Breathwork involves intentionally controlling the way you breathe. Breathwork is a holistic, mind-body approach to mental health and well-being. It can be done simply and on your own, or it can be structured and part of a formal program. Its purpose is to directly influence your body’s inner workings to reduce stress, anxiety, and other challenges, increase calm, and encourage well-being.
What Is Breathwork?
Breathwork is a practice that has evolved over thousands of years. Pranayamic breathing, or intentional breath control, has been a part of yoga since its origins over 2000 years ago,1 and it has long existed outside of formal yoga practice. People still study and practice it today, and formal types of breathwork programs continue to be developed as people seek to harness its healing potential in specific ways.
A primary purpose of breathwork is to activate the body’s relaxation response. Breathwork triggers behavior in the brain and throughout the body to turn off the fight-or-flight response, which is our physical and emotional reaction to any type of stress or problem.2 Our breath is our channel into the inner workings of our body and is the only way we can directly influence our autonomic nervous system responsible for things like heart rate, blood pressure, and the fight-or-flight reaction.3
The underlying philosophy of breathwork is that intentionally changing the way you breathe can directly affect your autonomic nervous system: deactivating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) associated with the rest-and-digest, calm response.4 Controlled, conscious breathing, often in the form of slow, deep breaths, leads to greater awareness of our emotions and thoughts, improves our flow of energy, and can improve both physical and mental health.
Jesse Coomer is an author, professional breathworker, cold training expert, certified Wim Hof Method instructor, NSAM personal trainer and a Professor of English at Vincennes University, Indiana. He states, “Breathwork can be used to reduce anxiety in very real and measurable ways. This can be applied to social anxiety, test-taking anxiety, and any other instance in life where one experiences high levels of stress. Many people don’t realize how much anxiety they are carrying around with them daily until they practice breathwork for a while. Then it becomes clear.”28
How Breathing Affects the Brain & Body
The human brain constitutes a mere two percent of our total body weight yet consumes about 20 percent of the oxygen we take in when we breathe.5 It needs a consistent and plentiful oxygen supply to operate smoothly for our physical and mental health. The brain interprets a low oxygen supply—the result of shallow, rapid breathing—as a threat or danger, and it activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The fight-or-flight reaction causes a chain of events that leads to:3,6,7
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Shift of blood flow away from the core organs and into the extremities
- Increased production of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine
- Decreased production of relaxation, feel-good hormones like serotonin, oxytocin, and prolactin
- Decreased oxygen supply to the brain (thus perpetuating the fight-or-flight reaction in a vicious cycle)
When we breathe improperly—breathing too shallowly and rapidly, which is referred to as chest breathing—our oxygen and carbon dioxide levels become unbalanced, and our SNS remains activated. Consequently, we feel symptoms like prolonged tension, anxiety, anger, irritability, fear, or depression.3,4,5,8
Breathwork practices allow us to intentionally shift our nervous system’s operation from the SNS to the PNS, thereby interrupting our automatic stress response. Voluntary, controlled slow and deep breathing, which is one method of breathing enhanced by breathwork, resets the autonomic nervous system, boosts the brain’s oxygen supply; lowers carbon dioxide levels in the blood; slows brain wave activity; and facilitates coordinated, calm activity throughout the systems of the body.2,7
As the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (those between the ribs) expand and contract rhythmically and completely with each slow, deep breath, tissues are stretched and electrical signals are sent to the brain and throughout the body, inducing relaxation and a sense of overall well-being.7
What Conditions Can Breathwork Help With?
Breathwork can help with a variety of conditions, including:2,3,4,6,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- General mood management
- Performance (such as athletics or public speaking)
- Mental clarity, focus, concentration
- Chronic pain
Activities that we often think of as relaxation, such as doing things like lying on the couch watching television, don’t fully relax the brain and body; instead, true and complete relaxation comes through intentional activities such as breathwork.2 Consistently practicing breathwork affects our entire physiology and not only helps us feel calm temporarily but can keep us calm and composed even in stressful moments.3
What Are the Benefits of Practicing Breathwork?
Practicing breathwork brings physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual benefits to our lives, thus improving overall functioning.10 Because your breath directly impacts the way your nervous and other systems operate, learning to control how you breathe can help you experience greater well-being.
