Article at a Glance
- Breathwork is the practice of observing and/or manipulating your breath to alter your physiology and emotional state.
- Taking control of your breath leads to improved control over your nervous system.
- Breathwork is a free and easily accessible means of altering your state to increase tranquility or energy, depending on what is desired.
It’s the middle of the day, you haven’t moved from your computer for 3 hours and you can feel the tension building up in your body. Your neck, your chest, and your shoulders are all tight and painful. And your mind may be reaching the brink of how much more stress it can take.
Breathwork is much more than just breathing. It is an ancient practice that is currently sweeping the health and wellness sphere. Whether you’re using it to increase athletic performance, get into deeper states of meditation, or to just feel calmer during the day, there’s a good chance you can benefit from breathwork.
Hold your breath, because we’re about to dive in.
What is breathwork?
Simply put, breathwork is the practice of observing and/or manipulating your breath to alter your physiology and emotional state.
Many traditional cultures recognized the importance of the breath, with traditional Chinese medicine practitioners stating that the Qi follows the breath, and Ayurvedic practitioners prescribing different breathing exercises, known as pranayamas, for different health conditions and constitutions. In addition, most movement practices, from martial arts to yoga to powerlifting, utilize breathing to enhance the benefits and performance of the practice.
More recently, breathwork has hit the forefront in the areas of health and human optimization, largely through the teachings of Wim Hof, known as ‘The Iceman.’ Wim has taught many people how to improve their cold tolerance and resilience to a variety of stressors through control of the breath.
Many already have some exposure to breathwork through guided meditation or yoga, specifically deep diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing forms the foundation of many different breathwork practices.
Here are some of the more popular practices;
Alternate nostril breathing – Used in yogic traditions to calm the nervous system and relieve tension.
Buteyko – This is slow, quiet, nasal breathing to improve blood oxygenation.
Box breathing – Another breathing technique to calm and quiet the mind.
Breath holds – Holding your breath can induce a state of hypoxia and all the physiological effects that come from it.
Uddiyana bandha – Another technique used in yogic traditions, though this time to kindle the body’s energy.
Breath of Fire – Practiced in the Kundalini tradition of yoga to purify the body and experience enlightened states.
Holotropic – Performed under the guidance of a practitioner alongside music, producing altered states for emotional healing and personal growth.
SOMA Breath – This method enhances the power of meditation by combining ancient breathwork techniques with brainwave music technology to help you switch off stress, turn on the creative side of your mind, and reach peak human experiences.
While they all have their nuances, all of these techniques have one thing in common. They help YOU take control of your physiology.
What are the benefits? How does it work?
What Happens During Vagus Activation, Stays in Vagus
One of the main studied benefits of breath manipulation is the effect on the vagus nerve. For those who haven’t heard of the vagus nerve, it is heavily involved in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the rest and digest functions.
The parasympathetic nervous system is involved in food digestion, proper sleep, erectile function, and much more. Its counterpart is the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response, which mobilizes energy to get you through or away from stressful situations.
The vagus nerve can detect when you’re breathing deeply and slowly via pressure receptors in the lungs, causing the release of acetylcholine, which slows your heart rate and calms your nervous system. Contrast this with shallow chest breathing that activates cortisol release, a stress hormone.
Got Muscle Tension?
If you’ve got upper back and shoulder pain, breath could be both the cause and the cure.
Using the accessory muscles in the neck and chest to breathe is useful if you’re involved in extreme athletic endeavors and need to suck in every little bit of oxygen, but not very useful if you’re just sitting in traffic or at your desk. It leads to overuse of those muscles, subsequent tension and eventual pain [R]. By retraining our body to breathe from the diaphragm and get into a parasympathetic state we can reduce a lot of this unnecessary tension, thereby reducing pain and improving range of motion [R].
Falling asleep and staying asleep are both largely governed by the autonomic nervous system, which is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Prevailing theories on insomnia believe that an underactive parasympathetic nervous system, combined with excessive sympathetic nervous system activity, may be a contributing factor. So it’s no surprise that studies have found breath regulation to reduce the incidence of insomnia [R].
Are you an athlete, weekend warrior, or just love to move your body? Breathwork can help with this as well. As mentioned above, breathwork can be used to alter our nervous systems and get us into the muscle-building parasympathetic state faster and more frequently.
In addition, there are performance benefits. Proper breathing mechanics allow us to get in more air to better oxygenate our tissues and create more energy to fuel our workouts.
Finally, short term breath holds can increase erythropoietin, a hormone that increases the production of red blood cells, leading to greater oxygenation and increased performance.
Meditation and Breathing
Finally, for those who struggle to meditate due to how inactive it requires you to be, consider an active breathing meditation. Your brain’s desire to be productive will be satisfied while you’re sneakily feeding it the benefits of meditation. It’s a win-win.
When Not to Do Breathwork?
Practicing deep, diaphragmatic breathing daily is probably not going to be contraindicated for the majority of people, but when looking at the more extreme practices like breath of fire or extended breath holds, it is prudent to exercise caution and common sense.
If you have known or suspected respiratory issues of any kind or are currently pregnant, it is best to first consult with your physician to see if there is anything you should look out for before undertaking the more extreme practices.
For those who choose to go into this solo, please adhere to the following advice. If you’re alone and practicing a breathing pattern requiring you to sit upright, a good idea is to start seated on a soft surface like the grass or a soft mattress close to the floor. It isn’t likely you’ll get very dizzy, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Interested? Where Do You Start?
There is no shortage of online courses, videos, and in-person breathwork training to get you started.
Here are just some of the ones available:
If you are interested in the meditative effects of breathwork, check out SOMA Breath founder Niraj Naik’s free training.
There are also books like Patrick McKeown’s The Oxygen Advantage if you want to learn more about breathing for overall health and physical performance.
Looking for something a bit more personal? You can look for Wim-Hof accredited trainers or look for breathwork workshops in your area, which are a fantastic way to connect with fellow health enthusiasts.
Whichever method you choose, you can breathe deeply knowing that deep breathing may be your new best friend!
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