woman doing breathwork exercises in living room

Transform Your Well-being with Breathwork: Techniques, Benefits, and Tips

Written by: Gilles Waterschoot

|

|

Time to read 20 min

Introduction to breathwork

Let's talk about breathwork! It's an ancient practice that's getting a lot of love from modern science lately. Basically, it's all about how we can totally change our mental, emotional, and physical vibes just by being conscious of how we breathe. This guide peels back the layers of breathwork, revealing its power to transform our well-being.


Automatic vs conscious breathing

So, usually, we don't even think about breathing, right? It just happens automatically. But sometimes, with all the stress and craziness in life, our breathing gets kinda messed up. We end up taking shallow, not-so-great breaths. But guess what? We can totally take charge and fix that with conscious breathing. By paying attention to how we breathe and making some tweaks, we can actually control our mood, stress levels, and overall health.


Breathwork defined and its significance

Now, let's dive a bit deeper. Breathwork is all about intentionally changing our breathing pattern to get specific results—whether that's feeling more chill, getting pumped up, or anything in between. It's like having a direct line to our body's autopilot system. So, when we're stressed out, we can use breathwork to dial things down and find our zen mode. And when we need a boost, we can rev things up with some strategic breathing. Pretty cool, huh? This makes breathwork super handy for dealing with stress, kicking back and relaxing, and getting our brains in gear.

The mechanism of breathwork

Here's the scoop: breathwork's secret sauce lies in how it messes with our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This system's in charge of all the stuff our body does automatically, like heart rate and digestion.

With breathwork, we can pull off a neat trick: flipping the switch from "fight or flight" mode (that's the sympathetic nervous system) to "chill out and digest" mode (that's the parasympathetic nervous system). This switcheroo comes with some serious perks, like dropping blood pressure and boosting our immune system. So, basically, by tweaking how we breathe, we're giving our body the signal to kick back and relax.

Origins and history of breathwork

Let's take a trip back in time! Breathwork's roots run deep in ancient traditions like yoga and meditation from the East. For centuries, folks have been using breathing techniques to tap into their spiritual side, for therapy, and just for better health.

Fast forward to today, and we've got some cool modern twists on these ancient practices. Ever heard of the Wim Hof Method or holotropic breathing? These are just a couple of the newer takes on breathwork that blend the old-school wisdom with what we know now. They're all about helping us deal with stress, get in better shape, and even dive into our emotions and spirituality. It's like taking the best of both worlds and making it work for us in the here and now.

Two big families: Low and High Ventilation Breathwork

Alright, let's break it down: there are basically two big families in the world of breathwork. We've got Slow-Paced Breathing (SPB) and High Ventilation Breathwork (HVB).

So, with SPB, it's all about taking it nice and slow. You're breathing at a reduced rate, which helps bring on that calm and mindful vibe. It's like hitting the pause button on life for a bit and just chilling out.

Now, on the flip side, we've got HVB. This is all about picking up the pace and taking deeper breaths. It's like revving up your engine and getting ready to tackle whatever comes your way. HVB is all about energizing and stimulating the body, giving you a boost when you need it most.

How breathwork really works

Breathwork taps into our autonomic nervous system - the part responsible for all the things we pay little attention to like digestion and breathing. This system allows us to go from the extreme of 'fight or flight' (for HVB) or 'rest and digest' (for SPB). By consciously controlling our breathing patterns, we can actually influence things like our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. But besides scientific articles that are hard to understand, there are few sources that truly explain how breathwork achieves these amazing feats.

So, let’s jump in! This section briefly covers some of the mechanisms at play in relatively simple terms. If you want to go more in depth, you can sign up for our whitepaper for how SPB works or read exactly what the scientific explanation behind HVB is. Once you understand these mechanisms, it will be easier to understand many of the benefits you can experience by doing breathwork.

Below, you can find a quick primer of the important elements of our body that are at play and how breathwork plays into each of  those. 


