From Primal Therapy
To Holotropic Breathwork

by John A. Speyrer

I must admit to feelings of cockiness as I entered the ornate Queen Anne's ballroom of the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans last November. I had come to participate in a workshop whose brochure announced a "Holotropic Breathwork Experience With Stanislav Grof, M.D." and promised an "Adventure of Self-Discovery" in "non-ordinary states of consciousness." Since I had been feeling my primal pain, in such states of consciousness, for the past twenty years, I felt that I was obviously light-years ahead of those dilettantes who were attending the workshop.

My curiosity had been piqued by the enthusiasm Mickel Adzema showed in a letter he sent to the Primal Feelings Newsletter about the holotropic breathwork(TM) sessions he had led at the 1994 International Primal Association convention. I wrote Mickel that I was interested in learning more about holotropics so he sent me the name of a facilitator who was only thirty minutes away from my home. I called her, but she suggested that if I wanted to learn more about holotropic breathwork, I could get the information directly from the discoverer of the technique himself, since the Czech-American psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof, would be leading a workshop in New Orleans the following month.

Holotropic breathwork is different from primal therapy in that the material elicited in the primal state is usually biographical, that is, the experiences usually relate exclusively to the individual's personal life history. When Dr. Grof began his work with LSD in the late 1940s, he found that the ``depth'' and type of experiences elicited by the psychedelic was partially determined by the amount of the drug ingested. Larger doses evoked experiences that transcended biographical history. Grof believes that many symptoms have their actual origins in transpersonal history. Thus, a male homosexual may have had unmet need for his father's love in his early childhood, but the source of his behavior may actually have originated in an incident in a previous life a thousand years earlier.

The type of material elicited during holotropic breathworkTM sessions seemingly have no limitations. Besides encompassing material usually re-lived in primal therapy, one may re-live prior lives, such as, being a soldier in a Roman army, or a builder of an Egyptian pyramid. Holotropic breathworkTM even allows a person to experience the evolution of an animal species, a cellular consciousness experience, being an inanimate object, or becoming a mythological figure, such as, Hercules, Ishtar, or Apollo. Interactions with the entities of cultural myths and archetypes are very common in transpersonal work. On an intellectual level, I do not believe this is possible; yet, you will see that I've had such experiences. Transpersonal experiences do not seem to have the qualities of feeling repressed early infantile and childhood traumas, of which I have had much experience. So holotropic breathworkTM encompasses primal, but it is more than primal. It can also be much more bizarre.

Stanislav Grof M.D., 62, is non-pulsed and very charismatic. He conducted all of the sessions personally and gave lectures, slide presentations and answered questions in sessions that lasted up to three hours at a time. The sessions were so interesting that everyone was on the edge of his chair during his presentations. Grof, earlier did research and psychotherapy with LSD, but when the drug was made illegal in the late 1960s, he discovered this technique for eliciting the same therapeutic results without psychedelics. He says that the ability to have these experiences is nothing new. They are the same experiences and encounters which shamans, witch-doctors, and mystics have been having since recorded time. He claims the potential to have transpersonal experiences is part of the human condition.

The workshop, with about eighty-five participants, opened Thursday night with a three-hour talk given by Dr. Grof on ``The Healing Potential of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness.'' He gave a short history of psychotherapy since Freud, during which he mentioned primal therapy. I spoke with several participants, but very few had heard of primal. The talk was supplemented by questions and answers and by a slide presentation of birth symbols and by an explanation of his well-known division of the traumatic stages of human birth that relate to specific psychopathological syndromes.

The preparation for the holotropic breathworkTM experience was the theme of Friday morning's session and Dr. Grof discussed the techniques we would use to enter these un-ordinary consciousness states. Grof said these would be simple: We would be lying on our backs, on mats or sleeping bags; the room lights would be lowered, and we would begin breathing at a more rapid pace than usual.1 These techniques, combined with loud, spacy, new-age electronic music, were intended to transport us into non-ordinary states of consciousness. We had been divided into groups of sitters and participants. It was suggested to the participants, who were to have the experience that afternoon, that they only eat a light lunch. The actual session began immediately after lunch.

