Excerpt from “Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy” by Stanislav and Christina Grof

By Elizabeth Gibson

Note: When I had this experience more than 30 years ago, I knew right away that it was life-changing. I remember coming out of the breathwork room on that day amazed and full of gratitude for the connection I had made with myself and with a disconnected event from my past. Over the years my appreciation for breathwork has only grown, along with a commitment to cultivate and share it with as many other people as possible. Thank you, Stan, for bringing this work into the world, Elizabeth

From Chapter 4, The Practice of Holotropic Breathwork, Part 8, The Spectrum of Holotropic Experiences

At age 37, I felt ready to try Holotropic Breathwork. The birth of our first child five years before had precipitated an unexpected and prolonged period of postpartum depression. The ensuing challenges of parenting had brought up more unresolved psychological issues, and I had begun a regular course of psychotherapy. But I still felt very confused, powerless against the anger that erupted from deep inside of me in response to some trivial event, and scared that I was hurting my husband and small son. I thought that breathwork, an experiential form of psychotherapy, might help.

I signed up for a weekend workshop and drove eight hours from my home in the mountains of Vermont to the dunes of Cape Cod. Sand drifted across the highway like snow. The ocean was everywhere. Provincetown in October felt like a ghost town, stark and abandoned. The old, creaky hotel faced the bay at the site of the Pilgrims’ first landing. In the emptiness of this place loomed an eerie presence of wind, sea, and Cape Cod folklore. It was Halloween weekend. That evening we listened to a lecture by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof; we heard about non-ordinary states of consciousness, the birth process, and the transpersonal realm. We saw slides that showed fantastic and beautiful drawings done by people who had experienced what we were to do the next day. During the break, we paired up with partners for the breathwork sessions.

The next morning, I lay on the floor with more than a hundred other people. My partner sat beside me as I embarked on a journey that was to change my life. Breathing more quickly and rapidly, listening to evocative music, I surrendered myself to the unexpected sensations that began to flow through me. My body immediately took on a life of its own. My arms moved in large, sweeping circles so powerful that I felt possessed by some superhuman strength. This dance continued for some time. The energy then became very concentrated in my left wrist, until I was experiencing precisely the pain I felt at age 11 when my wrist was broken. At that moment, I heard myself saying, “My father broke my wrist when I was 11.” Images and sensations from this long-forgotten accident came flooding back.

More than simply remembering this event, I felt myself a child, back in the front yard of the home that I had grown up in. The early fall day was warm. We were all at home, even my father, whose profession as a medical doctor kept him away much of the time. It must have been the weekend, then. His car, a white Saab, was parked in the driveway by the front entrance to our house. My father was getting into the car. He was about to back it down the hill and put it into the garage. I rushed up to him eagerly. “Can I sit on the car?” I asked. He agreed without hesitating and I perched myself on the hood, anticipating the thrill of riding in this unorthodox way. We started down the driveway. At first the ride was exhilarating, like sailing as we sometimes did together off the Maine coast. The pavement moved right underneath me, flecks of rock passing by like the sea.

But when we reached the bottom of the hill and my father began to move the car forward, the sensations shifted abruptly. My body had lost its balance. I groped frantically for some hold on smooth metal as I felt myself falling towards the pavement. Even as I groped, I knew I would surely fall, fall onto hard pavement in front of this moving car. And just as certainly I knew that I would be crushed by the car unless I did something to get out from underneath it.

As soon as I hit the pavement, I wrenched my body into a roll that propelled me to the side of the driveway. Unsure how I had gotten there, I found myself sitting on soft green grass, shivering and shaking. My father was beside me, asking me how I felt. All my attention was on my left wrist. I knew it was broken, just as surely as I had known I would fall, had known I must roll to get out of the way of the car. I held up the wrist for him to see. The hand hung at an odd angle, reminding me of a flower whose stem had broken. “My wrist,” I said, “something is wrong with my wrist. I think it’s broken.” My father examined it briefly. “No,” he pronounced, with his air of medical authority, “It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.”

I believed him, or at least tried to. But the basic split between my trust in my father and the signals I was getting from my body was impossible to bridge. I retreated to my bedroom, not knowing where else to go, and lay in bed, suspended between the painful certainty of a broken bone and my father’s definitive denial of it. My left arm, now useless, extended out on a pillow beside me. I felt strangely detached from this arm, except when I felt the sharp pain of some small movement. The room was very dark. Strips of sunlight framed the edges of the drawn shades.

When the certainty of my condition prevailed, my mother took me to the hospital. There were X-rays and then a cast that I wore for 6 weeks. My friends wrote their names on it. My father said nothing. I hadn’t thought much about this accident in the intervening years. It had been overshadowed by other events that had seemed more significant. But the breathwork session had taken me right back to a place in myself that needed attention. Although I had healed physically many years before, something inside was still broken.

By now the movement of my body-especially my arms-had progressed, and I felt an incredible healing power emanating from my right hand and being directed at my left wrist. Again, I heard myself speak, this time saying in a surprised tone, “My right arm wants to heal my broken wrist.” At this point I was drawn to a standing position by some invisible force, and I felt myself surrounded by supportive people in the room who encouraged me to continue until this incredible dance resolved in its own beautiful and mysterious way.

After the session I was flooded with gratitude to have found within myself the capacity for self-healing. In the following years, I was able to process this event with my family, including my parents, and establish a more honest relationship with them. I soon realized that the themes of this accident extended into other events of my childhood, and eventually recognized familial patterns spanning generations. Helped by ongoing breathwork and a supportive life partner, I began to face some of the pain in my life and reclaim major pieces from my past.