Coomer stresses that the benefits of breathwork are extensive: “Some of the most commonly researched and reported benefits are reduction in stress, better sleep, improved digestion, improved athletic performance, improved focus, improved sex life, and improved heart rate variability. Your breath is connected to nearly every other aspect of your health and wellness, so it has a plethora of benefits.”
Physical Benefits of Breathwork
When you practice slow, deep breathing, you improve the way your body functions. Intentional breathing allows your body to use oxygen more efficiently, boosts cardiovascular and respiratory health, improves hormone and neurotransmitter functioning, facilitates healthy gut functioning, increases motor control, and induces theta wave activity in the brain.7 Theta waves are slow-cycling brain waves associated with meditation, dreaming (both during sleep and daydreaming), and states of flow.17
Practicing breathwork is also linked to relief from chronic pain.3 According to the Mayo Clinic, when we experience pain, we don’t breathe deeply using our primary breathing muscles (the diaphragm and intercostal muscles) but instead use our secondary breathing muscles (located in the chest, shoulders, and neck).
When we use these secondary breathing muscles, our breath remains shallow, the SNS is activated, and our blood’s pH balance is thrown off, resulting in inflammation.9 Employing breathwork to intentionally use our primary breathing muscles reverses the process and helps us better manage chronic pain.
Mental Benefits of Breathwork
Breathwork has been found to have a positive impact on mental health. It can regulate mood, sharpen attention and concentration, and improve neuroplasticity, or the ability of brain cells to adapt and change in response to situations we encounter.7
Neuroplasticity improves our psychological flexibility, allowing us to pause and respond thoughtfully to problems and challenges rather than reacting emotionally or trying to control life circumstances.18
Also, breathwork enhances mindfulness and anchors people in the present moment, away from negative thoughts and feelings about the past or the future that contribute to anxiety and depression.8
Scientific studies help shed light on the mental health benefits of breathwork:4,10,14
- A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology involved 40 participants randomly assigned to a breathing intervention group or a control group that did not engage in breathing exercises. In 20 sessions held over 8 weeks, participants learned to deepen and slow their breathing to achieve a rate of four breaths per minute. Upon completion, the majority showed an increase in their ability to concentrate and a decrease in negative moods. Furthermore, blood tests revealed lower cortisol levels in the blood.
- In an article published in 2011 in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, Lalande and colleagues cited numerous studies demonstrating the effectiveness of breathwork for decreasing the symptoms of anxiety and depression and increasing people’s ability to handle stressful problems.
- Researchers in 1996 compared two groups of people currently receiving psychotherapy for anxiety. One group engaged only in talk therapy while the other engaged in talk therapy and received breathwork training. Those participants who received the extra breathwork training reported greater reduction in anxiety symptoms.
Spiritual Benefits of Breathwork
While breathwork can be a secular practice, it is believed to offer spiritual benefits as well. Some people engage in breathwork primarily for its spiritual component. Largely because of the theta waves it induces, deep breathing is associated with enhanced intuition and creativity, connection with the subconscious mind, and a heightened sense of spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves.17
People who regularly engage in breathwork often report feeling more aware of and attuned to their inner, true selves.8,16 They also describe feeling a sense of awakening and deeper connection to their breath as their life force that is part of the greater world around them.6
Types of Breathwork Approaches
Breathwork can be general or specific, practiced on your own or as part of a group program.19 Broadly speaking, breathwork refers to any type of breathing exercise that involves intentionally changing or controlling your breathing pattern, whereas specific breathwork programs involve learning particular exercises in a special setting or for a targeted purpose. The following examples are among the most common types of breathwork approaches.
Pranayama & General, Independent Breathing Techniques
Pranayama is part of the yogic tradition and simply means intention breath control. If you practice yoga on your own or as part of a class and you are prompted to breathe in a certain way, you are engaging in pranayama to enhance the flow of energy and release energy blocks.16
You can also use this breathwork outside of yoga and entirely on your own to reap numerous physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. It can be as simple as noticing when you’re stressed, anxious, or otherwise out-of-sorts and pausing to close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths.
You can do this wherever you are at the moment, or you can step away from your situation to allow yourself a deeper reset; many people enjoy stepping outdoors, as being in nature even just to take a few deep breaths offers mental health benefits. The more often you work with your breathing, the more you keep your nervous system balanced so that your SNS isn’t constantly in charge.
