When someone is tense or angry, we often say, "Take a deep breath." And when we've escaped a bad situation, we can "breathe easier." Breathing is an automatic process that keeps us alive, and most of the time, we take it for granted.
But research suggests that breathwork, a practice of mindful, disciplined breathing, could have far-reaching implications for the health of both mind and body.
What is Breathwork?
Many people know that deep breathing can be calming and relaxing, and deep breathing routines are part of various yoga and meditation practices. But today's breathwork movements take conscious control of the breath even further.
Breathwork is broadly defined as any breathing techniques or exercises that claim to improve mental and physical health in significant ways. Breathwork practitioners claim that the various breathing practices they teach can improve concentration, boost mood, relieve pain, and open doors to profound insights about the self and the world.
For all those reasons, advocates of breathwork claim that these disciplines have applications for spiritual practices and therapeutic ones – and recent research supports some of those claims.
Breathwork practices focus on controlling the breath to achieve specific goals, and that can take several forms. Some breathwork techniques emphasize the rate of breathing for different results. Slow, regular breaths can promote relaxation and reduce stress, while rapid breathing may increase alertness and focus.
Other practices focus on the breathing process itself, such as breathing through the nose, rather than the mouth, or alternating nostrils and mouth breathing in patterns such as inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, or vice versa.
The idea of manipulating the breath for better emotional and physical health has led to the creation of several breathwork movements that combine cutting-edge science, ancient spiritual practices, and holistic and alternative wellness. Recent, high profile examples include:
Shamanic breathwork is a part of today's modern shamanism movement, which incorporates a variety of breathing practices into rituals for journeying to other realms of consciousness. In shamanic practice, breathwork helps connect with spirit animals and other entities for enlightenment and spiritual growth.
Transformational Breathwork is a holistic breathwork practice endorsed by leading figures in the world of natural wellness including Deepak Chopra and Christiane Northrup. Proponents of this meditative breathing practice claim that it can improve circulation, balance the body's energy flow, and support better immune system functioning.
Holotropic Breathwork was conceived in the mid-1970s as a drug-free way to achieve altered consciousness. This movement centers on "quickening" or rapid breathing patterns that, according to its founders, have both spiritual and therapeutic benefits.
How Does Breathwork Effect Mind and Body?
Controlled breathing practices can have a considerable impact on the health of both the mind and the body, because we can not live without it. However, because breathwork artificially alters natural breathing patterns, it isn't safe for everyone, and many of its supposed benefits aren't backed by science.
Most research on the effects of breathwork focus on disciplines that involve deep, slow breathing of the kind that's often associated with yoga and meditation. Studies on this kind of breathwork reveal a range of measurable benefits for mental and physical health.
Deep breathing practices can lower blood pressure and reduce blood levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Deep breaths can also increase oxygenation in the blood and brain, with benefits for focus and concentration. Deep breathing also activates muscles and nerves that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation responses and healthy digestion.
Other research has focused on the effects of breathwork practices that emphasize nostril breathing, or ones that alternate nostril and mouth breathing. These studies reveal that breathing through the nose can activate receptors in the olfactory bulb that are not activated when breathing through the mouth.
Receptors in the olfactory bulb stimulate the olfactory nerve, which leads to the brain's limbic system, an ancient part of the brain associated with memory, mood, and emotion. That connection explains why smells can immediately trigger vivid memories and emotions, and it also explains why breathing through the nose could affect emotions such as anger and anxiety.
Some studies have also examined the effects of practices such as Holotropic Breathwork that center on rapid breathing, or hyperventilation. Quick, shallow breathing eliminates more carbon dioxide, which makes blood pH more alkaline. That stimulates the firing of neurons in the central nervous system and triggers epinephrine release, an excitatory hormone.
Breathwork can also lead to a constriction in blood vessels and reduce the flow of oxygen to the brain. Just one minute of hyperventilation can reduce oxygen delivery by as much as 40 percent. This reduction accounts for the feelings of dizziness and even euphoria that brief periods of hyperventilation can cause.
For these reasons, healthcare professionals warn that these breathwork practices may not be safe for people with cardiac arrhythmia, a history of heart problems, or those taking certain antipsychotic medications. Although deep breathing can reduce anxiety, rapid breathing practices can trigger it, most likely because that kind of breathwork stimulates the release of epinephrine. Generally, though, certain kinds of breathwork can be a useful part of treatment for mood disorders such as depression and PTSD, but they should be practiced under a qualified therapist's guidance.
Enhancing the Effects of Breathwork
A variety of enhancements can boost the effects of various breathwork practices, primarily when breathwork is used to boost mental and emotional health or as a spiritual practice.
Rituals can help to create an atmosphere that boosts the effectiveness of breathwork. Things like setting an intention, creating a sacred space, or performing ritual activities associated with a particular spiritual practice can support a breathwork practice.
Incense or candles can help enhance a breathwork practice by creating a relaxing and soothing atmosphere that promotes calm and relaxation. Scents such as lavender or lemongrass can trigger positive associations in the brain.
Music or nature sounds can also enhance breathwork. Calming music can support breathwork for meditation and relaxation. Other rhythmic sounds can help to sustain the rhythm of a breathwork discipline.
Although there's no research to support the claim, some users say cannabis can enhance various breathwork practices by helping to expand consciousness and intensify the effects of the practice. But marijuana can also trigger feelings of paranoia and anxiety, so it's wise to use caution when pairing cannabis and breathwork.
Breath is the key to life – and today's breathwork practices blend ancient traditions and modern science in the quest for a healthier mind and body.