In Holotropic Breathwork, the consciousness-expanding effect of breath is combined with evocative music. Like breathing, music and other forms of sound technology have been used for millennia as powerful tools in ritual and spiritual practice. Monotonous drumming, rattling, chanting, instrumental music, and other forms of sound-producing techniques have always been the principle tools of shamans in many different parts of the world. Many pre-industrial cultures have quite independently developed drumming rhythms that in laboratory experiments have remarkable effects on the electric activity of the brain (Goldman 1952, Jilek 1974, 1982; Neher 1961, 1962).
The archives of cultural anthropologists contain countless examples of trance-inducing methods of extraordinary power combining instrumental music, chanting, and dancing. In many cultures, sound technology has been used specifically for healing purposes in the context of intricate ceremonies. The Navajo healing rituals conducted by trained singers have astounding complexity that has been compared to that of the scores of Wagnerian operas. The trance dance and extended drumming of the !Kung Bushmen of the African Kalahari Desert have enormous healing power, as has been documented in many anthropological studies and movies (Lee and De-Vore 1976; Katz 1976).
The healing potential of the syncretistic religious rituals of the Caribbean islands and South America, such as the Cuban Santeria or Brazilian umbanda is recognized by many professionals in these countries, who have traditional Western medical training. Remarkable instances of emotional and psychosomatic healing occur in the meetings of Christian groups using music, singing, and dance, such as the Snake Handlers (Holy Ghost People), and the revivalists or members of the Pentecostal Church.
Some spiritual traditions have developed sound technologies that do not just induce a general trance state but have a specific effect on consciousness and the human psyche and body. Thus the Indian teachings postulate a specific connection between certain acoustic frequencies and the individual chakras or subtle energy centers of the human body. With systematic use of this knowledge it is possible to influence the state of consciousness in a predictable and desirable way. The ancient Indian tradition called nada yoga or the way to union through sound is known to maintain, improve, and restore emotional, psychosomatic, and physical health and wellbeing.
Examples of extraordinary vocal performances used for ritual, spiritual, and healing purposes are the multivocal chanting of the Tibetan Gyotso monks and of the Mongolian and Tuva shamans, the Hindu bhajans and kirtans, the Santo Daime chants (icaros) used in the ayahuasca ceremonies, the throat music of the Inuit Eskimo people, and the sacred chants (dhikrs) of various Sufi orders. These are just a few examples of the extensive use of instrumental music and chanting for healing, ritual, and spiritual purposes.
We used music systematically in the program of psychedelic therapy at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore, MD, and have learned much about its extraordinary potential for psychotherapy. Carefully selected music seems to be of particular value in holotropic states of consciousness, where it has several important functions. It mobilizes emotions associated with repressed memories, brings them to the surface, and facilitates their expression. It helps to open the door into the unconscious, intensifies and deepens the therapeutic process, and provides a meaningful context for the experience. The continuous flow of music creates a carrier wave that helps the subject move through difficult experiences and impasses, overcome psychological defenses, surrender, and let go. In Holotropic Breathwork sessions, which are usually conducted in groups, music has an additional function: it masks the noises made by the participants and weaves them into a dynamic esthetic gestalt.
In order to use music as a catalyst for deep self-exploration and experiential work it is necessary to learn a new way of listening to music and relating to it that is alien to our culture. In the West, we employ music frequently as an acoustic background that has little emotional relevance. Typical examples would be use of popular music in cocktail parties or piped music (muzak) in shopping areas and workspaces. A different approach used by sophisticated audiences is the disciplined and attentive listening to music in theaters and concert halls. The dynamic and elemental way of using music characteristic of rock concerts comes closer to the use of music in Holotropic Breathwork. However, the attention of participants in such events is usually extroverted and the experience lacks an element that is essential in holotropic therapy or self-exploration – sustained focused introspection.
