Breathing is something you unconsciously do more than 23,000 times a day, but breathwork is different. It’s a controlled, conscious act that can boost your immune system, alleviate anxiety and depression, manage insomnia, and even bring on psychedelic-like benefits.
Sound like your kind of breathing? Read on.
What Exactly is Breathwork?
With breathwork, you deliberately change the pattern of your inhales and exhales. By manipulating your breathing rate and depth, you’re able to raise your awareness and become more present. Not only that, breathing is the only function of the autonomic nervous system that can be consciously influenced, affecting your body’s respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, and muscular systems.
Breathwork can be beneficial for:
- Improving energy levels
- Stimulating circulation
- Balancing the flow of energy
- Improving digestion
- Reducing stress, worry, and anxiety
- Enhancing awareness of self-sabotage patterns
- Healing emotional pain
- Enriching creativity
- Improving personal relationships
- Releasing negative thoughts and thought patterns
- Alleviating depression
- Increasing self-esteem
- Expanding awareness
- Boosting the immune system
- Improving sleep quality
- Rewiring neural pathways
- Releasing trauma and fear
- Healing ancestral trauma
- Reducing chronic pain
A facilitator might have you slow the pace of your breaths, hold your breath for a period of time, alternate between your left and right nostrils, or practice overbreathing, a connected breathing pattern usually done for longer durations that can induce expanded states of awareness and somatic healing.
There are dozens of types of beneficial breathing practices. And while some of them are newer, many originated thousands of years ago.
The History of Breathwork
Ancient cultures viewed breathing not only as taking air into the lungs, but also as the spiritual force that creates life. They developed specific breathing techniques for religious, ceremonial, and healing purposes. And even though the words were different, there was, and still is, one universal theme between cultures: that breathwork has the ability to alter consciousness by moving energy through the body.
- Indian cultures refer to it as prana
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) calls it chi
- In Japan, the word they use is ki
- Greeks express it as pneuma
- Hawaiians use the word, ha
- In Hebrew tradition, it’s called Ruach
African bushmen used breathwork and dancing to achieve Kia, an intense emotional and physical state of ecstasy. In Tibetan Buddhism, tummo was a tantric ritual for creating inner heat. And pranayama, the practice of controlling breath, dates back to the year 900 BC.
Clearly, breathwork isn’t a new concept. However, it’s had a significant revolution in the past 50 years, with new forms, including Holotropic, Rebirthing, and the Wim Hof method, becoming more mainstream.
Why Start a Breathwork Practice?
As a society, we could all use a collective exhale right about now. And it’s not just due to the pandemic. These days, people are more sedentary, more stressed out, obsessively connected to their digital world, and carrying around decades (if not lifetimes) of trauma.
It’s estimated that 90% of illnesses and disease is caused by stress. High blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental health issues can all be linked back to stress. Controlled breathing regulates the stress response by flipping the nervous system back into parasympathetic mode. Feeling stressed out causes you to take shallow breaths — and even hold your breath altogether. Shallow breaths can also make you feel more stressed out. So, without even realizing it, you could be stuck in a vicious feedback loop of dysregulated patterns and chronic states of hyperarousal.
You’d be surprised how often you unintentionally hold your breath. Breath-holding and restricted breathing are primarily defense mechanisms when you don’t feel safe. You might hold your breath when:
- You’re afraid to speak up or share your point of view
- You have the habit of suppressing your emotions
- You don’t feel a sense of community or have supportive relationships
- You’re hyper-focused on the computer (also called email apnea or screen apnea)
- You have a deadline quickly approaching
- Your posture is compromised, or your spine is out of alignment
- You regularly wear tight or restrictive clothing
- You walk on hard surfaces like pavement
- You don’t engage in regular physical activity
- You experience targeted violence, shaming, or prejudice
- You are conditioned to restrict your breath due to family, cultural, or religious beliefs
- You have general life stressors such as finances, family, and employment
- You worry about threats like climate change, social unrest, and political instability
- You have chronic or unresolved anger
- You have early childhood trauma or secondary trauma
- You’ve been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder
Having a breathwork practice is helpful for most people, as it eases general anxiety and depression, makes you less susceptible to sickness, and increases self-awareness.
