Altering Consciousness Without Drugs: My Experience With Psychedelic Breathwork

psychedelic breathwork

Artwork by Tsjisse Talsma

There are many reasons why someone may want to alter their consciousness without drugs: legality, safety, more controllability, and fewer side effects. Humans have also long engaged in non-drug methods for altering consciousness, including meditation, fasting, chanting, drumming, and dancing.

The Czech psychiatrist and LSD researcher Stan Grof developed a mind-altering technique called holotropic breathwork after LSD was made illegal. He had extensively studied the effects and benefits of this psychedelic, and so he wanted to continue to provide psychedelic experiences to others, without facing legal troubles. 

Since hearing about people’s experiences with holotropic breathwork, I have been curious to try it myself. So last summer, I decided to look up holotropic breathwork facilitators (it’s recommended to engage in the practice with a trained practitioner, due to its potentially intense effects). I didn’t actually find many in London, and those who I did find charged more than I was willing to spend. 

So rather than seek out a one-on-one holotropic breathwork session, I followed the recommendation of someone I knew who attended a group session. This wasn’t advertised as ‘holotropic breathwork’ per se but instead involved a technique called ‘Psychedelic Breath’. In the summer and when the weather is nice, this group session takes place outside (at Clapham Common); otherwise it is held at an indoor venue.

This form of psychedelic breathwork ended up taking me by surprise. I did not expect it to have such a strong effect. I would like to describe what my experience is like, in case others are curious about non-drug approaches to altering consciousness. But first, I think providing some more details about holotropic breathwork will be useful.

What is Holotropic Breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork is a breathing technique intended to alter consciousness for the purpose of self-healing and exploration, without relying on exogenous chemicals. Using just the breath (alongside music), one can enter a trance state, and sometimes quite an intense one. (Holotropic means ‘moving towards wholeness’; it is derived from the Greek terms holos for ‘whole’ and trepein for ‘moving in the direction of something’.)

Grof, a pioneer of transpersonal psychology and psychedelic therapy, conducted more than 4,000 sessions with LSD, beginning in the 1950s. He had success treating traumas and psychological ailments of various kinds. Despite the success of this psychedelic therapy, the use of psychedelic substances started to become outlawed in the 1960s. These changes culminated in 1970 when US President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, making psychedelics Schedule I drugs in the US. Prohibition against psychedelics then rippled across the world. 

Since Grof understood the value and therapeutic potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness, he sought to develop a method for inducing them without prohibited drugs. He and his wife Christina developed such a technique at the Esalen Institute in California, after trying various methods on volunteers.

In their book Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy (2010), the two explain that these approaches “included both breathing exercises from ancient spiritual traditions under the guidance of Indian and Tibetan teachers and techniques developed by Western therapists.” After some experimentation, they tried to “simplify this process as much as possible.” Christina focused more on developing the accompanying musical component of holotropic breathwork. 

The Grofs have gone on to train others in this form of breathwork, and there exist other varieties as well (one of which I tried, which I will describe later). The process is actually quite simple: it combines accelerated breathing with evocative music in a special set and setting (a prepared and intentional mindset and environment). 

A person closes their eyes and lies on a mat, using their breath and the music in the room to enter an altered state of consciousness. One typically begins with a brief relaxation exercise from a facilitator, a meditation where one relaxes one’s muscles, releasing tension from the toes to the face. After this, music begins to play (this goes through phases: it shifts from percussive and rhythmic to emotional and heart-opening to quiet and meditative). 

At the same time the music is playing, one starts to breathe quickly and deeply, and one is invited by the facilitator to follow one’s own pace. One hyperventilates in this way for about 10 minutes at a time, followed by slower breathing. Eventually, one enters a trance state. Some participants express themselves strongly, through crying, wailing, shouting, screaming, laughing, singing, moaning, growling, shaking, twisting, writhing, and flailing. However, there is perhaps more agency involved in holotropic breathwork compared to psychedelic-occasioned states.

Sessions are usually held in groups (although individual sessions are also possible). Within the group, people work in pairs and alternate between the roles of ‘breather’ and ‘sitter’. The sitter’s role is simply to be present and available to assist the breather if needed – not to interfere, interrupt, or try to guide the process, but to offer things like water, blankets, cushioning, tissues, or support getting to the toilet. After the session (which lasts 2–4 hours), there is usually time to discuss one’s personal experience with the group. There may also be other forms of self-expression (such as drawing or painting) as a way to process (or integrate) the experience. While many themes reoccur, people’s experiences nonetheless tend to be different.

My Experience Was Surprisingly Intense

The description for the psychedelic breathwork session I attended read:

PSYCHEDELIC BREATH® combines elements of ancient yogic breathwork practices and neuroscience. We use this developed breathing technique to enlighten the subconscious mind, using nothing more than the air around you. Following the guidance of the practice, you will naturally reach an altered state of consciousness! (without any psychedelics).

