Stanislav Grof And His Famous Holotropic Breathwork

woman meditating in nature

If you’ve ever stared into the backs of your eyelids and breathed white light into your navel, you’ve done breathwork. Breathwork is a new-age term that refers to rejuvenating breathing techniques aimed at awakening the body’s life force. In many circles, breathwork is a key modality utilized to inspire peacefulness, healing, and the embodiment of the divine. Stan Grof, MD, Ph.D., a clinical psychiatrist from Czechoslovakia and one the founding forefathers of research in transpersonal psychology for non-ordinary states of consciousness and the therapeutic potential of LSD, has turned breathwork into a psychedelic, and the benefits are profound.

Dr. Grof says his “holotropic” technique, i.e., turning or directing inwardly or healing toward wholeness, helps practitioners expand their consciousness through rapid, repetitive breathing. 

Naysayers regard this activity as potentially dangerous, noting that it resembles hyperventilation. Regardless, thousands of people throughout the world claim Grof’s technique has reduced their stress- and mind-related ailments, and helps them access the inner wisdom of their bodies and core Self.

“Meditation is to understand that one breath connects all beings.”

― Amit Ray

Conscious States of Dying

What Is The Holotropic Mind?

Stanislav Grof’s “holotropic mind” refers to the concept that from any fragment of any aspect of the universe, the whole can be reconstructed. Given that the fabric of the universe and all its attributes are continuously expanding and birthing, the holotropic mind might also be referred to as the “eternal mind” or “one mind.” 

David Bohm, a theoretical physicist, and partner of Einstein’s explored the complexities and paradoxes of this concept. Grof writes of Bohm, he “describes reality as an unbroken, coherent whole that is involved in an unending process of change, called “holomovement.” He continues with Bohm’s ideas, stating, “matter and life are both abstractions that have been extracted from the holomovement,” and “matter and consciousness are both aspects of the same undivided whole.”

This brings to mind the ancient Sanskrit prayer:

Om Puurnnam-Adah Puurnnam-Idam Puurnnaat-Puurnnam-Udacyate

Puurnnasya Puurnnam-Aadaaya Puurnnam-Eva-Avashissyate

Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih

This translates roughly to:

“That is the whole, this is the whole; from the whole, the whole becomes manifest; taking away the whole from the whole, the whole remains, Om peace, peace, peace,” as noted in the prayerbook from Amma “The Hugging Saint.”

Who Is Stan Grof?

Stanislav Grof grew up in Czechoslovakia and received his M.D. from Charles University in Prague in 1957, before later completing a Ph.D. in medicine at the Czechoslovakian Academy of Sciences eight years later, while studying Freudian psychoanalysis.

Grof held the positions of Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, Clinical and Research Fellow at the Henry Phipps Clinic, and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. He teaches as a professor of psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) and his Grof Transpersonal Training (GTT). Dr. Grof has authored several books, including “Psychology of the Future,” “LSD Psychotherapy,” “Beyond the Brain,” “The Cosmic Game,” and “When the Impossible Happens.” 

Stanislov Grof

Stanislov Grof

Transpersonal Psychology

Grof is one of the chief theoreticians of transpersonal psychology, a method that incorporates spirituality and unorthodox elements of the human experience into more traditional psychology. In the early 19070s, Grof’s work was recognized by other academics working in the field of alternative branches of psychology, including Michael Murphy and Dick Price who founded the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, an alternative psychological research institution inspired by psychedelic research, Eastern philosophy and the ideas of famous minds, such as Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts. It was there that Grof would live for several years doing his early research and living as scholar-in-residence.  

In the late 1970s, Grof furthered the development of the field of transpersonal psychology and became the founding president of the International Transpersonal Association, or ITA, in San Francisco as international attention grew for his pioneering work. He and his wife Christina Grof devoted their lives to modern consciousness research, where they made major contributions to this alternative field of psychology, most notably their concepts and works titled “The Stormy Search for the Self,” “The Ultimate Journey,” “Healing Our Deepest Wounds,”  “Realms of the Human Unconscious,” and the “Spiritual Emergency.”

In addition to holotropic breathwork, Grof’s work incorporates psychedelic experiences from guided sessions involving psychedelic substances such as LSD. In fact, Grof has guided over 4,500 therapeutic LSD sessions with his patients. 

The 16 Benefits Of Holotropic Breathing

It’s no secret that through the breath, we can access the all-pervasive consciousness and heal ourselves. With consistent effort, we can release anger, anxiety, grief, depression, and chronic pain. With pranayama (breath control), we might also deepen our connection to the eternal I Am. 

