ARTICLES EN ANGLAIS
Holotropic Breathwork (moving towards wholeness)
Holotropic breathwork is a very powerful therapeutical technique that combines controlled breathing and evocative musics to produce a non ordinary state of consciousness. It was devised by Stanislav GROF M.D., an American psychiatrist-psychoanalyst born in Prague who became the pioneer in the field of psychedelic research in the 50’s till 1973 when the US government forbid the legal use of LSD even for clinical research ; as a matter of fact, people were taking psychedelics without supervision and it created confusion, complications and death dangers.
Worldwide known for his revolutionary discoveries, he was invited to emigrate to America in 1967 and came with fifteen pounds of clothing and twenty-five pounds of psychedelic sessions notes which formed the basis of many books :
- Realm of the human unconscious
- LSD psychotherapy
- The human encounter with death
Anyway, the experiences in altered states of consciousness with LSD went beyond those known in traditional psychology and psychiatrists who took the substance had intense experiences that led to a sense of peace and completion on many levels. Grof and his team became the first experiencers when in 1954 Doctor Albert Hoffmann, the head director of the Switz Sandoz laboratories and the creator of the molecule sent him a box of LSD to experience with his patients. A man of great integrity, Stan Grof had to be sure that this intense catalyser of the psyche wouldn’t be of any danger to the patient. In fact, on the contrary, it cathalizes the inner healing energy so that the inner wisdom is reactivated and selects what is relevant for the person to experience. Psychedelics are not destructive if administered under strict guidance in a proper setting and under experienced supervision.
The therapist is not structuring and analyzing the patient’s experience according to particular theory, the healing work in non ordinary states of consciousness arises from within the patient assisted by a sitter or facilitator. Those altered states have been used for healing and rites of passages for thousands of years. Modern consciousness research is a re-discovery and a continuation of a high human tradition : Shamanism (40.000 years old) gives evidence of this tradition on cave paintings and burial sites. Shamans are experts of non ordinary states and they use ecstatic states to get information on physical illness, social problems, medicinal plants or to contact spirit guides.
Altered states of consciousness belong to the mystical branches of religion : sufism, kabbala, yoga, tantrism etc… They can be reached through :
. Meditation and prayer,
. Drumming and rattling,
. Extremes of temperature (sweat-lodge), flagellation (christian monks in the middle-ages, the sun dance for the Native Americans who endured physical and spiritual endurance trials),
. Near-death experiences, spiritual emergencies occuring spontaneously,
. Pranayama breathing,
. Deprivation of sleep etc…
Different traditional or arborigenal cultures still have access to these transcendant states through the help of sacred plants. The Mesoamericans and Amerindians still use psilocybine mushrooms, peyote and ayawaska during their healing ceremonies.
The evolutionary vision of Stanislav Grof enrooted in the psychedelic experiences and confirmed in the holotropic breathwork consists in the creation of a new healing paradigm using the model of perinatal matrices in psychotherapy. But let’s go first to a brief description of the setting.
Holotropic breathwork is generally practiced in groups because of the driving group energy that empowers people in their own journey, but I very often practice it too in private for people who are not ready yet to experience the group process.
How does it work ? What happens when you breathe ?
The general setting : The experiencial breathwork part will last about three hours.
It takes place during two days and people work in pairs, one will be the breather one day and the other one, the sitter. The next day the roles are reversed. The room is in total darkness and the breather (the experiencer) lays down on a mat in a sleeping bag with blindfolders on his eyes closed. We start with a relaxation to help people enter their inner world, then we encourage the breathers to deepen and fasten their breathing for a while and to stop when it feels appropriate. Fast, continuous breathing modifies the acid/alkaline balance in the blood and also breaks down patterns of restricted breathing associated with repressed feelings. In greek, the term « psuke » means breath and soul (psyche) and in many spiritual traditions, as we saw earlier, breathing practices are used for transformation.
The role of the sitter is essential and consists in watching carefully in a close and loving attention the breather’s experience without judging or interfering. He or she has to stay with the breather and maintain integrity and safety in the setting.
A contract is established between them both that needs to be respected : does the breather want to be encouraged if the breathing gets difficult ?
Boundaries about physical contact have to be set in a very clear way. I insist a lot on that aspect because we must never forget that in this non ordinary state of consciousness experiences are relived on a multidimensional level and intensified.
The sitter is the nurturer who gets water, helps the breather to the bathroom, who is reponsive to other needs and may be asked by the facilitator (the psychotherapist) to help in bodywork.
The mat is the spot for the breather during the whole session ; he is free to express himself in any way that feels appropriate within that perimetre. He’s free to move, sing, scream, dance, spit up, meditate, laugh, as the inner experience requires, except :
- Self-harm, not permitted and will be stopped
- Anything that could be unsafe to yourself or to other people
- Attracting sitter or facilitator in inappropriate ways.