The possible effects of the session were as follows:

  • Release mental, emotional, and energetic blockages
  • Support your nervous system
  • Tap into deeper states of meditation
  • Explore your inner calling
  • Experience timelessness
  • Reconnect with your deep Inner-Wisdom

Unlike a typical holotropic breathwork session, the group session I attended lasted only 90 minutes. I got in touch with the facilitator before booking and inquired whether Psychedelic Breath was the same or similar to holotropic breathwork. I was told:

PSYCHEDELIC BREATH® is a breathing technique that is very similar to the Holotropic Breathwork technique. You reach an altered state of consciousness, and it gives you plenty of insights about your life, your emotions, things that are happening or happened in the past. It is a great way to release traumas or unlock blockers regarding creativity projects or anything in life. 

I combine PB and Nature because I believe that we get more oxygenated as we are in nature. I also believe in the healing power of being in nature.

While I was curious and open-minded about what was possible was breathing techniques, I was still somewhat sceptical about whether I could actually achieve a profound shift in consciousness through rapid deep breathing. I also wondered whether I could fully relax and let go, given that I would be surrounded by strangers and because the session took place in a public setting (it was held in a somewhat secluded wooded part of Clapham Common, but passersby were still nearby and walking past us). 

However, I didn’t let scepticism or cynicism get in the way of the session itself. With my eyes closed, I kept up a consistent pace of rapid deep breathing when we were instructed to do so, and I felt the rhythmic electronic music was well-suited to this. I was breathing as rapidly and deeply as possible. After a few phases of hyperventilation, during the periods of slower breathing, I could feel the effects. And subsequent periods of rapid breathing led to even more intense effects.

Eventually, I found I had slipped into an ecstatic trance state: an experience of mental and physical euphoria. My body was tingling, twitching, and trembling. I was lying on my back with my knees bent; my legs, feet, arms, and hands were shaking, and I was swaying my legs from side to side. The physical sensations were surprisingly intense (but in a pleasurable way, and not at all overwhelming or concerning). The physical and mental euphoria was all-consuming; my thoughts were not anywhere else, and the experience felt free of the ego normally providing commentary in the background. I let my body move naturally in this ecstatic state, without being self-conscious about how I might be perceived by passersby (this surprised me too).

This state of consciousness was very reminiscent of those induced by psychedelics: it featured deeply positive emotional states like bliss, spontaneous shaking, a dampening of the ego, and a general sense of being ‘healed’. There was an undeniable feeling of giving way to – and being lost in – a state of ecstasy. Like ecstasy that may be occasioned by psychedelics, sex, or religious practices, there seemed to be a loss of self-control, cessation of voluntary bodily movement, loss of awareness of surroundings, loss of the ordinary sense of self, and cessation of the intellect. The intense, euphoric nature of the experience also carried a feeling of ‘sacredness’ and extreme beauty.

It was a deeply pleasurable and absorbing experience: undoubtedly non-ordinary and heightened, yet something also felt very needed about it. It was like a re-entry into a state of consciousness that was profoundly human and healing, offering a welcome break from self-consciousness and negativity. It felt therapeutic on a deeply somatic and emotional level. 

Yet while the somatic and emotional elements matched those of psychedelics, I did not find psychedelic breathwork to alter visual or auditory perception in any significant way. At the end of the session, I did notice, nonetheless, that I was left in a calm afterglow state. When I opened my eyes and looked up at the trees above me, I noticed more visual richness and absorption in the details of the present moment. But I wouldn’t call this similar to what altered visual perception is like after psychedelic intake. I also didn’t experience the closed-eye visuals often associated with psychedelics. (Some psychedelic breathwork participants do experience heightened imagination, visual changes, and visions.) Moreover, I didn’t personally experience any profound insights or explorations of my past, although these effects can be common.

I was mainly pleasantly surprised by how intense the experience was and felt grateful I was able to access such a state of mind without the use of drugs. Also, while the whole session was only 90 minutes (so less time than holotropic breathwork), it was still enough time to enter an altered state of consciousness and settle back into everyday life. I left the session feeling serene and positive. In addition, psychedelic breathwork seemed like a useful way to integrate psychedelic experiences: I could see it was a reminder of a more joyful mode of being that is possible.

One may find a corollary of these ecstatic experiences in the cult of Dionysus, a religious cult that existed in ancient Greece and Rome. The followers of this cult (who were known as the Maenads, or Bacchantes) would enter a state of intoxication and joyful delirium by performing rituals in honour of Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine, fertility, and madness. The Dionysian Mysteries – which consisted of public rites and secret rites of initiation – sometimes involved the use of intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music). The goal was to remove inhibitions and social constraints, allowing the individual to return to a natural state of being. Indeed, ecstatic states often carry this feeling of liberation and release.

