• Pin

Breathwork is the foundation of any process of healing or personal growth.

“Next time you feel anxious, pause what you’re doing, sit back, and take a few deep breaths,” the doctor suggested. 

This was the first time I’d looked for medical help for my anxiety. I was experiencing multiple panic attacks, and knew it was time to tackle what I was facing. But breathing exercises? Really? Compared to the fire-like fear burning me from the inside out on a daily basis, being told to take a few deep breaths seemed… insulting.

I smiled politely and left, and it took some time to start researching the benefits of conscious breathing practices. It started with an incredibly basic video tutorial on “how to breathe properly.” That was around 13 years ago. 

Since then, breathwork practices have risen in popularity, from the resurgence of ancient practices such as Kundalini and yoga, to the paradigm-shifting brilliance of Wim Hof, the Ice Man.

As Hof himself said, “because it’s so simple, it’s not understood. The confusion comes from thinking only complexity has value.” The world is increasingly complex. The way we feel is increasingly complex. Surely something as simple as breathwork can’t be that impactful for our parasympathetic nervous system, can it? 

Well, you might be surprised!

Here, we’ll provide an overview of the transformative power of breathwork. We’ll share a few pointers and techniques to allow you to integrate conscious energy breathing into your self-care or personal development inventory. So, take a deep breath, try to live in the present moment, and read on.

What is breathwork?

Breathwork has been used as a tool of healing and transformation for thousands of years. 

Ancient traditions from Hinduism, Buddhism, Qigong, Taoism, Sufism, and Christianity have turned to conscious connected circular breathing as part of a spiritual practice, as have shamanic and indigenous cultures. 

Throughout history, the breath has always been intertwined with the human spirit, and so it’s not surprising that breathwork therapy exists, and that it’s possible to find a great deal of inner peace through the practice.

Pranayama

The practice of Pranayama is a core teaching of Eastern traditions, popularized by the modern-day Yoga movement. In Sanskrit, prana means breath or life force, a link between body and soul. 

A similar link is made in the Western world. The word psyche comes from the Greek psykhē, meaning “the soul, mind, spirit; life, one’s life, the invisible animating principle or entity which occupies and directs the physical body,” or “to blow, or to breathe.”

In the West, the breathwork movement was popularized with two distinct practices that originated in the 1960s — Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing. The first was created by psychotherapist Stanislav Grof and his wife, Christine Grof. The latter was created by Leonard Orr, based on his experience with gurus in the Himalayas, before being joined by Sondra Ray. 

Part of the modern resurgence of breathwork has been due to the growing number of scientific studies that demonstrate its benefits. Wim Hof, who himself discovered breathwork and cold therapy at a young age, has been a pioneer in bridging the scientific and the spiritual.

The benefits of a breathwork practice 

Like it was when my 18-year-old self sat in the doctor’s office, it can be hard to believe the impact various breathing practices can have on chronic stress. Studies have shown it to be effective in healing trauma, in helping to overcome anxiety, and boosting mood. 

Research has shown that different breathing rhythms link to different emotions — think of the shallow, quick breaths when fearful, in comparison to slow, steady breathing whilst relaxed. 

Consciously taking control of the breath stimulates the body’s vagus nerve, which regulates the body’s relaxation response. Unlike other processes in the body, the breath is a hybrid between unconscious and conscious. Chances are, you haven’t paid too much attention to your breathing whilst reading this article. Yet at a moment’s notice, you can take a few seconds of focused breathing, and notice the impact on the body.

Due to the profound impact on the vagus nerve, there are many, many health benefits of breathwork, including reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, reduced anxiety, relieved insomnia, and improved pain management.

Different deep breathing techniques

Taking a few moments to pause and breathe deeply has immediate benefits. This can be done as part of a morning routine, or throughout the day.

As a practice, though, there are a number of breathwork techniques that can be applied for different results. But before introducing the techniques, a brief understanding of the mechanics of breathing. 

Four main types of breathing

There are four main types of breathing: eupnea, diaphragmatic, costal, and hyperpnea.

Eupnea is a quiet and relaxed state of breathing that doesn’t require conscious thought. Diaphragmatic (known as belly breathing or deep breathing) includes the conscious use of the diaphragm, filling the lungs more efficiently. 

Coastal breathing, or shallow breathing, only uses the intercostal muscles. Hyperpnea is the body’s response to needing more oxygen, usually during exercise, which differs from hyperventilation, where the body becomes over-oxygenized.

Breathwork techniques manipulate breathing in different ways, in order to stimulate different responses. Below are some of the most common breathing techniques to try.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Buddhist guru Thich Nhat Hanh encourages people to “breathe in deeply to bring your mind home to your body.” It’s wise advice. 

Deep breathing is a great starting point. It helps you to understand how the body adjusts to different types of breath and makes you alert to the difference between shallow breathing. To breathe deeply, start by exhaling (we tend to hold our breath unconsciously), then take a long deep breath through the nostrils. 

To get a better understanding of how to activate your diaphragm, place your hand on your stomach, and feel the gentle rise and fall.

Box breathing

Originating from the Navy SEALS, box breathing, or square breathing, consists of four blocks of four. 

