In the 50’s and 60’s, a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland released the psychedelic drug LSD to encourage research of possible beneficial effects for psychological struggles or psychiatric illness. Psychedelic drugs were subsequently outlawed. Most people don’t realise that there is a legal, much safer option to achieve non-ordinary states of consciousness today. Neil Harris explains.
Neil has been a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst for over 30 years. It was fascinating to listen to him overlay psychiatric considerations on his experiences with Holotropic Breathwork in such a matter-of-fact, rational way. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us, Neil.
If you are interested in learning more about Holotropic Breathwork, you can contact Neil and Sally at: HolotropicUK.co.uk
For a wider perspective, you can visit the Holotropic Association of Europe or Grof Transpersonal Training.
Also, Neil mentions the book that introduced him to Holotropic Breathwork - Walking Shadows by Tim Read.
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[00:00:00] Neil: I'd been working as a psychiatrist for over 30 years. I'd been working as a psychotherapist alongside that for nearly 30 years. And then something surprising happened...
[00:00:09] Neil: [00:00:20] [00:00:40]
[00:00:51] Neil: It was really my wife who encouraged me to go with her to a study day in London. During that day, met a psychiatrist called Tim Read. [00:01:00] He'd written a book called "Walking Shadows", which I read really enjoyed. And then I got in touch with him because he described in more detail in his book this thing called Holotropic Breathwork.
[00:01:12] Steve: This is Neil Harris, long time psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He's just talking about when he and his [00:01:20] wife Sally, discovered Holotropic Breathwork. For now, think of it as a safe means of achieving expanded states of awareness for perhaps healing purposes or for more general self-development. A little bit of history might help.
[00:01:41] Neil: Back in the fifties and sixties, once LSD had been released by a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland, encouraging people to research its possible beneficial effects for people with psychological struggles or psychiatric illness, the field really took off.
[00:01:57] Neil: People were researching its use [00:02:00] for end of life anxiety, for substance dependence, for resistant depression, and the community internationally was thriving when, of course, president Nixon - amongst others - outlawed the use of psychedelic drugs.
[00:02:15] Neil: But rather than let that cause the research to grind completely [00:02:20] to a halt, another psychiatrist called Stanislav Grof, who was from Czechoslovakia and had trained in Prague, developed a new way of supporting people into what we would call "non-ordinary states of consciousness" or "expanded states of awareness".
[00:02:36] Steve: And that ultimately led to the birth of [00:02:40] Holotropic Breathwork.
[00:02:41] Steve: There is an increasing amount of research going on in the use of psychedelics for treating mental distress; psychedelics referring to a class of hallucinogenic drugs whose purpose is to trigger non-ordinary states of consciousness. It turns out that psychedelics and [00:03:00] Holotropic Breathwork have much in common with a clear delineator that the latter doesn't involve ingesting any drugs.
[00:03:07] Neil: So what is being researched is the use of Psilocybin, of DMT, to help people who've got substance abuse issues, treatment of depression that's been resistant to other treatment [00:03:20] approaches and to help with end of life anxiety.
[00:03:23] Neil: Holotropic Breathwork's going along in parallel with this research, but has a long history now of over four decades. So we know a lot about it and how to provide it for people in a way that's organized and safe.
[00:03:37] Steve: A typical Holotropic [00:03:40] Breathwork environment would be for the person who's breathing to have a sitter who's with them throughout the whole experience, and a facilitator who's trained in helping and supporting that experience. Participant group sizes could be anywhere from very small up to a hundred plus. For 12 participants, that [00:04:00] would be six people breathing, six people sitting, and at least two or three facilitators. So that's the "who". Now, what about the experience itself? Let's start from the perspective of the breather.