In holotropic therapy, it is essential to surrender completely to the flow of music, to let it resonate in one’s entire body, and to respond to it in a spontaneous and elemental fashion. This includes manifestations that would be unthinkable in a concert hall, where even crying or coughing is seen as a disturbance and causes annoyance and embarrassment. In holotropic work, one should give full expression to whatever the music is bringing out, whether it is loud screaming or laughing, baby talk, animal noises, shamanic chanting, or talking in tongues. It is also important not to control any physical impulses, such as bizarre grimacing, sensual movements of the pelvis, violent shaking, or intense contortions of the entire body. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule; destructive behavior directed toward oneself, others, and the physical environment is not permissible.
We also encourage participants to suspend any intellectual activity, such as trying to guess the composer of the music or the culture from which the music comes. Other ways of avoiding the emotional impact of the music involve engaging one’s professional expertise – judging the performance of the orchestra, guessing which instruments are playing, and criticizing the technical quality of the recording or of the music equipment in the room. When we can avoid these pitfalls, music can become a very powerful tool for inducing and supporting holotropic states of consciousness. For this purpose, the music has to be of superior technical quality and played at a sufficient volume to drive the experience. The combination of music with faster breathing has a remarkable mind-manifesting and consciousness-expanding power.
As far as the specific choice of music is concerned, I will outline here only the general principles and give a few suggestions based on our experience. After a certain time, each therapist or therapeutic team develops a list of their favorite pieces for various stages of the sessions. The basic rule is to respond sensitively to the phase, intensity, and content of the participants’ experience, rather than trying to program it. This is in congruence with the general philosophy of holotropic therapy, particularly the deep respect for the wisdom of the self-healing inelligence, for the collective unconscious, and for the autonomy and spontaneity of the healing process. In general, it is important to use music that is intense, evocative, and conducive to a positive experience. We try to avoid selections that are jarring, dissonant, and anxiety – provoking. Preference should be given to music of high artistic quality that is not well known and has little concrete content.
One should avoid playing songs and other vocal pieces in languages known to the participants, which would through their verbal content convey a specific message or suggest a specific theme. When vocal compositions are used, they should be in foreign languages so that the human voice is perceived just as another musical instrument. For the same reason, it is preferable to avoid pieces, which evoke specific intellectual associations and tend to program the content of the session, such as Richard Wagner’s or Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s wedding marches and overtures to Bizet’s Carmen or Verdi’s Aida.
The session typically begins with activating music that is dynamic, flowing, and emotionally uplifting and reassuring. As the session continues, the music gradually increases in intensity and moves to powerful rhythmic pieces, preferably drawn from ritual and spiritual traditions of various native cultures. Although many of these performances can be esthetically pleasing, the main purpose of the human groups that developed them is not entertainment, but induction of holotropic experiences. An example here could be the dance of the whirling dervishes accompanied by beautiful music and chants. It is not designed to be admired as a superb ballet performance, but to take people to the experience of God.
About an hour and a half into the session of Holotropic Breathwork, when the experience typically culminates, we introduce what we call “breakthrough music.” The selections used at this time range from sacred music – masses, oratoria, requiems, and other strong orchestral pieces – to excerpts from dramatic movie soundtracks. In the second half of the session, the intensity of the music gradually decreases and we bring in loving and emotionally moving pieces (‘heart music’). Finally, in the termination period of the session, the music has a soothing, flowing, timeless, and meditative quality.
Most practitioners of Holotropic Breathwork collect musical recordings and tend to create their own favorite sequences for the five consecutive phases of the session: (1) opening music, (2) trance-inducing music, (3) breakthrough music, (4) heart music, and (5) meditative music. Some of them use music programs prerecorded for the entire session; this allows the facilitators to be more available for the group, but makes it impossible to flexibly adjust the selection of the music to the energy of the group. On special occasions, we might have the luxury of using live music. This is the common practice in rituals of native cultures; it makes it possible for the musicians and the participants to interact with each other and creatively feed of each other’s energy.