Why we breathe

Breathing does two big things for us: it gets oxygen into our bodies and it gets rid of carbon dioxide (CO2) to keep our blood’s acidity levels just right.


Our cells crave oxygen to power up and do their thing. It's like they transform it into energy, leaving water and CO2 as their leftovers. Oxygen floods into our lungs, hooks up with hemoglobin in our blood, and goes on a cool journey to wherever it's in demand. And get this: hemoglobin only lets go of the oxygen stash into the tissues if our blood's acidity is  perfectly balanced.


As we use oxygen, we produce CO2, which needs to be kicked out to keep our blood's acidity level in balance. Too much CO2 makes our blood more acidic, and less CO2 makes it more basic (or alkaline). Our lungs help us get rid of the leftover CO2 when we breathe out, keeping our blood's acidity level right.


The cool way CO2 plays an important role in getting oxygen into our tissues is thanks to the Bohr effect. Too little CO2 means the hemoglobin will be stickier, meaning less oxygen makes it into our tissues. Our brain actually monitors CO2 levels constantly to control our breathing. So when we’re running out of air, it’s actually the low levels of CO2 that trigger our reflex to gasp for air. But what makes breathing stand out compared to other body processes that are critical to our survival, is that we can actually  consciously control our breathing.


Breathwork and our autonomic nervous system

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the unsung hero behind our body's unconscious operations, regulating heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, and so more. It's divided into two main branches:


  • The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): Often described as the "fight or flight" system, it prepares the body for action, increasing heart rate, and releasing stored energy to get it ready to use on the fly.

  • The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): Known as the "rest and digest" system, conserves energy, slows the heart rate, and facilitates digestion and relaxation.


These two opposite systems work in parallel to ensure our survival, enabling responses to threats or needs for sudden bursts of energy, and then all of the restorative processes during calm periods. Together they form a balance called the autonomic balance. Breathwork can influence this balance, acting as a dial we can tune to activate one system or the other.


The Vagus Nerve also plays a crucial role in this balance. As the main component of the PNS, it acts as a brake on our level of energy and preparedness for sudden responses. Breathwork is a direct way to engage or disengage this brake via the baroreflex. So depending on how we choose to breathe, we can either calm our system down or engage and energize it.


the vagus nerve and Baroreflex
The vagus nerve and Baroreflex

There are also a number of effects on our neurological system in HVB. Put simply, we breathe out more CO2 in HVB which causes our blood to become more alkaline which makes it harder for oxygen to reach the brain. This can make our brain cells fire in less controlled ways, affecting how we think and perceive things. When we do this, our body reacts by making us feel more alert and ready for action, like we need to fight or flee. This intense reaction can lead to feeling really different, sometimes even changing how we see ourselves. If we then start slowing our breathing down like in SPB, we get an opposite, calming effect again. 

Breathwork and our endocrine system

You know, it's pretty fascinating that we can totally tweak our autonomic balance just by adjusting our breathing. And get this: when we do that, it's like flipping switches that affect stress hormones like cortisol. It's all connected to our nervous system, which links up with this major stress control center called the HPA axis. So, the HPA axis? It's this trio of organs: the Hypothalamus, the Pituitary gland, and the Adrenal cortex.


When we breathe faster, our system shifts towards the sympathetic and the HPA axis releases stress hormones like cortisol into our body. When we breathe slower, stress hormone release is reduced. 


And there’s more: our brain can release adrenaline when we’re overbreathing. That’s because the low oxygen levels make our brain shift to another process to produce energy. This process generates lactate, which stimulates a brain area called Locus Coeruleus to release adrenaline.


Olfaction and the effect of smell in breathwork

It’s kind of obvious: with breathing so central to breathwork, your sense of smell is going to be involved, too. And the effects are not to be underestimated. 


Science has shown that our sense of smell, or “olfaction” as scientists call it, plays a huge role in influencing our autonomic nervous system (ANS) and endocrine system, which in turn affects our psychological state. The olfactory system is directly connected to the limbic system in the brain, which is responsible for emotions, memory, and arousal. This is how something like the smell of lavender can be associated with relaxation and decreased anxiety, while citrus scents can boost mood and energy levels.


