What is breathwork?
Breathwork is a broad term for the different types of breathing techniques available to reduce stress, calm your mind, energize your body, bring clarity and inspiration, and allow you to go deeper into yourself, says Maureen Malone, owner of the New York and Philadelphia Rebirthing Center. The term can refer to yogic breathing, meditation breathing techniques, or various forms of pranayama techniques (mostly used in yoga),” she explains. While the practice is dated back to 2,500 years ago, it’s been trending in recent years, with everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Karlie Kloss, Gisele Bündchen, and even Oprah hopping on.
“In the current day vernacular, the word breathwork seems more specifically to refer to conscious connected breathing wherein the inhale and the exhale are actively connected without pause for a continuous period of time, usually from 45 minutes to 1 hour or longer,” adds Malone. She explains that during typical sessions, you are laying down in a restful position to do this type of conscious breathing. The practice can be experienced in private sessions, group breathwork or weekend immersion seminars/trainings.” It’s been touted as a means of treating anxiety, combatting stress, and even boosting immunity.
“Put simply, breathwork is when you intentionally becoming aware of your breath and use it for to improve your physical and mental health and performance and emotional wellbeing,” adds breathwork expert Richie Bostock, aka “The Breath Guy.”
How to get started with breathwork
If you’re interested in giving breathwork a whirl, a simple place to begin, per Bostock, is to start getting comfortable in breathing more slowly. “While many people habitually breathe at a faster than natural rate, consciously slowing down your breathing for a few minutes has been scientifically shown to shift your body into your parasympathetic (also known as ‘rest and digest’) response, promoting functions such as digestion, helping you sleep better and to feel more calm,” he explains. Bostock shares the following technique, called “coherence breathing,” which you can try on your own. “Research on this technique has shown how breathing at a rate of 5 breaths per minute can help you to balance your nervous system in just a matter of minutes,” he explains.
- Inhale through your nose for six seconds.
- Exhale through your nose for six seconds.
- Repeat this cycle for at least 3 minutes, but there really is no limit as to how long you can go.
- If six seconds feels like a struggle, reduce it to five or four seconds and get comfortable breathing at that rate first. You can then gradually build it up to six seconds.
Types of breathwork
There are many different breathwork modalities that one can try. Here are a few of the most common:
This, per Malone, is one of the oldest and most recognized forms of breathwork. “One of the definitions of the word ‘rebirth’ means rejuvenation and in simple words with every conscious breath you take you are renewed,” she explains. Participants are guided through an hour long connected breathing experience in which the inhale is connected with the exhale closing the gaps in between each breath. “The founder or rebirthing breathwork additionally gave it the name ‘rebirthing’ because in his first experiences with conscious connected breathing he experienced memories of his birth. Since we all take our first breath at birth the idea of renewing yourself or giving birth to new aspects of yourself through your breath is a good metaphor and actual experience when you do group or private sessions,” Malone says. Benefits include: increased feeling of well-being, clarity of mind and often increased creativity and inspirational ideas, release of old patterns and blockages to full expression and aliveness.
This type of breathwork was developed by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, MD, PHD and his wife Christina Grof after LSD became illegal in the late 1960’s. “Dr. Grof had been experimenting with LSD and altered states of consciousness and he developed holotropic breathwork as an alternative way to access deeper states of consciousness,” says Malone. She notes that holotropic breathwork is often done in a group setting where participants are instructed to breath in a fast past connected breath, often for a period of 2 to 3 hours and are usually accompanied by provocative loud music and a “sitter’ is witness to each “breather” in the group. The overall session is guided by a facilitator and at the end, participants are asked to draw a mandala representing their experience and then discuss what happened in their session. “Holotroptic breathwork has similar benefits to rebirthing breathwork such as: stress relief, personal growth, relaxation and increased self-awareness, and is a bit more intense in the fast paced tempo of the breath,” Malone adds.
“This was co-founded by Dana Dharma Delong and Ashanna Solaris and is facilitated by two long standing breathworkers who bring the energy of the feminine to their sessions and trainings,” says Malone. And in addition to the use of conscious connected breathing, the founders’ trainings and weekend workshops often include dance and movement, heart-based music, chanting, and light body meditations. Malone explains that the experience is similar to rebirthing in that conscious connected breathing is done laying down comfortably on the floor and facilitated by Dana and Ashanna for about 1 hour. “The benefits are similar to rebirthing and transformational breathwork, all of which use a gentle (sometimes fast) circular connected breath. They add the element of the feminine in a nurturing safe space environment,” Malone reveals.
This breathing exercise blends deep, connected breathing with movement, conscious touch, body awareness techniques, meditation, and emotional release. The practice, which was created by Giten Tonkov, works to support trauma release via core tension release and somatic healing. Biodynamic breathwork (often referred to as BBTRS) is said to result in the release of long held trauma in both the brain and body.
