)
  6. Boosted energy levels
  7. Decreased levels of stress (14)
  8. Support managing alcoholism (23)(2)
It can be helpful to process an HB session that was traumatic and painful by exercising or practicing yoga.

It can be helpful to process an HB session that was traumatic and painful by exercising or practicing yoga.

Does holotropic breathwork have any risks?

Some potential risks come with doing HB. The hyperventilation technique used in HB can lead to dizziness, fainting, muscle spasms, weakness, and possibly seizures. (15) Keep in mind that because the process of HB aims to address uncomfortable feelings, some people do report experiencing a ‘healing crisis.’ 

You may experience a healing crisis

Emotional and even physical symptoms that pop up after a CAM treatment are often the body’s attempt to further cleanse itself. These temporarily negative symptoms following breathwork are sometimes referred to as a  “healing crises.” A healing crisis happens when every body-system comes together to eliminate waste products and set the stage for regeneration. Following different CAM therapies, the body is trying to remove existing toxins at a faster rate than they can be disposed of. (8) The Emotional and physical responses to holotropic breathwork may be traditionally attributed to detoxification. (16)(3)(21)

Experts recommend when you try holotropic breathwork, it’s best done with a licensed facilitator. (14)

Who shouldn’t practice holotropic breathwork

Experts do not advise practicing holotropic breathwork without consulting with your healthcare provider if you have any of the following conditions: 

Under the proper guidance of a licensed facilitator, it is possible for an individual who is at risk to use HB as part of a more extensive treatment program.

Under the proper guidance of a licensed facilitator, it is possible for an individual who is at risk to use HB as part of a more extensive treatment program.

Can you do holotropic breathwork alone?

Whether you are a newbie or even a seasoned veteran, you can, but experts don’t recommend it. Every breather benefits from having a sitter or facilitator during their session to help the breather be supported through the process.

Remember that the individual experience may be emotional and intense and can bring up memories that worsen existing symptoms. As a result, some practitioners recommend combining holotropic breathwork with ongoing talk therapy. (14)

Social support can help you process in the days following a breathwork session. (1)

The bottom line

If you are interested in trying out holotropic breathing, be sure to find a trained and licensed practitioner or facilitator that can help guide you through the process. Sessions for breathwork are available for individual sessions, group sessions, workshops, and retreats. Talking to a facilitator before you commit to any type can help guide and support you through the process. 

While it’s hard not to try a new therapy without expectations, it can be helpful to know that you shouldn’t go into holotropic breathwork with a specific agenda. Everyone and every session is different. If it’s a spiritual adventure you’d like to take on, a group workshop or retreat may help you reap the full spectrum of benefits outside of the intense breathwork sessions! (14)

If you are a practitioner, consider signing up to Fullscript. If you are a patient, talk to your healthcare practitioner about Fullscript!

  1. Bowling, A. (1991). Social Support and Social Networks: Their Relationship to the Successful and Unsuccessful Survival of Elderly People in the Community. An Analysis of Concepts and a Review of the Evidence. Family Practice, 8(1), 68–83. https://doi.org/10.1093/fampra/8.1.68
  2. Brewerton, T. D., Eyerman, J. E., Cappetta, P., and Mithoefer, M. C. (2012). Long-term abstinence following holotropic breathwork as adjunctive treatment of substance use disorders and related psychiatric comorbidity. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 453-459. doi: 10.1007/s11469-011-9352-3 
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