For exemple, it’s possible to experience a wide range of inner emotions, feelings and energies such as sexual without the sitter playing an active role. Sitters are not obliged to engage in any part that doesn’t feel comfortable to them.
It plays an essential healing part in the process and is a strong catalyser. It’s played very loud in order to be like a sound matrix. These carefully selected musics have several functions that mobilize emotions associated with repressed memories, bring them to the surface and facilitate their expressions. They help to open the gates to the unconscious, intensify and deepen the therapeutical process. The continuous flow of music creates a carrier wave that helps move through the painful moments. Surrender completely to this flow of music, let it penetrate your skin and bones and use it like a vessel. Give full expression to whatever experience the music is bringing without judging.
The chosen musics are highly evocative, not well known and with no concrete content.
The session begins with activating, dynamic music, it then increases in intensity and moves to powerful trance-inducing pieces drawn from ritual and spiritual traditions of various native cultures.
After one hour and a half, we introduce « breakthrough music » ranging from sacred music : masses, oratorios or powerful orchestra pieces (excerpts from dramatic movie soundtracks too).
Then in the second half of the session, the activity decreases and we put heart and meditative music.
I always carry with me a wide range of musics that I ajust according to the energy of the group.
A new cartography of the psyche
Grof’s huge experience with non-ordinary states of consciousness led him to establish a map of what can arise from the unconscious during a session, but under no circonstance should this map be a pre-program for the journey. The aim is just to be open and accept whatever experience might emerge, to just trust the inner healer that has much more wisdom than our conscious ego. Still, it’s very useful to have some background of the kind of experiences that can occur. I usually offer a pre-breathwork introductory lecture, the night before the workshop, to inform new participants about the experiences they might encounter, because it can really be « Encounters with the third type » ! Experiencers need to be prepared and ready for this soul journey.
1 – Sensory level
Hyperventilation heightens your body sensations by increasing the flow of energy and the sense of energy fields. You may experience subtle sensations you are not usually aware of. The sounds and smells are very often perceived in a total different way. New breathers may experience tetani which is an intense contraction of your members related to blocked energies, from anger to inhability to expressing love. Rather than fighting it, you’d rather keep on breathing. It will dicrease or lead you into further experience. If not, it will be massaged or pressed on to unlock the repressed energy.
2 – Biographical level
We regress or reexperience scenes that most traditional therapies cover such as emotions, memories, repressed or unfinished traumas from our post natal life. But the emphasis is not set on the verbal insight, the focus with Breathwork is on living the experience through to a place of completion going from bliss to traumatic situations such as repeated surgeries, accidents or physical injuries that are often expressions of what Grof calls COEX (condensation of experiences). What you experience in life is very often a condensation of your birth. I remember a patient of mine whose mother had had a car accident when she was eight months pregnant. The baby almost got drowned in the womb and the delivery took place in absolute emergency. The baby was born with the ombilical cord around her neck. In her physical life, she had endured asthma since she was a little kid and almost got drowned three times in her life. She attended a workshop with me, relived the birth traumas with intense pain… after she told me that the asthma had decreased a lot and her fears of water had disappeared. This leads us to the perinatal matrices. Let’s not forget that we are working on a multi-level opening approach. Those multidimensions always interconnect during breathwork.
3 – Perinatal level
It’s related to the physical birth which seems to have left deep inprints in our life. The baby was not born « tabula rasa », he already carries deep memories anchored in his cells. This new cartography of the psyche leads us to four distinct birth perinatal matrices (BPM’s) that won’t necessarily be experienced in chronological order.
BPM I Neptune (The Ocean)
It’s the intrauterine stage before the contractions begin. It can be perceived as a very blissful time, oceanic and with no boundaries. The fœtus’s needs are totally met through the ombilical cord. There’s a deep feeling of peace and osmosis with the mother. It’s related to a sense of paradise feeling. The expereriencer may have the sensation of being a dolfin swimming in an endless ocean. However, if the mother tried to abort at the beginning of her pregnancy, her womb can be experienced as a a very toxic one.
BPM II Saturn (Time)
It’s an endless experience. The contractions have started but are irregular and the cervix doesn’t seem to dilate enough in order to let the baby engage himself through the pelvic-genital canal. It’s « Paradise lost », the cut-off from the mother has already taken place, there’s a great deal of pain and no exit yet possible. Feelings of guilt ( what did I do to deserve that terrible punition ?), depression, victimhood and powerlessness. Symbolically, it’s connected to images of concentration camps, sharks, black spiders or Sisyphus. Jean-Paul SARTRE’s writtings are typical of this matrix. When you’re experiencing it, just face it as a very healing time. You are in a black tunnel, you just have to give time to time and go through it to access to light.
