Breathwork: Uses, Techniques, and Benefits

Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

May 26, 2023

Table of Contents

Breathwork is a term used to describe any kind of controlled breathing exercise or breathing technique that is often used for mental health treatment purposes.

People perform breathwork to improve their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Breathwork penetrated popular culture in 2020 with a Netflix wellness series, The Goop Lab, devoting an episode to The Wim Hof Method.

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Breathwork can be effective in alleviating symptoms of the following conditions:

  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger management issues
  • Grief
  • Trauma
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Emotional effects of physical illness

It is also a tool used during addiction treatment to help improve mental health and reduce risk of relapse. Before we look into the specifics of breathwork, it is important to understand that if you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse to reach out to our California rehab today for immediate help.

You can choose to engage with many types of breathwork therapy. All involve intentionally changing your breathing pattern, breathing in a systematic and conscious way. Many practitioners of breathwork find it encourages a state of deep relaxation. Others practice breathwork to feel more energized.

Breathwork can be effective in alleviating symptoms of the following conditions:

It is also a tool used during addiction treatment to help improve mental health and reduce risk of relapse. Before we look into the specifics of breathwork, it is important to understand that if you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse to reach out to our California rehab today for immediate help.

You can choose to engage with many types of breathwork therapy. All involve intentionally changing your breathing pattern, breathing in a systematic and conscious way. Many practitioners of breathwork find it encourages a state of deep relaxation. Others practice breathwork to feel more energized and improve mental health.

What is Breath Work?

Breathwork refers to many different breathing techniques, exercises, and programs. While these may differ, all forms of breathwork help you to consciously focus on inhaling and exhaling while performing deep breaths and focused controlled breathing.

While breathwork might be fashionable right now, the practice is not new. People have been performing breathwork for thousands of years and it is central to yoga.

How Does Breathwork Work?

The premise of breathwork is to nourish your body and mind as you inhale while releasing stress and toxins as you exhale.

Breathing is a core component of most forms of meditation, but breathwork and meditation are not the same. Rather, breathwork is an active meditation technique. Breathwork can deliver both immediate and cumulative benefits.

a woman practicing breathwork

Breathwork Meditation Techniques

There are hundreds of schools of breathwork and many types of breathing types and techniques within those schools. The healing mechanism in all cases is the mind-body connection. Breathwork is proven effective for promoting relaxation through your body’s innate stress-countering mechanism.

Some of the most common approaches to breathwork include:

  • Holotropic breathwork
  • Transformational breathwork
  • Shamanic breathwork
  • Clarity breathwork
  • Rebirthing therapy
  • Vivation

You can also find focused breathwork exercises in many mindfulness apps.

Breathwork techniques are intended to calm you, energize you, or deliver a balance of calming and energizing while being in the present moment.

How does breathwork manage to achieve this?

The techniques used to appeal to either of these nervous systems:

  1. Sympathetic nervous system: This is the activating part of the CNS, more active when you exhale.
  2. Parasympathetic nervous system: This is the calming part of the CNS, more active when you inhale.

Examples of Breathwork Exercises

These are some of the most popular breathwork exercises:

  • Energizing breath
  • Calming breath
  • Square breathing
  • Breathing imagery
An infographic on common breathwork techniques

Energizing breath

With this breathing exercise, you’ll engage your sympathetic nervous system, encouraging a heightened but healthy level of stress.

Here are two methods of performing energizing breath:

  • Exhale too quickly without allowing yourself the time to inhale
  • Repeat 30 times
  • Rest for 60 seconds
  • Repeat twice

Alternatively:

  • Inhale faster than usual 20 times
  • Release all the air on the final exhale
  • Hold your breath for 30 seconds

If you start to perform these breathing exercises when you feel sluggish, this can generate more positive effects than grabbing a cup of coffee.

Calming breath

To perform this breathwork technique, simply double the length of your exhalation compared to your inhalation.

Square breathing

Square breathing exercises are used to restore balance in your autonomic nervous system.

You breathe in the following cycle, spending 4 seconds on each step:

  • Inhale
  • Hold
  • Exhale
  • Hold

Breathing imagery

Breathing imagery can help if you struggle with insomnia. Rather than catastrophizing – worrying about things you cannot control – breathing imagery helps you to relax by focusing your thoughts on your physical breath.

Always speak to your healthcare provider before undertaking any breathwork therapies, especially if you have an underlying medical condition or you are taking any medications.

Holotropic Breathwork

Holotropic breathwork is a specific breathing technique intended for mental health and to encourage emotional coping and personal growth.

Established by Dr. Stan Grof and Christina, his wife, holotropic breathwork is proven effective for heightening awareness.

The goal of holotropic breathwork is to improve your well-being, physical, psychological, and spiritual.

A certified practitioner will lead group sessions instructing you to breathe at a rapid rate for a set period while fully lateral. This can alter your state of consciousness.

Music is a component of holotropic breathwork sessions. After the session, you may have a group discussion and guided drawing.