But in times of active trauma or duress, certain down-regulating breathing practices can actually help you return to a place of peace and safety, slowing your thoughts, and bringing your mind and body back into alignment.
Different Types of Breathwork
There are various types of breathwork, each with its own techniques and benefits. While some are designed for health optimization, increasing oxygen delivery, addressing mouth breathing-related ailments (mouth breathing causes the body to lose 42% more water), and supporting vitality and immunity, others help release trauma and energetic blocks, and up-regulate the sympathetic nervous system to discharge unexpressed fight-flight-freeze energy from the body.
- Diaphragmatic Breathing
Also called belly breathing or abdominal breathing, this deep breathing technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system. By stimulating the vagus nerve, this simple exercise triggers a relaxation response and improves heart rate variability (HRV), considered a sign of optimal health.
- Equal Length Breathing (Sama Vritti)
Roughly translated to “equal fluctuations,” this style of breathwork is a form of ratio breathing, using inhales and exhales of equal length. Box breathing is an excellent example of Sama Vritti.
- Victorious Breathing (Ujjayi)
This basic diaphragmatic breathing pattern adds a slight constriction in the throat to create a subtle hissing sound. The purpose of this technique is to activate the upward flow of udana, which allows you to exhale stagnant energy and feel at peace.
- Breath of Fire (Kundalini)
A breathing exercise used in Kundalini yoga, this technique involves passive inhalations followed by rapid, powerful exhalations that activate the abdominal muscles. Inhales and exhales should be of equal length with no pauses in between.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
By alternating inhales and exhales between the left and right nostrils, you can lower stress levels, improve respiratory endurance, and lower your heart rate. Hilary Clinton is said to have used this style of breathing to manage anxiety after losing the 2016 election. And researchers have found that it’s the only type of breathwork that improves cardiovascular function.
- Surya/Chandra Bhedana
With Surya Bhedana, you’ll inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left. This creates a warming, energizing sensation, great for mornings. In the evenings, Chandra Bhedana is typically preferred. In this practice, you’ll inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right, which cools and calms the body.
- Bumblebee Breath (Brahmari)
Named after a black bumble bee in India, this is one of several pranayama techniques that activates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to relax. It also uses humming to stimulate the vagus nerves, two cranial nerves in charge of heartbeat regulation, digestion, and breath rate.
- Interrupted Breathing (Viloma)
With Viloma breathing, your inhales and exhales are interrupted for short pauses. This not only allows you to take deeper breaths, it helps you change your cognitive patterns.
- Breath Holding (Kumbhaka)
Chronically holding your breath (subconsciously) can have negative consequences. However, practicing conscious holds at the top of your inhale can boost energy and mood, while holding at the bottom of your exhale aims to quiet and still the mind.
- Song, Kong, Dong, Tong (Qigong)
This practice cultivates the energy (qi) and strength of nature to promote improved mental, physical, and spiritual health. It can be done actively with movement or passively through visualization.
- Breath Counting
Once used as a mental training technique by monks, breath counting is a mind-strengthening exercise that cleanses away distracting thoughts. By consciously focusing on counting your breaths, you override your prefrontal cortex — that’s the part of the brain in charge of emotions, inhibitions, and limiting beliefs.
- Mantra (Gauranga)
This technique is similar to diaphragmatic breathing with an added element of chanting. As you exhale, you’ll say the Gauranga Mantra (gaur – ra – anga - ga), then quietly repeat it in your mind on your next inhale.
The Buteyko breathing technique (BBT) focuses on nasal breathing and uses breath retention exercises to control the speed and volume of breath. Ukrainian doctor, Konstantin Buteyko created this technique after realizing that many medical conditions, including asthma, were caused by chronic hyperventilation.
