What is Transpersonal Breathwork?

Transpersonal Breathwork is a modality most often experienced in safe and supportive group settings led by trained facilitators. This process often evokes supportive feelings of connection and community-building that can facilitate and amplify self-discovery and personal development. With this support, Transpersonal Breathwork can occasion transformative catharses even in response to seemingly intractable pain.

The core components of Transpersonal Breathwork are based on Stanislav Grof, MD's holotropic theory and his work with his late wife, Christina. The experience includes group process, intensified breathing, evocative music, bodywork (when desired), expressive drawing, and group process. The felt sense of this practice can parallel reports emerging from mystical and shamanic traditions and experiential philosophy. 

Doing so is known to intensify one’s experiential field by which the content and intensity of one’s experience may be beyond those typically accessible during ordinary, normative states of consciousness. Through this intensification, individuals can experience shifts in how they understand and tend to their inner life, allowing for increased opportunities to effect direct change in one’s respective world. These shifts can range from deepening personal insight to posttraumatic catharsis and are most readily occasioned by a self-directed process of affirming all qualities of experience as expressions of an Inner Healing Intelligence unique to each person.

Here are some additional frequently asked questions (FAQ) about Transpersonal Breathwork.

What is the overall experience of Transpersonal Breathwork like?

The overall experience of attending a workshop begins with participants gathering to share a bit about themselves and what brings them to the workshop. We will offer a brief introductory talk introducing the lineage and practice of  Transpersonal Breathwork as related to the field of Transpersonal Psychology and the practical details of a breathwork session. The session will last 2-3 hours and is described in more detail below.

After a person’s session concludes, we invite participants to draw, paint, and color in a completely free-form, open way, documenting their experience as a mandala for later reflection. After the mandala drawing is finished, we gather in a sharing circle where participants have an opportunity to talk about as much of their experience as they wish with the rest of the group in support of creating and integrating meaning.

What is a session of Transpersonal Breathwork like?

People are paired off in groups of two; one is the "breather," and one is the "sitter". The sitter gives their focused attention to the breather and looks after simple needs by providing water, tissues, blankets, etc. In a subsequent session, the breather and sitter exchange roles. The session begins with the group of breathers lying on comfortable mats, with eyes covered to help direct attention within. A brief guided relaxation exercise by the facilitator helps facilitate that focus, followed by guided instructions into applying the breathwork technique: progressively intensify breathing to move as large of a volume of air as quickly as one can over a sustained period of time.

The breather will lie on a mat for the duration of the session. Laying down grounds the breather and allows them to move freely, allowing their experience to be expressed organically and spontaneously through the body as the breathwork intensifies. While movement is welcomed, to ensure safe conditions, facilitators ask participants to stay on their mats and refrain from standing and dancing. Along these very same lines, we also encourage breathers to emote in any way that feels natural.

Evocative music supports the focused attention within, increasing the intensity of the experience by which exceptional qualities of consciousness can be experienced. Many persons report a shift in their experience within the first half an hour, including enhanced feelings, enriched imagery, or other non-ordinary qualities like past life events, birth experiences, and even places that transcend personal experience. The key is to engage in amplified breathing until you’re surprised! The trajectory of music begins with an activating quality akin to shamanic drumming and other tribal music, shifting to more challenging and evocative pieces, followed by music that effects surrender and acceptance with tracks culminating in an ethereal quality as the session progresses over the 2-3 hour duration.

There are no specific guidelines or expectations of what must occur. The goal is for the breathwork to serve as a catalyst for occasioning whatever psychic material most needs attention at that moment. As discussed above, affirming the experience, regardless of whether it is painful and/or pleasurable, allows for a deeper sense of wisdom or an Inner Healing Intelligence to be expressed. In the extreme, this expression is what allows for posttraumatic growth, catharsis.

Toward the end of a session, a facilitator may offer simple bodywork to resolve lingering body feelings, such as tensions or tightness in the body, as well as to help release or ground unresolved psychic content by locating how it is expressed through the body. As noted earlier, once participants have concluded their breathwork experience, they are free to draw a mandala documenting their experience as a means of beginning their own meaning-making integration process as well as creating a touchstone for future reflection.

What kinds of experience do people have in Breathwork sessions?

People can vividly re-experience events from their life history whose accessibility is beyond our normal capacity during normative, waking state consciousness. These experiences can be pleasurable as well as painful and can include experiences from late gestation as well as birth all the way through the present day. Participants can also experience events of which they have no direct experience during their biographical life, such as full identification with an entire cultural group in world history, experiencing oneself as a star-forming, reliably reliving the construction process of a Mayan temple, etc. One could also experience qualities often described in archetypal and spiritual
terms as well, even those with which one is unfamiliar.

In the words of William James, the first American psychologist and founder of transpersonal psychology:

“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch, they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

Overall, we encourage participants to lessen their expectations regarding what they want to happen and focus on amplifying and tending to what it feels like to experience whatever content is experienced. This is true even of harrowing experiences. To paraphrase Stan Grof, “Never pass up an opportunity for death and dismemberment,” it is the only way the phoenix can rise from the ashes.

