What is Breathwork & Why Has Everyone Gone Crazy for It?
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On their very first day of school, 5 year old monks learn how to breathe. Not ABC, not counting. Breath. And here we are over in the West, barely aware of a single one of the 25,000 breaths we take every day of our lives. So why do monks value breathing so much? Because our breath is inextricably linked with our entire being, every moment of every day. Our breath is in relationship with our emotions, our mood, our immune system, our nervous system. It can influence whether or not our body perceives safety or danger, if we can rest or if we have to stress in order to survive. It influences whether our mind is chaotic and anxious or calm and still. And our breath is our single most direct connection with being alive.
Think of all of that underutilised power we can access, simply by learning how to use our breath.
Eastern traditions, where breathwork originated thousands of years ago, are not missing a trick when it comes to breathing. That's why they teach their little monks how to work with their breath so young; because they know that such a simple awareness will serve them throughout their whole lives.
And then we have us Westerners. Save from when we're giving birth or are about to go on stage to deliver a speech to an attentive audience, we rarely think about how we can use our breath to positively influence our state.
We've lost touch with the power of our breath. We're so stressed, tired, overworked, reactive and distracted that we've forgotten that so much of that can be solved by breathing consciously.
Fortunately, even if you've forgotten to use your breath, it's still there!
And you can unleash its power using breathwork...
But what is Breathwork?
Breathwork is a modern term for the ancient practices of breathing consciously using a number of specific techniques based on yogic breathing, or 'pranayama'. These techniques can bypass the thinking mind to relieve stress, calm the mind, improve overall health, boost energy, process emotions and give us access to heightened states of consciousness.
Breathwork moves us from the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for thinking and analysing, and activates the limbic part of our brain, where our subconscious patterns, memories and behaviours are stored.
This means we can release old emotions, change unhelpful, habitual thinking patterns, and process trauma, often without having to mentally revisit the memory of the event. There are four components of the breath that are used consciously in breathwork sessions: the inhale, the exhale, the breath hold on the inhale, and the breath hold on the exhale.
Breathwork is an embodiment practice, which means it connects you with the feelings and sensations in your body and the emotions you’ve stored there to bring healing and breakthroughs that your mind cannot access.
Sounds like a pretty good deal for something we have to do to stay alive, right?
You bet it is!
Your breath is a superpower.
Your breath is the language of your body.
Think about it...
When you’re scared, you hold your breath.
When you’re tired, you yawn to draw in more breath.
When you’re stressed, you breathe faster.
When you’re relaxed, you breathe deeply.
Your breath is the great unifier.
You can use breathwork to unite your mind with your body, your inner world with the outer world, and to dissolve the barrier between your conscious and subconscious. This means you can use it to rewire the kinds of subconscious patterns, habits, thoughts and beliefs that keep you stuck in ‘bad’ habits, limitation and divide.
Your breath can tell you so much about how you feel and who you are.
Indeed, the words ‘spirit’, ‘inspiration’, 'aspiration', have their root in the word ‘respire’, meaning to breathe, or ’spir’ — air, essence, or breath.
Being inspired is to breathe life into something, having a spirit is to be breathing, breathing is to have spirit. Your breath, then, is not only a way to read your emotions, it is your direct connection to your soul, to what makes you YOU.
Why Is Breathwork so Popular?
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” ― Amit Ray
I mean, the above is surely enough of a reason to be sold on the idea that our breath is worth obsessing over?!
But to really understand why people have seemingly gone crazy for breathwork, you’ll have to experience it for yourself; it’s an embodied, felt experience that’s difficult to articulate with language, even more so because the purpose for doing breathwork and the results of practicing are so different for everyone.
Lots of people who have very active minds, anxiety, ADHD, or who find it difficult to sit still for long periods and therefore struggle with meditation, choose breathwork as a meditation substitute or gateway as it is more active and has a more tangible focus for the mind. Arguably, it also enables you to access heightened states of awareness more quickly.
Even as a regular, commited meditator and meditation teacher, I practice breathwork before almost every one of my personal meditation practices because it clears my energy and helps me to transition from the speed of normal life into sitting in stillness for meditation.
