Book Review - Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy by Drs. Stanislav and Christina Grof - Excelsior Editions, SUNY Book, N.Y., 2010 - $19.95

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

"It seems to have escaped the attention of mainstream professionals that physical traumas are also psychotraumas with a significant impact on the victim's psyche and that reliving them can have a profound healing
effect on various emotional and psychosomatic disorders."

Grof and Grof, (2010) Holotropic Breathwork:
A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy
, p. 148

Great book! - although, I was disappointed until I began reading the second half. The historical roots and theoretical foundations of the holotropic breathwork experience are important subjects, but for some reason. . .

Since my therapy of choice is primal, I have only had three holotropic breathwork experiences, two of which were extremely satisfying and, in addition were therapy breakthroughs as well. I guess I should have been worshiping at both churches all along as it was only by attending a, HB session that I finally was able to understand what the word transpersonal actually meant and had a literal "view" of what it could encompass. The word itself was coined by Dr S. Grof.

Unfortunately, breathwork does not lend itself as a do-it-yourself therapy, though I never pass-up a chance to attend a holotropic breathwork workshop with its remarkable and unbelievable otherworldly happenings. So all you primal therapy clients who never had a holotropic breathwork experience, give it a try! I attended holotropic breathwork sessions at the urging of a primal friend so I want to pass on knowledge of the experience. You will be welcomed, as an holotropic breathwork practitioner once mentioned that he likes working with primal people as they "go straight to the work at hand."

Despite what I thought, the material in the first half of the book was essential reading for the reader who wants a complete introduction. It deals with historical roots and theoretical foundations about the Grof's amazing therapy, but it just did not hold my interest. The first part of Stan Grof's, Beyond the Brain had given me the same reaction, but looking back it turned out to be my favorite of all his books.

My interest in the authors' latest work picked up when I reached the part about the "trials and tribulations" of the breathwork practitioners and accelerated when the Grofs wrote about the surprises and disappointments which arose when they conducted holotropic breathwork workshops in some remoter parts of the world.

The material about holotropic breathwork's therapeutic potential was more interesting, and my interest keep rising as the Grofs discussed the physiological mechanisms of their therapy. The chapter dealing with the past, present and future of holotropic breathwork as well as two appendices, Special Situations and Interventions, and discussions of holotropic breathwork with other breathing psychotherapies were particularly interesting to read.

As mentioned, I have only attended three holotropic breathwork sessions and was greatly impressed with two of them. Two out of three is not bad, as success in having a regression in any one session of regressive psychotherapy is dependent on many factors. And when the accessed material is of a transpersonal nature determining exactly what the material was about usually brings up more questions than there are answers! My first week-end session was in New Orleans in 1996 and seemed to act as an accellerator for my primal therapy work.

Just that reason alone would suffice for my recommending the Grof's form of breathwork for primalers who feel blocked in their therapy or even the non-blocked primalers who are curious about what transpersonal psychology is about. I think of holotropic breathwork as a sledgehammer approach to therapy, but I use this seemingly harsh metaphor rather as a compliment. I've a friend who told me that he prefers holotropic breathwork to primal-oriented therapy.

Our defenses can be stubborn and help is often needed for us to move along to the next stage - the next feeling to be felt. If you just wait, well, you may be in for a long wait since your big breakthrough can sometimes take a very long time. Its about our psychological defenses. Sometimes they would rather not cough up their secrets.

As a solution, why not become proactive and encourage or shove that feeling into revealing itself? You know it's there; your symptoms prove that. I believe that many of us primal folks repeat our regressions ad nausasem and a point is reached where some nudging is needed when we find ourselves knowing that new next very early experience is right around the corner and needs to be processed but just can't be accessed. The power of the "breath" can make a difference and allow those stubborn heavily repressed feelings to reveal themselves and begin being processed. It's like going from grammar school directly into college! That's probably an exaggeration!