So, influencing the olfactory pathways, breathwork practices can bring about a calming effect, reduce anxiety, and enhance overall emotional well-being, displaying a fascinating interplay between our sensory experiences and mental states.


The benefits and different aspects of breathwork

What value can we get from breathwork and how?

Breathwork is like a secret power that everyone can harness and it’s hidden in plain sight. Anyone can access this treasure trove of benefits for your body and mind with every inhale and exhale. Breathing is about more than just  oxygenating your cells, it’s about tapping into a wavelength of calm, awareness, and clarity. 


Breathwork can be like a reset button for your nerves, helping to ease your stress and anxiety. Plus, it's also a natural energizer, giving you a boost in energy levels without the crash of caffeine or other stimulants. As you become more experienced, you may also find that breathwork can enhance your ability to focus and boost levels of creativity. So, whether you're seeking a way to relieve stress and anxiety or to get those creative juices flowing, the incredible power of breathwork is there within you, ready to harness.


Breathwork experiences

Emotional release during breathwork

You can see your breathwork as your captain on the bridge of a ship. When the seas are rough due to choppy waves of emotion and navigating difficulties in  life, your intentional breathing can help you to stay steady and experience some calm, even during a storm.


But it’s not just about trying to calm the seas and emotions through breathing. When you breathe intentionally, your nervous system slows down. You can use breathwork to turn the valve on your emotional pressure cooker. Emotion is often held as tension in the body, so, whether that tension is frustration, sadness or anger, by creating more space for you to relax, you can both acknowledge it and organically release it. This emotional whirlwind is one of the reasons some people experience crying and other forms of emotional release during breathwork sessions.

Side effects of breathwork

As with any practice, breathwork can have some side effects to be aware of:

  • Dizziness during breathwork: Breathwork techniques that involve faster or deeper breathing can sometimes make people feel dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Feeling worse after breathwork: If you feel worse after breathwork then it could be a number of things causing it including dizziness or lightheadedness (as mentioned above), emotional release, or fatigue from doing the work. Feeling worse usually resolves quite soon after completing the practice. 
  • Hands cramping during breathwork: Hand can cramp during breathwork for many reasons including positioning, tension, fast breathing (hyperventilation), dehydration, or due to neurological issues. 
  • Shaking during breathwork: There are a few reasons that you may feel like you are vibrating or shaking during breathwork such as increased oxygen levels, emotional release, or weakness in the breathing muscles. 

With these potential side effects in mind, it’s always a good idea to practice breathwork in a safe place without hazards around you like objects, heights, or bodies of water. 


Different types and techniques of breathwork

General breathing techniques

Breathwork is a broad term referring to breathing techniques aimed at improving mental, emotional, and physical well-being by focusing on the breath. Here are some of the many breathing techniques commonly used in breathwork practices:

Wim Hof Method

So, you know that dude that climbs up a snowy mountain wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and a happy grin? This is the man named Wim Hof. The secret? To ‘fill your lungs like balloons’ before surrendering to quick, short exhalations.


The Wim Hof Method is all about breathing, cold exposure and mental-attitude ‘strategies’ that purport to ‘train’ people to thrive in environments that most would find quite challenging. Hofian breathing can make you feel energetic, help you endure frigid temperatures with the best of them, and immerse you in a meditative state of awareness. In a nutshell, the Wim Hof Method is an inroad to the turn-up button for your resilience.

Holotropic breathing

A type of ‘non-ordinary’ breathing developed by the psychiatrist Stan Grof, holotropic (meaning ‘moving towards wholeness’) breathing utilizes deep, rhythmic respiration to facilitate personal growth, healing and spiritual discovery. 