And this what I teach my clients: our breath is a bridge we can use to cross from the outer world of chaos into our own inner world, where we can access calm and quiet. To further explore what makes breathwork incredible, we can look to ‘Pranayama’, the original practice of conscious breathing.
Pranayama is the sanskrit word denoting breathwork and refers to a number of different breathing practices that achieve different physiological, emotional, mental, and spiritual results. Because sanskrit is such an ancient and nuanced language and its subtleties often evade translation, there is much debate over the most accurate modern translation of the word ‘pranayama’.
The most common translation, is ‘breath lengthening’ or ‘the lengthening of the breath’, with ‘prana’ meaning ‘life force’, which in this context means the breath, and ‘yama’ meaning to elongate. Take the ‘ayama’, though, and we get ‘liberation’ — ‘breath liberation’.
I think that sounds pretty wonderful, do you?
Liberation through our breath
*jazz hands emoji
In a time when our breath—our most direct connection with life itself—is inciting fear and division, shall we switch up the perspective of our breath from being a threat to being a conduit to freedom, instead?
But the simplest reason why breathwork is loved so much is because it’s so profoundly simple and ridiculously accessible.
Because it’s quite mind blowing to discover that there’s so much we’ve been unconscious of about something we’ve been doing for every minute of our whole lives. Unlocking that knowledge and ability is empowering and in many cases, life changing.
I’ll leave you to decide if that’s something to let yourself get a little crazy over.
But I diverge…
How Breathwork Works
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”― Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathwork works through control and manipulation of the breath in order to affect both the nervous system and the brain.
Our respiratory system is one of the only systems in our body that can be controlled both voluntarily, through the central nervous system, and involuntarily, through the autonomic nervous system. That breathing works with the two systems is the reason why conscious breathing, or breathwork, positively effects other bodily systmes including the cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive and immune systems.
What Science Says About Breathwork: The Evidence Based Benefits
Breathing affects every organ, system, and function in the body. Every physiological, psychological, and emotional state has a corresponding breathing pattern.When you change one, the other changes. — Doctors P. Brown and Patricia Gerbarg
Traditional breathwork techniques, such as pranayama, have been used for thousands of years. In fact, along with meditation, pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga. Breathwork is therefore a yogic practice and one of the steps towards achieving enlightenment, which is pretty exciting, if enlightenment is something you're going for.
That dates the practice of breathwork to at least six thousand years. And science is now affirming what the yogis who originally practiced such techniques have known all along about the power of our breath.
So, let's have a look at the science of breathwork, because the evidence-based benefits of breathwork are also kind of worth getting obsessed over...
Studies into the efficacy of breathwork are dependent upon the breathing technique used, but science is in general agreement that regular breathwork can aid sleep, increase energy, reduce anxiety and depression, improve sports performance, balance the nervous system, reduce stress, and even improve the efficacy of cancer treatment.
Therapeutic management for Covid long haulers
Breathwork, along with yoga, is being shown to reduce symptoms and help recovery in long haul covid patients.
One of the best hacks when you can’t sleep is to breathe! Nasal breathing especially, produces nitric oxide which helps improve sleep quality and promote relaxation to induce sleep more easily. Slow breathing also calms the mind which can make falling asleep a lot easier.
About 50% of adults are ‘chest breathers’, meaning we breathe shallowly and therefore don’t have optimal oxygen uptake into our cells. This can make us sleepy and fatigued. If we change our breathing pattern to one which promotes blood flow and therefore oxygen uptake, we boost our energy. Because it releases nitric oxide, which improves oxygen uptake, nasal breathing is a great energy-booster.
According to Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, it's long known that our breath changes in response to emotion. ""We now know from a number of really good studies that actively changing the breath rate can actually change mood state”, he says.
Depression is often considered to be a response to unexpressed emotions, or 'suppression of inner experience'. Much evidence for depression relief through breathwork is ancedotal, but studies suggest that as breathwork can help us to access the emotional centre of the brain, it can facilitate the processing of the emotional stress we've held onto without our analytical mind getting in the way.
