History of Holotropic Breathwork




Beginning in the 1960’s, at the Esalen Institute and other locations, human potential movement modalities including gestalt therapy, bio-energetics, primal therapy, marathons, encounter groups, neo-Reichan and other experiential approaches radically expanded the range of emotional expression beyond that which would be appropriate within a therapist’s office.


Participants were encouraged to talk directly to the people they would ordinarily talk about, to express themselves freely, to cry and even scream, authentically experiencing themselves in scenes from their biographical past. They were equally likely to have experiences unaccountable to them during which they went beyond their post-natal biography into Perinatal episodes as well as into experiences that defy rational explanation and which are known as Transpersonal.




In the 1950’s the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, per industry protocol, had sent samples of a psychoactive compound they called LSD 25 to specialized clinics throughout Europe, including the Charles University in Prague Czechoslavia where Stanislav Grof was beginning his career as a Freudian psychiatrist. The newly synthesized compound was accompanied by an advisory note recommending that the clinicians themselves ingest it to understand their clients better.


In his first session Dr Grof was “astonished”. He gained significant insight into the astonishing potential of non-ordinary states to reveal the psyche, an ability that he has since likened to that of Galilleo’s telescope to reveal the heavens. Deciding to the study psychoactives and non-ordinary states, his career trajectory was cut short in 1971 when all research into the potential therapeutic value of these medicines was prohibited. At that time, Grof was invited to the Esalen Institute as scholar-in-residence to write a comprehensive survey of the seventeen years of clinical work he conducted with these medicines in Prague and at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.


Observation Leading to Understanding


In Prague, Dr Grof had spent over 2500 hours in clinical settings conducting, observing and meticulously documenting hundreds of sessions. His basic approach to the extraordinary material that arose from his patients was one of  “Data First; Interpretation Last”. This posture echoes, and is similarly expressed by, the original meaning of the word “therapist”; from the Greek word ‘Therapeutes’, it means “an attendant to the healing process”.


Holotropic Breathwork facilitator and psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer, makes a germane analogy between this therapeutic stance and that of the physician who makes a cast for a broken arm; this simple procedure establishes and maintains the environment necessary for the healing of the bone to take place, without further interventions.


Thus, the Perinatal and Transpersonal theories that inform Holotropic Breathwork spring not from any existing theory, dogma or established teaching but from the objective observations of an open-hearted, open-minded clinician who understood, both from his own and others’ experience, the significance of allowing the patient’s inner process to run its course fully supported, but unimpeded by un-requested therapeutic interventions.


Esalen Institute


When Grof encountered the human potential modalities at Esalen in the 1970’s he was struck by how closely the experiences he had seen manifest in individuals undergoing therapy using psychoactives were comparable in content to the experiences of these modalities. It was absolutely clear that these experiences were not produced by the psychoactives but were artifacts of the psyche itself. With reference to their ability to bring the most urgent issues to the attention of the client, he subsequently described these compounds as being “non-specific amplifiers”.


The Power of the Breath


Grof’s patients in Prague had often used breathing during their sessions to modulate, navigate and manage the terrain encountered, and many of the human potential modalities he witnessed at Esalen also used the breath to help drive the client towards deeper experiences. Concurrently, mythologist Joseph Campbell introduced him to the ecstatic and healing rituals of ancient, pre-industrial cultures from all over the world, including Pranayama, Vipassana and other forms that used breathing techniques. Holotropic Breathwork’s healing potential comes from the change in consciousness occasioned by conscious breathing, and the journal article, “Holotropic Breathwork: The Potential Role of a prolonged, Voluntary Hyperventilation Procedure as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy”,  principally authored by Joseph Rhinewine, PhD, hypothesizes a mechanism of action for this effect.




Following his exposure to Human Potential Movement modalities at Esalen, Grof and his wife wife Christina worked to further develop this new form. In originating Holotropic Breathwork the Grofs added something also valued by ancient cultures world-wide for its ability to disable the conscious mind; Music. Combining these two elements within the safe and supportive “set and setting” that he had employed in psychoactive sessions, they also expanded the “Therapeutes” posture to include the Buddhist practice of  “Doing Not Doing”. This is now accepted as the optimal stance for Holotropic Breathwork facilitation.


Thus, Holotropic Breathwork is a post-modern practice originating from a profound understanding of contemporary and ancient healing forms by a western-trained, evidence-based clinician sophisticated in the expanded realms of the human unconscious brought about by psychoactivation.