When you’re feeling particularly stressed and anxious, meditating is a terrific way of easing the mind and gaining some clarity. Of course, it’s not always practical — you can’t escape a heated meeting to go meditate for 10 minutes or flee your car when you’re in a rush hour commute.
But what if there were something you could do anywhere, at anytime to calm down or tap into your inner sense of balance? It’s the ability to do just this that’s making breathwork so popular right now and giving meditation a run for its money.
What Is Breathwork?
Breathwork is a way of changing your breathing patterns in order to influence how you’re feeling and improve your mental and even physical health. Breathwork draws from eastern practices like Tai Chi and yoga — if you’ve done breathing exercises in a yoga class, you’re already familiar with a bit of breathwork.
Breathwork originally became popular during the 1960s and ‘70s, when people wanted to tap into their consciousness more. As with a lot of fads from those days, breathwork remained on the fringes of society, more underground than mainstream. Decades later, as with many things (think kale, smoothies and whole-grains), it turns out those hippies were right: breathwork can be an extremely powerful tool.
See, when we’re stressed or anxious, we tend to take shorter, more frequent breaths, mimicking our mental state in the way we breathe. When you inhale, you’re sending a signal to the brain. When you’re taking quick breaths, the brain thinks something is wrong, similar to the flight-or-fight response.
As a result, your brain activates the sympathetic nervous system, which gets your body ready for physical and mental activity by cranking up stress hormones like cortisol, blood rate, anxiety, blood pressure — all the things that you might need to help you, say, run away from a bear in the woods. (1) Wonderful for escaping wildlife, not so great for making it through a really tough day.
On the flip side, though, when you make a conscious effort to slow your breath, you’re sending a signal to your brain that all is well. Instead of the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic system kicks in, quietly scaling back on all those physical responses, while also ushering in a sense of relaxation and calmness. (2)
Breathwork helps you tap into that parasympathetic system, training your brain to chill despite clues telling it to just the opposite. It’s probably no surprise then, that in today’s ever-busy, always-connected world, breathwork is experiencing a resurgence. Not only can anyone do it — if you’re breathing, you can practice breathwork — but breathwork aficionados tout its near-instant ability to help you feel Zen as one of its major benefits.
Just like benefits-rich yoga and meditation, there are different types of breathwork that are meant to tap into different emotions and experiences to help you achieve certain results.
Types of Breathwork
Curious about breathwork? Here are the most common types.
Pranayama: Yogis will likely be familiar with the practice of pranayama, or breath control. The idea behind pranayama is that by controlling the breath, we can move past emotional blocks that hinder the flow of our prana, or our life energy. (3) If breathwork is of interest, it’s a good intro to seeing how your breath affects your mind and physical body.
Rebirthing: This type of breathwork stems from the work of Leonard Orr, a New Age pioneer who believes rebirthing has two aspects. In the first, rebirthing focuses on the idea that through conscious breathing, instead of breathing simply to move air in and out, you can transform it to instead move energy.
What is conscious connected breathing? This is just another name for rebirthing breathwork, or breathing to gain energy.
The second part of rebirthing is a bit more out there. The idea is that everyone suffers from trauma created during their birthing experience, something Leonard Orr “realized” after re-creating his own birth experience in a bathtub. Here, conscious connected breathing is used as a way to allow the mind to free itself from the emotional blockage and trauma created during birth.
Holotropic breathwork: If you’ve ever heard of breathwork producing mind-altering experiences, similar to being on hallucinogens, it’s likely you were hearing about holotropic breathwork. What is holotropic breathwork? It’s a way of moving toward wholeness via the breath; in Greek, “holos” means whole or wholeness, and “trepein” means “to turn towards.”
It was devised by Dr. Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina. The two were researchers trained in psychoanalytic therapy, who studied how psychedelics like LSD could help people overcome trauma and other difficult experiences.
When the government cracked down on the drugs, making research more difficult, the duo searched for a drug-free way that they could help patients reach an altered state of consciousness. Their answer was holotropic breathwork. Usually combined with music, holotropic breathwork involves inhaling and exhaling for the same amount of time at different speeds to induce an altered state of consciousness.
These types of sessions are usually led in a group setting, with a holotropic breathwork facilitator leading it and providing instruction and support throughout the meeting.
Transformational breathwork: What is transformational breath work? This is an umbrella term for any type of breathwork that uses breathwork techniques to usher in personal growth and healing. Rebirthing and holotropic breathwork are considered types of transformational breathwork. There is also “transformational breath” which is a trademarked name.
You can find my favorite breathing exercises here. As breathwork techniques, pursed lip breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, yoga breathing, 4-7-8 breaths and breath counting are all really effective ways of practicing breathwork anywhere you are.
If you’re interested in getting into more advanced types of breathwork, such as rebirthing or holotropic breathwork, it’s worth seeking out a practitioner, group sessions or workshops where you can get guidance.
3 Breathwork Benefits
OK, so some types of breathwork might sound a little too out there. Does this stuff actually work? Check out the top three benefits of breathwork.
1. Relieves stress and anxiety
As I mentioned earlier, when you engage in breathwork, you change the nervous system’s response to stress. That means less of stress hormones like cortisol being released. Too-high levels of cortisol can lead to issues like weight gain, sleep disorders, hormonal imbalances and more. More breathwork = less cortisol. Win!
2. Improves your mood
Following breathing patterns can provide a mood boost and, over time, even help with depression. One study found that three months of yoga and coherent breathing significantly reduced depressive symptoms in individuals who’d been diagnosed with major depressive disorders. (3)
And a review of breathwork studies found that it’s a viable additional treatment option for people suffering from depression and anxiety. (4) It’s likely that as more research is done on breathwork, it’ll be used as a way to help combat post-traumatic stress disorder as well.
3. Keeps your gut working smoothly
Not only does breathwork transform the way your body responds to stress, but it also affects reactions at the gut level. What does that mean for you? The extra energy you’ve brought by way of increased oxygen can help eliminate toxins from the body, allowing your metabolism to run more effectively. And if you’ve been suffering from stomach issues stemming from stress, breathwork therapy can help with that, too.
Generally speaking, breathwork is fairly safe for most people. However, there are sometimes when not to do breathwork.
If you have cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, serious psychiatric symptoms or a history of aneurysms, it’s best to consult with your doctor about breathwork. While basic breathing exercises and pranayama should be fine, the more intense types of breathwork, where you’re looking to achieve an altered consciousness, can be too intense.
Additionally, some types of breathwork can induce hyperventilation, which can bring on dizziness, chest pain, pounding heartbeat, muscle spasms and more. (5)
If you’re seeking out classes or workshops, do your homework before shelling over big bucks. Check qualifications, read reviews and trust your gut instincts. Breathwork can also bring up really troubling emotions and experiences for people, so find a practitioner you trust and never do anything you’re uncomfortable with.
- Breathwork involves changing your breathing pattern to change how you’re feeling.
- Breathwork was popular in the ’60s and ’70s, and is experiencing something of a comeback.
- There are many types of breathwork practices, some ranging from fairly basic and easy to do at home, like pranayama, to others that require a practitioner, like holoptropic breathwork.
- The benefits of breathwork range from reducing stress and anxiety to helping the gut run more smoothly.
- Before working with a breathwork practitioner, make sure you feel comfortable and have vetted the person. People with a history of cardiovascular issues, including high blood pressure, should check with their doctor first.