BREATHWORK: DRUGLESS PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY
by Sasha Lessin, Ph.D.
A matron, reliving her childhood, rocks and wails, held by a woman
half her age; an athlete, re-experiencing his birth, desperately
pushes his head through the hands of his partner; a smiling priest
sits in lotus and for the first time knows the oneness with God he
has preached about for years. About them on pads in the
dimly-lit room lie a dozen other close-eyed, hypnotized
"breathers", each attended by a partner. Some
breathers writhe, shriek or cry; others remain still, silent and
peaceful. Inundated by evocative music and encouraged by
focused bodywork, all are deeply immersed in the unfolding of
their inner worlds.
These workshop participants are engaged in a powerful growth
process: Holotropic Breathwork. Holotropic Breathwork
grew from a challenge confronted in 1976 by psychiatrist Stanislav
Grof, Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric
Research Center. Grof and his colleagues had created the
most effective psychotherapy ever developed. But the
American and other governments banned their work.
25 years of meticulous scientific research had proven LSD-assisted
psychotherapy the most effective treatment for alcohol and
narcotics addiction, emotional, psychosomatic and relational
problems, and for the anguish of terminal cancer.
Psychedelics, in controlled settings with expert guidance, had
also proven invaluable for those seeking personal and spiritual
LSD--a non-specific emotional amplifier with no adverse physical
side-effects--let patients watch their unconscious. They
saw, felt and resolved painful memories, womb experiences, images
of past-lives and spiritual sequences. They released inner
conflicts and trapped feelings that had led to their problems.
They relaxed, enjoyed life and responded well to stress.
Yet, reacting to widespread public abuse and hysteria, the U.S.
and other nations ended all legal LSD therapy. Grof had
found a therapy that solved most mental health and growth needs
but could not use it.
He left government employ and signed on as Scholar-in-Residence at Esalen Growth Center in Big Sur, California. There, over the
next decade, he explored alternate, nondrug, means of reaching the
deep healing that resides in the unconscious. His wife,
Christina, helped him combine methods from art, primal, gestalt,
music, movement and Jungian therapy with bioenergetics,
psychosynthesis and rebirthing as well as ancient and modern
spiritual and shamanic practices. Their synthesis,
Holotropic (which means moving toward wholeness) Therapy, met the
challenge of a safe, legal means for self-directed inner
exploration of the unconscious as powerful as LSD therapy.
Breathwork's a heady blend. A Grof workshop frees and
uplifts you if you can handle deep emotions and welcome spiritual
experiences. Only if. Breathwork's too strong for very
A Holotropic session starts tamely enough. The leader tells
participants to expect repressed memories, womb feelings,
past-life pictures and spiritual visions.
pair up. One partner of each pair, "the breather,"
reclines, watched by his partner. The leader suggests
breathers relax deeply, breathe faster and more fully and notice
images behind their closed eyes. For a few breathers, these
relaxed beginnings deepen into blissful memories of pleasures and
triumphs in life, intimations of floating in a loving womb, of undrugged birth into a loving family.
But for a breather who feels trapped or one who never stops
struggling, nightmarish images unfold. If he feels trapped,
he'll likely remember times he felt helpless and hopeless.
He imagines caged animals, a fetus caught in a womb he's outgrown,
a concentration camp, Hell.
If a breather's a compulsive struggler, he remembers conflicts; he
pictures war or battles with animals. He may arch his neck
and push like a fetus fighting for birth.
His feelings may build for two hours, climax and release.
Now relaxed and reflective, he draws a mandala to symbolize his
Then the other half of the group breathes. Then all
participants review the workshop. What do they get?
Most get freedom. Freedom from being pushed-around by their
own internal, unconscious forces. Grofwork frees people from
confusing the present with their internal images. When you
recognize your images, they stop dimming your view, damping your