Breathwork 101: What it is & Why You Should Try It
By: Joyous Njoku & the Peer Ed Stress Management Committee
November 19th, 2020
If you're like many young people during this pandemic, you've probably been scrolling endlessly through TikTok. And if you've been on TikTok, you've probably stumbled across the trend of holotropic or DMT breathing. The video starts with a good-looking, well-meaning hippie surrounded by a bunch of words and tips on the screen, quickly explaining what it is and how to do it. You might have even tried it yourself for a round or two and chuckled about how you felt afterward. But this trend is not one to pass over if you are committed to living a stress-free life.
What is breathwork?
Breathwork describes a group of exercises that teach you to manipulate your breathing rate and depth to bring awareness to your breath and ultimately provide the same benefits you might get from a meditative practice. Breathwork can be as simple as box breathing (1) or as complicated as the Kundalini Kriya called Wahe Guru (2). It has been described by many in health care to be a beneficial practice for many people. It combines the benefits of meditation with the benefits of resetting your entire nervous system.
Where does breathwork come from?
Many different cultures and traditions have practiced forms of breathwork over human history. The most notable is from the school of yoga called Pranayama (which means "controlling the breath" in Sanskrit). The Vedic texts (that detail the teachings of yoga) include a section named "Pranayama" with over 50 techniques on controlling the breath. Each of these techniques has their own specific purpose. You may even be familiar with common techniques from a yoga class you've taken, like Breath of Fire or Belly Breathing.
Why Should I Practice Breathwork?
Below is a short list of a few benefits you may experience when practicing breathwork:
- Reduce stress, anxiety, grief, depression, and anger
- Boost immunity
- Develop or increase self-awareness (3)
- Enrich creativity
- Increase joy and happiness
- Increase confidence, self-image, and self-esteem (4)
- Process emotions, heal emotional pain and trauma
You can read more about the health benefits of breathwork in this Health line article (5) and this health blog (6).
The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk is a book highly revered by many mental health professionals for its in-depth look at how trauma affects the body. Bessel Van der Kolk is a preeminent neuroscientist who has researched trauma as the cause of many mental health issues. This book is a history of his career as a psychiatrist, researcher, and therapist and, as such, has become a history of his involvement in the mental health field over the last 30+ years.
He talks briefly about the human potential as he states;
"We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching... When we ignore these quintessential dimensions of humanity, we deprive people of ways to heal from trauma and restore their autonomy."
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
What van der Kolk is explaining is that we, as humans, can regulate our minds and thoughts with small actions that our bodies do: this includes breathing! When we ignore this ability, we are "depriving" ourselves of a way to heal from trauma.
Wim Hof is a man many refer to as "The Iceman" since he has popularized his living method at what he considers his most optimum level. Like van der Kolk, Wim Hof is an advocate for breathwork, and he combines deep breathing, cold showers, and ice baths to achieve his current mental and physical state. The results of long-term breathwork practice are seen in the extraordinary things he has been able to do in his 50's and 60's. He has set the Guinness world record for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice and he holds the record for running a barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow. He's spent the past few years working with scientists to study his acquired capabilities since practicing his lifestyle. You can learn more about his work in this article that goes into depth about his methodologies (7).
How can I get started with breathwork?
There are a few things to consider before engaging in any sort of breathwork:
- Never do breathwork while driving or doing anything where you have to pay attention to your external environment
- Never do breathwork while submerged in a pool or large body of water
The best way to begin any new habit is just by starting; starting slow and starting small! You can do breathwork first thing in the morning or right before bed or in the middle of the day as a little pick-me-up. You can practice for five minutes or five hours, but most practitioners and mental health professionals recommend doing breathwork for 20-45 minutes daily to reap some substantial benefits. Personally, I've found myself doing a few rounds of the Wim Hof method in between work hours more and more this past semester and my stress levels are at the lowest they've been in my entire adult life. It's a new practice, but I experience worth from the sensations after completing a few rounds throughout the day. Some yogis even have breathwork techniques they do instead of reaching for another cup of coffee!
To get you started on your journey, here's a reference for what breathwork technique you might consider doing to achieve a certain result:
- Primary Feeling: Relaxed
- Stress Response: Lowers cortisol
- Benefits: Immediate stress reduction, stimulates the vagus nerve, calms the mood
- Examples: belly breathing, box breath, 4–7–8 breathing, alternate nostril breathing
- Primary Feeling: Alert (increases adrenaline)
- Stress Response: Increases cortisol (short term)
- Benefits: Stimulates immune response, lowers inflammation
- Examples: Wim Hof breathing, holotropic breathwork, the breath of fire, modern breathwork studios & classes, hyperventilation (not recommended)
The YouTube channel Kundalini Lounge with Mariya Gancheva is a great resource to begin one's journey into breathwork. She has published 40-day yoga challenges for mental health, where she warms up the class with a few stretches for core strengthening and spinal flexibility and then falls into 2-3 meditations for the remainder of the class. It's a great practice to engage in for people of any health level as long as you listen to and are gentle with your body. As Mariya likes to say, "We are not here for ballet, we are here for yoga. And yoga focuses within." You can find a link to her channel here (8).
Some other excellent beginner breathwork tutorials you can look into are:
- DMT Breathing
- Wim Hof Method
- Wake Up With the Elements
- Beginner's Guided Breathwork
- Nadi Shodhana (or Alternate Nostril Breathing)
- 10 Breathing Techniques from Healthline
- Box Breathing
- Wahe Guru
Remember to start out slow when trying out breathwork techniques and if you have any concerns regarding trying out breathwork, be sure to consult a health care professional to see if these techniques are right for you. Happy Breathing! :)