Try some of these exercises to begin your own regular breathwork practice:3,4,9
- Breath Awareness. Simply begin to pay attention to how you breathe to catch yourself breathing shallowly or too quickly. When you notice this chest breathing, deepen and slow your inhalations and exhalations.
- Diaphragmatic Breathing. Also called belly breathing, with this technique you relax your shoulders and inhale fully so that your abdomen expands outward. Feel your belly expand with each in breath, and feel tension leave your body with each out breath. You might count as you breathe, either inhaling and exhaling for the same count or exhale for a few more counts than you inhale. The breath count can be four breaths, or adjusted based on your comfort level and experience.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
To practice alternate nostril breathing Place one hand over your nose, with your thumb gently hovering over one nostril and a finger gently over the other. Hold one nostril shut and inhale slowly through the other. Pause when you’ve inhaled fully, pinch that side shut, and exhale through the other nostril. Pause briefly and inhale through that same nostril, switching once again before exhaling.
Two rapid-breathing techniques are often used in yoga: breath of fire and bellows breathing. These are controlled-breathing techniques done to improve digestive and respiratory health and reduce stress. While the opposite of slow, deep breathing, rapid breathing techniques can also positively affect the brain and body. Breath of fire focuses on the exhale as you breath out sharp, quick puffs of air. Bellows breath involves quick, forceful inhalations and exhalations.
Sudarshan Kriya Yoga Breathwork (SKY)
Like pranayama, this type of breathwork comes from yoga, specifically a yogic tradition known as sudarshan kriya. It involves manipulating the breath in a variety of different patterns to inhibit the SNS and activate instead the PNS, thus changing brain waves, improving heart rate and blood pressure, and replacing stress hormones with relaxing, feel-good hormones.20,21
SKY boasts over 70 studies supporting its effectiveness for mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).11,22,23
The breathing techniques can be done on your own; learning them involves participating in classes offered in-person, online, or via an app.
One of the most common formal breathwork approaches, holotropic breathwork, involves a 20-60 minute session of rapid, rhythmic breathing.15 It was created as a drug-free alternative to LSD and designed to induce an altered state of consciousness and emotional catharsis in a group setting.16
It is led exclusively by practitioners certified by the Grof Transpersonal Training Program, an international organization led by the creators of this breathwork approach, Stanislav and Christina Grof.24
Driven by the belief that people hold subconscious memories of their childbirth, which is a process considered by practitioners to be emotionally traumatic, rebirthing breathwork involves specific breathing techniques often done in water.16 Like holotropic breathwork, rebirthing techniques are done as part of a dedicated program, in this case through Rebirthing Breathwork International.
Spiritual in nature, shamanic breathwork involves circular breathing and chanting and is paired with smudging and intention setting in order to connect people with their inner healer, or shaman.15,25 It is done in a group setting led by a certified shamanic practitioner.
Wim Hof Breathwork
Done to enhance well-being and connection to the natural world, the Wim Hof technique uses meditation and intentional, controlled breathing in cold conditions, often in snow and ice.15,26 People can learn this method by taking courses offered in person, online, or with a dedicated app and can then practice on their own or join structured activities offered by the Wim Hof Method.
Developed for release of and healing from trauma, biodynamic breathwork is a structured program based on breathing techniques and enhanced by movement, meditation, sound, touch, and emotional release.15,27 Done with a practitioner certified by the Biodynamic Breathwork Trauma Release System, biodynamic breathwork is usually a group format with classes held in person or online.
7 Tips for Starting a Breathwork Practice
Coomer shares his #1 tip for those wanting to start a practice: “The most important thing that I wish I had done years ago when I started was to find a teacher. This is because most of us have breathing pattern dysfunctions that we have picked up throughout life, and these can get in the way of us really getting the most out of a practice. Invest early in your breath, and you’ll see fuller and faster results.”
If you are interested in starting your own breathwork practice to enhance your mental health and well-being, use these seven tips to begin:
1. Define Your Reason
Knowing why you want to develop a breathwork practice can help you stick to it.23 Having a purpose helps solidify any new goal or habit because it teaches your brain that the activity is important and helps motivate you to stick with it.