The scene was reminiscent of group primal work, except that each participant had a sitter, whose job, other than just being there for the participant, was quite limited. The sitter was also to accompany the participant during trips to the bathroom and to be of any other possible assistance. A quantity of ordinary facial tissue and a plastic bag were given to each participant. After years of primaling I knew the purpose of those two items. The plastic bags were obviously barf bags and the tissues were to wipe away the tears triggered by deep feelings. Obviously, we were being prepared for any eventuality which might arise during the holotropic breathwork session.

After the participants were on their backs, with their arms and legs in an open position, the lights were lowered, and Dr. Grof led us through relaxation exercises for a few minutes. Then the music began. A person walked through the group breathing loudly into a microphone at a rate at which we were to follow.

During the first few minutes of faster than normal breathing nothing at all happened, except that I was beginning to feel spacy from the rapid breathing. I continued to breathe as instructed. Soon the breathing, and the loudly played new-age type music, evoked in me the following:

* * *

I raised my hands in a pushing away manner and felt and said ``Go Away'' and ``Leave Me Alone.'' In the past I have had this feeling in primals directed toward hospital personnel while I re-lived being on an operating table before surgery. I had made the trip to New Orleans with my mother fifty-seven years earlier for a tonsillectomy at age five! Then I opened my mouth widely and placed the fingers of my right hand together and pushed them into my mouth. I was attempting to re-live the insertion of a tube into my mouth while I lay on the operating table. Using my fingers in such a way was the only technique I could use to intensity the connected feeling. Curling my fingers to the approximate shape of a tube and inserting them into my mouth was spontaneous and out of volitional control as the need to re-enact this incident felt imperative. I had re-lived this incident before in primals relating to the same surgery. These feelings had, in the past, been accompanied with much fear; so much so, that I could not continue with the feeling at home when I was alone. However, these two primal feelings in New Orleans were without any deep fear. I thought to myself, ``Well, holotropic breathwork is like primaling, but less intense, so, -- so far -- nothing new!''


Then, suddenly, I was viewing the earth from many miles above its surface and could clearly see its well-defined curvature. I felt very beneficent and content. I could see the blueness of the oceans and a scattered cloud-cover. I felt that I had just created the earth and was looking down favorably as I nodded my head with approval towards my new creation.

On a second track of consciousness, I realized that I was nodding my head while sitting on the floor at a holotropic workshop. My head movements were synchronicized with the head movements of "God" in the vision. I felt joyful and expansive. I blessed the earth, making a sign of the cross with my right hand in the center of my field of vision. I then made a sign of the cross to the right and then to the left. As with my head nodding, my "blessing" of the earth was physically enacted on the other track of consciousness and became visibly superimposed over my view of the earth.

Since I never experience spiritual feelings, I was hoping the workshop might make me more spiritual, but I had not expected to become God the Creator during my first session!


Then very soon thereafter, I felt as though I was present at a medieval bazaar, perhaps a middle eastern one, where I was having animated conversations with others in some foreign language. This experience had no visual component and I was only able to sense intuitively where I was. I realized, at the same time, that I was speaking in gibberish as I felt expansive, very sociable and contented and turned my head from side to side as though I were speaking with others. I sensed that I was at a marketplace, but at the same time on another conscious track I also knew that I was laying on my back at a holotropic session.

I usually like to hypothesize about causes when I read about such happenings in others, but now that it had happened to me, I realized that I could not even begin to try to understand the ultimate source of these transpersonal experiences. I usually eventually understand the source of my primals, but I feel I will never understand these experiences.


Then I began moving my hands as though I were conducting the music being played. I sometimes do this when I'm alone at home listening to classical music, but in this instance, I thought I was doing a superb insightful job of mimicking a conductor of the recorded music. I knew where I was, and I felt that many participants in the workshop were watching me ``perform'' because of my outstanding talent. I felt very satisfied and elated acting as a conductor. After I ``came out'' of the experience, I noticed another person ``conducting'' as I had been doing.

Before I returned into more ordinary consciousness, I stood up, and the expansive feeling continued, as I tried various poses and body movements to see if I would stay in this state of mind. During this experiment I felt unsteady on my feet at times. The transpersonal experiences seemed very short while they were happening, but in real-time they were longer than perceived.


