What is breathwork and does it work?
Breathing is something we take for granted. We don’t often stop to think about the way we take a breath and what impact this action really has on our body.
But what if someone told you that breathing in certain ways can greatly improve different areas of your life?
Welcome to breathwork.
Breathwork is a technique that you use to control your breathing so that you can improve your mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.
The simple act of breathing – which we tend to overlook (even though it’s the basis of living) – can be used to our advantage in ways that will surprise many.
As we face tension and stress in our daily lives and routines, many people are in search of natural ways to “heal” themselves and improve their health without the use of medication.
So what exactly is breathwork and how effective is it? In this article, we’ll look into the benefits of this “new” healing modality and also the different types of breathwork.
What is breathwork?
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ll be familiar with how breathing is used to help with certain positions, and different breath lengths are used to release stale air from our bodies.
Whilst there are similarities, breathwork is different from yoga because the main focus is to work on your breathing techniques without the physical movements, and breathing can be customized to fit each person’s needs (depending on the type of breathwork).
Put simply, breathwork is about controlling your breathing for a length of time, with the aim of improving your mental, emotional and physical health.
There are different techniques which can be used, and with the help of a breathwork teacher you can pinpoint certain parts of the body which hold tension.
Breathwork can then be directed at relaxing those areas of the body (or mind). Depending on the type of breathwork you do, you can end the session feeling relaxed, de-stressed and calm, or re-energized and alert.
Why do people use breathwork?
People use breathwork to help with a range of different problems. You might turn to breathwork to simply de-stress, or to release built up tension from parts of your body.
Breathwork can also be used to improve things like focus and energy, so people who have hit a creative slump at work or who need a boost in their general energy levels might find that breathwork can help.
It can also be effective in helping process emotions, especially if the person has experienced trauma or grief.
We don’t often realize how breathing can change with our emotions. Yet according to the shaman and breathwork instructor Rudá Iandê:
“There’s a respiratory pattern for each emotion you feel, and we can take two conclusions from this. First, the way you breathe affects your emotions, and second, your emotions affect the way you breathe.”
These are the main reasons people use breathwork:
- To help heal emotional pain and trauma
- Increase self-awareness
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Improve general life skills
- Increase positive feelings and emotions
- Improve creativity
- Help with overcoming addictions
- Increase self-esteem and confidence
What are the benefits of breathwork?
How does breathwork help with the points listed above?
A study from Trinity College Dublin looked into the effects of breathwork on a chemical messenger in our brain called noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is released when we face different situations, like being emotionally aroused, curious or focused. They describe how breathing can affect the brain:
“If produced at the right levels, (noradrenaline) helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.”
What we can take from this research is that breathing can really affect the way the brain handles different things, whether it’s mental health or physical pain in the body.
If we can harness breathwork to improve our health, issues such as personal development, relationships and work can all benefit as a direct result of feeling “better.”
Here are some of the most common benefits of practicing breathwork:
Controlling our breathing can significantly reduce the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Stress is not only dangerous for our mental health, it can also lead to chronic inflammation, and cortisol has often been associated with depression and anxiety.
A study conducted in 2017, published by Frontiers in Psychology, found that participants who took part in an 8 week breathwork trial had lower levels of cortisol when compared to a group who didn’t practice breathwork.
Reduce PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)
PTSD can happen to anyone who has suffered from a traumatic experience. This can be something like a war, a natural disaster or even being personally assaulted or raped.
The usual ways of treating PTSD is to use a combination of psychotherapy and medication, but studies have found that breathwork can be very effective at reducing the symptoms of PTSD.
One such study used breathing-controlled exercises on US veterans who took part in the Afghan and Iraq wars. Their results showed that the veterans who took part showed reduced levels of PTSD and anxiety in comparison to a control group of veterans who didn’t participate in breathing exercises.
We all go through periods of feeling distracted and unable to focus on tasks. Rather than turning to substances like caffeine, you might be able to increase your focus just by using breathwork.
A study conducted in 2018, published in Consciousness and Cognition, found that participants who took part in the breathing-focussed exercise ( instead of movement-focussed yoga) showed higher levels of sustained attention.
It might not work for every type of pain, but there’s evidence out there to suggest that breathwork can prove useful in some cases, such as chronic pain in areas like your back.
One study found that patients with chronic lower back pain had significantly decreased pain levels after using breathwork as it’s believed that certain breathing techniques can alter the brain’s pain perception (rather than actually remove the pain entirely).
Slow and deep breathing methods can be used to help patients when it comes to chronic pain, especially if they wish to remove some of their discomfort without having to use medicine.
The fact that breathing can also help with inflammation and our cortisol levels may also make a difference to people suffering with pain.
