What Is Breathwork? Types Of Breathwork & Their Benefits

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Let’s start off with this claim: most of us are not breathing properly. Or rather, we are not breathing optimally, and usually not to our fullest capacity. Breathing can be so much more than the familiar semi-involuntary life-sustaining practice we engage in. It can be a way to increase quality of life and enhance awareness – and it so happens that this is often the goal of breathwork. In this article, we will explore the question of what breathwork is, types of breathwork, and their benefits. 

Another thing worth mentioning right off the bat? There are no proven, clinically-backed results linking breathwork with the benefits that are associated with them. There is no clear-cut data to support all the claims made by the proponents of breathwork. However, I am of the opinion that science is often playing catch-up with certain techniques and traditions of old, not always the other way around. 

I know people who have gained a lot from relatively simple, yet consistent, breathwork. Call it a placebo effect if you want, but it has some effect on people. There are others who feel that certain types of breathwork can potentially put people at risk. We’ll get into some of those claims as well. I am not currently a practitioner of the technique, but suffice it to say I have some history with it.

What Is Breathwork? Breathwork Explained

Woman with eyes closed and hair blowing.

Woman breathing deeply.

Breathwork is exactly what it sounds like: working with your breath. Laypeople and researchers alike will often associate the term with the New Age movement, although you can trace the roots of modern-day breathwork to old-world Eastern philosophy and practice. Certainly, there is some New Age-ness to the method, so those who group breathwork together under that umbrella term are not totally in the wrong. But it’s more than some hokey, wishful-thinking type of deal.

Breathwork can be summed up as the following: creating conscious changes in one’s pattern of breathing, as a means of increasing health and wellness, and facilitating altered states of consciousness and awareness.

There are those who make use of this practice without fully knowing that’s what they’re doing! Anyone who engages or even dabbles in traditional yoga is aware of the way in which the breath is manipulated or controlled. It is done that way so the breath can be in sync with and in-between movements. There are also breathing techniques that you can practice after certain poses or at the very end of the session. This all counts as breathwork, although it may not be labeled as such.

There are various subtypes, but mostly the practice’s origins in Western countries are attributed to Dr. Wilhelm Reich. Reich was an Austrian physician, part of the “second wave” of psychoanalysts following Freud. I was actually introduced to Reich through a Bob Dylan song named Joey, where Dylan sings that the titular character “did ten years in Attica, reading Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich.” 

Breathwork For Anxiety 

Back view of woman in workout clothes doing yoga.

Woman meditating.

Anxiety is often characterized by a sharp and sometimes sudden decrease in the quality and quantity of breathing. Breaths become short, shallow, rapid, with inhaling and exhaling often being done through the mouth and not the nose. Body language changes accordingly, as does one’s heart rate. Anxiety tightens everything up and pulls everything in. It’s a terrible feeling, and one way of handling it – or rather working through it – is by employing breathwork techniques geared towards anxiety relief.

Like any type of change or habit, this practice requires training and patience. Breathwork training might be an odd concept for some, since it’s training to do something you already do 24/7/365. I get it – but there’s doing something, and then there is doing it right. Different worlds. And because breathing is such a fundamental aspect of our human existence, there is the potential for equally fundamental change to take place.

Anxiety produces short and shallow breaths. To counter that and get the brain back in the picture, you want to take long deep breaths. It may become difficult to do it in the moment, which is why training helps so much. It’s not something you can necessarily do at the drop of the hat – not for long, anyway. But if you are used to breathing that way and are practicing that kind of breathwork, it is a lot easier to make the switch and control the passing of air through our body.

Get that rich oxygen into your blood and into your brain. Open your body up (if possible), despite the discomfort, and try to relax your shoulders and face. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and exhale through the mouth with purpose and meaning: in with the good air, out with the bad air. It’s not just sentimental hogwash. The oxygen in your blood is increases through slow and deep breaths. This can have a direct effect on the clarity of your thinking.

Transformational Breathing Explained

To transform literally means to noticeably change. A transformation plainly says: you are not the same as you were. Judith Kravitz Ph.D is the one who coined (and subsequently registered) the term “Transformational Breath”. She’s the president and CEO of the Transformational Breath Foundation. Dr. Kravitz first came across breathwork in the 1970’s, and over time she has enhanced the original practice and added various elements to it.

Dr. Kravitz uses traditional breathwork, but also incorporates principles from metaphysics (in which she has her doctorate), yoga, breath analysis, sound healing, body mapping (acupressure), and other practices of spiritual and physical merit. This therapeutic system is what she later named Transformational Breathing. It’s a step up from the classic breathing exercises.

Transformational breath puts a lot of emphasis on continuity of the breath, on inhaling and exhaling without stopping. It differs from other techniques and subtypes, but it also has its similarities. Like other types of breathwork, it is there to reduce stress and fear, and to increase general health. Its advocates say it can help one deal with trauma, and create better access to emotions and patterns of behavior.

But it isn’t just breathing relaxed and easy, like winding down after a long day – it’s work. There is something demanding and intense about this type of practice. You wouldn’t necessarily think it at first, but conscious breathing can still be a lot of work to maintain. Results vary, but some report real and altogether significant experiences, especially when combined with tension-releasing acupressure.

How To Do Holotropic Breathwork

Side view of woman with curly hair calm and deep breathing.

Woman doing holotropic breathwork.

Holotropic breathing works to emulate the ways in which the body and mind behave while under the influence of psychedelic substances. Psychedelic means “mind-expanding”. This type of breathwork aims to provide you with a key to self-exploration and expansion. When we are not busy being stuck in the closed space of our ego, we can be freer to experience other things.

There is no single proper way to execute this type of exercise. It’s all about keeping to a few core principles: breathe fully, breathe continuously, breathe faster. You want to get more air circulating inside of your body. This will help to usher in any feelings or experiences waiting on the threshold of consciousness and discovery. Much like Rebirthing breathwork and Transformational breathwork, release of tension or past trauma can be found through holotropic breathing. Avoid hyperventilation and adding to your stress, by practicing this method alongside someone who is certified and qualified. 

Conclusion

Calmer, fitter, healthier, and more productive. Sounds awesome, but can you achieve all that from just breathing? Well, it all depends on what it is you want to gain from your breathwork. You may get some benefits, you may get none. It’s a kind of a crapshoot, and that’s why some hold it in high esteem while others find it downright laughable.

It’s important to note that breathwork has been largely discredited by the scientific and medical community. The proponents of breathwork have yet to produce viable results and solid clinical evidence to match the claims. This doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people from engaging in these types of activities, going to workshops, etc., and there is a reason why.

To put it bluntly, not everything can be explained with modern science. I know, I know, this is precisely the type of thing a Breather would say – but this isn’t some attempt at selling you snake oil. Science already backs up the idea of quality breathing contributing to improved quality of life, so it’s really up to you to either get on board or not.

Breathing is something we do consciously and unconsciously, making it one of the most unique aspects of our existence. But unlike other semi-voluntary bodily functions (salivating, urinating, swallowing, etc.), breathing is directly linked to the healing force of the body, which works from the inside out and affects the human in a more holistic way.

Ultimately we’re talking about breathing, which – on the one hand – is something we do every day without even thinking about it. But on the other hand, as common and popular as breathing is, there are ways of harnessing its life-sustaining properties and achieving a healthier circulation of matter and energy through our being.

Inhale deeply and see. Change starts from within.