Rebirthing breathwork

Also sometimes referred to as Clarity Breathwork, rebirthing breathwork is a unique yet brilliant practice that works deeply in the territory of self-discovery and healing. In rebreathing breathwork, in as few words as possible, you breathe as deeply and ceaselessly as possible without pausing between inhale and exhale, and all the emotions and sensations that arise are allowed to come out.

Transformational breath

Transformational Breathing involves a deep inhalation through your mouth, expanding your belly with air, then blowing it out through your whole mouth – like when you purposefully fog up a window. Like expelling a deep sigh of relief, with none of the tension. It’s an easy breathing technique, available to almost anyone, designed to bring you ease.

Buteyko method

The Buteyko method, also called the Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT) is a breathing practice developed by the Russian doctor Konstantin Buteyko in the 1950s and prescribed mainly for the treatment of diseases of the respiratory system such as asthma.

Ujjayi breathing

One of the more common breathing styles used in yoga is ujjayi breathing – sometimes called the ‘victorious breath’ or more often the ‘ocean breath’. This type of breathing is performed by inhaling and exhaling through the nose while ever-so-slightly constricting the back of the throat, making a soft hissing/ocean sound (hence the alternate name ‘ocean breath’).

SKY breathing

Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) is a practice in controlled breathing used during Art of Living programmes. Because SKY is a form of breathing, some people simply call it ‘SKY Breath Meditation’ but more often call it a form of yoga.

Pranayama breathing

A distinctive feature of yoga practice is a breath exercise called Pranayama. Roughly speaking, pranayama is the science of breathing to enhance the body, mind and spirit. 


Pranayama in yoga means controlling or regulating the breath. In this practice, close attention is paid to our breath, systematically adjusting it to enhance physical and mental clarity, as well as spiritual peace. The goal for many yogis is enhanced mental clarity and a harmonious connection between the mind and the body. 

Bhastrika breathing

Bhastrika breathing is a more advanced form of Pranayama breathing.(conscious breathwork) It can be practiced in different ways using various techniques. Bhastrika breathing is best known as ‘bellows breath’ because of the rapid, forceful inhalations and exhalations that occur through the nose when this particular Pranayama is practiced. Bhastrika breathing should be practiced with respect and caution: its yogic detractors assert that if the breath is pushed beyond a certain level, instead of becoming clear, hyperventilation can be induced.

Reichian breathwork

Reichian breathwork, named after the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, is a term referring to Reichian breathwork, which describes the use of specific techniques intended to help release emotional and physical blockages through deep breathing, movement and body-awareness exercises.

Kapalabhati

Kapalabhati is a very energizing and cleansing Pranayama (breathing) technique in yoga. The word Kapalabhati comes from ‘kapala’ (skull) and ‘bhati’ (to shine) in Sanskrit. This particular breathing method involves rapid and forceful exhalations with each exhalation being powered by short, sharp belly muscle contractions. Inhalation follows passively as the belly relaxes.

Nadi Shodhana

The practice of Nadi Shodhana (shodhana means to cleanse or purify) is also known as alternate nostril (or Anulom Vilom) breathing and is a form of yogic Pranayama (breathing) that literally translates into ‘channel cleansing’ from Sanskrit, which refers to cleansing the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body. Nadi Shodhana is performed by alternating breaths through the left and right nostrils, using the fingers to block each nostril in turn.

Somatic Breathwork

Somatic Breathwork understands conscious breathing and cultivating somatic awareness as a path to embodying the experience of one’s inner landscape, the body-mind-spirit. Somatic simply means body. In Somatic Breathwork, breathing is used as a tool to explore and release patterns of tension and contraction in the body, heart, mind and spirit.

Sudarshan Kriya

Sudarshan Kriya is a rhythmic breathing technique that has a long lineage in ancient yogic practices. It’s most commonly associated with the spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living Foundation.

Qi Gong Breathing

Qi Gong breathing, which is also known as Qigong or Chi Kung breathing, is really the basis of all traditional Chinese energy cultivation work. There is a huge array of Qi Gong breathing exercises, each with a particular emphasis and intention.

