6 Surprising Benefits of Breathwork You Didn't Know About
You thought the only benefit of breathing is that it keeps you alive?
It turns out, there are some seriously mind-blowing benefits of breathwork that you can tap into when you breathe properly and with intention.
'Just breathing' isn't actually enough if we're breathing the wrong way, which most of us are. When we're not breathing properly, we’re vastly under-utilising our potential as humans and compromising our health in the process.
What constitutes 'right' breathing is hotly debated among breathing professionals; breathworkers, physiologists, investigative researchers, physiotherapists all have varied ideas on how to breathe for maximum health and efficiency.
Many experts suggest, and I agree, that there is no one correct way of breathing, as different techniques have different benefits at different times.
But breathing ‘properly’ usually refers to using the intercostal muscles, your full rib cage and your diaphragm with each breath, and taking as few breaths per minute as is comfortable for you.
Adopting functional breathing patterns in your daily life along with practicing conscious breathwork, can lead you to some pretty cool benefits you might not have considered.
Breath, it seems, really is a superpower.
Don’t believe me?
Let's have a closer look, prepare to be 🤯
The Most Surprising Benefits of Breathwork
When you breathe properly, some pretty cool things can start to happen...
1. You Change Unhelpful Habits
Of the average (and whopping!) 34 gigabytes of information you receive through your ears and eyes and into your brain each day, the majority bypasses your conscious mind and goes straight to the subconscious. Meaning you’re unaware of most of what you’re taking in.
I know. But that's not the most surprising part:
In fact, 95% of your actions, thoughts, behaviours, sensations and emotions are subconscious. And get this—most of your subconscious mind was programmed before you reached the age of 7.
Which means that even as an adult, you’re predominantly living based on experiences and learnings in your childhood that you don’t even remember—and it’s from here that many of your habits and beliefs are formed, which is why it can be so hard to change them!
This is where breathwork comes in…
Certain breathwork techniques can release the learned responses that are embedded in your subconscious, such as indoctrinated beliefs and behaviours, micro-agressions, and those pesky habits you can never seem to break.
By using breathwork practices that activate the sympathetic nervous system, you can breathe your way into your subconscious mind and rewire the neural pathways that keep you acting on habits you want to release, that you can't change from your conscious mind.
Breathwork works to release this programming in two ways:
1. From the body
Our subconscious programming is largely stored in our bodies, which is why the body is often referred to as the mind-body—because the two are inextricably linked.
Breathwork is a practice which involves the whole body; when we’re breathing consciously, we use our full lungs, our diaphragm, our intercostal muscles, and we regulate every single system in our bodies.
This means we are able to release energies (which is all emotions and thoughts are: energy) from where they’ve been stored in these otherwise under-stimulated spaces.
2. From the brain and nervous system
By using your breath in a specific way, you can activate the sympathetic nervous system and stimulate the ancient limbic brain, the part of your brain that controls your emotions, behaviour and long term memory.
2. You Get High
We live in an ocean of air like fish in a body of water. By our breathing we are attuned to our atmosphere. If we inhibit our breathing we isolate ourselves from the medium in which we exist. In all Oriental and mystic philosophies, the breath holds the secret to the highest bliss.” ― Alexander Lowen, The Voice of the Body
‘Get high on your own supply!’ is the now pretty famous slogan from breathworker and Ice Man, Wim Hof. It's a concept that greatly intrigued me when I was first introduced to breathwork via the teachings of the Hof more than six years ago.
But what exactly is the Hof referring to in his nod to heightened states?
If you’ve taken part in any prolonged hyperventilation breathing practice, you’ll have experienced this natural high for yourself, and you’ll know that he’s not wrong—you really can get high—drug-free—just by manipulating your own breathing patterns.
This can be one of the most fun part aspects of breathwork; you can use your breath to experience a sense of bliss in your body, trance-like states of euphoria, and even to access altered states of consciousness.
The breathwork high is achieved in a number of ways:
The deep relaxation and meditative state often instigated at the end of a strong breathing session can induce such lucidity that the mind quietens down enough that you access other levels of consciousness.
Hyperventilation breathing techniques lower carbon dioxide levels in your blood which can lead to physical sensations of lightness, freedom and bliss.
There are even breathwork practices that reportedly release DMT from the lungs and/or pineal gland, thus leading the breather to experience altered states of consciousness.
