Breathwork is a term to describe any type of therapy that utilizes breathing exercises to improve spiritual, physical, and mental health. There are many forms of breathwork used today, and each one employs unique breathing techniques for healing purposes. Breathwork draws from Eastern practices like yoga and Tai Chi, while also incorporating methods from Western psychotherapy.
Typically, breathwork techniques are used to calm your mind, reduce stress, bring clarity and inspiration, and energize your body.1 The practice of breathwork gives your brain’s executive functioning system something to focus on, so you can bypass the mental levels of consciousness and drop into a deeper state of consciousness. This deeper state is where spirit, love, and healing reside. Unlike meditation, breathwork takes you to this place very quickly.2
The History of Breathwork
Breathwork has been practiced in ancient traditions for thousands of years. The word “breath” and “spirit” even share the same origin in many languages. Breathwork practices can be found in many breath-centered meditations in Buddhism and Pranayamas in Yogic practices. Additionally, breathwork was used in Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity, Qigong, Shamanism, Sufism, and martial arts.3 The majority of these religions and cultures used breathwork for the same reasons as we do today – to alter consciousness for healing, self-discovery, and spiritual purposes.
Modern breathwork was mostly forgotten by Westerners during civilization, but it reemerged in the 1960s thanks to four people: Stanislav and Christine Grof, Leonard Orr, and Sondra Ray. These four individuals created the two original branches of modern-day breathwork known as Holotropic and Rebirthing. Since their creation, many offshoots have been born.
In the 1970s, the popularity of breathwork waned, but in the past five years, it has begun to resurface with a bang. Today, there are more than 50 types of breathwork, all distinct from each other. Some types last 2 minutes, while others last 2 hours. However, they all have one thing in common, which is the focus on conscious breathing in a non-regular pattern to alter the mind-body emotional state.4
The Benefits of Breathwork For Your Health
Deep breathing has many health benefits. Even a few deep breaths a day can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels and increase parasympathetic tone; however, breathwork is very different.5 Breathwork practices can exert even more impressive effects on the body while working differently and oppositely.
Here’s the science behind the magic of breathwork:
- Alkalizes your blood pH by causing a shift in blood pH following hyperventilation, which is called respiratory alkalosis. We take in oxygen with every inhale, and we release carbon dioxide (CO2) with every exhale. But when we take faster breaths, we rid the body of more CO2. Considering that CO2 is an acidic molecule, hyperventilation reduces acid levels in the blood, resulting in a higher, more alkaline pH.
- Increases muscle tone due to blood alkalinity. Calcium ions that are floating in the blood bind onto large proteins known as albumin. This starts an increased firing in sensory and motor neurons due to the low-calcium state. The low blood calcium now presents itself in the neurological system as tingling sensations, smooth muscle contractions, and increased muscle tone.6
- Elevates your mood through hyperventilation and respiratory alkalosis causing a “high” feeling that many people report experiencing during breathwork. It triggers the Bohr Effect, which is when blood pH reduces oxygen delivery to tissues. One minute of hyperventilation causes the blood vessels in the brain to constrict, which reduces blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain by 40%. This could be responsible for the deep feeling of well-being.
- Breathwork has an anti-inflammatory effect due to neurons in the nervous system firing more often during hyperventilation, which releases epinephrine (“adrenaline”). In a 2014 study, Yale Music School found that the adrenaline surge causes the innate immune system to increase its anti-inflammatory activity and dampen its proinflammatory activity.7
Conditions That Can Benefit from Breathwork
The benefits of breathwork can include everything from improved immune function to metabolic functioning, stress management, emotional regulation, and improved quality of life. However, it has been used to aid the following conditions:
- Chronic pain
- Anger issues
- Labor pain
- High blood pressure
- Grief and loss
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
While breathwork is exceptional at treating many conditions, it is also nourishing for those who are already feeling healthy and well. Learning to master the breath can help enhance feelings of love, gratitude, clarity, peace, connection, and insights. As such, breathwork can be a great addition to anyone’s daily routine.
Types of Breathwork
There are many different breathwork modalities, many with similar foundations. Here are a few of the most well-known types of breathwork:
- Holotropic Breathwork: Stanislav Grof, MD, Ph.D. and his wife, Christina Grof, Ph.D. created this form of breathwork after LSD became illegal in the late 1960s. Dr. Grof had been experimenting with LSD and altered states of consciousness, which led him to the creation of Holotropic Breathwork.8 Benefits include stress relief, personal growth, and increased self-awareness.