Here are some of the benefits of Holotropic Breathwork:

  1. Release stored tension
  2. Access and release old and chronic emotions
  3. Dissolve energy blocks
  4. Awaken your core Self-identity and pure nature
  5. Bring past traumas into the light for recognition, healing, and emotional release
  6. Invigorate your body and clear your mind
  7. Break-free of mental chatter
  8. Break your patterns around preservation
  9. Improve your attitude and intentions
  10. Set yourself on a more proactive life course
  11. Clarify and improve your self-worth so that you can set better boundaries
  12. Learn to love yourself and others without codependence or subservience 
  13. Move past your ego for more enlightened interactions and pursuits
  14. Enrich your creativity
  15. Invite greater positivity
  16. Improve your chances of overcoming addiction

If you’re ready to experience your prenatal universe (your core Self before this birth), you’re ready for Holotropic Breathwork. This type of self-exploration is the crux of Grof’s philosophy.

How To Do Holotropic Breathing

While there is no definitive way to practice this technique, and the ancient masters have provided several ways to achieve the same results, here is a set of suggestions that you may find helpful:

  1. Lay on your back, with your head slightly elevated with a thin pillow.
  2. Relax and empty your mind of thoughts.
  3. Take a few deep breaths through your nose and allow the air to fill all areas of your lungs. Slowly and peacefully exhale through your nose.
  4. Here forward, breathe solely through your mouth. Begin gently with several inhales of fresh air. Allow the air to activate your diaphragm and fill your belly. When your lungs and belly are full, slowly and peacefully exhale. Allow any emotions to arise and release.
  5. Once you’re comfortable breathing in and out, increase your breathing rate. While some might feel inspired to breathe as fast as they can, the idea here is to remain peaceful. It might be best to slowly accelerate your breathing so that you give rise to a stress-free pace.
  6. After 3 to 5 minutes, you’ll naturally find your rhythm and style of breathing. If you haven’t pushed yourself too hard, you’ll find that your body will enjoy the rapidity of your breathing. Throughout the process, be careful to remain conscious and attend to your breath.
  7. If possible, maintain your deep, speedy breathing for up to 20 minutes. If this is your first time, it might be best to stop at 5 to 10 minutes, or less. If you have found comfort in your pace and are feeling safe and fully conscious, consider extending this ritual for up to 2 hours.

“When the breath is unsteady, all is unsteady; when the breath is still, all is still. Control the breath carefully. Inhalation gives strength and a controlled body; retention gives steadiness of mind and longevity; exhalation purifies body and spirit.”– Goraksasathakam

Powerful Breathwork Techniques

Whether you’re a hippie on a beach breathing ocean air to open your mind’s eye, a Hesychastic Christian on Mt. Athos breathing the eternal Christ into your Earth-nature, or a Kundalini ashram-yogi doing “Breath of Fire” to awaken into the eternal Self, you’re experiencing the purest modality for self- and divine-connection: inhaling and exhaling to deepen your connection to the one boundless, non-dual reality. 

Here are a few of the most wonderful breathing techniques to inspire your awareness and awakening:

  1. Breath of Fire: Seated in lotus pose, relax into measured breathing. When you’re ready, begin increasing your inhalations and exhalations to reach over 60 breaths per minute. As you grow into this experience, you might build toward 120 breaths per minute.
  2. Sama Vritti: Sit in lotus pose, gently breathe inward and outward in equal durations, and focus on stillness.
  3. Nadi Shodhana (nostril breathing): A pranayama breathing technique that uses alternate nostrils. This is helpful when preparing for meditation as it stimulates the third eye, crown chakra, and root chakra while balancing the mind and heart.
  4. Wim Hof Method: A robust process whereby you aggressively inhale through your nose or mouth and then exhale through your mouth. These short, powerful bursts are followed by brief periods of holding one’s breath. The total length of a sitting might be around 15 minutes.
  5. Abdominal Breathing: This is an essential and effective breathing technique that awakens the body and mind. Sit comfortably and use your diaphragm for breathing inward and outward. Focus on the expansion of the belly, rather than on the rise of the chest.
  6. Gentle Breathing: Sit or stand in a comfortable position and allow a relaxed breath to fill your lower lungs and belly. 

While there are many forms of breathwork and many styles of concentrated breathing, the above list will get you started. 

“Without full awareness of breathing, there can be no development of meditative stability and understanding.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Breathing Bottom Line

The key to awakening your peacefulness and awareness is breath. If you can spend 5 minutes per day solely focused on your breathing, you will be doing more for your soul’s expansion than 99.9% of the planet’s population. 

Breathwork is also the perfect precursor to meditation. It gets your blood flowing, initiates the release of the mind, and creates space for your unfoldment. Since you are continuously unfolding back into your pre-birth nature and the eternal consciousness, the more space you can create for yourself, the better.

Breathe in light, exhale tension and toxins. 

Breathe into love and know yourself. 

Breathe and expand. 

I am wishing you the most delicious breathing and meditation for all time!

