(Originally written for a graduate level psychology class, this article has been edited and many specific references to the books listed at the end have been removed. The original version is available on request.)
This is a first hand account and analysis of a Holotropic Breath session that occurred on in 1994. Holotropic Breathwork has been developed by Stanislav Grof as a therapeutic method for uncovering unconscious material in an experiential way. According to Grof, "Holotropic experiences encountered in the process of in-depth self-exploration have intrinsic healing potential. Those that are difficult and painful in nature - if completed and well-integrated - seem to eliminate sources of disturbing emotions and tensions that would otherwise interfere with everyday life." Grof contends that much of the material that usually presents during the breathwork is representative of or tied to one of four perinatal matrices. The following is a brief physical description of each of the four Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM):
BPM I Intrauterine state before the onset of the birth process
BPM II Contractions begin and the fetus is constricted and confined
BPM III Movement through the birth canal
BPM IV Infant emerges from the mother as a separate being
In his book, The Trauma of Birth, Otto Rank suggests to fellow psychotherapists that "...the birth trauma in its psycho-biological importance...gives us...a real substratum for all psycho-physiological connections and relations." In the more than six decades since Rank's statement little has been done in traditional psychology to explore the psychological impact of the birth process.
It appears from the work of depth psychologists, like Grof, that the trauma of the birth process is imprinted in the unconscious along with a multitude of symbols and images which depict the feelings and thoughts of the fetus. These traumas associated with birth are one of the sources of disturbing emotions and tensions that Grof suggests are healed during Holotropic Breathwork. However, the same emotions and feelings are encountered on many levels in the psyche: biographical (the individual's personal history), perinatal (the individual's birth process), and transpersonal (access to other lifetimes and collective consciousness). In describing one aspect of the transpersonal level, Grof states, "When such sequences are associated with a sense of personal memory from one's spiritual rather than biological history, we can refer to them as karmic or past incarnation experiences."
I came into this lifetime through a labor caesarean birth process. My mother and I were in labor for 19 hours before I was delivered. I experienced BPM I, BPM II, and BPM IV. The material that came from my unconscious during the breath session seemed to be focused on a past incarnation which correlated to a perinatal experience, specifically BPM II.
Consistently, in the session, before each new vision and awareness, I experienced some somatic manifestation of the events that were about to reveal themselves from my unconscious. Only a few minutes after I started the breathing my head started itching more and more so that I could't just observe the feeling but had to scratch my whole head in a frantic effort to escape the itching. As I was scratching my head I realized that it felt like I was scratching stubble and I felt that my head had been shaved. I moved into that vision and saw that I was lying on a table in a room with very bright lights. I was a young woman somewhere between the ages of 15 and 30, that part was not very clear. What was extraordinarily clear was that my body was lying on the table completely uncovered. At this point I knew that I was already starting to detach from my physical state. My body was emaciated. I looked like a skeleton. I remember having so much compassion for the deteriorated and vulnerable shape in which I found myself. Next, I felt sharp pains in my abdomen. The pains were on the sides of my abdomen and it felt like pains in the ovaries. There were three men dressed in white coats also in the room with me. Suddenly I realized that they had cut open my abdomen horizontally and were doing something internally. It felt like they were either examining my ovaries or removing them. I could not be sure. One thing was very clear, however, and that was that the more shallow I breathed the less pain I felt. I tried breathing less and less but I also felt panic and rage towards these men who were ignoring the fact that I was not breathing. Finally my breathing stopped entirely and I was able to lift out of my body. There were simultaneously feelings of great relief and tremendous compassion for what my body had endured. I looked at it for a while before going up to the light. Before I ascended I repeated over and over, "Never again, I 'll never be in a body again!" I then merged with the light, at the same time maintaining my individual awareness. While united with the light I became aware of the moans and cries of the others in the breath session. And I silently called out to them to just come to the light and whatever pain they were experiencing would stop.
The next somatic signal was shallow breathing once again. Periodically, breath would entirely stop. The next image was of being in the fetal position in the womb. I was presented derriere first towards the birth canal. Feelings of anger about being back in a body, especially a female body, were coupled with the thought that if I stayed in the position I was in that I would not have to leave the womb. I thought it would be better to die from lack of breath again than to be born. In a flash I was back on the table again in the first scene. I felt the pain in my ovaries, the anger towards these men who did not pay attention to my death, and the cold and humiliation from exposure on the table. Again I rose out of the body, back to the light briefly, and back into the womb. This journey, or sequence, repeated three times. My actual birth from the womb was not part of this session. After the third journey, I started coughing. The cough felt like a method of purging. A facilitator assisted my purging coughing until I felt comfortable in my body in the present. As I drew my mandala, I cried so hard I was afraid that the paper would be ruined. My sitter asked if I wanted to lie down for a while longer before completing the drawing. The urgency to draw the picture of my anguish was compelling and so I stopped crying and finished the mandala.
The layering of images connected to diminishing breathing is an example of a "system of condensed experience" or "COEX system" as described by Grof. As material comes from the unconscious, Grof states that it can be from biological birth, as well as from certain areas of the transpersonal realm, such as past incarnation memories. This appears to be what was happening in my case. On one level I was preventing pain and creating my exit from the physical world in a past life by reducing my breathing while on another level I was trying to do the same thing as my birth process began in this lifetime. "A soul may incarnate with specific intentions that are matched beautifully by a caesarean birth." writes Jane English in Different Doorway. Even after 19 hours of labor, I still could not be turned for a deliverable presentation and had to be removed surgically. Given the vow I made as I left my body on the table to never be in a body again, I understand the resistance to my birth in this life. Not only had I been at the light for only a brief period before returning to the physical world but I was also coming back in a female body. The feminine quality I interpreted, both in the past life and intrauterine, to be vulnerable and therefore putting me in danger. In my childhood I emulated my father and throughout life have buried the feminine traits of softness, emotionality, and vulnerablilty under more masculine characteristics of stoicism, strength, aggression, and independence.
An individual under the influence of BPM II is involved in scenes of violence in the position of the helpless victim. Grof suggests a variety of roles may be adopted such as prisoners in concentration camps. I find my experience during the breathwork to be an interesting example of the holotropic consciousness - the overlay of BPM II sensations and a "perinatal matrix appropriate" karmic experience. My sensation while in the body of the concentration camp prisoner/patient was that of reliving the event. It felt like a personal memory rather than a glimpse into someone else's experience. I was very familiar with the body but it had so deteriorated that at the time of the scene in the operating room I was starting to feel detached.
The journey from operating room to merging with the light to being in the womb in the second perinatal matrix repeated in the same sequence three times seemed to be a type of karmic pattern healing. Grof proposes that the reliving of traumatic memories from previous incarnations is important in order to free oneself from the bondage. Issues concerning the fear of being in my body have been a major focus in my therapy and various healing processes. Previously I and the therapists have attributed these fears solely to sexual abuse during the preverbal stage of childhood development. After my experience in the Holotropic Breathwork session, I understand profoundly that my physical state is a multi-level issue. - biographical, perinatal, and transpersonal. Two days after the session I made a commitment to work more consistently on healing the physical traumas. Grof observes, "Another interesting aspect of karmic experiences is that they are clearly connected with various emotional, psychosomatic, and interpersonal problems of the individual. Most frequently, they represent the deepest roots of problems, in addition to specific biographical and perinatal determinants."
Many weeks later I continue to process the experiences from the breath session. Many questions have been answered and many new questions arise in my mind concerning my own personal lifepath as well as societal issues. I am comfortable with the connection my unconscious was showing to me between a past life and my birth process into this lifetime. However, I am also compelled to return for more holotropic work until my unconscious is ready to allow me to relive the caesarean birth as Grof has described it, surgical cuts, manual extraction from the womb, emerging into light through a bloody opening. Perhaps the past life memory is preparation for the experience of jumping directly from BPM II to BPM IV in another holotropic session. In Jane English's book I find a multitude of connections to my own life experiences. Simply reading her account of her healing process has therapeutic value for me. Perhaps it is the validation of my experiences. She suggests that a type of healing movement or body work could be developed for persons of caesarean born people. Our experiences and physical traumas are markedly different from vaginally born people. Therefore, it follows that caesareans need different methods for healing.
On the transpersonal level, a question has been haunting me since my holotropic breathwork session. Is there a connection between reincarnation of holocaust experiencers and the onset in the Western Culture of anorexia nervosa? Psychologists have pointed to control issues, self-hate, and self-object hate as the causes of self-starvation. All these arguments appear valid on the "biographical" level. However, it occurs to me that there is some type of imprint on the collective consciousness as a result of tragic concentration camp experiences. If we are, in fact, all connected, how can we not be affected by an atrocity such as the holocaust? In other eras the same "causes for anorexia" were part of interpersonal dynamics, how were they expressed then? And why is anorexia nervosa a vehicle for expression of strong emotions today? Of course, then the question arises how can we heal an imprint on the collective consciousness? It would seem to me that the healing might still need to occur on an individual basis. I believe the answers to all the questions are multi-level. The "cause and effect" paradigm limits our understanding of life. A phenomenological approach suggests a co-constitution of reality. The biographical, perinatal and transpersonal levels of our lives co-create the reality of our lives as we experience them.
English, J. B. (1985). Different Doorway: Adventures of a Caesarean Born. Mount Shasta, California, Earth Heart.
English, J. B. (1992). Being Born Caesarean: Physical, Psychosocial and Metaphysical Aspects" Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal 7:3, 1993
Grof, S. (1985). Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. New York, State University of New York Press.
Grof, S. (1988). The Adventure of Self-Discovery. New York, State University of New York Press.
Rank, O. (1929). The Trauma of Birth. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company.