In recent years you may have encountered the term ‘Holotropic Breathwork’, most likely in an article about altered states of consciousness that has all the empirical fortitude of a Goosebumps book. Holotropic Breathwork (or HB for those in the know) is most commonly described as a practice to profoundly alter human consciousness and incite transpersonal experiences akin to what one would experience on psychedelics, no back-alley drug deals with 19-year-olds required.
One website sagely describes Holotropic Breathwork as a way to get you “High as F**k” and reports the glaring benefit that “they haven’t figured out how to make breathing illegal… yet”, which is probably quite an exciting prospect for a certain subset of the population. However, so many of these articles fail to address what the process actually involves in a scientific sense. It turns out, in terms of research and despite its promises, Holotropic Breathwork is a fairly illusive procedure that is at best an emerging practice and certainly an extremely niche area of research.
How does it work?
Holotopic Breathwork is promoted largely as a “brain hacking” method; it was developed by a Czech-American psychiatrist and LSD researcher Stanislav Graf with the intent of producing altered states of consciousness in his patients. The procedure involves extensive accelerated breathing and is generally accompanied by light body movement, with altered consciousness sensations apparent for most after approximately 8 minutes, and strong perceptual distortions reported after periods exceeding 15 minutes.
In a study of 482 participants, 82% reported that the procedure elicited a ‘transpersonal’ experience; however this study does literally include the phrase “yogic state of turiya” to explain the 2% of patients that reported no spiritual experience, and was funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – so maybe take it with a hefty sack of Himalayan rock salt.
Does it have benefits?
So, what’s so interesting about Holotropic Breathwork? Well, besides its advertised potential to get teenagers high in the comfort of their own bedrooms without the assistance of drugs, the practice may well hold an immense promise for the complementary or alternative treatment of common psychiatric disorders. Holotropic Breathwork, despite its fancy title, is physiologically an experience of extensive hyperventilation resulting in a decrease in carbon dioxide and an increased alkalinity of arterial blood. The typical symptoms of hyperventilation are precisely what you may have experienced in the past when breathing excessively, such as after a 15-meter run, with dizziness, heart-palpitations, and tingling or numbness of the extremities.
Neurologically speaking, this process has been related to the same alteration of neuronal patterns witnessed when patients ingest substances such as ketamine, in a state of gamma frequency linked to cognitive processing. Although it is still unproven as of yet, it is theorized that altering the gamma frequency encourages emotional disassociation as well as a dis-inhibition of “suppressed” thoughts and stimuli.
While no reliable long-term studies in a therapeutic context have been published (and in fact, only two articles regarding Holotropic Breathwork seem to have ever been included in a peer-reviewed journal), one 2007 paper states that the mechanisms of HB are certainly promising for treatment of psychological disorders, and even cites that the procedure has been useful amongst patients showing no significant clinical progress with any other method. In a psychological community where the therapeutic use of once-maligned substances such as ketamine and MDMA are now slowly slipping into mainstream treatment, perhaps Holotropic Breathwork may emerge as an exercise with a far more noble use than getting kids on the Internet high without drugs.