The Grof's believe that access to the transpersonal realm can be necessary to resolve some issues which one might have. The position of primal therapy is rather that access to this material can sometimes point to proof of one's overload of repressed material which should be respected and treated gingerly. Primal's motto is: No feeling should be felt before its time. This puts holotropic breathwork in the unseemly position that it encourages plucking feelings before they have ripened. Breathwork answers that if that is what is brought up during the holotropic breathing then that is what should be processed.

Holotropic breathwork theory also accepts that the mind is not merely the operation of the brain, but exists apart of the brain. Wilder Penfield, the famous Canadian neurosurgeon had also concurred with that position. However, I believe that most neuro-scientists consider that the mind as simply the operation of the activated brain. I base my conclusion solomente on my regressive experiences. Janov definitely has my vote on that question.

Back to speeding up therapy. Dont forget that "doing what you neurotically fear," remains an acceptable approach to jumping a place in the line-up of material waiting to be felt. It can change the order of repressed traumas waiting to be accessed. [See the review of Jean Jenson's, Reclaiming Your Life]. Being proactive can be very helpful when one feels stuck in therapy. But I also recommend the Grof's form of regression therapy as a way of lowering one's stubborn psychological defenses which would rather protect and protest, than yield.

With holotropic breathwork, one's defenses will put up less of a struggle as the "breathing" has power!, and invariably, whether you know it or not, the feelings which arise to be felt, will invariably be the ones which needed to be felt. Activating new material too early in the feeling process is considered dangerous by some regressive thereoticians. But sometimes new regressive material may arise and we have little choice in not feeling it. Life changes, some desired and some unwanted. Intentional behavorial changes and holotropic breathwork experienced without seeking a particular objective, are both effective avenues of accessing new material seeking resolution but not consciously known by us.

Although the distance is not impressive, the furthest physical distance I've traveled to resolve some repressed memories of my birth trauma was from Louisiana to New Jersey. While in New Jersey, I participated in a one-day holotropic breathwork session workshop at the 1999 International Primal Association convention.

Do you want to read about my session? Really? OK.

No, please skip it!

It was my third holotropic breathwork session and that year the IPA convention was held in Elmer, New Jersey. Our facilitators were David Pearson and Ted Riskin. I'll just quote from an article I wrote about that magical but nonetheless painful breathwork day. It's long, so I'll only include the experience itself, omiting the introduction and the mandala drawing description:

"Then, the progress of my birth stopped. I felt stuck. I began begging my mother to help me. I felt that she was not hearing me, so I became angry and pleaded louder and louder for help from her. I was screaming so loudly that I feared others would think I had truly "flipped out." I finally reached a point where I could not yell any louder but still felt that she was not hearing me.

David came by and asked how I was doing and if I had any physical symptoms. I mentioned that my chest ached, and he began pressuring it on my request. The physical struggle to get born was beginning to be felt. But, his hand pressure was not enough to really connect to the feeling. I needed still more chest pressure, so he lay on top of me, his chest on mine, and used the full weight of his body to maximize the pressure. My wanting to get out -- to get born, then felt more intense and imperative.

Even though the pressure had increased to an alarming degree, the need to complete the final phase of my birth journey was becoming more imperative and the pressure was still not enough. That has always been my problem in primal therapy. Naturally, the therapist does not want to take a chance of hurting me, but unless I have maximum pressure it never feels as though it is enough and for that reason the connection sometimes seems incomplete. How much pressure would feel enough? Answer: when the point is reached right before my bones would break! The need to recreate the original trauma is inexorable.

Each time I felt the hopelessness, frustration and deep anguish in my plight and despaired in trying to get out of the painful situation I was in, I wanted, instead, to die. Over and over David reminded me to continue breathing as he continued to apply pressure to my chest. I feared I was being pushed beyond my endurance. Again and again the pressure of the birth canal began once again as I struggled to get out of my mother's grip and what I felt was a final experience preceding "death." I was exhorted to "Keep Breathing." "Just a Few Minutes More," David encouragingly urged. I was getting more fatigued. I felt further effort was futile.

