Breathwork: What It Is, The Different Types, And How It Could Change Your Life
Breathing. It’s essential, something we primarily do by reflex, and something that, when controlled, has the power to drastically change our lives.
I first discovered controlled methodical breathing, or Breathwork, last year when I was staying with a friend of mine, who also happens to be an experienced holotropic breathwork teacher, in San Diego. After explaining to me what breathwork was, what physically happens during a session, and the multitude of ways you can benefit from it, I was game. And, I have to say, my first breathwork session was nothing but eye-opening.
Using a simple breathing technique, I blasted through limiting beliefs about myself, felt myself become closer to my spirituality and, much to my dismay, completely sweated through my clothes in the process.
With that lovely mental image, let’s dive into the number one question people have about breathwork:
What is Breathwork?
Put simply, breathwork is an umbrella term for the practice of controlling the depth and speed of your breathing. This can be done in longer sessions or short ones, depending on your preferred style and situation. That said, the most common types of breathwork are:
1- Holotropic Breathwork – One of the most common styles of breathwork, a Holotropic Breathwork session can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, and features rapid, methodical breathing. The goal with this mode of breathwork is to achieve a deep meditative state and a spiritual closeness.
2- Wim Hof Breathwork – A breathing technique inspired by the founder’s intense physical feats, the Wim Hof method features three central pillars: exposure to cold, meditation, and controlled breathing. This method is done with the goal of increased mental and physical wellbeing (including reduced inflammation and pain, but we’ll get to that later).
3- Shamanic Breathwork – Comprised of a circular-style breathing technique, Shamanic Breathwork is done for the purpose of getting in touch with our inner healers. The process often includes smudging, chanting, and intention setting.
4- Biodynamic Breathwork – A modal of breathwork done with the intent of releasing trauma stored in the brain and body. This type of breathwork incorporates conscious touch, meditation, and deep breathing techniques blended with movement.
5- Abdominal Breathwork – Abdominal Breathwork is a great exercise when you’re feeling tense, stressed, or are having trouble sleeping. To do this breathwork, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Then, inhale through your nose, allowing your belly to rise, hold the breath, and slowly exhale. Feel the stress melt away in the process.
Are there any risks to breathwork?
I’m not going to lie, when I first heard about breathwork, I did a ton of research on the safety aspect. I mean, I wasn’t so concerned with relaxing, abdominal breathwork styles, but when I first tried Holotropic Breathwork, I wanted to know what I was getting myself into.
Because rapid breathing changes the PH levels in your blood and increases your heart rate, it’s recommended that people with heart issues or other medical conditions consult a physician before beginning breathwork. Also, according to Healthline, people who have a history of glaucoma, retinal detachment, seizure disorders, and osteoporosis should not partake in breathwork.
When in the midst of a breathwork session, pay attention to your body, notice how you feel, and stop the session if anything feels awry.
That said, in regards to Holotropic breathwork, the clenching of muscles (particularly of hands) is common (my hands clench up into “lobster claws” while i’m doing breathwork, and can be rather uncomfortable). Additionally, while my first breathwork session included me sweating right onto my yoga mat, I haven’t experienced that in a session since, so this may or may not be true for you as well.
What are the benefits of Breathwork?
Reduces Stress & Anxiety
In so many cases, breathwork is primarily done to reduce and combat stress and anxiety. In fact, according to a 1996 study, people who practiced Holotropic Breathwork coupled with psychotherapist treatments found significantly reduced anxiety around death and increased self-esteem than participants who did not do breathwork.
This outcome is partly due to the fact that breathwork is a great way to provide greater oxygen flow to all areas of your body. This increased flow of oxygen then physically reverses the secretion of stress hormones and tension.
If you’re looking for some more ways to beat stress and anxiety, then check out these great meditations!
Heightens Mental Clarity
Mental cloudiness and fog happen to the best of us from time to time. So, if you’re having a particularly sluggish or cloudy day, then try incorporating breathwork into your weekly routine. Breathwork is a great way to nix any mental fog, and if you set an intention, it can also give you greater insight into what was giving you that fog in the first place.
To set an intention, think about what you hope to accomplish in your breathwork session before you start. Think about any limiting beliefs you may want to clear or pinpoint, or any greater insights you wish to have.
Speaking of insight, breathwork is a great way to explore who you are and how you operate more deeply. For example, when doing Holotropic Breathwork, I frequently have visuals of scenes from my life that have influenced me in some way. Diving into these visuals has been nothing short of groundbreaking for me.
That said, you might experience amplified intuition in a multitude of other ways while doing breathwork, visually is only one mode. Everyone is different!
Whether you’ve recently hurt yourself or have ongoing chronic pain, Breathwork has long been used as a way of pain relief. This is because breathing techniques can actually physically influence the parasympathetic nervous system; the system that sends the pain signal to your brain.
Heals Past Trauma
As I mentioned above, Breathwork can be a powerful tool in healing past trauma. What I didn’t mention above, however, is that Breathwork is also a great tool in locating trauma. Physically, trauma is cellular, and it is actually stored in our bodies. So, when we engage in a practice that sends higher blood flow throughout our system, our bodies begin a natural healing process.
That said, if you plan to use breathwork as a way to help heal past trauma — whether physical, mental or emotional — I highly suggest having the sessions with a trained professional. A breathwork session can be very powerful, and in some cases, it’s necessary to have a guide in the room to help you cope.
Did you know that controlled breathing is an effective way to help boost your physical immunity? In fact, the whole Wim Hof method is designed with immunity in mind. Given that breathwork helps to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve arterial blood flow, studies have shown that breathwork gives people a boosted immunological response.
In fact, according to a study done at the Medical University of South Carolina, people that did 20 minutes or more of controlled breathing exercises per day had lower inflammation proteins in their saliva than subjects who didn’t do the exercises.
That’s it for my crash course on breathwork! We at The Wellness Project are always interested to hear your thoughts on our articles. Do you do breathwork? Have you experienced any benefits from the practice? Let us know in the comments!