Then I began primaling again. I did some birth-work with Carol, our group leader, who worked as a facilitator. I screamed and cried, ``Like Me Mom'' and ``Please Touch Me, Mom'' as I primaled with great anguish. I asked Carol, who was sitting beside me, to place her hand on my chest, and the feeling from infancy of wanting my mother to touch me was intensified. Then the infantile need to feel my mother became overwhelming. I asked Carol to lay beside me, and as I cried deeply, I very lightly touched her body from feet to head as I felt the powerful need as an infant to feel my mother's body. These particular experiences were primal feelings that I had experienced before.


Dr. Grof came by and asked if I was OK and how I was feeling. I told him I had some residual pain in my left shoulder. He asked me to lie on my stomach and pressured that area of the shoulder which was hurting. I went into some turnings of my entire body, as he lay on top of me to simulate the pressure of the birth canal. He's a large person, and his weight triggered in me turnings in the birth canal. In holotropics this procedure is called "focused body work." Again, this was not a transpersonal experience, but a primal experience.

* * *

After one completes transpersonal work for the session, each participant goes into another room and begins to draw within a circle on a large sheet of paper the essence of his experience. This is called mandala drawing. Later, small group meetings were held in hotel rooms, where each member of the group met to explain their particular breathwork experiences and mandala drawings. There were two ministers and one physician in my particular group of about fifteen individuals. Active participation in the sub-group meetings was voluntary. Thankfully, I was not required to produce, explain, and show to the group, my two very poorly drawn mandalas. This would have been embarrassing because of my complete lack of ability to draw even stick figures.


It was at the last sub-group meeting that we were told that ``It will be useless if you try to tell others of the experiences you had at the workshop since no one will believe you! We were told that if someone asks about what happened at the workshop we could answer something like, ``Oh, you really don't want to know!'' Hearing that mild admonition had a powerful effect on me and reinforced my belief that something extraordinary had happened. In spite of twenty years of primaling, I was almost in denial about my transpersonal experiences since their substance was quite distinctive from a primal experience. I think that a similar suggestion should also be given to those who successfully complete a primal intensive, especially one in which pre- and peri-natal material is uncovered.

I had not been successful in containing my thoughts and excitement about my primal experiences in the past and knew that neither would I be any more successful in keeping my transpersonal experiences to myself. I realized full well that my revelations would be received with disbelief by family and friends!

The transpersonal experiences I had at the workshop were very joyful and happy. Because of my continuing hellish and physically painful birth trauma primals, I would have expected some transpersonal experiences of torment but had none. In the follow-up group sessions, some participants recounted torture scenes.


The following day, those who were participants became sitters and vice versa, so that each person had only one, but one very long holotropic session. I waited for the person for whom I was supposed to sit, but he did not arrive for his session. I felt fortunate; because of his fear or for whatever reason, I could take his place and probably have another series of experiences. I did exactly as I had done the day before, but nothing at all happened during the session! I had neither transpersonal experiences nor primals during that second session.

There was another two or three hours meeting of the entire group Saturday afternoon during which Stan Grof discussed various theories of what might be the cause of the transpersonal experience. During this time he responded to any questions posed about transpersonal psychology. There were no criticisms, complaints, attacks, or potentially embarrassing questions from any of the eighty-five participants. Dr. Stanislav Grof had us all on his side! I wanted to know about failures. How many participants had not been successful in their efforts as I had been in the second session? But I was not able to muster the courage to ask the question since all of the comments and questions Grof received had been on such a positive note.

On Sunday morning, Dr. Grof tied up any loose ends remaining as he discussed various theories of what the visions and transcendental feelings could be about. One attendee confided to me that he felt that heightened anticipation played an important role in triggering the experience. At the post-experience group meeting many complained about the poor choices of music that accompanied the second session! I agreed, and thought that perhaps that that might have been the explanation for my not having the experience during my second attempt. Later, I tried the technique on my own at home (this was against advice) and again failed.


It was many hours before the awesomeness of what happened to me at the workshop really sank in. Upon returning home, I began reading several of Grof's books as I tried to analyze what had happened during the holotropic session. I arrived at home Sunday afternoon. The next day, I began feeling the flood of primal feelings and psychosomatic symptoms which had been unleashed during that holotropic breathwork session. I had several very intense birth primals, and my chronic insomnia worsened. During the first few days at home, I became very insightful and previous insights triggered because of previous primals, were deepened and became more ``owned.'' Soon, however, my defenses began to close in, even as I continued to reflect upon those magical days in New Orleans.


