Breathwork, put simply, is controlling your own energy.

Harvard Business Review found active breathing to be “so effective at reducing stress” (Source). Navy Seals have been using the famous ‘Box Breathing’ technique for calm in the highest adrenaline situations (Source). And a research study found that a better breathing technique was associated with greater reductions in anxiety (Source). It’s safe to say that breathwork is one of, if not the most underrated (and practical) mental health management techniques you can do.

What is Breathwork exactly?

Breathwork is the intentional act of breathing to control your nervous system. It’s commonly referred to as active or conscious breathing exercises because we all automatically (passively) breathe thousands of times each day but rarely override our internal system to reap the natural rewards. For a shorter version of this comprehensive guide, visit our Breathwork For Beginners Guide with easy follow alongs.

Breathwork isn’t a typical form of meditation but there are close similarities with its effect on the mind body and ultimately a person’s mental health. Breathwork has been practised for centuries and has been cited by many ancient Eastern cultures and religions from 2,500 years ago including Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity and is often associated with Pranayama, meaning ‘life energy control’, which is a key component of yoga practice.

Breathwork technique to help breathing
Breathwork technique to help nasal breathing

Breathwork as a self-healing practice

Breathwork began as a self healing practice for inner peace that brings the person into the present moment, something that everyone can benefit from as a way to live consciously. In our busy modern world it’s quite easy for people to focus on the external and neglect their internal health which breathwork is one of many ways we can re-focus attention back to ourselves; maintaining personal energy levels, calming stress and anxiety plus allowing us easier access into meditation states.

Although it may sound challenging, breathing exercises can easily be practised at home, at your desk at work or even during the middle of a competitive sports game! By regularly practising active breathing techniques, you’ll experience significant mental health benefits like being able to lower your blood pressure and calm yourself down during stressful moments or invigorate yourself up by controlling your energy levels which are determined by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Read on to learn more about the different types of breathwork techniques, how to hone your own personal breathing techniques like nasal breathing and what happens physiologically and psychologically when you actively breathe.

The human nervous system explained

The human nervous system is often referred to as the body’s electrical wiring because it’s made up of nerves that constantly send electrical signals communicating by connecting the brain to the body.

The nervous system is the centre of all mental activity including thought, learning and memory, and plays a central part in the mind body as the major regulator, controller and communicator. It’s important to note that the human nervous system plays an important role in homeostasis; the self-regulating processes that maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are best for its survival.

It consists of two main divisions: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS, which consists of the brain and spinal cord, is responsible for processing information that’s received from our sense organs. The PNS, on the other hand, is made up of all nerve cells outside of this control center including cranial nerves in your head and sensory neurons throughout your body to name just a few examples. It senses everything we touch feel see smell taste or hear, so it’s important to understand how breathwork practice impacts these different neural pathways to maximize its mind body benefits accordingly.

3D medical model of lungs during breathwork
3D medical model of lungs during breathwork

The anatomy of the breathing process 

During inhalation (breathing in) oxygen from the air enters the body through the nostrils (Read: how to stop mouth breathing) into the lungs where it passes over blood containing capillaries called alveoli before it’s distributed to the rest of your body and into blood vessels where it can be transported. The oxygen enriched air that we breathe in is then transferred through tiny sacs called alveoli which are surrounded by capillaries, allowing for a greater surface area between them so they’re able to absorb more carbon dioxide than when you exhale before sending this waste product back out via lungs and respiratory system.

Breathwork has been practiced as a self healing practice for centuries but what exactly does active breathing do physiologically within the body?

Firstly, let’s look at how breathwork impacts different neural pathways (signals in the brain) related to the PNS: Sensory neurons, which are responsible for communicating messages like touch and pain between your body and brain. When you breathe in through your nose it triggers signals along olfactory nerve fibers that stimulate chemical receptors on cells inside of nasal passages; some even say inhaling certain scents can improve memory function! This is because information travels from one neuron to another via a gap known as a synapse. These electrical impulses travel towards the central nervous system by way of sensory nerves throughout the face including trigeminal nerve at top and bottom jawbone, facial nerve near cheekbones and also into the ear canal where auriculotemporal branch stimulates taste buds that send signals about flavor back up over tongue so we know what we’re eating.

Secondly, let’s see how breathwork impacts pathways related to the CNS: Your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is responsible for slowing your heart rate down to help you relax; it’s made up of sensory neurons that transmit messages about temperature, pain and pressure between brain and body. Breathing in through the nose activates olfactory nerve fibers which stimulate areas including the medial amygdala where emotional memories are stored, hypothalamus part of the limbic system involved with memory processing both long term and short term as well as controlling emotions like anger sadness fear joy pleasure anticipation before travelling onto hippocampus region linked with emotion based learning among other things.