Relaxes the Mind
Your mental and emotional states reflect the rate, rhythm and depth of your breath, meaning when you consciously slow down and deepen your breath you send signals to your body that causes the mind to follow suit and slow down too.
Calmer Nervous System
The breath is directly linked to the nervous system, which means controlling the breath allows the conscious activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which in times of fear and stress can bring us back into a calm state with almost immediate effect.
Anxiety is often the result of the nervous system being overstimulated over a period of time, which can subsequently increase mental activity. The right type of breathwork, such as nasal breathing, slow breathing and alternate nostril breathing, helps to calm the mind and body by activating the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system.
Your brain uses a whole lots of oxygen when it’s running effectively. Introducing more oxygen into the body, and therefore the brain, via the breath therefore improves clarity and focus.
Studies show that breathing techniques that produce increased nitric oxide can positively impact immunity and protect the body from bacteria, viruses.
A whopping 70% of our toxin load is excreted from our body through our breath. Full body breathing massages your internal organs and stretches the intercostal muscles that are under-utilised when we breathe shallowly, thus releasing toxins and energies we’re storing in our bodies. Diaphragmatic breathing also facilitates movement of lymph through the bloodstream.
Here, Doctor Alicja Heyda discusses how to use breathwork to support illness:
Some benefits of breathwork are built over time, whereas many can be felt immediately. Your body chemistry reacts to your breath so subtly that it can be measured breath by breath—it happens that quickly.
These are some of the benefits of breathwork that science currently agrees with, but there are dozens more that either have not yet been studied or that evade measurement, such as the spiritual connection and the attainment of a greater sense of self. For some super surprising and frankly, mind-blowing benefits of breathwork, check out my post here.
The Risks of Breathwork
Generally speaking, breathwork is an incredibly safe practice in which the participant maintains full personal control of their experience throughout. Usually, all that's required if you're experiencing any kind of physical sensation, memory, or emotion you're not comfortable with, is to return to your normal breathing. It can be a risk to not follow the full guidance of your instructor, particularly when it comes to breath holds and hyperventilation.
As breathwork can be physically intense and can catalyse emotional release, there are some potential risks involved, particularly if you're practicing without a trained instructor. You might not have to avoid breathwork altogether, but you should seek medical advise before partaking in breathwork if you have any of the following conditions:
Whilst breathwork has been shown in some instances to improve overall wellbeing as well as specific conditions and the efficacy of some medical treatments as a complimentary therapy, it is never recommended as a replacement for modern medical treatment.
Isn't Breathwork Just Breathing?
Breathwork isn't just breathing and is quite different from the regualar breathing you do 25,000 times each day. Firstly, note the ‘work’ — breathwork is work! When we practice breathwork we are working with and adapting our physiology, processing our emotions, retraining both our thinking mind and our subconscious, and establishing our spiritual connection.
Breathwork is also conscious and practiced with specific intention, ie. to relieve stress, whereas outside of a breathwork session, the autonomic nature of breathing means the average human pays very little attention to their breath.
In an ideal world, this wouldn't matter, but remember what we said above, about how our breathing changes depending on how we're feeling?
As we are generally very stressed, very tired, very cross, very fearful, very distracted modern humans, the way we breathe is far from optimal. In response to these states of stress, our breath is shallow, usually fast, often stuttery, we hold it a lot, we breathe through our mouths, we breath into our chests, and we're lazy breathers: we slouch and we underutilise our diaphragm, ribs and intercoastal muscles.
Our body interprets these breathing patterns as us being in a survival state, so it directs energy from non-essential bodily functions like reproduction, digestion and sound sleep, and activates the sympathetic nervous system. This means cranking up our stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweat production, and anxiety so we can fight or flee from the thing that's causing all of the fear.
This was all very helpful when we lived in caves and had to occassionaly run from predators, but these days, we can't run away from the stressors causing the issues: your boss, your kids, the supermarket, so many of us hang out in this state most of the time.
But here's the magic: it works in the other direction too!