Very often, people who have got heavy migrains in their life have endured this kind of painful birth. This is my case. My mother’s delivery took almost two days. I was born with the forceps. I had to experienced BPMII many times to get rid of my headaches. Just remember that these doom feelings are not permanent, you just have to go with the process and trust it.
BPM III (Pluto, the underworld)
The cervix has now dilated and birth becomes a struggle. Titanic forces are involved and it’s a tussle between the baby and the mother. Both are pushing. There is a goal and a direction. This matrix has a connotation of sexuality, agression and spirituality too. It’s often related to fire, the nights of Walpurgis, war, volcanoes and Bacchanalia. Very often, when the process ends and the fetus leaves the vagina, the breather experiences like an ego death, a death and rebirth process. The Phoenix ‘s rebirth is a very liberating moment.
BPM IV (Uranus, the discoverer)
The baby is out of the womb, the ombilical cord is cut. It’s the first moment of autonomy from the mother. It can be nurturing or terribly frustrating according to what were the first moments with the mother. The breather may experience light or darkness, depending how he was welcomed on this earth. There is often a desire for sucking and being held in arms. Pains in the navel may occur reminding the splitting from the mother.
The perinatal matrices phenomenology is about :
- Transpersonal and Mystical experiences beyond time and space in which one becomes the Consciousness.
I’d like to tell you about my first holotropic experience to illustrate this topic.
After having breathed on my mat for a while, I suddenly became an Indian priestress. I sat down on my mat praying to the Sun and dancing for it. All of a sudden, the energy danced me, I was not running the dance anymore. I became the energy. I had no more body. I remember asking myself who I was. I got no answer. I was just a point in the Universe. It lasted for a while, then I went back to earth. Rocked by a mantra sung by Baba Muktananda, I stayed in the Lotus position for a long time, feeling no pain in my joints. I must confess, that in an ordinary state of consciousness this posture is very hard on me.
This first experience was the beginning of my own journey through non ordinary states of consciousness.
On the contrary, the experience can be very quiet and ressemble a « yogic sleep » . No conscious memories can be described and the breather may have the sensation that nothing happened. In Eastern traditions, highest states of consciousness are those without any objects.
- Shamanic experiences may involve encounters with power animals, spirit guides, journeys to the Upper or Lower Worlds to retrieve informations or soul parts.
- Archetypal experiences We are not limited by any religious background and can tune in universal ordering principles or gods and goddesses from various traditions
- « Past-life experiences » : How Hugues became « Haïm »
I must add that the word past-life experience was introduced by my patient. I don’t impose any ideology in order not to influence my patient’s process
I’ll report this story that illustrates perfectly this theme.
When he started working with me a few years ago, his first name was Hugues. I say « was » because he changed his name after reexperiencing some « past life events » that led him to a radical shift in his life.
Hugues, now 35 years old, is a computor engineer with a Master in philosophy. He comes from a middleclass catholic and protestant family. Middle-sized, very skinny and extremely bright and perceptive, he was born with a heavy digestive problem. He was operated at the age of three days old and many other times during his childhood during which he developped a disease called « hospitalism » . He stopped growing and taking weight because of a lack of parental nurturing, spending more time in medical care units than at home. At five years old he had to stay for five months at the hospital to endure severe major surgeries. During this stay, he discovered under hypnosis that he had been raped many times by a male Algerian nurse.
Since he was a teen, he had the impression that a lot of memories had escaped from his conscious mind. This is what we could call a post traumatic amnesia.
Hugues had always been a very good drawer and painter and all the drawings that he brought me in private sessions were black, sharp and deeply depressive. Something in him was telling that « black » events had occured to him before, but he could not put any word on it.
As soon as we started working in non ordinary states, a lot started appearing. The first event being the odious rape at the famous Parisian hospital called « Les enfants Malades ». The depressive position increased, he became almost anorexic and I had to develop a very nurturing therapeutical setting to keep him « alive ». This was a very poignant time for us both.
But after a while, other amazing sequences started emerging that he himself will call « past lives », without having ever been interested in this subject before. At that time, I didn’t want to even suggest the word in order to give him freedom.
Past lives of being a jew during the Inquisition showed up and triggered the fact that he may had had some jewish roots. He then investigated at the « Beth Atefusot », the Diaspora Israeli Museum and discovered that his birth family name was in fact from Portuguese origin. It triggered in him the desire to explore on deeper levels what were the missing parts in him.
One day, about seven years ago, during a breathwork session, he discovered that he had been a jewish Polish pianist, taken to Auschwitz and burnt. He heard his name « Haïm ». (It was before the film « the Pianist » was issued !). A « voice » told him « You are Haïm » (Haïm in hebrew means life)
During all this terrible session, his body expressed the most painful postures and facial mimics. There was no doubt, it was not simulation. He was in agony. The mandala that he did after totally reflected this atrocious multileveled experience with an amazing authenticity.
