A psychedelic experience with lofty benefits, no drugs required

holotropic breathwork

Anxiety and stress are plaguing Americans, and many are seeking practices that might mitigate symptoms. Breathwork, a new age term for breathing techniques, is a strategy many use to induce calm and move the body out of fight-or-flight mode.

By employing a set of particular methods, breathwork is thought by many to be able to induce a psychedelic, trance-like state. This practice, called holotropic breathwork, has roots in Eastern yogic and Buddhist practices, but the name for it was coined in the Western world by Stanislav and Christina Grof.

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holotropic breathwork
Photo provided by Christi McAdams

Breathwork and psychedelic states

Pranayama is introduced in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Sutras 49 through 53 in Chapter Two of the seminal text describe various exercises and techniques where a practitioner controls breathing, prohibiting depth and length of breath in numerous ways. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Muktibodhananda, where individual Pranayama techniques are listed, each exercise is designed to promote specific health benefits.

These reported benefits range from helping to heal an enlarged stomach or spleen to calming a stirred-up mind. Holotropic breathwork differs from these ancient practices in a few ways, but the history of altered states from breathing originates in these indigenous cultures.

Holotropic breathwork

The Grofs developed their system for psychedelic breathwork in the mid-1970s at the Esalen Institute, a nonprofit retreat center known for its acceptance of emerging self-discovery methods.

Grof-approved holotropic breathwork includes accelerated breathing, evocative music, and intentional bodywork. Participants are instructed to speed up their own breath patterns. In yogic practices, it is called Bhastrika Pranayama, or Bellows Breath, as it mimics a fire bellows and brings heat to the body with each speedy inhalation and exhalation.

The Grof method was designed to break down emotional blocks and release pent-up energy–often the same goal of trauma-recovery methods like talk therapy. Though not all holotropic breathwork utilized Grof Breathwork, this is thought to be the origin of the practice in the West. While some may question tales of a psychedelic experience sans drugs, many have had life-changing experiences.

Stories of real holotropic breathwork experiences

One of those converts is Christi McAdams, CEO of a cannabis distribution company who recently founded the TranscendMental Explorers Club–immediately after her first psychedelic breathwork experience.

“The beautiful thing about it is that breathwork is a tool you can learn and access free of charge from anywhere in the world. You can be your own healer,” McAdams said.

McAdams didn’t expect her first time participating in psychedelic breathing to have such an impact. She enjoyed a few glasses of wine the night before and cruised in for a breathwork class, but she got much more.

“My soul left my body, melted with universal consciousness, and I came back with knowledge of our existence, the purpose of life, and oneness with all of creation. I was forever changed,” McAdams described, “It was a full-blown psychedelic experience where I felt like I was in a completely different dimension where I was becoming one with universal consciousness. I was literally having telepathic conversations with creation.”

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holotropic breathwork
Photo provided by Christi McAdams

Holotropic breathwork benefits

It’s not all about tripping, either. Holotropic breathwork practitioners tout multiple tangible benefits. Experts say that it can release pent-up energy that is transmitted to the brain as ongoing stress and anxiety. Releasing this energy may reduce the daily impact of people’s trauma and PTSD. McAdams shared that some have found the will to break addictions with the practice, and others share they’ve had a profound spiritual awakening.

“Breathwork is being used to tap deep into our subconscious and has been found to resolve issues from our adult life, childhood, being in the womb, and even past lives,” McAdams explained.

Published research gives additional merit to her claims. A Danish study with about twenty participants logged “​​very beneficial temperament changes” among those inexperienced and practiced in holotropic breathwork.

A recent meta-analysis showed that this breathing method may improve stress and mental health. However, it also highlighted an issue with bias in current research that has led to a “miscalibration between hype and evidence.”

Scientifically proven or not, McAdams had a relevant experience with holotropic breathwork that has continued to grow with continued practice. Since that first accidental awakening, she approaches each experience with more reverence. No drugs, alcohol, or medications before going into a psychedelic state.

This ancient practice was brought to the West in a new package, with many praising its noteworthy benefits. Unfortunately, scientific data on holotropic breathwork benefits is lacking for now. However, testimony from people like Christi McAdams proves there’s reason to keep looking. Based on anecdotal evidence and some research, psychedelic experiences from holotropic breathwork may have a positive impact on a person’s life–no drugs required.

Cara Wietstock is senior content producer of GreenState.com and has been working in the cannabis space since 2011. She has covered the cannabis business beat for Ganjapreneur and The Spokesman Review. You can find her living in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, son, and a small zoo of pets.