- Wim Hof
Dutch athlete, Wim Hof, began this controlled breathing technique as a way to manage stress and grief due to the loss of his wife. Using extended inhales and exhales, followed by a long breath-hold, this method increases your tolerance threshold and is often used by endurance athletes.
Developed by psychiatrist Stan Grof and his wife Christina in the 1970s, Holotropic breathwork involves taking rapid, even breaths to induce an altered, psychedelic-like state. As it helps people feeling stuck in their current patterns, this method is currently being studied as a way to help veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Created by Leonard Orr in the 1960s, Rebirthing uses a circular breathing technique that releases unconscious protection patterns and multiple layers of inhibitions. During a Rebirthing session, your facilitator can help you resolve negative experiences from infancy, as well as blocked emotions and energy that may prevent you from forming healthy trusting relationships as an adult.
The Newest Form of Breathwork: Overbreathing
While you might be familiar with many of the techniques mentioned above, there’s a new category of breathwork gaining momentum.
Overbreathing, which is primarily developed from Holotropic and Rebirthing modalities, includes contemporary techniques such as Transformational Breath, Biodynamic Breathwork, Clarity Breathwork, and the Wim Hof method. The purpose of these practices is to release stagnant emotional energy in the system, activate somatic healing, and reach expanded states of consciousness.
What is Overbreathing?
Overbreathing, also referred to as hyperoxygenation, controlled hyperventilation, or Conscious Connected Breathwork (CCB), is a technique adapted from Buddhist practices by Johns Hopkins researcher and psychedelic pioneer Stan Grof and the somatic psychotherapy work of Wilhem Reich. During the mid-20th century, Grof was conducting psychedelic research, using LSD to treat addiction, depression, and trauma. But his research was cut short when psychoactive substances were banned in 1971.
That’s when he discovered a way to induce the same psychedelic-like state using a simple breathing technique.
Through the use of continuous, deep, and quick breaths, you’re able to tap into a part of your psyche that’s not usually accessible.
It’s a process known as transient hypofrontality. Using the power of breath, you’re able to temporarily slow down prefrontal cortex activity. That’s the part of the brain that controls your inner dialogue. By inducing a transient (or temporary), hypo (or slowed) state, the prefrontal cortex calms down. During the breathwork session, it’s possible to see things from a new perspective, finding creative solutions and accessing insight that wasn’t previously available.
This method of breathing actually helps reprogram patterns in several parts of the brain, including the dialogue between the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex.
Stress and traumatic stress can impair these neural circuits, including an overactive fear response from the amygdala, the brain’s “alarm system.” This state of continuous activation can lead to hyperarousal (excessive energy that often presents as anxiety, panic, and lack of ability to think and process clearly) as well as hypoarousal, the state of “freeze” and “shut down” that can be experienced as dissociation, immobilization, or feelings of hopelessness and overwhelm. Done in a safe setting, breathwork can provide access to these systems, so that new patterns can be established.
These learnings are based on the Polyvagal Theory, which illustrates the three subsystems of the autonomic nervous system: the ventral vagal complex (VVC), the sympathetic system, and the lesser-known dorsal vagal system.
Overbreathing enables you to enter a deeper dimension of the mind, see things in a clearer, more insightful way, and move past the inhibitions keeping you stuck. In other words, it’s the benefits of LSD through breath.
Who is Overbreathing For?
These techniques can be beneficial for anyone seeking deeper self-awareness, holistic healing, enhanced creativity, and tapping into their authentic self.