2. Make It a Routine
Dedicating some time every day to practice intentional breathing will help you turn it into a healthy habit. Practicing breathwork occasionally during times of stress can reduce stress in the moment, but making it a part of your life can help keep your nervous system balanced. Doing it once or twice daily can help make your practice consistent.2,3
3. Attach Your Practice to an Established Routine
Developing any new habit can feel like yet another chore on your to-do list. Avoid this by adding breathwork to an existing routine,6 such as making it part of your morning or bedtime activities or incorporating it into a hobby by doing breathing exercises as you engage in something relaxing or fun.
4. Be Comfortable
Sit or lie comfortably with your shoulders relaxed.9 If you are uncomfortable or in pain, you’ll be less likely to stick with it. Also, it is harder to breathe when you are uncomfortable. Whatever position you choose, ensure that your spine is straight to allow for the deepest inhalations and exhalations.
5. Breathe in Through Your Nose
Many experts recommend inhaling through your nose rather than your mouth, as it fills your lungs more completely and the nasal passageways are designed to warm the air and kill germs before the air reaches your lungs.6
6. Practice Mindfully
Mindful breathing simply refers to paying attention to the act of breathing, and noticing how the air sounds and feels as it enters and leaves your body.2 Mindfulness helps focus and calm the mind because you are paying attention on purpose to what you are doing rather than multitasking, zoning out, or remaining caught up in troublesome thoughts.
Many mindfulness meditations involve sitting in stillness and paying attention to breathing. Your mind will wander, and when it does, simply notice it and return your attention to your breath.
7. Be Open & Non-Judgmental
There is no “wrong” way to engage in breathwork. Allow yourself to experiment with different techniques and different times of day to practice. Know that the benefits accumulate over time, so rather than feeling frustrated that your anxiety doesn’t instantly disappear when you practice breathwork.
For example, acknowledge that you are taking positive action for your mental health and congratulate yourself for it, gently reminding yourself that like any approach to mental health. Breathwork is a gradual process.
Breathwork in Psychotherapy
Some therapists use breathwork in their work with clients. Therapeutic breathwork involves purposeful breathing exercises conducted by a trained practitioner and combined with mental-health therapy techniques.13 It often is as simple as the therapist instructing or encouraging a client to breathe slowly and deeply during the session and at home.
Integrated breathwork therapy is an approach sometimes used in mental health therapy for anxiety and depression.6 Involving slow, deep, intentional breathing, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques guided by the therapist, it can be added to any therapeutic approach used for depression and anxiety.
Breathwork, even integrated breathwork therapy, is different from other mental health therapy in that it isn’t a stand-alone therapy. While you can find a therapist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), or solution-focused therapy (SFT), for example, breathwork isn’t a separate type of therapy on its own.
Some therapists will indicate on their website that they use breathing techniques in their work with clients. If you are interested in using breathwork as part of your therapy but a therapist you are interested in doesn’t mention it, you can ask them if they are willing to help you learn breathing techniques.
Are There Any Risks to Practicing Breathwork?
Various forms of breathwork have been practiced by human beings for thousands of years, but it has only recently begun to be studied scientifically. While it is known that the way we breathe affects the way our autonomic nervous system functions and impacts the entire brain and body, research into the exact mechanisms and benefits of breathwork remains fairly limited.
Much of the research that has been done into breathwork thus far has been anecdotal, relying on people’s reports of how breathwork affects them, rather than randomized clinical trials with formal methods of control and measurements.10 Even the scientific studies that have been conducted don’t fully explain exactly how and why this type of breathing works.7
Slow, deep breathing practiced regularly for mental health purposes is generally considered to be a safe and cost-effective addition to any mental health efforts. Some breathwork programs, however, such as holotropic or rebirthing programs, may not be safe for all people.
While practitioners are certified in breathing techniques, not all are licensed mental health therapists. Bringing up traumatic memories or other strong emotions without the support of a therapist may cause further mental-health damage.
Final Thoughts on Breathwork
Pranayamic and general, independent deep breathing practices can enhance mental health by reducing stress and anxiety as well as the symptoms of other mental-health concerns like depression or PTSD. This type of breathwork is also convenient and cost-effective. It can be done anywhere and any time, and no fancy equipment is needed. Further, breathwork does not have the adverse effects of many medications. Try incorporating some slow, deep breathing into your daily routine to see how it improves your own well-being.