Stanislav Grof, Robert Hall and Richard Strozzi-Heckler—all associates of the vipassana community—work directly with the body and/or breath as a path of insight and means of healing. We asked them to talk about their motivation and methods, and what the wisdom of the body and breath have to teach us.
I began working as a Freudian trained psychiatrist, but soon became so disappointed with psychoanalysis as a clinical approach that I began to regret that I had ever chosen the discipline. In 1956, when the clinical group I worked with in Czechoslovakia got a supply of LSD from Sandoz Laboratories, I volunteered for an experiment. I had such a powerful confrontation with my own psyche that I started experimenting with LSD-assisted therapy. In contrast to Freudian analysis, in the LSD therapy very few of my patients’ experiences stayed on the biographical level, but instead entered archetypal and mythological realms. Patients had experiences of death and rebirth, cosmic oneness, past lives, deities and demons from different cultures. This came as a total surprise to me, educated as a Freudian. Most of traditional psychology doesn’t know anything about those realms or discards them as psychotic.
I did about twenty years of clinical work with psychedelics and then went to Esalen Institute in Big Sur to write a couple of books. It wasn’t possible to continue the work with psychedelics at Esalen, so my wife Christina and I began developing a combination of breathing, music, and body work which we call holotropic breathwork. We have found that the same spectrum of experiences becomes available in the breathwork as in psychedelic sessions, but not necessarily in such a profound, overwhelming form.
Later, when Christina and I started working in retreat settings with Jack Kornfield, we became aware of some profound similarities between the principles of holotropic breathwork and Buddhist meditation. In both techniques the emphasis is on choiceless awareness, allowing all experiences to emerge without judgment, letting go of conditioned responses so that the process can unfold and the psyche can heal itself.
The process of holotropic breathwork acts like a radar that scans your system and finds contents that have a strong emotional charge. One fundamental insight that comes out of this process is the importance of physical trauma in the development of emotional or psychosomatic disorders. People become aware of accidents, near drowning, whooping cough, childhood pneumonia, diphtheria—situations that were painful or even life-threatening, and particularly those that interfered with breathing. It is also quite common for people to experience the physical and emotional trauma of birth, and some people seem to get in touch with past-life experiences that involve some kind of physical insults—being wounded, tortured or killed.
When I started as a clinical psychiatrist, I was interested in healing people with emotional and psychosomatic disorders such as phobias, depression and asthma. But we have found that the roots of those problems are not just on the biographical level, as Freud would have us believe. Some material from childhood might be relevant, but in holotropic breathwork we often find a connection to some difficulty in the birth process as well. In addition, there may be material related to the transpersonal level. For instance, you can be working with someone who has asthma who first experiences a near drowning when he was seven years old. As the process continues, he suddenly is reliving an experience of whooping cough when he was two. Then the process goes deeper and he is choking in the birth canal. And maybe later he reports an experience of a past life where he was strangled or hanged. So each of these traumas is like a multilevel underlying matrix, and people have to go to all those different sources of their experience to clear up some particular problem.
While holotropic breathwork does not always progress in a linear fashion, there are certain patterns of experience. When you relive birth trauma, for instance, you realize that somehow, in the depths of your psyche, you still carry very live memories of that event. Perhaps you haven’t really been “born” emotionally; you haven’t realized that the danger of birth is over. In some cases the birth trauma can determine a person’s entire attitude towards life, and some people’s lives reflect more of the situation of being in the birth canal than being here in the world. They feel confined by circumstances, uncomfortable with the way things are, as though their heads are stuck in the birth canal. As a result, someone who strongly experiences this may get on a kind of linear binge, always projecting some kind of ideal situation in the future: what she needs—how much money, how much power, how much status—to really feel comfortable. But she never has enough to relieve the anxiety, and therefore ends up going through life on a treadmill, always chasing something in the future and never really living in the present. When people can relive the birth trauma and work through it, they tend to experience a new sense of freedom and satisfaction with life as it presents itself.
On another level, reliving biological birth can also be experienced as rebirth. Some significant part of you dies and a new self is born. That’s where the transpersonal enters into the picture, because the new self is usually a spiritual self. Rather than seeing the world as some banal kind of Newtonian machine, you might start seeing it as the work of creative cosmic energy, a mystery play of the universe. You become open to the possibility of past-life experiences, you start identifying with other people, with animals, with mythic beings, with archetypal imagery.
Finally, once you are able to experience yourself in different forms and in a wide variety of contexts, the question begins to dawn on you, “Who am I, really?” You start asking questions about how experience happens, and about the relationship between the experiencer and the experienced. If you do a really good job on that puzzle you are likely to discover that what you are is not a particular content of consciousness, but the fact of consciousness itself. From that perspective you can return to your various movies, and all your different roles, but you don’t get so caught in them. Your true identity transcends them all.