Overbreathing can help people who:
- Feel disconnected from their emotions and bodies
- Spend a lot of time overthinking or “in their head”
- Are curious about expanding their consciousness
- Want to release emotional or physical symptoms and negative habits or patterns
- Feel burned out or experience chronic stress
- Are seeking a connection with their higher power or higher self
- Have a physical illness and wonder if there is a psychosomatic component
- Are struggling with grief
- Want to feel more grounded and present
- Seek inner wisdom and the ability to trust themselves more
- Require improved oxygen delivery
- Want to push the limits of their training
Evidence-Based Research on Overbreathing
The anecdotal benefits of overbreathing have been documented for decades. But it’s only recently that researchers have been taking notice in clinical environments. Take this 2020 study, for example, that found that one session of Wim Hof breathing improved the cycling performance of the 16 teenaged athletes in the study. Researchers discovered that this breathwork method improved the athletes’ VO2 max (that’s the maximum rate of oxygen the body can use during exercise) while reducing their perception of effort.
Another study investigated the efficacy of overbreathing to treat PTSD in firefighters. Researchers evaluated symptom severity, anxiety, depression, and heart rate variability. By using breathwork to release stored fight/flight/freeze energy in the nervous system, the threat alarm that causes dysregulation and dissociation is essentially turned off. After eight sessions, all PTSD and comorbid symptoms were in remission.
And in a landmark study at Johns Hopkins University (as referenced above), Stan Grof and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Matthew Johnson, are studying the healing effects of overbreathing on veterans suffering from PTSD. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, up to 31% of veterans are diagnosed with PTSD due to violent events in combat and sexual assault. While the study is still in its infancy stage, the outcome looks promising as an accessible form of treatment for those with PTSD, addiction, and other mental health conditions.
Precautions of Breathwork
There are varying degrees of intensity when it comes to breathing techniques. Holotropic breathwork, for example, can be more intense, while pranayama methods are more gentle. That’s one of the main reasons you should always work with a trained facilitator and take into account the appropriate format for your individual needs. You might find that you prefer working with someone one-on-one if you’ll be releasing deeper emotions. Or you might opt for the collective energy of practicing in a small group.
That being said, there are certain groups who should avoid overbreathing techniques, including those with:
- High blood pressure and cardiovascular disease
- A history of aneurysms
- Glaucoma or a detached retina
- Recent surgeries or injuries
- Prescription blood thinners
- Severe osteoporosis
- A history of psychosis, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder
- Intense or active PTSD or trauma*
If you have any questions whether or not breathwork is right for you, consult with your doctor. And remember, it’s essential to work with an appropriately trained breathwork facilitator.
Finding the Right Facilitator
Breathwork is a highly personal experience, so finding the right facilitator is an important step — especially if you’re new to breathwork or trying a new technique. Overbreathing, specifically, can be uncomfortable at first. But working with an experienced, trusted teacher to guide you through the process will make it easier, more enjoyable, and more productive.
Feeling a sense of safety is essential, even before your breathwork practice begins. So, think about what makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. Is the space private and free of extraneous noise? Is it clean, disinfected, and COVID-compliant? Do you feel at ease enough with your teacher that you can let go of inhibitions and trust them to help you access a higher state of consciousness?
If you’ve practiced at Sanctuary’s private studios in the past, you’ll be pleased to know on-demand breathwork sessions are coming in the next few months, all led by expert breathwork facilitator Tai Hubbert. We’ll be adding Tai’s classes to our collection of yoga, meditation, and sound healing experiences soon, so be sure to check the schedule.
Breathwork is a term used to describe various approaches to conscious breathing. And it can have significant physical, mental, and spiritual benefits such as improving sleep and digestion, regulating a dysregulated nervous system, and eliminating stress, trauma, and symptoms of PTSD.
With so many diseases linked back to stress (from high blood pressure and diabetes to mental health issues), it’s important to have a breathwork practice in place. Controlled breathing not only regulates the stress response, it can help you access a deeper part of your psyche, similar to the effects of psychedelics.
If you’re interested in starting a breathwork practice, review the techniques listed above and see which style of breathwork is most beneficial for you. We’re excited to see you in our Sanctuary studios and look forward to sharing our new on-demand breathwork classes with you.