Depression is something which can often be difficult to manage or control. Many fall into the unfortunate trap of taking medication, which can help with the symptoms but ultimately doesn’t ‘cure’ depression.
A Penn Medicine study on patients who suffered with severe depression and who didn’t respond to medication found that breathwork greatly improved their mental health.
A type of yoga called “Sudarshan Kriya yoga” which uses controlled breathing was used on the participants of the study.
This could be a great way forward for some sufferers of depression, because the breathwork can easily be learnt and repeated at home, without needing to see a professional every time.
Different types of breathwork
As with most holistic healing modalities, there are a few different types of breathwork. You might not find one that suits you straight away, so it’s a good idea to try a few different methods until you find a process that really works for you.
Here are some of the different types of breathwork:
- Clarity breathwork
- Transformational breathwork
- Shamanic breathwork
- Holotropic breathwork
Some of the different types of breathwork techniques include:
- 4-7-8 breathing
- Pursed lip breathing
- Alternate nostril breathing
- Box breathing
- Diaphragmatic breathing
We’ve broken down the different types of breathwork to make it easier to find a type which suits you and your needs:
This type of breathwork is used to improve mental and creative focus, as well as supporting healing and increasing energy levels. Clarity breathwork works by removing negative emotions, patterns and thoughts.
By using circular or continuous breathwork methods, a practitioner can help guide you through all the baggage you’ve been carrying around and work to release you from negative energy.
Vivation breathwork is used to help you transform your emotions. For example, feelings of negativity can be changed into more positive emotions, and the breathing techniques help you be more present within your body.
Through vivation breathwork, you will learn how to become more present and in touch with your emotions, and you should feel refreshed and re-energized overall.
This breathwork uses a technique of circular breathing without pausing in between inhaling and exhaling. This can be learnt from a practitioner and can then be continued at home.
Transformational breathwork can be used to help with overcoming addictions, pains like headaches and conditions such as asthma. It uses a process of finding blockages in your body, and working through them using your breathing.
This type of breathwork involves breathing without pausing, and your breathwork teacher might use sound techniques and body adjustment to help boost the flow of your breath to certain areas of your body.
Shamanic breathwork is also commonly known as Pranayama in yogic terms. This technique is used to decrease anxiety and stress levels, whilst also working on your posture and removing negative energy from the body.
This type of breathwork includes using breathing techniques along with meditation. The shaman Rudá Iandê, creator of the Ybytu shamanic breathwork method, describes how shamanic breathwork can open the mind and change our views on many levels:
“You become able to see things from multiple perspectives, finding a whole set of new possibilities for your life. You start perceiving life and all its elements as movement, and what before was fight, effort and struggle will become a dance.”
Holotropic breathwork has been used in many countries in spiritual practices, as it’s believed the breathing techniques can help take you to a higher level of your consciousness.
This type of breathwork involves rapid, even breathing, and is often done in a group. The teacher might choose to use music to help. The goal is to help you heal traumas and work through past experiences, as you try to reach a more ‘whole’ sense of self.
Rebirthing is a method of breathing in circular motions, inhaling and exhaling to push out negative energy from the body. Rebirthing is believed to help people on all levels – physical, spiritual, psychological and emotional.
This type of breathwork focusses just on breathing through the nose. After a successful rebirthing session, you should leave feeling joyful and calm. It’s an exercise which should help you understand yourself and your life, leading to feeling content and peaceful.
The risks of breathwork
Whilst the risks of breathwork are quite low, it’s always a good idea to check with your GP or medical consultant before attempting breathwork therapy.
In some cases, breathwork should be avoided, especially if you suffer from:
- Respiratory issues
- High blood pressure
- Psychiatric symptoms
- Cardiovascular issues
- A history of aneurysms
It’s also not advised to try breathwork if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have recently undergone surgery or have physical injuries.
There is also the risk of breathwork leading to hyperventilation, which can cause dizziness, reduce blood flow and increase the chance of heart palpitations.
Breathwork can help with many issues, but it should still be approached with some caution as it has the capability to affect your body in different ways, especially if you’re already suffering from an illness.
The use of a teacher, guide or medical professional will help reduce any risks associated with breathwork therapy.
Breathwork, when used properly and with the right techniques, can be beneficial to many areas of your life. From mental health to physical well being, these simple breathing exercises can be done from home once you’ve learnt them.
Although there are some risks involved, the overall benefits of breathwork may help people who want to try alternative methods to taking prescription medicine.
By using a reputable practitioner or teacher, you can take part in breathwork effectively and safely. It’s important to always let your teacher know of any physical or mental issues you suffer with before starting therapy.
When it comes to our bodies, the possibilities are endless. But one thing is for sure, breathing is not only something which shouldn’t be taken for granted, it’s an action which can be trained and used to really improve the quality of our lives.