The Benefits of Psychedelic Breathwork

A 2011 case study looked at holotropic breathwork as a potential form of treatment for susbtance use disorders and found some promising results.

A 2013 report, involving responses from 11,000 people, suggests that holotropic breathwork can be used to treat a wide range of psychological and existential issues. Many people reported significant benefits related to emotional catharsis and internal spiritual exploration. No adverse reactions were reported.

A 2015 study found that holotropic breathwork can bring about higher levels of self-awareness and positive changes in temperament and character, with experienced practitioners reporting less tendency to be needy, domineering, and hostile. Some people went so far as to describe the experience as a spiritual awakening that promotes personal development, greater mental clarity, and a renewed sense of purpose. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this was a small study (involving only 20 participants).

Some people claim that holotropic breathwork relieved them of psychological distress and led to greater personal growth after just one session, whereas others use it as a regular practice spanning many years. Nonetheless, the research on this technique is relatively sparse and requires further investigation. The evidence base for the benefits of this practice is certainly not as large or strong compared to the scientific literature on psychedelics.

The Potential Risks of Psychedelic Breathwork

In the event description for the psychedelic breathwork session I attended, some contraindications were listed: pregnancy; high blood pressure; cardiovascular problems; clinical anxiety disorder, epilepsy; psychosis, glaucoma, high inner eye pressure; fresh wound in the torso or the face.

These are the same contraindications given before signing up for holotropic breathwork (others often include retinal detachment, osteoporosis, history of psychosis, seizures, and family history of aneurysms). This is because holotropic breathwork can cause reduced carbon dioxide and other alterations in blood chemistry that may trigger or exacerbate these conditions.

Breathing rapidly for an extended period of time – and the loss of carbon dioxide and changes in blood chemistry that follow – can potentially lead to dizziness; fainting; weakness; tingling or spasms in the hands, arms, feet, or legs; irregular heartbeat; change in vision from lack of oxygen; and ringing in the ears. It is because of these potential effects that practising with a trained breathwork facilitator is recommended. Uncomfortable emotions can also arise during the session.

The Advantages of Psychedelic Breathwork Compared to Psychedelics

Despite potentially unpleasant effects and associated risks, psychedelic breathwork does appear to be much more low-risk when compared to psychedelics. The advantages of psychedelic breathwork include:

  • The elimination or reduced likelihood of unpleasant physical effects, such as nausea and vomiting
  • Less chance of experiencing a ‘bad trip’: severe emotional distress that may feature anxiety, paranoia, panic, terror, delusions, thought loops, the feeling of losing one’s mind, overwhelming ego dissolution (or the feeling of dying)
  • Reduced likelihood of experiencing extended difficulties: mental health problems that may persist for weeks, months, or even years after an intense altered state. These enduring difficulties, related to psychedelic use, may include spiritual emergency, existential crisis, depersonalisation, derealisation, anxiety, depression, social disconnection, or hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD)
  • More controllability (even though psychedelic breathwork can induce ecstatic states, which are marked by spontaneous physical and psychological effects, you can opt out of the technique at any point and quickly return to your ordinary state of consciousness)
  • Less time commitment (you don’t have to commit to a trip lasting several hours)
  • It is completely legal (you can’t prohibit how people control their breathing)
  • Because no psychoactive drugs are involved, psychedelic breathwork may also be approached with a greater sense of ease, trust, and comfort
  • Cost-effectiveness (a facilitated breathwork session is significantly cheaper than psychedelic-assisted therapy)

There are some downsides compared to psychedelic substances, however. I’ve already mentioned how research on psychedelic breathwork is more sparse. But there’s also the fact that fewer psychedelic effects tend to be present, and valuable or desirable effects such as mystical experiences (featuring ego dissolution, unity, the sense of the divine), psychological insights, emotional breakthroughs, and alterations to the sense of self may be less likely to occur. These effects are also associated with the significant and enduring psychological benefits of psychedelics, so psychedelic breathwork might not have the same therapeutic potential as the latter.

However, a recent preprint explored the potential of breathwork to act as a non-pharmacological (and hence more accessible) alternative to psychedelic therapy. Researchers compared two popular forms of breathwork: holotropic breathwork and consciously-connected breathwork. They found that a reduction in CO2 saturation due to deliberate hyperventilation was effective at catalysing altered states of consciousness. Moreover, these experiences were comparable to those induced by psychedelics, and their depth predicted psychological benefits, including improved well-being and a reduction in depressive symptoms. Therefore, contrary to many assumptions, breathwork exercises can produce powerful altered states and may have the potential to treat emotional distress, without the legal, medical, and financial limitations associated with psychedelics.

All in all, I can highly recommend psychedelic breathwork, both to psychonauts and to those who haven’t used psychedelics or don’t want to. It can be a great introduction to altered states and the potential benefits they offer, with several upsides compared to psychedelic compounds.

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