Between my exhausting attempts of being born which had met with failure, I gazed around the stage. The other tormented group members (I saw the breathers that way!) were on their backs with their helpers seated next to them. I envisioned a scene from Dante's Inferno. I envisioned the other breathers to be lost souls in hell-fire being tortured by devils, personified as the sitters. It was the kind of symbolic imagery a good Catholic lad, such as myself, would conjure up!

The images of hell were the perfect analogy for where I found myself -- in a hopeless no man's land between the nine months bliss of the womb and the outside world. I could neither proceed with being born nor return to the womb-comfort I had earlier known. The torment seemed endless. I felt that the only solution for the relief of my suffering was complete annihilation. I had tried to continue my birthing process, but nothing I could do would end the indescribable emotional and physical suffering of being stuck in the birth canal. Death would have been preferable.

Over and over, I was reminded to continue the breathing. And again and again, I was being returned to my suffering, fatigue and hopelessness of my efforts to be born. I wanted to just give up and leave the breathwork session. Why had I come so far (from Louisiana to New Jersey) to suffer so much?

As a fetus, I felt I was at the end of my life and could not endure more of the suffering; that I simply had to get out of the torture chamber of my mother's pelvic bones (and David's death grip!). Somehow with his encouragement, I somehow mustered the necessary energy to push my way out of the birth canal and David's powerful embrace.

As I lay on my back struggling to get out of his body pressure, my footing was not good. I had had enough physical pressure and I kept slipping, so he relaxed his hold and I crawled over next to the stage wall to get e traction and pushed with my feet against the wall over and over again to replicate the feeling pressing for release. Finally, I became exhausted and had not the energy to return to the wall to resume pushing my feet against to replicate the act of being expulsed from the birth canal.

My journey had taken me a few feet from the wall and I assume that David knew that I needed to keep pushing so he and others lifted me by my limbs and deposited my body next to the wall so I could resume by pedal pushing against the stage wall until I finally had a modicum of a feeling of release from the intrauterine pressures of the birthing process.

Finally, the torment was over. My body had had enough. But, it was not a feeling of elation or of success. I was worn out both physically and emotionally. I feel certain that this is how I felt immediately after my actual birth. In other regressive feelings I had experienced, I had wanted no touch and no nursing - only repose.

[Note: It is probable that David reminded me to continue holotropic breathing only once or twice, but I was in a place of remembered torture so I considered his reminders as proddings to return to the torment. Looking back on the experience, I am very happy for his help and encouragement. Undoubtedly, I could not have achieved the completion of the feeling I was in without his encouragement to continue and his applying much pressure to my chest and back, for which I had asked. I then asked a woman participant to hold me.

Without David's support, reassurance and gentle prodding, I would have given-up as, I believe, I had originally abandoned effort in the birth canal. When effort during birth had became useless I had become hopeless for relief and sought death as the way to end the torment. Obviously, I was eventually born. The feelings at Appel Farm, that day, encompassed both my early failure and final success of birthing.]"

Looking back on the experience through more knowledgable and less enthusiastic eyes, I definitely had not had a "final success of birthing." To this day, I remain one who has not completed his "death-rebirth" matrix. Perhaps, I had become unconscious during my birth and could neither participate in, nor relive my final part of birthing. I was a home delivery; perhaps my mother had received "heavy" anesthesia from our family physician which might explain my lack of success with that final stage. [See Peri-Natal Agonies in which I give my hypothesis of why I have not able to complete that final matrix]

The authors recount a number of both amusing and disconcerting incidents in their Trials and Tribulations of ...Facilitators chapter during holotropic breathwork workshops held around the world. Some conditions were rather primitive and others scary as was the "encounter with the military junta in Buenos Aires." Cultural differences between the facilitators and their clients in some countries occasionally led to tense moments.

The Drs. Grof believe that mystical experiences, categorized as transpersonal regressions, are very powerful healing experiences. (Grof and Grof, ibid., p. 157) These mystical happenings are not necessarily religious but are invariably spiritual and may encompass feelings of oneness with nature and with the entire cosmos. I enjoyed such an experience during my very first holotropic breathwork experience.

