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Unlocking the Power of Breath: Grof & Hof

By Jonathan Chan-Choong. Posted on February 26, 2020 in Movement + Nature, Wisdom + Wellness

Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. 

The essence of life. When we enter into this world from our mothers’ wombs, it is jump started by one simply complex process – breathing. It is now a nearly autonomic, unconscious part of our daily lives.

But what if we change that and become more aware of our breathing patterns, noting the changes happening within our bodies… and minds. This is where two highly publicised practices come to light – the Wim Hof Method by Wim Hof, aka “The Iceman”, and Holotropic Breathwork by Stanislav and Christina Grof.

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Wim Hof practitioner at Hollyhock, 2019
blindfolded breathing meditation
Similar meditation is used in Holotropic Breathwork - Mara Branscombe, 2018

These two forms have been studied and covered throughout the world touting transformative results. Wim Hof breathing and cold exposure exercises have been shown to alleviate physical ailments and jumpstart the autoimmune system. Both techniques have been connected to dealing with various mental health issues, including PTSD, and enabling a heightened sense of self-awareness and self-esteem.

But how does this all work? Both practices start very similarly: taking very deep, short breaths. 

This process is guided and maintained from anywhere between a couple minutes to hours, which establishes a hyperventilatory environment for your body. This significantly changes the gaseous composition of our blood between oxygen and carbon dioxide. 

What happens next is where the two practices deviate. Let’s look at each of them separately:

Wim Hof Method: Cold Breath, Warm Intentions

This method, founded by its namesake Wim Hof, has helped many reclaim their bodies from affliction. From joint pain to self-worth, this platform has brought “normal” back into the lives of its practitioners.

Wim Hof has used the technique to break over 20 Guinness World Records, many of which are based around the subject of the cold – the deep freeze. These accolades include running a half marathon across the Arctic Circle in nothing but shorts and swimming underneath a frozen body of water for 66 meters.

Early in his adult life, Wim Hof lost his wife and used deep breathing techniques with ice immersion as a method of meditation to cope.

Sadness is a deep trigger. Where I found peace was in these breathing exercises… The cold is merciless but righteous as well.

All of this sounds great but what is happening with the body? This surely can’t be right when for most of our lives, we are told to “stay warm” by many of our elders. Au contraire.

The Wim Hof Method utilizes the rapid breathing and hyperventilation to induce an almost euphoric response, characterized by tingling extremities and light-headedness. This response acts like a painkiller, reducing inflammation (aka the typical cold response) when the body is introduced to threats. This practice can be crossed applied to many inflammatory ailments, such as joint and muscle pains, and autoimmune diseases.

Once this state is reached, the true benefits of ice immersion can take place. These benefits include increased blood circulation and alertness, blood pressure regulation, increased metabolism (which is great for athletes trying to rid any lactic acid), further reduced extremity inflammation, and weight loss.

There is still more research being done but according to Wim Hof, at nearly 60 years old, it is working out just fine for him; “I do not fear death but I fear to not live fully.”

Holotropic Breathwork: An Outlaw’s Breath

Founded in the mid-70’s by the couple Grof, Stanislav and Christine at Esalen Institute, Holotropic breathing was developed through a long history of gestalt therapy, psychoanalysis, and LSD studies.

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A volunteer participates in LSD research, 1966. photo credit: npr

Stanislav was amongst one of the first to formally study the effects of LSD in a clinical setting, beginning his research in Prague from 1960-67 and then transitioning to the United States at John Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

These studies were ad hoc to many cultural settings based around psychedelic and “enlightened” experiences. It used many of the same common threads: music, a calm environment, and guardians/elders/sitters to ensure safety.

This involved the patient lying down with eyes closed, listening to music, and being attended at all times by two clinicians. Thus the focus was on inner experience, rather than interactive or psychodynamic experience, and on accessing the unconscious experientially, rather than intellectually, verbally or analytically. Grof observed and reported remarkable therapeutic benefits for his patients from this process.  Furthermore he realized that these states of consciousness were not nearly as non-ordinary as they seemed: most pre-industrial cultures had some culturally-sanctioned way to enter these states, periodically, to promote healing or find wisdom, using things like drumming, natural psychedelics, meditation, or fasting as the catalyst. – Martin Boroson, 2008

Despite LSD being outlawed shortly thereafter, Stanislav knew he had to continue this study in some way. Hence the use of controlled breathwork to induce the same psychotropic experience – the transition from psycho- to holo -.

I’m going to pose a similar question that I posed earlier – why should anyone want to induce mental altering experiences and what is happening to the body?

On numerous accounts, this environment of calm music and hallucination has led to “a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This state activates the natural inner healing process of the individual’s psyche, bringing the seeker a particular set of internal experiences. With the inner healing intelligence guiding the process, the quality and content brought forth is unique to each person and for that particular time and place.”

It is in this state that the internal healing happens and you allow yourself the opportunity to deal with things that may bubble to the surface. It may reveal aspects of your past, present, and unwritten future, that up to this point, were deeply hidden. It may reveal addiction issues, trauma, and baggage that is being held on to, unconsciously holding the practitioner back.

This state of openness also brings the same numbness that you would experience in Wim Hof but it is being channeled into deep feeling, a more psycho-spiritual access point.

Internal Answers

Both Hof’s and Grof’s methods have yielded great results worldwide with testimonial and accolades abound. Whether your next chapter is based around reaching new athletic heights or moving past mental and spiritual roadblocks, it can be done using a tool that helped us to start our first chapter of life – breath.

These practices really do show us that we’ve had the answers all along, we just need the right keys to open them.

Interested in any of these breathing practices? We are hosting programs in both Wim Hof and Holotropic Breathwork with experienced guides leading each session. You can also save 10% off tuition if you take two or more programs in 2020!

Wim Hof Method: Breathwork & Your True Nature | Cian Dalton (BC’s first certified Wim Hof instructor), May 6-10

The Wisdom of Breath: Holotropic Breathwork | Diane Haug & William Keepin, May 10-14

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