Treating the Mind Through the Body Body Psychotherapy. Part 3

Holotropic Breathwork
Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, M.D., and his spouse, Christina Grof, developed holotropic breathwork in the 1970s. It involves breathing exercises, sound technology (including music), bodywork and the drawing of mandalas — aids to meditation symbolizing the unity of the soul with the universe. One of the purported goals of holotropic therapy is to produce mystical states of awareness by releasing emotional conditions supposedly frozen in tissues. Grof claims that holotropic therapy can induce “transpersonal experiences.” In “What Survives? Contemporary Explorations of Life After Death” (1990), he describes one class of these alleged results as “characterized by experiential exploration of domains that in Western culture are not considered to be part of objective reality.” He further states:

Because transpersonal experiences can convey instant intuitive information about any aspect of the universe in the present, past and future, they appear to violate some of the most basic assumptions of mechanistic science, implying that, in a yet unexplained way, each human being contains information about the entire universe, has potential experiential access to all its parts, and in a sense is the whole cosmic network.

At the Breathing Art Center in Rego Park, N.Y., Ruth R. Klein, Ed.D., a “certified facilitator of holotropic breathwork,” offers private sessions lasting three-and-a-half to five hours and group “intensives” that span about 12 hours. The private sessions cost $40 to $60 per hour and the group sessions $95 to $110 per session. On the telephone, Klein defined “holotropic” as “moving toward wholeness.” She told me that holotropic breathwork may involve “focused bodywork,” but that it is not an essential part of the therapy. Klein mailed me material for prospective clients, including an information sheet, a general questionnaire and a medical questionnaire. The information sheet states:

Holotropic breathwork is a gentle, powerful method which accesses one’s natural healing energies by expanding consciousness. Developed by Dr. Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof, internationally recognized leaders in Transpersonal Psychology, this process is appropriate for those just beginning their inner journeys, as well as those already familiar with the deeper realms of the human unconscious.

Facilitated by the breath, surrendering to the wisdom of body and psyche, one can contact memories, mobilize blocked feelings, heal past wounds, release barriers to our knowing our wholeness. By transforming emotional and psychosomatic symptoms into an experience of a transpersonal nature, this work offers a unique healing potential.

This simple, direct approach, combining evocative music, relaxation, focused bodywork, and mandala drawing in a safe, supportive setting, honors the inner journey as sacred.

The general questionnaire addresses the client’s upbringing, family history, employment and religious background. The medical information form states that holotropic breathwork is not appropriate for persons who are pregnant, who have recently undergone surgery or a fracture, or who have cardiovascular problems, acute infectious diseases or epilepsy.

Freelance writer Fred Levine, author of “The Psychic Sourcebook” (1988), attended a two-day holotropic therapy workshop in Boston and reported a four-hour session in the May/June 1992 issue of East West Natural Health:

Ten of us lay on sleeping bags, blankets and air mattresses around the edges of a small room, each with a companion sitting or kneeling alongside us. The lights dimmed and we were asked to close our eyes and begin breathing deeply and rapidly. “A little deeper, a little faster,” a voice instructed. “A little deeper, a little faster.” Suddenly, four huge speakers filled the room with the pounding of African drums. Before long, the hypnotic chants of the recording were matched by groans and wails coming from the 10 prone bodies. …

As soon as the room exploded with the throbbing rhythms of African music, my body began a cosmic dance of its own, my arms curling back like crab claws, my back arching upward, my legs bouncing off the ground in time with the drumming. It was all I could do to keep breathing, my face was tightly contracted into a muscle spasm, my lips frozen in a horror-mask grimace. My partner, a Harvard-trained child psychiatrist … later told me he had seen similar postures in mental wards.

My ‘Interrupted Journey’
On Saturday, June 19, 1993, I attended a holotropic group “intensive” at the Breathing Art Center that lasted from 8:45 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. Klein had instructed me to have a light breakfast, wear comfortable clothes, and bring a sheet and one or two pillows suitable for sleeping. Klein is a Zen Buddhist and an artist. “The universe has its reasons,” she stated, “and why not trust?” She operates the center out of her home, a private house with a porch. She said she had been raised there and had returned to care for her father shortly before he died. She stated: “It’s hard to be alone with all the spirits in this house.” A flyer for the center describes other “opportunities for personal growth” available at the center, including “inner healing with imagery,” a “chronic illness support group,” and “just painting.” “Just painting” is purportedly “a place to honor and relax into who we truly are, allowing creative energy to flow through us — our toes, hearts, diaphragms, fingertips — emerging in color and form.”

Three other clients participated, all men apparently over 30-years-old. The program consisted of a round of introductions, Klein’s orientation, two breathwork periods, two artwork periods and a “sharing session.” It took place in a small living room with the blinds closed and foam cushions, pillows and bottles of water on the parquet. During the breathwork periods, two clients lay on the cushions with their eyes closed while the other two acted as helpers — partners or “sitters.” Klein said that, before each session, holotropic “breathers” and their partners should create guidelines regarding what assistance the partner will give. For example, the breather may ask the partner to pat him if he appears asleep, or to hold a bottle of water near his mouth whenever he touches his lips. Klein explained:

If you need water, your partner will give you your water. If you need to use the bathroom, your partner will guide you to the bathroom. … If you want your partner to remind you to breathe [holotropically], you just need to let them know and give them a way to do that. … You might say: “Could you remind me to breathe just by breathing loudly in my ear?”

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