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What is breathwork?

Updated: Jan 22, 2023


Breathwork. It’s become a buzzy wellness trend, but what is it, actually? We’ve all been breathing our entire lives, why do we suddenly need to learn how?


What is breathwork?

Breathwork is an umbrella term for any practices intended to manipulate the way you breathe. This could include altering your pattern of breathing or the manner in which you breathe, or performing different breathing exercises and techniques.


There is a rich history of breathwork practices in many Eastern traditions such as Indian Pranayama, as well as religious and spiritual practices with a focus around the breath such as Sufism, Taoism, and Buddhism.


These traditions experienced an emergence in Western culture in the 1960’s when modern breathwork pioneers such as Leonard Orr and Stanislav Grof brought these concepts to the U.S. (1) Orr created Rebirthing Breathwork, while Grof created the practice of Holotropic breathwork. These two methods of breathwork fall into the category of Conscious Connected Breath (CCB), which emphasizes the connection of inhale and exhale without any pauses.. Rebirthing gave way to the creation of many other CCB techniques including Shamanic Breath, Integrative Breath, Clarity Breath, and others.


Interest in breathwork continues to increase as a natural way of getting in touch with our bodies, overcoming challenges, and experiencing life more fully.


Why do breathwork?

Your breath is critical to your survival- in fact it’s the single most important tool you have. So why isn’t there more focus on learning to use it to its fullest potential? We are taught how to eat and drink, how to move our bodies, best practices for sleep hygiene, etc. However no one teaches us how to channel our breath to get the most out of it.


Try to think of the last time you brought attention to your breath. Many of us take the breath for granted, and ignore it completely- until we experience lack of it such as a case of bronchitis or an asthma attack. We might notice it at times when we’re breathing more quickly during exercise, or more slowly like when we’re waking up.


Learning to manipulate the breath can unlock a world of possibilities previously hidden from us. Methods such as coherence breathing (matching the length of the inhale with the length of the exhale) and box breathing (a pattern of breathing in, holding, exhaling, and holding for equal amounts of time) have been shown to regulate the heart rate and can calm anxiety. Kapalbhati, an ancient Indian practice of gentle inhales followed by powerful forced exhales can energize the body and help to detoxify the blood. Wim Hof’s style of breathing is used to increase focus and endurance. There are myriad breathing styles, each offering their own benefits. By learning to harness the breath, it is possible to achieve more control over our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.


Why does breathwork work?

To understand why breathwork “works,” let’s take a look at what breathwork does to your body.


Modern lifestyle habits can encourage shallow breathing- sitting for hours a day, wearing restrictive clothing, tensing or clenching our abs to create a flatter stomach. These restrictions in turn limit the amount of air we are taking into our lungs, as well as the expansion of our diaphragms. Limiting inhalation sends a signal to our brains that something’s wrong. This can ignite a fight or flight response, increasing anxiety, tension, and stress. (2)


Breathing deeply causes a fuller expansion of the lungs and diaphragm, enabling them to work properly to bring the oxygen supply to your blood. This signals your brain that it’s ok to relax.


Breathwork also has an affect on the alkalinity of your blood. When we breathe in a shallow manner, carbon dioxide is allowed to build up in the blood. The higher the CO2 levels in our blood, the more acidic our blood is. Constant acidity in the blood leads to inflammation and acts as a pre-cursor to disease. Breathing deeply triggers the release of excess carbon dioxide, in turn lowering the acidity and bringing our blood into a more alkaline or neutral state. The blood’s alkalinity can be manipulated through the breath to achieve the desired response within the body. Different styles of breathwork can have different effects on the levels of oxygen and CO2 within the blood.



What are some of the benefits of breathwork?


Footnotes

(1) Ashton, Megan. The History of Breathwork. Alchemy of Breath, Feb. 2, 2021 https://alchemyofbreath.com/the-history-of-breathwork/

(2) Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response, Harvard Health Publishing, July 6, 2020


Disclaimer

Always speak with a knowledgeable doctor before beginning any breathwork practice, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or contraindications. This article is not intended to provide medical advice and should not be taken as such.


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