Can it be frightening to re-experience traumatic events from the past?

While the content of one’s experience can certainly be frightening, participants are always aware that they are actively participating in a technique at a workshop. This quality of experience is called double bookkeeping. With this natural quality of experience, participants are also able to attend to managing their own safety as well as determine, or regulate how intensely they want to feel into and through their experience.

What is bodywork like?

Toward the end of a breathwork session, a facilitator will ask a participant how they are feeling and what they notice about their body – such as any tension, tightness, or other noticeable sensations. If any are reported, the participant is invited to engage in bodywork with the facilitator. The intention of bodywork is grounded in the premise that one’s psychological experience (i.e., the felt sense of being alive) is reflected throughout one’s body – i.e., being alive is not merely reduced to a cognitive experience. By this holistic approach to experiencing, intractable traumatic pain can be expressed by releasing blocked psychosomatic energy through a process of intensifying the experience as much as one can tolerate by engaging in breathwork and subsequently cooperatively working with a facilitator in specific bodywork techniques.

Bodywork isn’t a therapeutic massage per se but rather a cooperatively and antagonistically applied pressure between the breather and the facilitator using specific techniques. Sometimes the pressure is simply holding hands, placing a hand on the back, or a full-body hug. This type of bodywork is in response to what are called errors or traumas of omission – when a need for validation wasn’t provided. Other types of bodywork that require more intensely applied pressure are in response to what are called errors or traumas of commission – when something is directly done across a physical boundary without permission. Bodywork interventions of this sort are typically more involved and require more coordination between the breather and the facilitators. For examples of bodywork, one can refer to Holotropic Breathwork by Stanislav Grof, MD. In any case, as noted earlier, when engaging in bodywork, breathers are encouraged to emote in any fashion that emerges naturally, as such expression may contribute toward yielding a cathartic release.

What is the effect of the bodywork?

Another major feature of this breathwork practice is the use of bodywork as a practical way of overcoming the mind/body split. Leaving the body out of self-exploration gives an opportunity only to deal with trauma intellectually, even though the trauma may have a strong physical component as well as a psychological one. 

Theory suggests that a person’s body accumulates tensions over time, and suffers physical injuries and afflictions. Major physical and psychic trauma may occur during a person’s birth process. The accumulation of tension and trauma can impede the free flow of a person’s energy. Injuries that have healed physically may still leave an unconscious residue of difficult feelings.

Bodywork can bring such feelings and recollections of trauma to the fore and then facilitate catharsis. Besides bodywork that involves push and release to address things that happened to a person’s body, bodywork may also address things that didn’t happen to one’s body. There may have been a time, for instance, when a child needed to be held and wasn’t and maternal bonding was impaired. When that strong feeling of absence surfaces in a session, with permission, appropriate physical contact can be particularly corrective. Contact can range from handholding to a full-body hug.

What about sexual feelings?

Generally, when sexual feelings come to the fore they are being driven by underlying feelings, experiences, and intentions. Bodywork used in these situations addresses the underlying issues rather than the overt sexual feelings.
As with any experience at breathwork, sexual feelings experienced within by breathers are welcomed to be expressed to their fullest capacity, as doing so is in the service of releasing trauma. While this expression is welcomed, no sexual expression by a breather will be reciprocated by any other participant and/or facilitator during the breathwork session.

Is Transpersonal Breathwork psychotherapy?

Transpersonal Breathwork is deeply experiential and may involve intense emotional and psychosomatic release. While it can certainly be a profound self-discovery and personal development technique, it does not substitute for psychotherapy. That said, breathwork can deepen and enhance psychotherapy as well as other healing and personal growth efforts.

How do I prepare?

No special preparation is needed beyond the completion of a brief health check form so any potential difficulties can be addressed. If interested, there are various sources of information about breathwork, especially the books of Stanislav Grof, but this is not necessary preparation. 

Are people advised to avoid Breathwork for any reason? 

Pregnant women, persons with cardiovascular problems, glaucoma, epilepsy, or an unresolved history of psychiatric hospitalization are advised to avoid Transpersonal Breathwork. If you have any questions, please contact us before registering. 

What are the benefits of Transpersonal Breathwork?

Transpersonal Breathwork can significantly deepen and enhance psychotherapy and other healing and personal growth efforts.

Can I do it by myself?

Breathwork is best done in a group setting with the attention of experienced facilitators.

Do you provide ongoing support?

The program facilitators will be available to answer questions and ongoing concerns. After the session, we typically offer two group integration sessions as a follow-up to the experience. 

Is Transpersonal Breathwork like taking psychedelics?

While experiences occasioned by Transpersonal Breathwork can evince the same qualities and intensities of psychedelic states of consciousness, no drugs or other substances are used in any breathwork sessions.