Breathwork, by changing our blood’s biochemistry, can influence the function of all body’s organs and systems. As oxygen is essential for aerobic respiration, and all of life’s functions depend on the energy production, it would be no exaggeration to claim that breathwork is a cornerstone of healthy living. The 5 most important benefits, you can expect from a regular breathing practice are:
1 Improve metabolism
Anyone interested in breathing needs to understand that optimal levels of the 3 blood gases: Nitric Oxide, Carbon Dioxide and Oxygen are needed for aerobic respiration from our mitochondria. To that extent dysfunctional breathing contributes to poor mitochondrial function and breathwork can help us restore that.
2 Gain control of Autonomic Nervous System
Of all functions of the ANS, breathing is the one we have most control over. That gives us an opportunity to influence the remaining of the ANS.
3 Improve performance in sports
The way we breathe during physical exercise doesn’t only affect the how well our muscles are oxygenated but also our biomechanics. Breathing well goes hand in hand with high performance in sports.
While breathwork is not a prerequisite for meditation, breathing well will make entering meditation easier. Also despite some overlapping effects mediation and breathwork are significantly different, and practicing one will complement the other without making it obsolete.
5 Improve sleeping quality
Sleeping quality is the cornerstone of health and the way we breathe during sleep is a key determinant of sleeping quality. The implications of better sleep are: superior recover, better appetite control and stable energy levels during the day.
While these are the 5 most significant benefits one can get from breathwork, they are not the only ones. Other benefits include: improved posture, balance, digestive health, cognitive function, cardiovascular health (video), lower blood pressure.
What happens to the brain during breathwork?
The source (mouth vs nose), speed and volume of breath will determine which brain regions are activated. Two aspects of breathing that have been well documented to affect the brain in a specific way are:
1 The volume of breath
The most critical and often overlooked factor is the volume of breathing. When the volume is high we will tend towards hyperventilation which will reduce the supply of oxygen (and glucose) to our organs including the brain.
source: Litchfield P M 2003
The reverse will happen during hypoventilation (ie. hypercapnia).
2 Which nostril you breathe through
When breathing through one nostril, there is a small shift in the distribution of hormones in the body with adrenaline having a higher concentration on the side we breathe from. That increases sympathetic activity on that side and parasympathetic activity on the opposite side. Because of that circulation on the right hemisphere of the brain will increase when breathing through the left nostril and the other way around.
source: Werntz et al. 1983
Is it scientifically proven?
There are plenty of studies showing that breathwork as simple as diaphragmatic breathing can benefit both healthy and sick individuals. There are clinical trials conducted among individuals with spinal cord injuries (ref), showing positive results.
What is worth knowing however is that not all scientific studies are of high quality. Some will inflate or twist their findings (video). As a result the claim: “Scientifically proven” has little validity, some times.
How long does it take to see results?
Similar to everything that has value, it takes time and effort to get lasting effects from breathwork. It is not uncommon however, for individuals to see improvements in their concentration levels and quality of sleep within a few weeks and in their physical performance within a few months.
What are the differences between breathwork and meditation?
Breathwork’s goal is to improve respiratory capacity while meditation aims to bring stillness to the mind.
Can breathwork be combined with other forms of training?
For someone to get the most out of breathwork he should be combining it with other forms of exercise.
Breathing plays a key role in posture and core activation. Most healthy individuals will adjust their breathing during exercise naturally. Breathwork can help them get the most out of their training. Running is one of the easiest way to incorporate breathwork in training. However, for different types of exercises different breathing techniques would be appropriate (video).
The pseudoscience of breathwork
Why do people scream during breathwork?
In some breathing practices, participants are encouraged to scream during or after the breathing practice. This is common in techniques that involve hyperventilation and not in breathwork. It would be similar with a cult requesting participants to dance and then scream. Screaming wouldn’t become instantly an essential or relevant aspect of dancing.
Why does breathwork release trauma?
It doesn’t. Claims about trauma release from breathwork diminish the validity of breathwork but given how popular they are I will briefly cover the topic.
Is there trauma at first place?
Emotional trauma can only exist if we accept events as good and bad. In the absence of this dualistic approach there is no trauma to begin with. There is also a serious implication when accepting the existence of trauma and that is that: your way of seeing the world & values is superior to others. The reason behind that is very straight forward: What you perceived as bad and traumatic is based on your values. Based on someone else’s values the same event is neutral or beneficial. While not always easy to see, all events are neutral. We tend to perceive them as positive or negative depending on whether they support or challenge our values.
Can breathing heal an emotional wound?
Hyperventilation breathing practices make such claims with zero scientific foundation other than participants reporting reduction in perceived stress levels (psl). While this is indeed a positive outcome, psl is a subjective marker. Hyperventilation has not be found to result in improvement of objective markers such as HR, HRV, Blood pressure, and thus no healing can be expected from it long term.
Why do I cry after breathwork?
The chances of crying after breathwork are minimal to non-existent. Instead of breathwork you are probably hyperventilating during which you may partly lose consciousness. Crying due to feeling vulnerable at this stage is a possibility but whatever the reason, there is no reason or benefit that stems out of it.
What are the dangers?
Between the 2 pillars of breathwork: hypercapnia and hypoxia, it is the later, which may cause some adverse effects which is why it is best to build up the practice gradually. The symptoms include: dizziness, drops of blood sugar, headache.
Hypercapnic training needs caution for individuals with severe anxiety.
How can I get started?
If you are new to breathwork, starting with 1-2 exercises is often sufficient. Two breathing exercises accessible to most beginners are the: Soft breathing & Improve your exhalation to inhalation ratio.
Ideally prior to starting you should set a goal and run some basic assessments regarding your current respiratory capacity.
How many types of breathwork are there?
There are many breathing brands and franchises, but there are only 2 types of breathwork: Hypercapnia and Hypoxia.
Both of them when practiced regularly will result in improvements in one’s respiratory capacity. While traditionally only breathing exercises have been classified as breathwork, this approach ignores the importance of breathing biomechanics in respiration.
When considering the effect muscles, fascia and neurones have on breathing, we are likely to accept that yoga, pilates, swimming, cycling, running can also be classify as breathwork.
Is breathwork a spiritual practice?
If you align breathwork with a purpose close to your heart and in line with your values, it will be a spiritual practice. There is nothing spiritual about practicing breathing exercises without connecting the activity with a higher purpose.
Can breathwork cause anxiety?
Hypercapnic exercises can cause anxiety in individuals with low tolerance to CO2.The problem in these instances stems from the intensity of the exercise. The link between breathing and anxiety is intricate but should not put individuals that suffer from anxiety off from practicing.