[00:04:14] Neil: The breather is lying on a comfortable mattress, pillows, blanket. There'll be a [00:04:20] brief relaxation to start the process. Then there'll be a musical accompaniment, which is very important. It's loud, shaped to support the process. So the first hour will be very energetic, a lot of rhythm, a lot of energy and really help the breather to, if you like, achieve some kind of lift-off into an [00:04:40] experience. The second hour will be more of a symphonic, accompanying, traveling energy so that once they're in an experience, they'll just be supported to deepen that. [00:05:00] And then the third hour of the music will gradually bring them back to shore, so that they can re-enter the world at the end.
[00:05:08] Steve: And from the sitter's perspective...
[00:05:10] Neil: The sitter will be sitting next to the breather, attentive to what's going on available to help them with the basics, such as passing a drink of [00:05:20] water or a tissue, or helping them to the toilet if they need to during the process.
[00:05:24] Steve: and finally the facilitator...
[00:05:27] Neil: An example of what a facilitator might do: the breather might say something like, "I've got some discomfort around my chest".
[00:05:35] Neil: The breather might be encouraged simply to breathe some more. What they'll [00:05:40] be doing is breathing slightly faster and slightly deeper than normal. That's the only instruction, and they'll be encouraged to make an experience bigger.
[00:05:49] Steve: And then at the end of the three hours to cap off a session...
[00:05:54] Neil: ...the facilitators will speak briefly with each breather to make sure that they are orientated, that [00:06:00] it's appropriate for them to leave the room, and then they'll be encouraged straight away to make a simple, artistic representation of some aspect of their experience.
[00:06:09] Steve: Now back to Tim Read, putting Neil in touch with Holly and Deb Harmon, who had been running holotropic training in the UK for 12 years, and [00:06:20] who Neil describes as a revelation. In 2017, Neil and his wife Sally had their first Holotropic Breathwork experience. Neil remembers that within minutes of starting he was...
[00:06:34] Neil: ...in a Celtic clan of some sort, involved in a battle I was killed.[00:06:40] I was lying in a shallow grave in the ground, strangely thinking to myself, "Oh, so this is what death is like". Then the experience moved on to include... being given birth to by a rather impressive goddess. I'm smiling as I say this, I know that this will come across as sounding pretty extreme and weird.[00:07:00]
[00:07:00] Neil: And then at the end of the experience, one of the facilitators helped me do some processing work on a physical injury I had suffered. And there was a release of emotion and energy at the end of that experience, which was profoundly helpful to me.
[00:07:16] Steve: Wooah! So we've taken a leap from a fairly [00:07:20] relaxed, recognizable environment into another world that involves Celts, shallow graves, death and being given birth to by a goddess, and apparently a rather impressive one at that. That's quite a lot to take in. So let's just unravel it a bit. Holotropic Breathwork [00:07:40] experiences tend to fall into one of three basic groups. So let's understand what they are.
[00:07:46] Neil: The first might be a biographic al experience, something to do with events in their life. And these events quite often would have a difficult or even traumatic quality to them. They might be things that happen to them which [00:08:00] shouldn't have, and of course abuse of various sorts comes under that heading. They might be experiences that should have happened but didn't, such as people not having a ppropriate care given to them.
[00:08:13] Steve: Okay so far. Biographical experiences seem pretty straightforward. So, the [00:08:20] second group...
[00:08:20] Neil: is to do with your time in the uterus. People are beginning to understand more and more that pre-birth experience is relevant to child development and personality development. The shock of moving from what might be a blissful, safe, unchallenging environment into an almost impossible [00:08:40] situation of life-threatening pressure and novelty is something people can experience in Holotropic Breathwork and the third group of experiences...
[00:08:49] Steve: Um, just rewind there a bit Neil. I'm slightly fixated on the notion of birthing experiences, i.e. imagining [00:09:00] you are being born ? I was unusually tongue-tied at this point, but seeing I needed a little bit of help, Neil went on to give me some practical background to this.
[00:09:11] Neil: A lot of these experiences leave residues in our body.
[00:09:15] Neil: So, an example of the birth experience causing a move towards resolution would be [00:09:20] somebody who has chronically described neck discomfort or carries themselves in a asymmetrical way and realizes through the breathwork that that happened to them while they were being born.