The only thing with which I can personally equate the transpersonal experience is the mystical experiences recounted in the biographies of the medieval Christian mystics, such as those of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and others. In the late 1960s I attended an intense religious retreat called the Cursillo. Little sleep, coupled with continuous spiritual exercises, group singing and religious talks lasting hours, worked their spell on many participants. It was this occasion that initially sparked my interest in the phenomenon of religious mysticism.

After searching for many years, through innumerable books on the psychology of religious conversion and mysticism, it is only now, at last, after experiencing holotropic breathwork, that I feel that I have finally begun to understand what mystical experiences, including the born-again Christian experience, are about.


The transcendent experience has been called by different names. Saint Paul wrote in Philippians 4 that it was ``the peace of God which surpasses all understanding''; the Quakers called it the ``inner light''; Zen Buddhists say it's ``satori'' and the Indian yogis, ``samadhi.'' In Varieties of Religious Experience, Psychologist William James calls it ``mystical experience,'' while to Hindoo seers it was "nirvÉna," and to St Augustine, "unchangeable light." Are all these experiences really the same?

Those who have studied and experienced the transcendental state, both naturally and drug induced, answer that they are the same. To those who believe that transpersonal experiences are real, discovering their proximate source continues to remain a mystery. One author who has made the biochemical analysis of transcendence his province writes that the state may be ``manifestations of the drive-arrest-release sequence in biogenic amine inhibitory systems, releasing temporal lobe limbic, hippocampal-septal hypochrony.``(Mandell 1980) While only explaining mechanisms, and perhaps being of interest only to neurologists, this explanation does not pertain to ultimate sources of the experiences.


Holotropic breathwork is psychotherapy, very intensive and deep psychotherapy! That the workshop is held in a group session, during a week-end at a hotel, does not detract from that statement. While efforts are made to screen individuals with obvious serious psychiatric problems, participants screen themselves.

After a person has been in primal therapy for a time, he may continue the process on his own with periodic group and individual sessions. What is in place in holotropics for a person who wants or needs to continue his discovery of self? It almost seems cruel to blast open one's defenses to this degree and then set the person adrift, without arrangements to continue feeling one's pain. Can a person after one holotropics workshop continue on his own at home? Even if possible, it is not recommended that one do so.

Perhaps, therefore, I would favor primal therapy, which seems much more individually supportive, rather than holotropic breathwork, with its assembly-line type procedures. of neurosis equally well. Perhaps holotropics is able to resolve neurosis at a faster rate than primal therapy. I do not know.

My vote would be for primal therapy if both can equally alleviate the effects of trauma. An important consideration in deciding to enter one therapy rather than the other. The time and cost efficiency of one compared to the other is unknown. As far as I know, no published studies comparing the two therapies have been made.

When I entered holotropic breathwork, I presumed that it would be primal under another name. In one sense this is true. However, transpersonal experiences are the exception in primal therapy; not so in holotropics, where they are very common. Does having a transpersonal experience speed up the healing process? Perhaps it does. However, I do know that the transpersonal experience can be joyful, expansive, and insightful, and for these reasons alone, I would recommend Grof's holotropic breathwork to anyone looking for a peak experience or is curious about experiencing the transpersonal phenomena. However, keep in mind the possible problems discussed in the paragraph above and the fact that you can have some bad trips. (Note: About five years after I had the experience above, I attended another holotropic breathwork workshop which was indeed hellish! See Four Therapy Experiences ).

Now let's examine what Dr. Grof says about primal therapy.


Dr. Stanislav Grof's major criticism of primal therapy is that the foundation upon which it rests is superficial and ''. . . lacks any recognition of the transpersonal dimensions of the psyche.'' Grof does acknowledge that primal therapy techniques are powerful enough to access transpersonal realms. On occasion, primals transport the primaler to past lives and to pre- and perinatal traumas even to a cellular consciousness level.

Other criticisms by Grof are that primal therapy is too mechanistic and is anti-spiritual. He feels that many other experiential forms of humanistic psychotherapy, besides primal, can transport their patients to these realms. However, he also criticizes them for having only a superficial and incomplete understanding of the pre and peri-natal level and for their lack of spirituality.

Grof writes, as have others, that primal theory exults the status of the scream as a major therapeutic outlet. He also says that Janov has made unrealistic claims of the benefits of primal therapy and that he has claimed a cure rate much higher than exists.