- Rebirthing Breathwork: This form of breathwork was created by Leonard Orr. He gave it the name “rebirthing” because, in his first experience with conscious connected breathing, he experienced memories of his birth.9 Rebirthing breathwork has been known to cause increased creativity and inspirational ideas, along with a sense of clarity.
- Clarity Breathwork: Dana Dharma and Ashanna Solaris co-founded Clarity Breathwork. Dharma and Solaris are both long-standing breathworkers who bring the energy of the feminine to their training and sessions.10 Clarity Breathwork is similar to Rebirthing Breathwork in that the conscious connected breathing is done laying down for an hour, and additionally, the two have the same benefits.
- Biodynamic Breathwork: This practice was created by a Licensed Massage Therapist named Giten Tonkov. Biodynamic Breathwork blends deep, connected breathing with movement conscious touch, meditation, emotional release, and body awareness techniques.11 It’s said that Biodynamic Breathwork results in the release of long-held trauma in the brain and body.
- Transformational Breathwork: Judith Kravitz founded Transformational Breathwork in the mid-70s to release trauma experienced during birth. Most sessions include stomping your feet with your hands on the floor while breathing to release energy.12 The benefits of Transformational Breathwork are similar to Rebirthing, but with the added intention of deepening your connection to your spiritual source.
- The Wim Hof Method: This method was invented by the man of the same name, famously known as “The Ice Man.” His breathwork method actively uses conscious breathing as preparation to immerse yourself in ice water for around 3 minutes.13 This is said to increase immune system strength and energy, decrease stress, reduce inflammation of the body, and balance hormone levels.
DIY Beginner Breathwork Techniques
Breathwork is an active form of meditation that can allow you to disconnect from your mind and be guided by your heart and body. As you breathe out, you’ll be working to rid yourself of beliefs, thoughts, and actions that don’t support your personal growth. You’ll be striving towards wholeness and a better ability to handle stress, anxiety, and trauma. There are many breathwork techniques out there, and each one has a unique purpose and effect on the body.
After speaking with your practitioner to ensure that breathwork is right for you, you can try these three beginner techniques:
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or having trouble sleeping, give the 4-7-8 breathwork technique a shot. The 4-7-8 will slow the heart rate, bring your consciousness to the present moment, slow the nervous system, and bring forth a feeling of peace.
How to do it: Empty the lungs of air, inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, exhale out of your mouth for 8 seconds, and repeat 4 times. As you put this technique to action, try envisioning your chakras at the center of your body pulling any energy or thoughts that do not serve you well.
Give the 5-5 breathwork technique a go when you’re getting worked up. It can help give you a sense of calmness, and it can be practiced throughout the day. Our natural tendency is to breathe at a rate of 2 to 3 seconds per minute.14 However, the 5-5, or also known as Coherent Breathing, is a conscious breathing practice that aims to slow down your breathing to 4 seconds and then 5 seconds.
How to do it: Focus on the natural rhythm of your breathing to measure out how long your inhales and exhales are. For 1 minute, breathe in for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat for 5 seconds, then 6 seconds. If you feel the need, you can continue doing this for up to 10 seconds. Begin with practicing this technique for 5 minutes. However, you can gradually increase this time to around 20 minutes.
For an energy boost or to reduce stress, try the 4-4-4-4, which is also called Box Breathing or Square Breathing. This technique comes from the Navy Seal and is used to eliminate any stress plaguing their minds and bodies. The 4-4-4-4 slows the heart rate and deepens concentration. It’s best to practice the 4-4-4-4 method in the morning to wake up fully, during the day if you’re feeling rundown, or before a big event that requires your focus.
How to do it: Start by releasing all of the air from your lungs, hold your breath for 4 seconds, then breathe through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath again for 4 seconds, and exhale once again for 4 seconds. Repeat these steps for 5 minutes to reap their benefits.
Seek a Professional’s Recommendation
The risks of breathwork are quite low, but it’s important to always seek a professional’s advice before taking part in any kind of breathwork technique.
Breathwork may not be recommended for those with:
- Cardiovascular issues
- High blood pressure
- Respiratory issues
- Psychiatric symptoms
- A history of aneurysms
It’s also not advised to practice breathwork if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have physical injuries, or have recently undergone surgery. Additionally, with breathwork, there’s a risk that hyperventilation can lead to reduced blood flow, dizziness, and an increase in the chance of heart palpitations.
The use of a reputable medical professional, guide, or teacher can help reduce any risks associated with breathwork.
Tell us – have you tried breathwork before? If so, what techniques?