Experiencing Consciousness Through Mindfulness

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Have you ever had a moment where you felt a heightened sense of awareness in which you could tune into your environment and people around you; allowing you to perceive things you wouldn’t normally? Or have you ever experienced becoming aware in a dream in which you were then able to start making decisions within the dream world (lucid dreaming)? What about a moment of love and compassion where you could actually feel what another person or animal was going through almost as if you were them?

These kinds of experiences offer us a glimpse into a profound way of being and perceiving reality that we each carry within, and that we can learn to use to bring about a more conscious, connected, and spiritual way of living that is literally just waiting for us to shift into whenever we choose.

Coming into the present moment

You may have noticed that a heightened sense of awareness is always accompanied by our perception coming fully into the present moment. It can feel a bit like switching on a light in a darkened room or focusing the lens of a camera—all of a sudden it’s like the world around us comes into view and clarity.

By coming into the awareness of the moment in whatever we’re doing, we perceive from our consciousness rather than the subconscious; which manifests as dreams and daydreams in which we lose perception of what’s happening around us and are drawn into the self-created images of our own thoughts and emotions. And because consciousness is the eternal, spiritual part of us, not only can we see physical stuff more clearly, but we can also perceive things that are non-physical too.

“…end the sleep which weighs heavily upon you. Depart from the forgetfulness which fills you with darkness… O soul, persistent one, be sober and shake off your drunkenness… Light the light within you.”

The Teachings of Silvanus from the ancient Gnostic Nag Hammadi Library, translated by Malcolm L. Peel and Jan Zandee

Taking control of the wheel

Although consciousness tends to get neglected—usually remaining submerged in a continuous stream of thoughts and daydreams, and forgotten amidst the concerns of everyday life—like a muscle, when we exercise it, it gets stronger and we can feel clearer, more “present,” and “truer” to who we are.

Coming into the present moment can feel like something we have to put down whatever we’re doing to experience, but being more conscious doesn’t mean we stop acting, thinking or feeling. Instead, like a driver taking control of the wheel, it means we are able to be more conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and therefore more discerning with those we choose to have.

Expanded Consciousness is the point we ultimately develop spiritually from, as it’s the eternal part of us—deeper than our intellect, knowledge of facts, or personal talents, it’s the part of us that journeys through eternity and that’s why in many spiritual traditions it is the focus of their disciplines and exercises.

“Intellectual knowledge exists in and of the brain. Because the brain is part of the body, which must one day expire, this collection of facts, however large and impressive, will expire as well. Insight, however, is a function of the spirit. Because your spirit follows you through cycle after cycle of life, death, and rebirth, you have the opportunity of cultivating insight in an ongoing fashion. Refined over time, insight becomes pure, constant, and unwavering. This is the beginning of immortality.”

Lao-Tzu in the Hua Hu Ching, translated by Brian Walker

Activating consciousness

Consciousness is something we can experience anywhere anytime. Here’s a little exercise that anyone can try, no matter what they are doing.

For example, if you’re reading as you are now, you can begin by just becoming aware of reading these words. Start then to become aware of your own breathing, and of your body sitting in the chair. Next, become aware of the various sounds you can hear around you. Look around and perceive the light and colours of the things you can see, any people, animals and interactions, the objects and sense of space. Just consciously perceive what’s around you without labeling. See if you can spend a few moments doing this.

Notice how thoughts start to appear. They could be about this article, or about what someone said. Just become aware of them. Observe the state you feel—perhaps a slight tension in your stomach, or a feeling of agitation. Notice how these feelings can cause you to move in a certain way, like jiggling your legs or clenching your muscles. Don’t become distracted by them, just perceive them.

Consciousness is that which is doing the perceiving—and can be directed both inwardly and outwardly. Notice that you can perceive without thinking—that you can perceive just by seeing.

Consciousness – beyond body and mind

Simply by trying this one exercise we can experience consciousness and observe how there is something within us that is beyond thoughts and feelings, and even beyond the mind. Going further, consciousness can even be experienced as being beyond the body in near-death and out-of-body experiences.

If you try this exercise a few more times, you will begin notice that there’s a permanent observer—one that is essentially always there, and always the same, whilst the different thoughts and feelings change from one moment to the next. If you recall a memory of when you were a child for example, you’ll feel that what was fundamentally having that experience then, is what is experiencing this moment now.

The potential to develop consciousness

Many different peoples throughout time discovered the inherent potential each of us has to develop our consciousness. They termed the outcome of this development enlightenment, awakening, self-realization, etc. Using their developed consciousness, they built sacred sites, created masterpieces of art and music, and explored the mysteries of life and the universe, all of which remain a timeless testament to human spiritual potential. We too have this potential, which is why spiritual truths remain timeless and just as relevant now as they were thousands of years ago.

Consciousness is what connects us all to the spiritual source, to each other, to all forms of life, to other planes of existence, and throughout time into eternity. Therefore by experiencing and developing it we can perceive, connect with, and partake in the greater spiritual reality and majesty of all that is—something truly wonderful to be alive for and to experience.

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