He feels the physical changes that Janov claimed have resulted from primal therapy include an increase in breast size for women and the development of beard in men who were hairless before primal therapy. Grof believes that such claims are too sensational and extreme.

Grof claims that many primal patients have been in therapy for many years without making significant progress and that sometimes symptoms get worse instead of improving. He emphasizes that many primal therapists have dissociated themselves from Janov because they disagreed with both the theories of Janov's primal therapy and the way he recommended the therapy be practiced (Grof 1985).


Dr. Arthur Janov would probably disagree that primal theory does not recognize transpersonal aspects. Primal theory does recognize these aspects but recognizes them as purely symbolic manifestations of repressed trauma released from the unconscious mind, perhaps felt in an out-of-sequence fashion. While Janov does not criticize holotropic breathwork by name, his position on transpersonal manifestations such as mysticism and past lives are well known. On the dangers of LSD use, there is also a wide disagreement between him and Grof. (Janov 1980)

While both agree that LSD allows buried traumas to erupt into consciousness with little effort, Janov has called LSD the most dangerous of all drugs. He believes that this is so because, in sufficient quantities over time, LSD can permanently open the gating of repression resulting in a flood of previously repressed material which sometimes cannot be integrated.

Grof, however, feels that the only danger occurs when the patient does not integrate the feelings brought up in an LSD session. At the workshop he said that the patient in LSD therapy should remain in the therapy session that day until all feelings have been integrated. At the same workshop, Dr. Grof emphasized that there is nothing present in LSD that is dangerous. The only effect of the drug is its ability to easily release unconscious feelings that could cause problems unless resolved (Janov 1975; 1980; 1983; 1991).

This, however, is a theoretical question presently, since all work with LSD has been prohibited by law since 1966. But since both Janov and Grof agree that LSD allows buried traumas to rise into consciousness, and since Grof feels that holotropic breathwork accesses the same material as LSD, it would appear that the criticisms that Janov makes against ''. . . some therapists who work with LSD'' would probably also be made by him against holotropic breathwork (Janov 1975).

Specifically, I glean from his writings that Janov feels that repressed trauma must be felt in an orderly fashion, and that primal therapy is a systematic technique for lowering defenses over a period of time. He says, usually that means birth pain should not be felt first. When birth pain is felt too early in therapy, Janov claims that the patients begin symbolizing this early Pain and begin to perhaps imagine their life as a sperm, have past-life scenes or other mystical feelings. But worse than that, he claims they can end in psychosis or as suicide victims. The natural way is the best way, he feels, and that feeling birth pain prematurely can sometimes have disastrous consequences (Janov 1983).

Dr Janov feels that just as the paranoid psychotic might feel that someone out there wants to ``get'' him, someone having a transpersonal experience might feel that a ``cosmic force'' or God will protect him. Janov believes that the contexts for both are the same and that hope and faith brought about by a transpersonal experience can bring some relief from neurotic suffering by raising defenses. Thus, he believes, it is possible for a transpersonal experience to keep the mystic from feeling his actual repressed pain while continuing to enjoy his mysticism (Janov 1983).

He believes '' . . . it is no accident that the former acid-takers stay hooked on UFOs, out-of-body astral projection, bizarre Eastern philosophies, pyramid power, religious conversion, etc. . . . They have been driven crazy by unleashed Primal energy which must be constantly cloaked in ideation.'' (Janov 1983 p. 244)

In the early years of primal therapy, Dr. Janov emphasized the usefulness of controlled breathing, which is an important technique in holotropic breathwork. However, presently this technique is rarely used in primal therapy. Arthur Janov believes that deep breathing lessens blood acidity that results in a reduction of the oxygen carrying capability of the blood. With less oxygen, the brain's cortex is less able to defend against the flood of unleashed repressed material. He believes this overflow is interpreted by the cortex as transpersonal and mystical feelings and visions. (Janov, 1991)

However, Grof does acknowledge that the increased breathing rate lowers defenses. As with the use of LSD, Janov believes that the resultant flood of previously repressed material works against the use of controlled breathing in primal therapy.