Lion's Breath (Simhasana)

Lion’s Breath, or Simhasana as it’s known in Sanskrit, is a yoga posture and breath practice characterized by an open jaw and lion-like roar. Practitioners inhale deeply through the nose, and then exhale sharply through the mouth, sticking out the tongue and opening the jaw as wide as possible. The exhalation is typically made with the sound of a ‘haaa’, likened to the roar of a lion. During the exhale, the gaze is lifted towards the space between the eyebrows.

How to do breathwork

Typical Breathwork Session

An average breathwork session will likely have you breathing in a slower, more deliberate manner, in a pattern or rhythm, such as this: inhale through your nose (deeply, heartfully, filling your lungs), and then release, exhaling through your mouth.


If you stay with this cycle for some time, you will notice subtle changes in your body and mind. You might notice that you become relaxed, there will probably be a sense of calm, a more balanced energy. Some people become more lethargic, or sleepy, or burst into tears, laughing or anger, or find the urge to talk and say things they haven’t wanted to say for years. During a coached session the facilitator will encourage participants using gentle prompts and visualizations.

Self-Practice vs. Guided Sessions in Breathwork

Self-practice breathwork and guided breathwork sessions each have their unique benefits, and in the end it comes down to personal preference as to what works best for you.


Whereas class-taught breathwork is very teacher-directed, self-practise makes you the teacher; you can experiment with the techniques in the way that you want to. It’s totally up to you.


On the other hand, guided sessions offer a safe structure and insightful guidance for your breathwork – an expert facilitator can open up new techniques and provide valuable insight during your practice. This might be a good idea for someone new to breathwork or someone trying out new techniques. 


 Can you do too much breathwork / Can you practice breathwork too much ? 

Breathwork is safe and beneficial when done appropriately and by respecting one’s limits. As a general rule, like everything in life, moderation is ideal.


For instance, if you start doing an extreme, oxidizing type of breathwork of hyperventilation/very fast breathing, the not-so-fun part is you can make yourself feel dizzy, lightheaded or even faint. This is because you may be upsetting the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) in your blood and that doesn’t feel very good.


And, if you have any underlying medical issues – heart problems, or difficulty breathing, for instance – you should talk to your doctor before starting a new breathwork practice. They can help ensure that anything you try will suit your health.


How to integrate breathwork into daily life

The best way to describe breathwork is a daily restart, a moment of self-check-in among a swirling world of chatter, bustle, and noise. You wake up. You roll over, stretch, perhaps grab the phone for a quick calendar check. Then you put your leg over the edge of the bed, wriggle into your slippers. You’re ready to start the day. But before you head to the gym or the shower, just breathe.


It’s akin to giving yourself a little pep talk before stepping out into the world, and a reference point to come back to whenever your incipient anxiety requires additional attention, or when you just need a clarity break during a hectic day, throughout the day – be it two mindful breaths while waiting for your coffee to brew, or a brief, but mindful, re-centering ‘breath minute’ during an especially frenzied workday. It won’t be long before creating a breath practice in your life feels as regular as brushing your teeth or checking your phone. It’s your secret weapon for days gone awry.

Safety and precautions breathwork

Breathwork, although gaining popularity and scientific support, does come with its share of concerns and myths. Here are some common ones:

  • Hyperventilation: One concern is that breathwork might lead to hyperventilation, where you breathe too rapidly and shallowly, potentially causing dizziness, lightheadedness, or even fainting. Proper guidance and instruction should prevent this.

  • Emotional Release: A myth is that breathwork invariably causes intense catharsis. Yes, some people do experience emotional release with it, some do not; those who do often experience a degree of release linked to their personal history and to so much more.

  • Safety: Others worry about the safety of breathwork, especially if you have existing health concerns. While some approaches ask you to hold your breath, others ask you to do intense ‘breath retention’ routines, like those involved in the Wim Hof Method, which can be a step too far for some people with cardiovascular issues. You should speak with your family doctor before beginning a new breath regime, particularly if you have any kind of medical issue.