Lastly let’s look at how breathwork impacts pathways related to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS): This division helps our body prepare for physical activity by stimulating fight or flight response using hormones to increase our heart rate and dilate air passages among other things. The SNS is made up of both sensory neurons that control pain, temperature, pressure and touch as well as motor neurons that communicate messages to muscles for them to contract and relax accordingly. Breathing in through the nose activates olfactory nerve fibers like we discussed above but also trigeminal nerve (pain/temperature) within the face which transmits signals directly into the brain about these sensations before travelling onto the spinal cord where it connects with sections called ventral horns; here the information can be either carried by way of a neuron projection or transmitted via neurotransmitters like adrenaline to activate sympathetic nervous system based on what you’re experiencing at any given moment whether it’s emotional or physical.

The different types of breathwork

There are a variety of different breathwork practices that, depending on your location or your culture, may be familiar to you or completely new. Here we’ll also note down the benefits associated with each breathwork practice.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing is a simple but effective form of breathwork that’s been studied by many scientists and is the most common type (probably because it’s the simplest). Deep breathing involves inhaling through your nose for a count of four, holding it in for a moment and then exhaling slowly out through your mouth until you’ve emptied all the air from your lungs. By doing this exercise twice per day, once when you wake up and again before you go to sleep, it’ll help with stress management by calming your mind and body.

What are the benefits of deep breathing?

The physical benefits include lowering blood pressure in people who suffer from hypertension or high blood pressure. Breathing slowly also brings more oxygen into the bloodstream which helps nourish our cells for better management of energy levels throughout the day.

Box breathing

Box breathing is a breathing technique popularised by Navy Seals and the military, it is a slightly more advanced form of breathwork that’s been used to train soldiers for many years in order to stay calm and focused when they’re under pressure. Box breathing involves 4 x 4 counts (like the perimeter of a box); inhaling through the nose for a count of four, holding it in your lungs for a count of four, exhaling through the nose for a count of four and then holding again for a count of four. The difference is instead of doing this exercise twice per day as mentioned previously, box breathing can be practised anywhere between three-ten times during the course of a day because it has so much mental focus attached to it which helps us maintain clarity even while multitasking throughout the day.

What are the benefits of box breathing? 

The main benefits of box breathing are that it’s believed to activate our parasympathetic nervous system by helping us relax and reducing stress. This breathing technique is also said to help improve focus which helps with meditation, study or work tasks that require intense concentration.

Holotropic breathwork

Holotropic breathwork (‘holotropic’ meaning ‘moving toward wholeness in oneself) is a type of breathwork practice that’s been popularized by Dr. Stan Grof who is a psychiatrist from the United States and it combines deep breathing with music to take participants on an intense spiritual journey full of emotional release, healing and psychic opening. Holotropic breathing requires you to breathe rapidly in and out of your mouth while you’re listening to some stimulating music that’s been known to induce a trance-like state.

What are the benefits of holotropic breathwork?

The benefits of holotropic breathing are huge because we’ve all become disconnected from our body which has caused us to live in constant stress due to external factors like technology overload or consuming too much information each day. When we’re not mindful about what we think and feel throughout the day, this creates mental tension as well as physical tension (a heightened heart rate) which activates your fight-or-flight response which causes unpleasant feelings such as anxiety or anger.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Similar to deep breathing, another one of the breathwork techniques we’re discussing today is diaphragmatic breathing (dia-phra-matic). Diaphragmatic breathing practice is perfect for relieving stress because it’s a conscious type of breathwork that slows down your respiratory rate which decreases the amount of cortisol released by our endocrine system, thus reducing feelings of anxiety.

What are the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing is believed to contribute to better health and wellbeing because when you inhale through your nose, air travels into the lungs where carbon dioxide is expelled during exhalation out through your mouth. This process helps with blood oxygen levels as well as triggering healthy parasympathetic nervous responses, also known as ‘rest and digest’ mode.

The spiritual connection with breath

If I asked you what the word spirit means, what would you say? Aside from the alcohol-related definition, your description may include some familiar examples of where ‘spirit’ exists as a common noun in English language.

  • Team spirit
  • Free spirit
  • Holy Spirit
  • Guiding spirit
  • Dunkirk spirit
  • Restless spirit
  • Kindred spirit
  • That’s the spirit

Or maybe include some of the following:

  • She has an entrepreneurial spirit
  • The weather dampened spirit
  • The manager lifted their spirit
  • Torture didn’t break his spirit

You might also have used words like ‘character’, ‘essence’, or ‘heart’. It’s kinda difficult to describe though, right? In scientific literature, due to its inability to be measured as physical matter like most elements that make up the body are, spirit is described as something that’s incorporeal; meaning that its true essence exists free from physical convention.

In religious scriptures, spirit refers to the part of a human being that connects and communicates with a deity (a perceivably supreme character in existence beyond what’s physically observable).

By dictionary definition, it’s categorised in three similar but separate senses:

  1. Way of feeling – “her spirit was dampened”
  2. Not of body – “he’s still with me but in spirit”
  3. Of energy – “they performed with great spirit”

Taking all of that into consideration, you might be surprised to learn that the word spirit actually originates from the Latin verb spirare meaning breathe. With spiritus meaning: breath, the force which animates life, or life force.