In spite of their differences, there is much agreement in basic theory by Janov and Grof. However, Dr. Grof feels that the source of transpersonal experiences has some unknown, outside-of-the-body, explanation. Grof admits that a functioning brain is obviously necessary for the transpersonal experiences to take place, but he tends to believe that their sources lay outside of the neurological system.


My experiences at the workshop began in the primal realm, changed into the transpersonal realm, and soon returned to the primal realm. There was no haphazard meshing of primal states with transpersonal states; rather, it seemed that the progression between the primal and transpersonal states of consciousness tracked the rise and decline in the quantity of release of repressed trauma.

Grof acknowledges that when he was practicing LSD psychotherapy, it was only with higher doses of LSD that transpersonal experiences began. Therefore, it seems logical to assume that when the holotropic breathwork exercises have produced their maximum effect is when transpersonal ideation begins. This progression, from primal to transpersonal I experienced, I believe, validates Arthur Janov's belief that the two non-ordinary states of consciousness have the same origins.

The altered breathing, evocative music, semi-darkness and milieu released primal feelings as I began the holotropic session (See ``An Age 5 Surgery Experience''). As the release of repressed material arrived at a point where my cortex could no longer process the information in a primal manner, transpersonal ideation began. (See ``As God the Creator.'') As some repressions were felt transpersonally and their pain enlage thus lowered, I arrived at a sensory window that was partially transpersonal and partially ordinary consciousness. (See ``At a Medieval Market.'') This accounted for the incompleteness of the transpersonal experience revealed by a lack of a visual feature as well as by my realization, in a dual conscious track, that I was speaking gibberish at a holotropic session. When the amount of released repressions further decreased, I was again in a state of more ordinary consciousness, but not complete ordinary consciousness, as I still had the feeling of expansiveness even as I realized that I was lying on the floor happily mimicking a conductor. (See ``The Music Conductor'')

In the next phase of non-ordinary consciousness (See ``Needing My Mother's Touch'' and ``A Birth Canal Experience''), I was wholly in the primal state as my brain again allowed me to access and process the repressed material in a primal mode, since the overload of released repressions was no longer present.

The progression from ordinary consciousness to primal ideation, and then to transpersonal ideation, while smooth and automatic, was not unambiguously so. It seemed that a couple of minutes or more were required to pass before there was a changeover from primal feelings to transpersonal feelings and then later again, back to primal feelings. Thus, it seems that primal pain and transpersonal feelings are both part and parcel of the same source -- stored repressed pre- and perinatal, infantile and early childhood trauma.

It is not necessary to use mystical explanations even to rationally discuss the origin of mysticism. I think that it is more productive to look for an explanation of unexplained phenomena in the natural order of the world rather than in the supernatural. There is sufficient evidence to show that transpersonal experiences have a logical explanation, and that such experiences, in spite of the subjective feelings of the person undergoing the experience, have a natural scientific explanation.

I feel that the principle of Occam's razor applies here -- by which the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. Usually a theory or explanation based on known principles better serves the cause of truth than one based on metaphysical concepts and theories -- and that the transpersonal experience can best be explained by the overflow of early repressed trauma perhaps felt in out-of-line sequence and in symbolic fashion.

If Dr. Janov's hypothesis is correct, then only neurotics could have any response to holotropic breathwork! Of course, the same would have to be said for primal therapy. But since the absence of neurosis is possible only in theory, this limitation would have no practical application.

* * *

Well, there you have it; some objective information, some subjective data, and a conclusion. Still not enough information to make up your mind? Unfortunately, with any type of non-ordinary state of consciousness, there never is enough data to convince someone who has not had the experience. And as you can see, even those who have had the experience, do not agree as to its cause.

I used to believe that primal therapy was, by far, the best psychotherapy available. However, I have found that holotropic breathwork can be very helpful with feelings that are being blocked. The breathwork experience can be very powerful and its bulldozer approach can get to material that is difficult to reach. I have not had enough experiences of breathwork to make a fair comparison.

My earlier belief was that primal therapy, with its more typical one-on-one basis, seems more methodical and supportive and possibly more effective but I'm not so sure anymore.