  • Spiritual or Religious Beliefs: A common misconception is that breathwork is inherently spiritual or religious, which is not the case. Although it’s true that various ancient traditions and spiritual practices have incorporated breathwork, and that some contemporary practitioners do choose to integrate it into their spiritual practice, the trend of modern breathwork tends to aim for physiological and psychological benefits, and is intended to be accessible to all – spiritual or not.

  • Instant Transformation: One myth to be aware of  is the erroneous belief that the first breathwork session (or even the first few) will suddenly and magically solve all one’s problems or achieve persistent transformation. Breathwork can be transformative but it is not a cure-all for every issue, and lasting transformation often comes with long-practice.

  • Lack of Scientific Evidence: Some skeptics question the scientific basis of breathwork and dismiss it as pseudoscience. As with almost any practice, more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms and effects of different breathwork techniques. However, there is growing scientific evidence supporting its benefits for stress reduction, mood regulation, and overall well-being.

  • Dependency: With this in mind, there are some valid concerns about creating a breathwork dependency or addiction in relation to the self-care of emotions and stress, and it is important to be mindful that, just like anything in the realm of self-care, there is a certain balance to be struck, and a toolkit to be assembled that includes other tools for the management of your wellbeing beyond breathwork.

When and how to breathwork

Is it ok to do it every day?

When done safely and intentionally, breathwork can be a daily practice that allows you to relieve stress, cultivate relaxation and enhance your wellbeing. Be cautious, listen to your body, break into it gently, start slowly, and if you have any underlying health issues, consult a health professional or trained breathwork instructor before starting a new practice.

Can you do it alone?

Yes! Breathwork can and should sometimes be practiced solo, so long as you are practicing responsibly and carefully.


Everyone’s breath is designed differently and while you’ll find that people breathe the same way, many methods suggest that you find your own unique breath. You can do breathwork exercises at home by yourself. Just be careful and don’t do it near something you can hurt yourself on or near hazards like water that you could fall into.

Who should not practice breathwork

The following groups people are some examples of those who should seek the advice of a medical professional before starting any new exercise, health, or wellness products or practices:


Pregnant women: Pregnant women should be cautious with breathwork practices, especially if they involve intense or rapid breathing techniques.


People with certain medical conditions: Those with respiratory issues like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) should approach breathwork cautiously and under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Same with people with heart or vascular issues like high blood pressure. 


People with mental health concerns: For some people mental health conditions, such as panic disorders, trauma, PTSD or severe anxiety, breathwork should be started with caution. Some breathing techniques can induce feelings of anxiety, emotional release, or discomfort that might be difficult for some individuals.


Children: While basic, gentle breathing exercises can be used for children, more advanced breathwork practices may not be suitable for young children. Talk to an expert who can  tailor breathwork practices to the proper developmental stage and individual needs of each child.


Anyone feeling unwell: If you're feeling sick, unwell, dizzy, or lightheaded, you may want  to avoid breathwork until you feel better. 


People under the influence: Engaging in breathwork while under the influence of drugs or alcohol can impair judgment and increase the risk of injury. 

Conclusion

Breathwork is not simply a fashionable new trend – it’s a discipline that has been evolving for thousands of years, with all kinds of benefits. Whether tracing this path back to antiquity or leapfrogging forward to modern science, what’s clear is that our breath is a powerful wellness resource, and that its various techniques will benefit those who explore them with openness and curiosity.


Whether it’s using slower, longer and deeper breathing through nostrils and throat, or other techniques, there’s something for everyone, tapping into a rich and abundant world of different options. And best of all, it’s free, a resource within us all. As you go about these next few weeks of busyness, arriving at destinations on time, chatting with friends and colleagues, or even watching shows, taking a deep relaxing breath in and out is a simple way to continue this journey of breathwork towards reducing your stress, boosting your energy and improving your health right now.