Here are some literal meanings of related words that you’ll most probably recognise, along with their modern day interpretations:

To aspire means to breathe on: working with strong physical and mental exertion by aspiring to reach a goal or having an aspiration to achieve something.

To conspire means to breathe together: plotting or planning a scheme with others. Plotters are also referred to as conspirators and conspiracy is a synonym of plot, a secret plan or agreement between people.

To perspire means to breathe through: associated with the body’s cooling mechanism producing sweat through the skin via the autonomous action of perspiration.

To transpire means to breathe across: with connotations that something has happened or occurred, like a previously secretive or unknown fact now becomes known.

To inspire means to breathe in: derived from the religious concept that a deity breathes life into a human to give them soul.

In the Book of Genesis, 2:7, Moses wrote: “Then the Lord God formed the man’s body from dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life (spirit), and the man became a living soul.” Fuelling someone with the urge or ability to take action or feel something – inspiring. An inspiration being someone or thing that was influential in the accomplishment of something.

To respire means to breathe again: the breathing cycle of life; inhaling oxygen into the body and exhaling carbon dioxide primarily for energy management.

And to expire means to breathe out: with connotations of coming to an end or reaching the final period of validity in its current form – to breathe one’s last breath.

It’s important to note that the breath itself, in essence, isn’t spirit. Spirit is essentially the presence of energy that manages a metaphysical connection within oneself, with another, with others or for others. Spiritual connections, then, can be enhanced by active breathing, meditation or prayer; by deepening relationship intimacy; by socially bonding with others or through altruistic concern for others.

Further Reading: The Spirituality Guide For Open-Minded Beginners

Breathwork FAQs

Can breathwork cure stress and anxiety?

Breathwork has been cited by research to help reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety, but it doesn’t cure them. It can help you manage stress, anxiety and other symptoms of emotional trauma by helping to regulate the nervous system which is responsible for controlling your feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

Breathwork isn’t a replacement or substitute for counselling therapy so if you have ongoing mental health concerns please seek professional support or medical advice from a medical practitioner with proven experience in treating people with similar conditions.

Read more about The Stress Bucket model of managing and acting on relieving your own stress build up.

How does breathwork affect our cells?

When we breathe deeply into the diaphragm (belly), more oxygen flows throughout the body than when breathing shallowly into just the upper lungs that are located at either side of the chest cavity. There’s also greater contact between blood vessels lining both sides of our heart allowing red blood cells to absorb more oxygen than when breathing shallowly. Diaphragmatic breathing also stimulates the thalamus, located in between our brain’s two hemispheres, which is responsible for sensory and motor signals. The thalamus relays information back down through hypothalamic nuclei (found deep within our brains), regulating autonomic nervous system (ANS) functions like heart rate, body temperature and breathing patterns.

How long should I breathwork each day?

It depends on your goals for breathwork, the great thing about breathwork practice is that you can usually use it as often as you need to or not. I find that following Lucas Rockwood’s ‘Coffee, Water & Whiskey’ practice (Source) is most effective for daily energy management.

Is breathwork a form of meditation?

Breathwork isn’t a form of mediation per se but it’s a type of meditative practice that uses the breath as an anchor, to help you remain focused on your inner world. Breathwork is also known as conscious or controlled breathing which can be done both seated and standing up.

What should I do if I’m hyperventilating?

If you’re struggling with over-breathing (hyperventilation) firstly just try to find somewhere calm and safe where you feel comfortable sitting down and/or lying down in a position that allows for optimal oxygen flow without restriction or discomfort. From there it’s important to consciously slow the rate at which we exhale so slowly until our respiratory rate has reduced by half its current pace.

Is breathwork dangerous?

Breathwork can be dangerous if not practiced correctly. It’s always advised to use a certified breathwork coach for training before exploring the energy control practice. In the first session, a breathing coach will train you to breathe gradually and at your own pace. You’ll be taught how to use breathwork as an effective tool for managing stress, anxiety or other symptoms of emotional trauma.

Can breathwork heal trauma?

Breathwork can heal trauma but it’s a practice that requires more than just using breathwork on its own. In order for the techniques to be effective there needs to be a clear understanding of why you’re doing them and if appropriate, some counselling or therapy from an experienced trauma counsellor who understands how energy control works.

Where can I get breathwork training?

It’s best to start by joining a Breathwork training session or following practical videos online before enrolling on a course. Start by watching this video guide to breathwork by Deepak Chopra:

Guide to Breathwork: Pranayama by Deepak Chopra on YouTube

ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

parsleyhealth.com

health.harvard.edu

med.stanford.edu

uclahealth.org

eomega.org

pennmedicine.org

ijpbs.net

Charlie Penwarden

Former mental health nurse turned consultant with a critical focus on human behaviour research analysis and the optimisation of mental health management to prevent illness and promote life harmony.