When I entered holotropic breathwork, I presumed that it would be primal therapy under another name. In one sense this is true. However, transpersonal experiences are the exception in primal therapy; not so in the breathwork, where they are very common Does having a transpersonal experience speed up the healing process? Perhaps it does. Regardless, I do know that the transpersonal experience is joyful, expansive, and insightful, and for these reasons alone, I would recommend Grofs holotropic breathwork" to anyone looking for a peak experience or who is curious about experiencing transpersonal phenomena. However, keep in mind there is no guarantee of a joyful experience and one can as easily access the depths of one's Pain, just like in primal therapy.

Reliving the traumas of one's biographical history is an essential element of breathwork, but what should be the proper action of a primal therapist when the primals of his client are of a transpersonal nature? If this area is not in the primal therapist's theoretical framework, how should this material be handled? The obvious solution would be to avoid one's theoretical biases and aid the client to feel whatever is coming up.

This, I believe, is how most primal practitioners react. While aborting one's client's feeling could be an option for the primal therapist, I cannot think of an instance where, either in primal or any of its experiential relatives, that has ever been recommended. And Grof, of course, believes that benefits to the client are derived from aiding the client to feel all of his or her feelings whether from a diffocult birth or from a spear wound incurred during the sacking of a Roman village during a previous life!


Two months after attending Dr. Grofs holotropic breathwork workshop in New Orleans, I attended a private session with Kay Blanchard, a local breathwork facilitator. During the three-hour private session very little happened. I did some birth work, and as I left to return home I felt disappointed with the general immediate outcome. The beneficial results were to come later, since that night at home I began a series of long lasting second-line feelings of "I hate you Mom!" and "Why don't you like me, Mom?" The effects of the session had been delayed but had ultimately produced extremely intense and prolonged feeling material.

The sometimes delayed effects of the therapies illustrate a similarity between breathwork and Primal, yet since heresy is seemingly more opprobrious than paganism, we seldom read in the literature of either therapeutic proponent any information about the commonalities of the two therapies. Supporters of one or the other prefer to emphasize the differences between them. In spite of their dissimilarities, the two therapies are much more alike than different.


One meaningful difference is that Dr. Grof (1985) believes that the transpersonal experience (which is common in holotropic breathwork) has some unknown outside of-the-body explanation. Grof believes that its sources lay outside the experiencer's neurological system. He agrees with neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1975), who believed that man's brain alone could not account for all of the extraordinary activities ofthe human mind. Penfield (1975) wrote,

I conclude that there is no good evidence . . . that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does. . . . I believe that one should not pretend to draw a final scientific conclusion, in man's study of man, until the nature of the energy responsible for mind action is discovered, as in my own opinion, it will be. (p. 114)

It was the neurological research of Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield during the surgery of unanesthetized brain patients that helped establish the scientific validity of both Primal and biographical holotropic breathwork.

The development of both therapies marked a huge shift from using earlier talking therapies to uncover and talk about memories of early traumas to actually reliving those early traumas including birth. Previously, even the existence of such traumatic material was rarely believed. Expressing feelings had been encouraged in the talking therapies, but reaching the depth of feeling that is commonplace during primal and holotropic sessions would have been called an hysterical episode.

The development of the theory of both Primal and holotropic breathwork was the result of experiences of their founders doing the actual therapy. Other than early Freud there were few contributions by other schools developed before other brands of deep feeling therapies came into existence. L. Ron Hubbard was one innovator. The same year (1953) when Dr. Grof began using LSD as a psychotherapeutic agent, physician Frank Lake also began its use in Great Britain for that purpose.

Grof (1976, 1985, 1988; Grof and Grof, 1990) developed his theories as a result of LSD sessions that he conducted in his native Czechoslovakia soon after the Second World War. Janov (1970, 1971, 1983, 1991; Janov and Holden, 1975) developed primal therapy based on a lark, when he decided to have a patient cry out to his parents during a group therapy session.

The idea that unites both therapy models is the crucial importance of deep feelings and the necessity of reliving one's birth (if indeed one's birth was traumatic) to resolve neurosis. Both Janov and Grof agree that it takes more than simple abreactions to resolve early traumas and that the feeling experiences in each of their respective therapies go much deeper than what is commonly believed possible.

While there continues to be a growing acceptance of these innovative techniques, these ideas today are still not commonly accepted by the mainstream mental-health community. Both Grof and Janov believe that without a deep shift in consciousness, this repressed material can neither be accessed nor worked through.


However, some therapists believe that more than a full feeling regressive experience is required for ultimate resolution of neurosis. These therapists believe that such feeling experiences must be coupled with a forced behavioral change.

