What Is Breathwork?

Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on July 02, 2023
3 min read

Your breath brings oxygen into your body so that you can thrive. When you are physically or emotionally stressed, it affects how you breathe. Breathwork helps to calm your stress and bring balance to your body. So, how does it work, and what are breathwork techniques?

Breathwork is trendy right now, but it’s not new. People have been practicing breathwork for thousands of years, and it has roots in yoga practice. The basic idea of breathwork is to release toxins and stress when you breathe out and nourish your mind and body when you breathe in.

Benefits of breathwork. Research on breathwork is promising. Potential health benefits of breathwork include:

  • Alkalizing your blood PH
  • Anti-inflammatory effect
  • Elevating your mood

‌Breathwork may also have a positive impact on your central nervous system. When you feel stressed, your breath tends to become fast and shallow. This limits the oxygen entering your bloodstream. Your brain tells your body that there is a threat, and your body responds in fight or flight.

When you take time to slow down and purposefully breathe deeply and slowly, you tell your brain that everything is OK. Your brain communicates to your body that it’s safe to relax. The fight or flight response decreases, and your body can begin to function normally again.

Deep abdominal breathing. This technique uses a long, deep breath. As you breathe, you can visualize your breath filling up your body. Your belly and chest should both expand when you inhale. When you exhale, your chest relaxes, and your navel pulls back in toward your spine. This type of deep breathing tells your body to relax.

4-7-8 breath. This technique adds in counting beats as you breathe in and out as a way to quiet and focus your mind. Breathe in for four beats, hold your breath for seven beats, and then exhale for eight beats. A longer exhale encourages you to completely empty your lungs.

Alternate nostril breathing. Start with your right thumb applying pressure to your right nostril. Breathe in using only your left nostril and hold your breath as you switch sides. Release your right thumb and use your right index finger to apply pressure to the left nostril as you exhale through the right nostril. Pause, take another deep breath in, and then alternate again. This type of breathing technique helps encourage balance in your mind and body.

Breath of fire. This is a more advanced technique. When you inhale, your abdominal muscles are relaxed. When you exhale, engage your core to help push the air out of your body. This breathing technique may take some practice. Once achieved, it helps to provide a sense of steadiness.

Holotropic breathwork. It’s best to have an experienced instructor help you practice this technique. The idea is to achieve a continuous inhale and exhale pattern with no pause in between. This type of breathing floods your body with oxygen and renews your cells.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by stress and feel out of control. When you focus on breathing, you allow your body the chance to reset and recover from the negative side effects of stress. 

Physical health benefits of breathwork may include:

  • Balanced blood pressure
  • More time in deep sleep
  • Reduction of PTSD and feelings of trauma
  • Stronger respiratory function
  • Better immune system
  • Release of stress hormones from your body

Emotional benefits may include:

  • Fewer feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Better mental focus
  • Decrease in addictive behaviors
  • Allowing emotional scars to heal
  • Better outlook on life
  • Contentment and joy

Hyperventilation. If you’re new to breathwork, more challenging techniques may lead to hyperventilating. This is dangerous because you may also experience:

  • Dizziness
  • Tingling in your hands, arms, feet, or legs
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle spasms
  • Change in vision from lack of oxygen
  • Ringing in your ears

In rare cases, lack of oxygen to your brain may cause permanent damage.

Effectiveness. Breathwork requires focus, so it can take time to develop your ability to concentrate on the techniques. If you’re distracted during a breathwork session by noise and happenings around you, breathwork may not be as effective.