Although, normally I am neither spiritual nor religious with the only exception being the two holotropic experiences. One comprised wonderment and oneness with God the Creator while in the process of creating the world at a vantage point above the Atlantic ocean where, with Him, I blessed the earth and was even able to view its curvature and scattered cloud cover. Was this healing? If so, how was is healing? I have no idea, but I did feel in sublime ecstasy!

Such transcendental experiences can be joyful, while others entail much suffering, the later being exciting nonetheless. I had attended my first holotropic breathwork session when my birth trauma symptoms were at their height, yet I had experienced such amazing joy, happiness and wonderment. This was in contrast to my last holotropic breathwork session when I was in a literal diabolical Hell. And yet, and yet - it had hurt so good!

As far as I remember, in previous books, the Grofs have not shared much information about interventional techniques used by holotropic practitioners. In this book, however, I was happy to learn of the choking and chest pressure techniques which are sometimes used. The later was used by my facilitator in the case story above. The explanation of the "arm wrestling" method of releasing accumulated muscle tension was also particularly interesting.

I enjoyed reading the short section on "Working with demonic energy" in one of the book's appendices. Holotropic Breathwork has again closed ranks with religious dogma in addition to its emphasis on the significance of spirituality. It this case readers are presented with a tentative, although incomplete, but perhaps plausible examination of the phenomena of "demonic forces" which can present during regressive experiences. Many religionists acknowledge the existence of these forces through their use of prayful exorcisms, as do Theophostic counselors, who work exclusively with the regressive experiences of their clients, except with birth material which mysteriously never arrives even after years of regressive work (See, Theophostic Prayer Ministry, Primal-Oriented Therapies and Very, Very Early Trauma and The Pros and Cons of Resolving Birth Trauma in Primal. Theophostic and other Experential Therapies ).

In, Holotropic Breathwork, the Grofs give an accomodative explanation for the existence of the occasionally presented "demonic" phenomena. While not opining about its exact origins, it is a well-done first step in acknowledging the existence of such almost palpable energetic rage seen in some clients in a form which could truly be called demonic - almost in a form which some might decide is a spiritual possession.

The authors explain how Freud and Joseph Breuer, in Studies in Hysteria (1936), wasted their efforts in presenting abreaction as an adequate method of treating neurosis and which Freud was to later abandon in both his theory and technique. The two authors "...saw their cause in the client's infantile fantasies rather than actual fantasies. He also replaced the work with hypnosis, age regression, and abreaction by the method of free association and his original emphasis on making the unconscious conscious by the analysis of transference." (p. 149) On the same page the Grofs continue, "Many practitioners of these new approaches came to the conclusion that Freud's decision to replace his abreactive technique by talking therapy was a mistake that took psychotherapy in the wrong direction for at least half of century."

The Grofs show how the early abreactive therapists had successfully worked with the post-traumatic stress disorder of war trauma. They knew that their patients had been exposed to overwhelming trauma and expected the forthcoming huge emotional cathartic releases they witnessed. However, with other, more typical traumas, they were not prepared for the intensity which they beheld. They feared that clients were entering a possible psychotic state so they held back more involvement and therapy progression was thereby halted. (p. 150)

The Grofs discuss "Other Breathing Techniques" in the second appendix. The book ends with an excellent bibliography which includes a listing of thirty-three formal studies of holotropic breathwork including theses, dissertations, formal papers and articles.

Be sure to examine Dr. Grof's massive output of material inventoried and stored at in the archives of Purdue University. Click on the link below.

Inventory to the Stanislav Grof Papers (circa 1955-2008) - Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections, West Lafayette, Indiana July 29, 2009 - PDF/34 pages This collection contains writings that document the career and research interests of psychiatrist and author Stanislav Grof. It consists primarily of published research articles and clippings discussing the therapeutic effects of psychoactive substances as well as some first-hand accounts of transcendental experiences.

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