Transformational Breathwork

The Transformational Breath theory was developed by Dr. Judith Kravitz.

Combining conscious breathing techniques with spiritual and healing concepts, you will be encouraged to breathe deeply, using your full diaphragm. The intention is to unlock wisdom from deep within, allowing you to access the part of you that feels passionate about life.

If you practice this technique, you will learn to inhale deeply through your mouth while expanding your abdomen. As you exhale, you sigh gently.

Although not a miracle cure, the Transformational Breath theory can help in the following ways:

  • Reduce stress
  • Sharpen immune response
  • Improve mental clarity
  • Increase oxygen supply

This form of breathwork can help you address physical issues like headaches or asthma. It can also be an effective supplementary form of addiction treatment.

Breathwork Benefits

People attend breathwork classes for many reasons, including:

  • Reducing stress
  • Releasing negative thoughts
  • Boosting immunity
  • Aiding self-development
  • Developing life skills
  • Enriching creativity
  • Healing emotional pain
  • Processing trauma
  • Dealing with difficult emotions
  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Improving professional and personal relationships
  • Boosting self-confidence
  • Overcoming addictions

The benefits of breathwork include:

  • Strengthening respiratory function
  • Promoting deep sleep
  • Reducing feelings of trauma
  • Balancing blood pressure
  • Improving immune system
  • Releasing stress hormones from the body
  • Alleviating feelings of anxiety and depression
  • Sharpening mental focus
  • Decreasing addictive behaviors
  • Alkalizing blood pH
  • Delivering an anti-inflammatory effect

Beyond this, breathwork can also positively impact your CNS (central nervous system). If you are feeling stressed, you often start taking fast, shallow breaths. Doing this limits the amount of oxygen entering your bloodstream, triggering the fight-or-flight response. If you slow down, purposefully breathing deeply and slowly, your brain tells your body that it is safe to relax, reducing the fight or flight response.

Cons of Breathwork

While there are many potential health benefits of breathwork, there are potential drawbacks to consider. Certain techniques can cause dizziness or hyperventilation, especially for those with medical conditions. Breathwork may also trigger intense emotions or bring up past traumas, potentially causing distress. It should not be a substitute for conventional medical treatments, and relying solely on breathwork may delay appropriate medical intervention. Approach breathwork with caution, seek professional guidance if needed, and be aware of personal limitations and risks.

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Breathwork at Renaissance Recovery

If you have been struggling with addiction or mental health issues, we can help you address the psychological aspect as well as any issues of physical dependence here at Renaissance Recovery’s Orange County rehab.

You can benefit from holistic therapies like breathwork and meditation alongside an evidence-based array of treatments, including:

  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Psychotherapy (CBT and DBT)
  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Family therapy

Here at Renaissance, we specialize in the outpatient treatment of addictions, mental health conditions, and co-occurring disorders. We provide programs at all levels of intensity on the continuum of care, up to and including partial hospitalization programs.

Recovery is an ongoing process, not an event like detox or discharge. At Renaissance, your treatment team will ensure you have a robust aftercare and relapse management strategy in place, maximizing your chances of sustained recovery.

Reach out to Renaissance today to kickstart your recovery by calling our addiction hotline at 866.330.9449.

What is Breathwork? FAQs

What happens during breathwork?

During breathwork, participants engage in intentional breathing techniques that focus on deep, conscious inhalations and exhalations. This practice aims to increase oxygen flow, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and promote relaxation. Different breathwork modalities can have varying effects, but common experiences include heightened awareness, a release of tension or emotional blockages, a sense of clarity, and a deep state of relaxation or altered consciousness. It is important to approach breathwork with proper guidance and in a safe environment.

Are there any dangers to breathwork?

While breathwork can be a beneficial practice for many individuals, it is important to approach it with caution and under proper guidance. Some potential risks associated with breathwork include hyperventilation, dizziness, lightheadedness, and emotional overwhelm. People with certain medical conditions such as asthma, respiratory issues, or cardiovascular problems should consult with a healthcare professional before engaging in breathwork. It is crucial to learn and practice breathing exercises from qualified instructors who can provide guidance and ensure safety during the process.

How do you perform breathwork?

To perform breathwork, find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Inhale slowly, deep breaths in through your nose, allowing your belly to expand fully, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Focus on your breath, maintaining a steady rhythm. Some slow-breathing breathwork practices involve specific techniques, such as alternate nostril breathing or rhythmic patterns and belly breathing. It is recommended to learn breathwork from qualified instructors who can guide you through different techniques and ensure you are practicing safely and effectively.

Why is breathwork so powerful?

Breathwork is powerful as it directly influences the body and mind, regulating the nervous system and inducing relaxation. It allows us to access deeper states of consciousness, enhancing self-awareness and emotional connection. With its simplicity and accessibility, breathwork empowers individuals to improve physical vitality and cultivate balance, clarity, and resilience.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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