Considering that breathwork is only working with conscious changes to the pattern of our breathing, it can be amazingly powerful.
There are many different types of breathwork, but generally the effect is to allow the body to release energetic and emotional ‘stuckness’ by overwhelming the conscious, controlling mind and allowing the body’s natural healing intelligence to take over.
One of the most famous forms is Holotropic Breathwork, invented by the pioneering psychotherapist Stan Grof in the 60s. His main focus was on the transpersonal field, the belief that the universal unconscious that we all share contains far more information, creativity and healing potential than western, materialist science recognises.
“The western industrial civilisation is really the only group of people throughout human history that does not hold the non-ordinary states in high esteem – every other group has a tremendous appreciation of these states and they spend a lot of time and energy trying to develop very safe and effective ways of trying to induce them. Many people in the transpersonal field feel that all genuine real deep creativity comes from the transpersonal realms. the insight, the ideas that come from the non-ordinary state can help later when the person returns from the non-ordinary state. to substantially improve one’s way of being in the world.” Stanislav Grof
He believed that the exploration of non-ordinary states was crucial for human evolution and personal development, and that most previous societies had recognised this, with people who were trained to guide others through them, such as the Shaman or Medicine Man. He also believed that some of the techniques that these figures used were using psychoactive plants, and breathing techniques.
In the 50s and early 60s he worked with psychedelics such as LSD with his patients to explore the benefits of ‘non-ordinary consciousness’. When the drugs were banned in the mid-60s, he created Holotropic Breathwork instead.
It is described as: “a powerful approach to self-exploration and healing that integrates insights from modern consciousness research, anthropology, various depth psychologies, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual practices, and mystical traditions of the world. The name Holotropic means literally “moving toward wholeness” (from the Greek “holos”=whole and “trepein”=moving in the direction of something).
The process itself uses very simple means: it combines accelerated breathing with evocative music in a special set and setting. With the eyes closed and lying on a mat, each person uses their own breath and the music in the room to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This state activates the natural inner healing process of the individual’s psyche, bringing him or her a particular set of internal experiences. With the inner healing intelligence guiding the process, the quality and content brought forth is unique to each person and for that particular time and place.”
The process can be challenging as it relies on trust and allowing oneself to go into the process. The controlling mind/ego which wants to constantly be in charge has to let go to the extent that the body can release.
Another similar process is Rebirthing Breathwork, which was developed by Leonard Orr. This focuses specifically on what he calls the primal traumas that we carry with us, including the trauma of birth itself (hence the name). It began as a process where the breathing would take place in water, but then moved onto dry land.
Both Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing have the focus on the birth experience at their heart. They both say that if you go deep enough into releasing trauma, that you can regress to the point of reexperiencing your birth as a deeply traumatic, but incredibly liberating process.
Holotropic Breathwork site:
Stan Grof talking about non-ordinary states: