How to Use Holotropic Breathwork + Ice Baths to Improve Wellness

by Jon Miksis
performing the holotropic breathing technique
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Have you heard of the trend of using holotropic breathwork to reduce your stress and improve your life? What about ice baths to cut down on inflammation and create a sense of inner peace? If you’ve only heard of these wellness methods but don’t know much about them, let me be the first to tell you that each can seriously benefit you. Together, they could change your life.

We all know about life’s daily stressors. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. And it’s easy to let all of that build up and overtake our minds until we reach our breaking points. That just isn’t conducive to living a happy and healthy life. Combining advanced breathing technique with ice baths has worked actual wonders for me in my life. I know it can do the same for you.

Holotropic breathing involves performing fast and deep breathing for an extended period to eliminate burdensome emotions in your mind and body. Ice baths constrict your blood vessels to reduce inflammation and pain and increase the serotonin levels in your brain. The result is that you come out feeling happy and relaxed!

Regularly employing these stress-reduction methods can improve the quality of your life in serious ways. I have written a lot about how cold immersion and ice baths can contribute to a healthy life. Here in this article, I want to take you through how holotropic breathing works, its benefits, and how you can add it to your routine alongside ice baths to improve your overall wellness and feel happier!

holotropic breathing can be an enormous benefit to your wellness
This article on holotropic breathwork and ice baths contains affiliate links, where I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

Using holotropic breathwork to boost wellness

First up in this wellness article is holotropic breathwork. I’ll explain what it is, its origins, what it’s like to do it, and how it can help you.

What is the holotropic breathing technique?

Holotropic breathwork is a rapid, deep, intense breathing intended to take the practitioner into an altered state of consciousness. It does this by removing carbon dioxide from the blood, not unlike in hyperventilating. This state has also been described as like being inside a dream.

The primary aims of achieving that state are to help the person:

  • Access emotions in a part of the psyche not normally accessible
  • Deal with negative emotions from the past
  • Become more self-aware
  • Reach a place of spiritual healing and calm

Czech-born doctor Stanislav Grof developed holotropic breathwork with his wife, Christina, in the 1970s. The couple came out of the psychoanalytic tradition of achieving happiness through exposing thoughts and emotions from the unconscious mind. For the Grofs, the way to access and learn from those deeply buried memories was to enter the alternative consciousness that could come from continuous, rapid breathing.

The technique the Grofs eventually developed came to be known as holotropic breathing. The word “holotropic” derives from two words in Greek. Holos means “whole,” while trepein means “to move toward” something. The word “holotropic” therefore means “to move toward wholeness.”

It’s worth noting that, today, people use holotropic breathwork for different purposes. For some, the technique’s primary function is to work through troubling emotions and traumas that are buried deep in the subconscious. For others, holotropic breathwork is most useful for achieving a higher state of consciousness, a greater degree of self-awareness. These are just two examples of how you can use holotropic breathwork for both mental and spiritual pursuits.

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How to do holotropic breathwork

If you’ve ever wondered how to do holotropic breathwork, you’ll want to pay attention here. This method may be unlike anything you’ve tried before.

Typically, when you do holotropic breathing, you first lie down flat on a comfortable mat. Because you want to focus on your breathing, it’s good to close your eyes to forget about everything around you.

You’ll then start to inhale and exhale deeply and quickly, over and over again. You use your stomach muscles to make the breathing as deep and powerful as you can. There are no pauses or breaks between any of the breathing in and out, although you may speed up or slow down your rate throughout a session. That’s one reason some people have quite intense experiences while doing holotropic breathwork. This is especially true when you consider that sessions of holotropic breathing can last several hours.

Of course, despite the particulars of your session, the goal here is to allow yourself to access a different state of consciousness. It is in that altered state that holotropic breathwork supporters believe you can find and release negative emotions and traumas of the past.

woman sitting on a mat and focusing on her breathing. Holotropic breathwork can be done at home with a  partner
You can work on your breathwork from the comfort of your home

What will you experience during holotropic breathwork?

The question of what your experience doing holotropic breathing will be like is a tricky one. While no one can predict what you in particular will experience, I can give you some insight into what the breathing part of this might feel like for you.

First of all, the rhythmic part of the breathing is a definite help. It aids you in regulating your inhales and exhales. That regular pattern over a period of hours helps to induce the altered state of consciousness that you need if you want to access a different level of your psyche.

Not even a trained session facilitator can tell you what you’ll experience mentally or emotionally during your breathwork. One piece of common wisdom among holotropic breathing practitioners is that you won’t know there’s something to unearth in your subconscious until you go looking for it. You may have a catharsis during your holotropic breathwork and come out of it with a revelation. Or you may not have something specific to dig up. Maybe your session allows you to see things more clearly and think more creatively.

To me, that’s one part of the beauty of holotropic breathwork as a method of wellness. It’s really about setting out on a journey of discovery. And you won’t know what you’re going to find until you find it.

What is a holotropic breathing session like?

Remember that a period of holotropic breathwork can last up to several hours for some people. Depending on the person, a session can become quite passionate, with emotional releases coming in the form of sadness, anger, or joy. Not to mention, the breathing itself is ongoing and could become overwhelming for some people.

For all of these reasons, holotropic breathing sessions are typically structured as group events. If you choose to do this at a resort that features officially scheduled holotropic breathing, you will likely have a trained professional overseeing everyone in the group.

Even if you’re taking part in this in a more informal setting, it’s good to have a group of people watching you and the others who are doing the breathing. This is simply to ensure that everyone stays safe during the session. The people lying down are called “breathers.” The ones watching you are “sitters.”

To keep you focused on the rhythm of your breathing, session facilitators usually play calming, drone-like music or other sounds throughout the session. The ideas or concepts you focus on during your session will be private and entirely up to you. This is the main reason why people who participate in a session report such varying reactions to the breathing, from relief to sadness to pure happiness.

Speaking generally, however, many people experience an emotional release that feels stressful in the moment but is ultimately cathartic for them.

a woman focusing while sitting outside in the sun
Working on your breathing outside is always a good idea

A structured breakdown of a sample holotropic breathwork session:

1. You can perform holotropic breathwork on your own (with a sitter to watch you), in an informal group, or as a planned activity at a wellness retreat.

2. The breathers lie flat in a comfortable and safe place, such as a mat on the floor. The benefit of lying down for this is that the breather is free to move around safely in response to the emotions of the session.

3. The sitters are responsible for ensuring their breathers are safe and comfortable. This could involve doing anything from just watching their breathing to covering them with a blanket if they get cold. Otherwise, the sitter doesn’t interrupt the breather.

4. Over two or three hours, the trained session overseer might have the breathers change up the rhythm of their breathing. Different rhythms will take breathers through highs and lows of their emotional journeys during the session.

5. The session lead will probably play music throughout the session. The music could change during the session to allow breathers to travel in different directions on their journeys. Don’t think of the music as intended to direct breathers to a certain emotional place. Instead, it’s supposed to help you enter your inner world in a series of steps. For example, the first hour of music usually consists of rhythmic drums. This lulls breathers into altered states. The music of the second hour is more emotional and nondescript. This is where most “breakthroughs” happen. The third hour of music is quiet and respectful, designed to bring breathers back to the waking world.

6. In wellness retreat settings, breathers are encouraged to share their holotropic experiences in a few ways. Directly following a session, participants might draw a mandala to reflect what they felt during their breathing. Mandalas are geometric drawings in Eastern religions that you can fill with shapes, colors, or symbols to express a feeling or state. Following the mandalas, session participants may meet as a group to reflect verbally upon their experiences.

7. Holotropic breathing sessions are pretty free-form in that the facilitators won’t tell you what to think about. Your emotional journal is entirely your own. Your guide can instruct you in how to get to the altered emotional state necessary to achieve a cathartic breakthrough. But what you focus on during the breathing is up to you.

What are the benefits of holotropic breathing?

If you’ve never tried holotropic breathing before, you may be a bit nervous about getting into it yourself. From my descriptions here, and from videos you may have watched, you might think to yourself that it looks intense and overwhelming.

But take it from someone who has done it. That intensity is real but can be quite beneficial for your mental health! Now, supporters of the holotropic breathing technique usually stop short of saying that the breathing is a “cure” for any kind of mental condition. It’s better to say that holotropic breathing can induce many short- and medium-term mental and physiological benefits for the person.

Below is a list of the potential benefits of holotropic breathing:

  • Reducing mental and physical stress
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Inducing whole-body relaxation
  • Encouraging immune system health
  • Supporting self-awareness
  • Promoting stronger recollection of deep memories
  • Allowing for increased creativity

You may be able to boost the benefits of holotropic breathwork even more by combining it with conventional mental-health therapy. These techniques together can work hand in hand to strengthen your mental clarity.

Are there any risks associated with holotropic breathwork?

Holotropic breathwork is a healing technique meant to support a person’s wellness journey. But as with any form of treatment or therapy, it won’t be right for everyone. For example, people with certain physical or mental conditions may not be good candidates for holotropic breathwork.

Those with any of the following conditions will definitely want to check with their doctors before trying holotropic breathwork:

  • Heart disease of any kind
  • Seizures
  • Aneurysms
  • Recent injuries or surgeries
  • Pregnancy or current breastfeeding
  • Conditions requiring medication
  • A history of panic attacks
  • Serious mental illnesses

How to combine holotropic breathwork with ice baths for wellness

I mentioned at the beginning that holotropic breathing and ice baths can go very much together toward your push for personal wellness. Now that you know all about holotropic breathwork, I’ll get into the benefits of ice baths. Finally, I’ll explain how these two techniques can complement each other to produce a whole wellness routine for you.

ice baths and cold immersion can really help your push toward wellness
Cold plunges can have huge benefits for your physical and mental health

How ice baths and cold immersion help to heal

I have written extensively on the blog about how the cold-exposure therapy that you get from the best cold plunge tubs can help with all kinds of problems. I’ll direct you to those instead of rehashing all of that information here. However, for our purposes right now, let me get into the benefits of ice baths.

Cold immersion benefits 101

For those of you with no experience with cold therapy at all, I’ll explain what it’s all about. Putting your body into freezing-cold water–say, 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit–for about 10 minutes carries all kinds of health benefits with it. That kind of cold constricts the blood vessels in the body near the surface of the skin. This happens almost immediately. It’s a way for your body to reduce blood flow and keep heat at your core. The body will also keep more blood flowing to your vital organs so they continue functioning. That’s a basic survival mechanism.

At the same time, the extreme cold encourages your body to release the hormone norepinephrine. This has an anti-inflammatory purpose and therefore helps to eliminate inflammation and pain in your body.

That is one of the primary physical benefits of ice baths. But what you’ll find interesting if you’re already trying holotropic breathwork is that cold therapy has many mental health benefits, too! For instance, did you know ice baths can reduce stress and anxiety? The cold stimulates the Vagus nerve in our bodies. That stimulation cuts down on the natural stress hormones that our bodies produce. Simultaneously, the extreme temperatures encourage our bodies to make different hormones that actively reduce stress, such as dopamine.

The science of cold immersion has been shown to have positive effects on people with depression, as well. The reason, as mentioned above, is that the cold water promotes our bodies to release feel-good chemicals such as noradrenaline and beta-endorphins. I have even cited a case study where cold-water immersion was shown to help treat major depression.

Through a combination of those positive hormones and more oxygen going to your brain, ice baths can really leave you feeling happy, energized, and refreshed.

Structuring a holotropic breathwork and ice bath regimen

My hope is that you’re starting to see the common ground between holotropic breathwork and taking ice baths. Each wellness method is aimed at improving your life by naturally changing the way your brain works and how you interact with your mind.

Professional wellness coaches and retreat facilitators see the commonalities, too. That’s why you can find wellness retreats out there that offer holotropic breathing exercises alongside ice baths.

Key tip when doing holotropic breathing

I have one important note to make here, so there’s no ambiguity. Holotropic breathwork is a specific type of exercise that is performed with a sitter watching you. That’s to make sure you stay comfortable and safe during the intense breathing. For that reason, holotropic breathwork is not performed while you are in an ice bath. They simply complement each other. They are not meant to be combined. In any case, holotropic breathwork takes place over two or three hours. You shouldn’t stay in an ice bath for longer than 10 minutes.

If you want a good way to focus on your breathing during the intensity of an ice bath, I strongly suggest checking out the Wim Hof breathing method! That technique allows you to focus on your breathing instead of the extreme cold.

wim hof using an ice bath
Motivational speaker and extreme athlete Wim Hof in an ice bath

However, if you want the full benefits of holotropic breathwork as described above, you can add sessions of that to your schedule that already includes regular ice bath usage. The frequency will be whatever is right for you. You can take an ice bath every day if it feels right. Or, set a schedule where you take an ice bath just a few times a week. On the off days, you can practice holotropic breathwork.

Sample schedule for holotropic breathwork and ice baths:

Monday: ice bath

Tuesday: holotropic breathing

Wednesday: ice bath

Thursday: holotropic breathing

Friday: ice bath

Saturday: morning ice bath, afternoon holotropic breathing

Sunday: morning holotropic breathing, afternoon ice bath

Of course, you might decide that doing both methods in one day is too intense for you. That’s okay! Your use of these wellness techniques is completely up to you. If there’s one thing you learn from going on as many wellness retreats as I have, it’s that you can’t compare your own endurance to that of others. If you’re committed and you keep at this, you will find your groove, I promise! We all have to start somewhere. You should be proud of yourself for making it to this point!

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about holotropic breathing and ice baths

I understand that the holotropic breathing technique and cold immersion are not the most well-known methods of achieving wellness. You may still be confused and have questions about them. Because I have a lot of experience with each method, I love to educate others in introducing them into their lives.

So here are some of the most frequently asked questions about adding holotropic breathwork and ice baths to your existing wellness routines.

Is holotropic breathing the same as hyperventilating?

We typically think of hyperventilating as something done by people experiencing a panic attack. In those cases, hyperventilating is a negative thing because it can harm the person. This happens by displacing carbon dioxide from the blood and making the person feel lightheaded. Holotropic breathwork is meant to do this, however, to achieve another state of consciousness. So, while this breathwork is similar to hyperventilating, it is even, controlled, and intentional. This makes it a positive rather than a negative.

Should you practice holotropic breathwork alone?

You should never practice holotropic breathwork by yourself. That’s because an hours-long holotropic breathing session can become quite intense for you. It is always safer, and recommended, to have a sitter watching you. I highly recommend getting into holotropic breathwork with a trained instructor at first. After you’re more comfortable with it, you don’t always have to do it in a large group setting. But having someone there to observe you is always the safe option.

Can you do holotropic breathwork at home?

Yes! You can perform holotropic breathwork wherever you feel comfortable. As I’ve said before, just make sure you know what you’re getting into. And always have someone there to watch you.

Why have I read about people making noises during holotropic breathwork sessions?

The emotional and mental discoveries people make during holotropic breathwork can be quite passionate for them. In some cases, breathers are able to dig up past trauma or other buried emotions. That’s why people can often vocalize during their breathing sessions. It’s completely natural and normal, and it means they’ve accessed something profound. If this is how you feel during your own session, feel free to express it however you want! The other participants in a group session are not there to judge you. My experience has been that everyone in those groups is there to support one another in their emotional journeys.

Do you perform holotropic breathwork through your nose or mouth?

There’s no defined rule you have to follow about breathing through your nose or mouth during holotropic breathwork. However, because of how rapidly and deeply you breathe during this kind of breathwork, most people find it much easier to breathe through their mouths. You’ll probably feel more relaxed that way, too.

Can you perform holotropic breathwork every day?

No schedule of holotropic breathwork will be right for everyone. It’s up to you to decide how often you’re comfortable performing this kind of breathing. For some people, it feels right to do it every day. Others say that the intensity of the sessions means they only want to do them a few times a week. That’s okay! It won’t help to compare your schedule to someone else’s. Do what is right for you.

Can you take an ice bath every day?

Yes! You can take an ice bath every day if that’s what works best for you. As long as you’re healthy and willing and able to do so, make your schedule your own. I find that the benefits of cold immersion increase the more often I do it. You may discover the same is true for you. Be sure to experiment and try different things!

What are the best ice baths to use?

I have been using ice baths for years and have gathered lots of experiences finding the best ones. Here is a list of the best ice baths I have found in each category:

Best budget ice bath: Ice Barrel 

Best cold tub for outdoors: Polar Monkey 

Most durable cold tub: Cold Plunge

Most luxurious ice bath: Renu Therapy

Best cold tub for apartments: The Edge Tub

Cheapest cold tub: G Ganen Foldable Ice Bathtub

using the edge tub in my home
I have the Edge cold tub inside my home

What kind of breathwork should I do in an ice bath?

Holotropic breathwork is meant to be its own activity, separate from ice baths. However, you can definitely perform breathwork while you’re in an ice bath. In fact, I highly recommend it! That’s how I stay focused on my goals and am able to forget about how cold I am. I’ve written extensively about how I use the Wim Hof method for breathing in my ice baths.

For more information on breathwork, ice baths, and wellness, check out these posts:

Breathwork Techniques to Make You Happier & Healthier

Wim Hof Ice Bath Technique: Tips + Method

Benefits of Doing Cold Immersion

Ice Bath Benefits: Research + Tips for Ice Bathing at Home

Top Benefits of Cold Showers (Why They are Good for You)

Ice Bath Recovery: Everything You Need to Know

Cold Water Swimming: Benefits, Tips & More

Best Retreat Centers

– Why Sound Healing is Good For You

– Scientific Benefits of Grounding Barefoot

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