Begin by emptying your lungs and exhaling, before holding your breath for four seconds. Then inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, and exhale for four seconds. When repeated, this technique is great for improving focus and reducing stress.

Alternate nostril breathing 

A technique popular in yoga, alternate nostril breathing involves closing one nostril, and alternating inhalations and exhalations. Essentially, you close one nostril, inhale, then close the other nostril, and exhale. 

In Sanskrit, this is known as nadi shodhana pranayama. Nadi is the body’s subtle energy channel, and shodhana means “purify” — so this technique purifies the body’s subtle energy. Consequently, it’s a great primer for meditation or yoga.

Coherent breathing

Also known as the 5-5 breath, coherent breathing is a simple anecdote to the shallow, unconscious breathing patterns that develop through stress and disconnection from the body. 

It’s a way to induce relaxation and calm, and one of the easiest techniques to apply in any circumstance. Start by bringing awareness to your natural breath. Then adjust your breath, and begin by breathing in for five seconds, and exhaling for five seconds, for a minute. 

You can work with increasing inhalations and exhalations to 10 seconds, extending the overall practice to 10 or 20 minutes.

The Wim Hof Method

(Getty)

The Ice Man is arguably the modern-day guru of breathwork. His breathing techniques are one of the pillars of his method of teaching (alongside cold exposure and mindset work) that has allowed him to defy physical limitations, submerging into ice-cold waters, and running desert marathons, without water. 

Please note this method isn’t recommended whilst driving or standing up. The technique is as follows:

Wim Hof Step 1

Get comfortable. It’s recommended not to try the exercise whilst standing up.

Wim Hof Step 2

Take 30 or 40 breaths. These should be deep breaths, into the diaphragm, until a tingling sensation is experienced in the head or body. Although it can feel like hyperventilation, this isn’t the case (although it’s advised to stop if you feel dizzy). Allow breathing to follow a circular motion.

Wim Hof Step 3

After the cycle of breathing is complete, breathe out and hold your breath for as long as feels comfortable, without force. 

Wim Hof Step 4

Once you can no longer hold your breath, breathe in and hold the breath for 10-15 seconds.

The above breathing techniques are able to be applied in the comfort of your own home, though always be careful if feeling lightheaded. The two techniques mentioned above, Rebirthing and Holotropic Breathwork, are recommended either by attending workshops or working directly with a professional trained in the relevant technique.

When should you use breathwork?

It can be overwhelming to start to explore the health benefits of breathwork and uncover lots of information about various practices, with lists including lots of different techniques. 

You might need a moment to catch your breath just to know where to begin! Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong. Finding your style comes down to trial and error, as well as considering your motivation for exploring breathwork.

Some people turn to breathwork at times of high-stress or anxiety (think about an introvert about to enter into a stressful social situation. It might be a tool to keep at hand for times when you need to regulate and calm down. Others develop a breathwork practice and integrate a breathing technique fully into their self-development inventory. 

For example, I once attended a Holotropic Breathwork session, and the majority of people were regulars. This is common, due to its benefits, and the community that forms around regular meetings.

Choose based on your needs

How you choose to integrate breathwork is down to you. Consider what your needs are. Are you looking for relaxation tools? Are you looking for healing or a deeper connection to your body? Are you looking to go full-on Wim Hof mode, activate deep breathing, and walk half-naked into a lake in mid-January?

Breathwork is part of the mainstream approach to self-healing and grounding, there are plenty of options to join workshops, or find tutorials or courses online. It depends how seriously you wish to take the practice. Maybe a few minutes per day suits you. Or maybe you’ve dabbled with breathwork, enjoy its health benefits, and want to explore the practice more deeply.

Personally, I’ve incorporated breathwork as part of my meditation and general emotional regulation. As I started meditation and mindfulness, I became clear on the way my breathing was affecting my emotions and body. My anxiety was always accompanied by shallow breathing or even holding my breath. For a while, I used the practice of breathing deeply whenever I found myself breathing in a certain way.

As an extension, these techniques are also effective for public speaking or even having a difficult conversion. Whenever you feel angry, sad, or emotional in a way that makes you reactive, never underestimate the power of taking a few deep breaths to refind your center. The more you get used to deep breathing, the easier it’ll be.

What you should know before starting breathwork

Some years ago I attended a conference, which I won’t name, where one of the attendees held a breathwork session. Around 20 or 30 people attended, with only two teachers. 

It was my first experience with breathwork, and I was “sitting” for my partner, who has what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience. Breathwork surfaces deep emotions, including trauma. That often requires supervision. Unsurprisingly, after the workshop, many people complained.

While some techniques are great for regulation and relaxation, deeper techniques aren’t to be done alone. There’s a reason Holotropic Breathwork has so much support and structure, with a number of trained specialists nearby to guide. You can apply the basic techniques as you wish, but if a certain technique is one that alters consciousness (the holotropic state, for example, has been likened to a psychedelic experience), consider the support of a professional.

Caution aside, I believe breathwork to be a foundation of any process of healing or personal growth. As a tether between conscious and unconscious, fight-or-flight and relaxation, gaining control of the breath is the first giant leap in gaining control over the body and mind.

(Catherine Delahaye / Getty)

In a world of growing complexity, sometimes the solutions are more simple than they seem.