The original, traditional uses of breathwork in yoga, shamanism, and mystical traditions was to connect with higher states of consciousness and spirit guides, to expand consciousness and to gain clarity and insight, so it’s no great surprise we modern Westerners are now catching on to its benefits beyond the physical.
3. Your Mind Shuts Up
Okay not completely—but it does quieten down!
So you know that busy mind you have?
Usually, it’s so overly busy because your body is in stress mode. When the body is stressed, it sends signals to the brain to release stress hormones, and the mind also responds by ramping up cognition to try to help you get out of the dangerous situation.
This is helpful in real-life unsafe situations, like when you’re about to be hit by a car or have to run from your neighbours dog. But because these days we’re constantly stressed about something, and usually these things aren’t life-threatening, we’re in a perpetual state of alert—and so are our minds,
When you breathe consciously to bring your body into calm, your body responds by telling your brain to release chill neuro-chemicals instead, and your mind then feels safe to slow down too.
You’ll also notice that you’ll be able to hold your breath for longer on breath retentions (a part of most breathwork techniques) when you quieten your mind. This is because thinking requires energy. So over time with a regular breathwork practice, you’re training your mind to calm down and focus.
4. You Get a Nice Massage
We think of breathing as being the domain of the lungs and chest.
But it’s not true that these are the only parts of your body involved in each and every breath.
At least, they shouldn’t be.
If you’re breathing well, your full rib cage, diaphragm, internal organs, intercostal muscles, abdomen, neck, and throat should also be contracting and expanding with each breath.
Pause a moment here to observe a few of your own breaths—which parts of your body move when you breathe?
Is it just a lungs and chest affair or are you full body breathing?
When you breathe properly, often called 'belly breathing' or 'diaphragmatic breathing', using all of these body parts, your internal organs receive a massage by the motion of your breath, your diaphragm, your lungs and your ribs.
This video gives a nice and simple explanation for how to breathe properly:
This full body motion also releases your fascia and stretches the diaphragm with every single breath—two places where we store tension and emotion that build up if they aren’t being moved and released regularly.
Before you read on to the next, and most mind-blowing benefit of breathwork, stop and take a few full breaths now. Give yourself a masage and enjoy the satisfying, comforting, freeing feeling of breathing with your full body.
5. You Change Your Face
I know, it sounds like a joke, but a facial reconstruction really is one of the cooler benefits of proper breathing!
Here are the mind-blowing ways face shape and breathing are linked:
In his book, Breath —which you can purchase here from bookshop.org (a compendium of independent book shops, who, I believe, are more deserving of our money than Amazon), James Nestor outlines how as ancient humans, while we still hunted and gathered our food we, astonishingly, had much wider mouths and teeth as straight as piano keys.
Contrary to what we might believe, wonky teeth are a modern phenomenon that started with the onset of farming and is caused by domestication and eating processed, cooked, soft, sugary food that hinders mastication.
Indeed, when we lived on tough meat and raw, fibrous food, the mechanical stress of chewing kept our teeth in alignment, our jaws wide, and our pallettes much flatter.
This adaptation of our facial structure made breathing through our noses harder, causing us to switch from being predominantly nose-breathers to becoming a species of mouth-breathers.
Which unfortunately only exacerbated the narrowing of our faces and misalignment of our teeth.
If you've spent your life breathing a lot through your mouth, your face knows about it. Relearning to breathe through your nose can literally change the structure of your mouth, teeth, nose, and jaw. And some chewing on real, solid food should do wonders, too!
6. You Get Anti-Fragile
It’s a scary, stressful, volatile, unsafe, fast and loud world we live in, right?
It’s enough to burn anyone out and have us adapting into scared, volatile, unstable, stressed, fast, loud humans in response.
But there’s another way!
Instead of breaking down or ramping up within a system that doesn’t make thriving and being vulnerable and relaxed very easy, we can become anti-fragile.
WTF does anti-fragile mean...?
In short, being anti-fragile means becoming stronger in the face of stress and adversity. It's more than just being resilient. It means having the ability to tune in instead of out in the face of stress and to grow and thrive rather than merely maintain and survive. In long, have a read of Nassim Nicolas Taleb's book, Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder.
One way to achieve this seemingly elusive but actually very realistic state of anti-fragility is by, you guessed it…
Using your breath!
Breathwork trains your nervous system under safe and controlled conditions to move between stress response and rest mode, making you better able to manage stress when it happens in real life situations and to be able to thrive in environments that otherwise burn you out.
Check out my free 30 minute breathwork session here to start becoming strong and resourced, regardless of how volatile the world is!