Shortly after this group session, he had insights that « Haïm » was now his name and that he had to drop his birth name « Hugues ». But in France it’s almost impossible to do it. You have to go into Court without the certainty that the judge will allow you to change it.
Dreams started to show up and two months after, an amazing synchronicity happened.
It was the beginning of another holotropic breathwork group. Eighteen people were in circle. I had displayed 22 Hebrew tarot cards on the floor, upside down. I’m familiar with hebrew letters and even if people don’t know them, I simply suggest to get in touch with the letters energy and let it flow through their body to get insights. Each one picked up a card, and when it was my patient’s turn, he showed his, it was « Heth », meaning the barrier and the tooth, and which astrological caracteristic is « cancer ». And moreover , the letter « Heth » is the first one of the name « Haïm ». We were both at aw for we knew that it was a cosmic glance from the universe. Bertrand is a double cancer, he came to the workshop with a heavy tooth ache and had to overcome the barrriers that had kept him in this death position.
His breathing session was one of total delivery, a rebirth. Again he heard you are « Haïm ». He put his cover around his shoulder as a prayer shawl and started praying, balancing his body. He looked like a biblical old jew. After the workshop, we integrated during many private sessions his return to life. Very shortly, he decided to travel to Israel to do some archeological work, started to go to the synagogue, and met a Rabbi with whom he started a conversion to judaïsm after having got circumsized. He also decided to officialize his intent to become « Haïm » officially. France is a catholic country and it’s hard to change your name into an hebrew one. So he went into Court to process the changing but the legal procedure takes much time. Anyway, he is so much determined that he accepts this difficulty.
It’s useless to say that his paintings totally changed. They are now colourful, happy, full of life. Haïm has retrieved all the missing parts. He’s no more a wanderer in his life. He’s now active in his life and is about to start a new professional life in which he’ll be able to unfold his talents.
The purpose of the bodywork
Often the session feels complete with the breath and the experiencer’s movements or expressions. At other times, the breather may feel that the gestalt is unfinished when pains still remain in the body creating emotional discomfort or deadness in several body members blocking the flow of energy. Body work is used to bring relief and completion. The therapist does pressures on the painful areas and asks the patient to increase the pressure by resisting it and expressing sounds.
The keypoint is that the breather is doing the work himself and remains in control of the process all the time, although we may suggest positions or actions as triggers. « Stop » is the key word that will make this bodywork stop, other words are taken as part of the process. We know that the process is over when we witness in the breather a feeling of rested peacefulness, joy, a free and full belly breathing and even a contented exhaustion.
We never let anyone leave the room to draw his mandala without being checked by the therapist (facilitator).
Mandala drawing, an integrative moment and… sharing with the group
Doing artwork after leaving the « delivery room » is an important aspect of the work. You symbolically draw or paint what has emerged during the experiential part of the workshop. It’s a nice way to come back to « ordinary » reality and a nice transition from the internal world to the external one. Both sitters and breathers are asked to draw in silence without verbally sharing before their artwork is over. It’s very often amazing to see the telepathic connections between the partners.
After art work, people come back to the main room, sit in circle and show their mandalas around, sharing in the group is highly recommended as a part of the integrative process but is not mandatory. If someone doesn’t feel like sharing, I’ll check with himindividually afterwards.
Gestalt work and drumming are also integrative moments.
As some experiences can be extremely intense on emotional and physical levels, this work is not appropriate for pregnant women, people with heart problems, high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, epilepsy or those with severe emotional or psychiatric disorders.
It’s useless to say that I never accept anyone I don’t know without screening him before the group starts.
These lines are just a brief overview of a pioneering work.
As a trained psychoanalyst, I consider Grof’s metapsychology outstanding to understand the human psyche far beyond the physical brain.
It brings new perspectives in psychotherapy and self-exploration.
Further recommended readings by Stanislav Grof
- The Holotropic Mind
- The cosmic Game
- The Adventures of self-discovery
- Psychology of the Future (his last book)
Martine Gercault is a clinical psychologist. She has been practicing psychoanalysis and psychotherapy for thirty-five years. She also uses hypnosis, visual imagery and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). She is familiar with gestalt, bio-energetics, primitive dance and art-therapy. She has completed the three-years facilitator training program for Holotropic Breathwork and transpersonal psychology with Dr Stanislav GROF. She builds bridges between psychoanalysis, body-work and transpersonal psychology.
She has been leading Holotropic Breathwork groups for twenty-eight years.
Sessions hours accrued with Martine Gercault may be credited towards certification as a Grof Holotropic Breathwork facilitator into the Grof Transpersonal Training (GTT).