Founded by Judith Kravitz in the mid-70s, this practice was designed to release trauma experienced during birth. According to Malone, a session consists of expressing sound out loud and sometimes stomping your feet and hands on the floor while breathing to release energy. “The benefits include all the aforementioned qualities of rebirthing breathwork with the intention of deepening our connection to our spiritual source,” Malone explains. Transformational breathwork is offered in groups, private sessions and breathwork training.
“This is the most recently popular form, originated by Wim Hof, also known as ‘The Ice Man,’” says Malone. This method uses conscious breathing in a very active and engaged way as preparation to immerse yourself in ice water for, according to Malone, ideally a period of three minutes. The intent is to increase immune system strength and energy, reduce stress and with the use of ice cold water, reduce inflammation in the body, balance hormone levels, and improve sleep quality. “It takes a strong mindset and commitment to do the practice but Wim Hof and his facilitators are skilled facilitators and cheerleaders,” adds Malone.
Conditions that breathwork can benefit
Malone notes that the benefits of breathwork can include everything from improved immune function to metabolic functioning, emotional regulation, stress management, and an improved quality of life and that it has been used to treat the following types of conditions:
Trauma and post-traumatic stress
Grief and loss
Emotional effects of physical illness
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
High blood pressure
Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
Breathwork: a modern trend
Bostock says that the number of people doing breathwork has exploded—because of its simplicity and effectiveness. “You don’t have to have had experience meditating or practicing mindfulness. It doesn’t require you to have to think or feel in a certain way; you just breathe and you will experience something new,” he says.
Bostock points out that the way you breathe affects just about every system and function in your body, such as your cardiovascular system, endocrine system, digestive system, nervous system, immune system and lymphatic system. And if your breathing changes, whether consciously or unconsciously, then all these systems will change accordingly. “It is the state of these systems that largely dictate our physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing. Therefore, understanding and using the breath purposefully is a major skill that can help you to reduce stress and anxiety, increase energy levels, rebalance hormones, improve sleep and digestion, heal emotional trauma, alleviate chronic pain and improve cardiovascular health – just to name a few!” he explains.
Why should you do breathwork?
“In today’s fast-paced world, reported levels of chronic stress and anxiety are higher than they have ever been in recorded history, taking a toll on our physical and mental health,” says Bostock, who notes that breathwork can be exactly the tool needed to provide some reprieve from busy and overstimulated life.
He provides the following analogy for how the practice can be beneficial. “Your breath is like your body’s very own in-built Swiss Army knife. Here, you have a tool that can help you in so many situations. You might be a sleep-deprived parent, a stressed business executive, an elite athlete or anyone in between. By simply learning how to use your breath as a tool the way nature intended you to, you can quickly affect the systems and functions in your body, improving your physical and mental health and performance and emotional wellbeing.”
Max Gomez, co-founder and CEO of Breathwrk, an app that walks people through guided breathing exercises, agrees that we could all benefit from working some deep breathing into our days. “90% of people are breathing at only 50% capacity! That means that most of us aren’t getting oxygen into our blood and cells for proper bodily functions,” he says.
Does breathwork work?
According to Malone, throughout the the last 20 years, as patients increasingly integrate complementary and alternative medicine into their treatment plans, more and more literature is being published exploring the impact breathwork has on treating symptoms of certain conditions. “Studies have found breathing practices can significantly increase well-being while decreasing anxiety and trauma,” she says, citing the following as examples of success stories:
- Healthy males who engaged in slow breathing exercises for 12 weeks had significantly perceived stress and improved cardiovascular functioning.
- A systematic review looking at the impact of breathing exercises on participants with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who participated in 16 randomized control trials found that patients with COPD who engaged in breathing exercises for over 4 to 15 weeks improved their ability to engage in and tolerate exercise.
- Research shows that emotions and breathing are tightly linked, each emotion has a specific pattern of breathing that goes with it,” she says.
- By changing your breathing, you can trigger the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system – the opposite of the ‘fight or flight’ response. Your body calms down. As a consequence, you relax and feel better.
For deeper work, it’s a good idea to seek out the oversight of a professional
Breath, says Aaron Alexander, CR, LMT, CPT, author of The Align Method, is a fairly safe way for a person to release stored stress from the body. But he has one caveat for those looking to enter the practice for situations like trauma relief. “It is wise to seek out a professional guide for not only coaching but emotional support as well,” he explains. Christina Resasco, a yoga therapy and sound healing practitioner at San Diego-based holistic health club, Saffron & Sage, agrees. “You need a professional to guide you and advise you depending on your alignment or intention. The breath is very powerful and should be prescribed based on the needs of the individual not based on a general recommendation,” she says.
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