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Breathwork: What it Is & How it Works

Focused breathing exercises have been used for centuries as an effective therapeutic modality with many physical and mental health benefits. Explore our wide variety of breathing techniques for relaxation, calming the nervous system, falling asleep, and much more.

The breath is a great place to practice appreciation because it is the most fundamental reason that you're alive.

—Cory Muscara

What is Breathwork?

Breathwork is the practice of using intentional, controlled breathing exercises to positively affect your physical, mental, and emotional state. As a mindfulness tool, practicing breathwork can be a wonderful aid in re-centering in the present moment. There are many types of breathwork which serve different purposes and offer unique physical and mental health benefits (we will touch on these below).

What Are the Benefits of Breathwork?

Breathwork has a wide range of mental and physical benefits. When practiced regularly, these are just some of the things that breathwork can help with:

  • Reducing stress, anxiety, and anger by initiating the body’s relaxation response
  • Activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes us out of fight-or-flight
  • Fostering an increased mind-body connection
  • Regulating stress hormones like cortisol
  • Improving blood flow and oxygenation of blood — which boosts both energy and immune function
  • Increasing sense of presence, self-awareness, self-acceptance, and inner peace
  • Emotion and trauma release
  • Increasing theta and delta brain waves, which correspond to states of receptivity, insight, intuition, and deeper sleep
  • Reducing inflammation and pain

It’s important to check with your healthcare provider if you’re sick or pregnant to make sure a specific breathing exercise is safe — but there are practices that can promote healing and that are gentle, safe, and beneficial during pregnancy.

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6 Breathing Techniques to Get Started

If you’re new to focused breathing exercises and want to experience the benefits of breathwork, there are breathwork apps that can offer guidance. The Mindfulness.com app offers a library of conscious breathing practices for many different purposes.

Here are 6 techniques commonly used in breathwork that you can try to get started.

  1. Alternate nostril breathing. Also known as Nadī Shodhana, this is a yogic breathing pattern that has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm a racing mind.
  2. Continuous circular breathing. Long used by musicians and singers as a way to create an uninterrupted and sustained tone, circular breathing has also been used in meditative practice by Buddhist monks for centuries. This is a deep abdominal breathing with inhales and exhales that are the same length. It has been shown to have a positive effect on depression and anxiety, and to improve both cognitive function and physical performance.
  3. Diaphragmatic breathing and belly breathing. These closely-related types of breathing are focused on engaging all the muscles that go into taking large, sustained breaths. They are especially effective at strengthening the diaphragm and the muscles of the abdomen, and can increase a person’s capacity to fill and empty their lungs. They are also useful anytime-anywhere techniques for lowering blood pressure and activating the relaxation response.
  4. Box breathing. Also known as square breathing, this simple technique can help re-ground in moments of stress.
  5. Self-compassion in 3 breaths. This 2-minute practice uses breath to quiet your inner critic and invite a posture of kindness towards yourself.
  6. 4-7-8 breath. This research-based technique has been shown to balance stress hormones, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep.
Cory Muscara

De-Stress

Breathing · 1-3 mins4.4

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Types of Breathwork

Conscious breathing comes in a variety of forms, from following specific patterns to focusing on deep breathing, rapid breathing, or even intentional holding of the breath. Each type has its own purpose and its own benefits. Some types of breathing can be a part of several different schools of breathwork therapy. For example, Conscious Connected Breathing is used in Holotropic Breathwork, Integrative Breathwork, and Shamanic Breathwork.

Let’s briefly explore some of the most common types of breathwork.

Holotropic breathwork

Holotropic breathwork is a therapeutic breathing practice that involves taking rapid, deep breaths for up to 2-3 hours, often with music playing in the background. It is designed to help with emotional healing, trauma release, and personal growth. Because it is essentially a controlled hyperventilation that can cause altered states of consciousness (and big emotional release), it is recommended that this practice be done in the presence of a certified holotropic breathwork practitioner.

Rebirthing breathwork

Also referred to as conscious energy breathing (CEB), rebirthing breathwork is a self-healing technique marked by intentional deep breathing that eliminates the pause between inhale and exhale. In the process of engaging in this conscious connected breathing with a trained and trusted facilitator, a participant begins to feel safe enough to allow unresolved emotions and memories to surface. In the altered state of consciousness, people see their experiences with a new kind of objectivity and perspective, and many report a deep sense of peace and clarity at the end of sessions.

Shamanic breathwork

Based on pranayama in yogic practice, shamanic breathwork is a way of consciously controlling and integrating your breathing with meditative practice. It holds that breathing is not just a physical process, but also a mental and spiritual process that can intimately affect our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Biodynamic breathwork

A biodynamic breathwork session combines focused connected breathing with movement, sound, bodywork, meditation, and emotional release. This school of breathwork therapy has been developed as a tool for physical, emotional, and trauma healing.

Soma breathwork

Soma breathwork, sometimes called Soma Awakening Breath, was developed by Niraj Naik. It uses a combination of ancient yogic breathing like pranayama and Kundalini yoga technology, along with visualization and music sound healing. It increases the production of alpha brain waves, dropping the practitioner into a deeper meditative state, strengthening the nervous system, and improving symptoms related to depression and anxiety.

Clarity breathwork

Formerly connected to Rebirthing, Clarity breathwork is a combination of personalized counseling with an hour of guided circular continuous breathing. Conducted in the presence of a certified practitioner, Clarity breathwork allows a person to enter a heightened state of awareness, which helps release held tension, stress, suppressed emotions, and old stories. After each session, the guide offers suggestions and possible assignments that are designed to help integrate insights and healing into daily life.

Wim Hof Method

One of the most recognizable breathwork practitioners in the world is Wim Hof, the Dutch extreme athlete (known as “the Iceman”) who is able to withstand extremely cold temperatures. His health-boosting Wim Hof Method combines cold therapy with deep, rhythmic breathing (which he calls “power breathing”), along with periods of holding the breath. This has the effect of improving the health of the autonomic nervous system — the system which controls the automatic function of all our major organs. A stronger autonomic nervous system bolsters immunity, lowers blood pressure, reduces the effects of periodic and chronic stress, and enhances physical and mental wellbeing.

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Breathwork vs. Meditation: What’s the Difference?

While breathing techniques can be and are often used to aid in meditation, breathwork itself is a standalone practice separate from meditation.

Like meditation, breathwork is often practiced for its many mental and physical health benefits, like lowered stress and blood pressure, release of tension, increase in mood-boosting neurochemicals, stronger immune function, and improved sleep. So they make wonderful companion practices.

So while it isn’t strictly necessary to focus on breathing in order to meditate, many breathwork practitioners find that learning to work with the breath greatly enhances their meditation practice and increases the benefits.

Try it for Yourself

Breathing · 1-2 mins

Calming

By learning how to breathe from the diaphragm, you reap the benefits of lowering your blood pressure and stress levels.

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Read about the fundamental principles of mindfulness, how to practice in your everyday life, and the latest in mind-body research.

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