Jean Jenson (1995) believes that these behavioral changes are difficult to make but that "to consciously choose to behave differently fom the way you feel compelled to behave is essential for this work to be successful" (p. 93). Alice Miller (1995) in the foreword of Jenson's book writes,

(A)s long as the needs continue to be neglected and unfulfilled in the present, old pains and their destructive attendant symptoms will constantly be triggered. Then, therapy could become a self-perpetuating necessity accompanied by old, unresolved feelings that will constantly have to be felt, and dealt with, if they are not to overwhelm consciousness. The process of feeling childhood helplessness is absolutely necessary and unavoidable. But it is not, as Janov hoped, of itself sufficient to resolve destructive, and self-destructive patterns of behavior. (p. xiv)

The editor of this journal, Mickel Adzema (1995), has written, "Cure occurs when the individual has felt and received insight into a particular pain enough to be able to change the situation in the present which keeps triggering that pain." (p.4)


Both therapies elicit and encourage full feeling experiences. However primal therapy is much more directive than holotropic breathwork. Breathwork does encourage the client to feel safe enough to surrender fully to the ascending feeling or body movements. In breathwork, no attempt is made to redirect or lower intellectual defenses as is done in primal therapy. The breathwork facilitator is more or less a sitter or spectator to the evoked feelings that arise; while the primal therapist takes a much more active role in noting the client's demeanor and language to aid the client in removing self-imposed blocks to feelings.

However, both schools believe that the source of the feeling must arise from the client alone and be the result of connection to her or his early traumas. There is also agreement that therapist directed exercises of anger-work or grief-work are futile in resolving feelings of anger and grief that are derived from childhood and infancy.

Should primal therapy be combined with ongoing holotropic breathwork" therapy? And conversely, should you combine ongoing primal therapy with holotropic breathwork? I do not know. I have done both, and I am happy with the results as they seem to be complementary


1Grof does not claim to have discovered the technique of holotropic breathing. Still in use today, it is reminiscent of "Jesus Prayer" traditions - part of the ancient Coptic Christian heritage. These techniques of regulated breathing for accessing spirituality has a much more ancient origin as it was used in India in the special breathing exercises of yogic pranayamas many thousands of years ago.


Contraindications for Grofs holotropic breathwork" workshops include pregnancy, severe heart disease and other cardiovascular problems, epilepsy, and a history of severe emotional disorder or psychiatric hospitalization. Workshops are held throughout the country and the world. If you want information about Stanislav Grof's workshop schedule or about holotropic breathwork facilitators in your area, you can contact Grof Transpersonal Training at 20 Sunnyside Avenue, Suite A-314, Mill Valley, CA 94941 phone(415) 383-8779.


Adzema, Mickel. (1995). Creating positive scenarios: The other half of "the cure." Primal Feelings Newsletter, Spring, 1995, 3-4.

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Grof, Stanislav. (1976). Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations From LSD Research. New York: Dutton

Grof, Stanislav. (1985). Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. Albany, NY: State University New York Press.

Grof, Stanislav. (1988). The Adventure of Self-Discovery: Dimensions of Consciousness and New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Inner Exploration. Albany, NY: State University ofNew York Press.

Grof, Stanislav, and Grof, Christina. (1990). The Stormy Search for the Self: A Guide To Personal Growth Through Transformational Crisis. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.

James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience Noted American Authors Series, 1992, Reprint of 1902 edition

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Janov, Arthur. 1980. The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy, The Cure For Neurosis New York: Perigee Book

Janov, Arthur. 1983. Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience Coward-McCann, New York

Janov, Arthur. 1991. The New Primal Scream: Primal Therapy 20 Years On Enterprise Publishing Company, Wilmington

Jenson, Jean. (1995). Reclaiming Your Life: A Step-By-Step Guide to Using Regression Therapy to Overcome the Effects of Childhood Abuse. New York: Dutton.

Mandell, Arnold J. 1980. Chapter 14, page 439, Toward a Psychobiology of Transcendence: God in the Brain, From The Psychobiology of Consciousness, Edited by Davidson, Richard J. and Davidson, Julian M.

Moody, Raymond A. Jr 1990. Coming Back: A Psychiatrist Explores Past-Life Journeys, Bantam Books, New York

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