[00:09:33] Neil: And often people will go and talk to their mothers if they're still alive and say, tell me about my birth. And they'll hear [00:09:40] some surprising things that confirm their experiences that they've had in the breathwork.
[00:09:44] Steve: And that does seem perfectly rational. Now onto the third group, which...
[00:09:50] Neil: is the transpersonal. It can be an encounter with a sense of the divine or the numinous, the mysterious.
[00:09:58] Neil: I'll give you an example [00:10:00] of a transpersonal experience that I had and it came out of... expressing a lot of grief about some things that have happened in my life, real experiences, and moved into an intense experience of all of the victims of the Holocaust being gathered in front of me and asking that I grieved for them. And for me, that [00:10:20] was... I couldn't... it was too much. I was overwhelmed... being confronted by the enormity of all of their deaths.
[00:10:26] Steve: That's an extraordinary vivid scene. Have you got any idea where that came from?
[00:10:32] Neil: I was very surprised. I mean, I... I'm not Jewish. I've not visited any of the sites of the... holocaust. So I was intensely [00:10:40] surprised. I mean, I've talked to other people and they've had experiences of, similarly, all the people who were killed in World War I, making a similar appeal to them. I just think it brought home to me in a vivid way, the enormity of man's unkindness to man.
[00:10:53] Steve: I asked Neil if breathers look for a specific experience or do they just wait to see what comes [00:11:00] along?
[00:11:00] Neil: You can't tell what's gonna happen. We all carry some innate wisdom about what we need and what will help us. And we call it an "inner healer" and we have to trust that in the process we go where that leads us, where it takes us, and it can be very surprising or sometimes quite mundane.
[00:11:17] Steve: And what about safety?
[00:11:19] Neil: [00:11:20] At all times during a Holotropic Breathwork experience, you can simply return to everyday reality by breathing normally, looking around you, speaking to a facilitator, taking a break. So it's unlike a psychedelic experience in which you are committed, if you like, to the trip for however long it takes.
[00:11:38] Steve: I wanted Neil, the [00:11:40] psychiatrist to try and explain what is actually going on through this process. He referred to Aldous Huxley, the 20th century English writer and philosopher who thought of the brain as a reducing valve.
[00:11:54] Neil: He postulated that there's an enormous range of potential experience out [00:12:00] there, far more than we can cope with in our everyday lives. And in order to manage the necessities of everyday living, our brain switches off the tap on stuff that's too much to contemplate so that when we take psychedelics or experience Holotropic Breathwork, the reducing valve is opened and other possibilities [00:12:20] and alternative realities can flood in.
[00:12:22] Steve: Now that makes a lot of sense to me. It's probably not a total surprise that, having had such extraordinary positive experiences, Neil and Sally were minded to get more involved in the process. What started out as an adventure out of curiosity,[00:12:40] had led them to undertake intensive training in the UK, Europe, and California.
[00:12:46] Neil: We committed to completing our training as facilitators so that we could offer the experience of Holotropic Breathwork to other people. There's something about a tradition of passing on the knowledge and experience that we want to be [00:13:00] part of with Stan Grof and his wife Christina being the originators, Tav Sparks and his wife Cary taking on the role of disseminators of the training. And we are, if you like, third generation taking our place in the... international community of trainers.
[00:13:18] Steve: Neil [00:13:20] and Sally started offering Holotropic Breathwork events in the first half of 2022. If you live in the UK, you could find them at holotropicuk.co.uk. But Neil was keen to point out that opportunities exist in other parts of the world.
[00:13:38] Neil: Check out Grof [00:13:40] Transpersonal Training or Holotropia EU, which lists all of the events that are occurring in Europe.
[00:13:46] Steve: If you've never been around this kind of experience and I count myself as one, it is challenging to get your head around it. But Neil is very matter of fact, very rational.[00:14:00] And if you are feeling a little out of breath, physically or spiritually, or if you're curious, you may just end up trying out Holotropic Breathwork for yourself.
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