Slowing, deepending, and smoothing out your breathing through conscious breathwork activates the parasympathetic response, our rest and digest mode. This means that rather than going about our day with our body communicating to our brain that it's stressed and needs stress hormones to help it cope, we can use our breath to tell our brain the opposite.
By regulating our breath, we're telling our brain that we're safe.
That the fear was just a temporary reaction to our scary boss, or an unknown caller suddenly flashing up on our phone (fellow introverts, I know you feel me ;) ) — and not a permanent state of survival mode that neccessitates the perpetual activation of our fight-or-flight response.
Instead, we can chill out in our parasympathetic state, in relaxation, calm, and mental clarity.
And this doesn't just happen in the moment, a regular breathwork practice can retrain your subconscious breathing habits that signal stress to your brain so that in moments of fear, stress and anxiety you can maintain a calm bodily response, instead.
This is what differentiates a conscious breathwork practice from your regular, 'normal' breathing habits.
The Best Types of Breathwork Techniques
“Remember to breathe. It is after all, the secret of life.”― Gregory Maguire
Below you will find an easy-view reference of the most popular modern breathwork and traditional pranayama techniques so you can find a style that most meets your current needs and desires for your exploration into breathwork.
I teach pranayama breathing, which incorporates a whole range of different techniques to cover spiritual connection, energy boosting, trauma release, emotional release, immune support, relaxation, focus and concentration and connection with your physical, emotional, energetic and mental bodies.
How to Learn: Breathwork for Beginners
Breakthrough: 6 Week Breathwork Immersion
If you've made it this far down this blog post, I'm guessing you're ready to harness the power of your own breath and maybe go a little crazy for breathwork yourself?
There are so many ways to start to explore the world of breathwork, including:
Simply closing your eyes and take just a few moments to just notice your own breath.
Discovering beginner's breathwork classes on YouTube you can do at home for free.
Work with a coach or teacher to be fully supported and safe while you learn how to breathe optimally, and how to use breathwork techniques to get you to your wellness and/or spiritual goals.
If you'd like to explore the true power of breathwork with full guidance and support alongside relearning how to breathe efficiently for full wellbeing and personal empowerment, I have spaces open for my 6 week one-to-one breathwork programme, Breakthrough.
5 Tips for Beginners to Breathwork
I will leave you with 5 little tips to remember when you start your breathwork practice.
1. Think Subtle, Be Humble
The transcendental, tingly hand, hyperventilation states you can get to in a breathwork practice can feel incredible, alive, and excited. But it's the ability to connect with your subtlest breath that really holds the most power. The ego likes to get involved with breathwork, part of the practice is finding humility when the ego steps in with the 'go hard or go home' attitude.
2. Listen to Your Body
Which brings us to tip number two. Listen to your body over your mind, your ego, and even over your instructor. If your body is saying 'No! Back off! This doesn't feel good!' , listen to it. Breathwork cannot be an embodiment practice if you're ignoring your body while you do it.
3. Start Small
Hopefully, once you discover how amazing and cool. andmagical breathwork is, it will become a practice for life — so there's no rush! Take your time to acclimatise with short, nasal breathing pranayama sessions and build from there.
4. Remember that it's WORK
My girlfriend likes to remnd me of this one whenever I go all Virgo on my practice (see tip number 1 :D). Breathwork is work, and depending on which breathwork technique you choose, it's not something you generally can or want to be doing every day. You'll need adequate time to reregulate your body and integrate the results. of that work.
5. Have fun!
It's so easy to get all serious about spiritual practices, health and wellbeing, and ritual, but don't forget to enjoy it all! There's nothing like conscious breathing to remind you how thin the line is between being here and not being here, so use your breathing time to lighten up, find gratitude for life, and enjoy the incredible time it's possible to have inside your body!
Now, Go Breathe!
I hope that in the 300 or so breaths you've taken whist reading all the way to the end of this article, you've discovered a new excitement and curiosity for your breath?!
Perhaps more of those inhalations and exhalation were conscious than usual?
All that's left to do now is to find your breath, explore it, and get crazy about it yourself! Try as many different types of breathwork as you can to find the one for you, and get super conscious of how you're breathing as you go about your daily life.