The Science Behind Breathwork

Kaylee Noland
The Science Behind Breathwork

Breathwork is much more than taking a deep inhale and exhale. True breathwork practice provides intentional manipulation of the breath. While many are familiar with deep breathing exercises experienced in pilates, yoga, or meditation, breathwork goes a bit beyond that. Interestingly, science validates the powerful benefits that breathwork can have on mental and physical health.

Origins of Breathwork

Breathwork is an ancient practice that has gained extensive popularity in the past five years or so. Many attribute the popularity of breathwork to the rise in popularity of yoga and “spiritual” holistic practices in general. But, others attribute the increase in breathwork to an increase in anxiety and depression due to living through COVID-19 and living in a post-pandemic world.

Many Americans are looking for more holistic health resources to help manage their stress as their medications aren’t cutting it. According to the COVID-19 Mental Disorders Collaborators, throughout 2020, the pandemic led to a 27·6% increase in cases of major depressive disorders and a 25·6% increase in cases of anxiety disorders globally. Unfortunately, these levels have stayed consistent in a post-pandemic world as well. 

Breathwork was practiced in the ancient world for thousands of years with evidence showing that it emerged from the east. Many religions have used breathwork as a way of connecting with the spiritual. This includes pranayama's in yogic practices and a variety of breath-centered meditations in Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Shamanism. This ancient practice was nearly dead until the 1960s and 1970s when there was a re-emergence of breathwork therapy techniques. Breathwork therapy has been steadily increasing more popular since the 70's. 

How it works?

Breathwork is an active meditation technique that uses breath to purge the physical, mental, and emotional debris via the nervous system.

As respiration is the only voluntary function of the autonomic nervous system, breath can be used to decrease heart rate, improve digestion, reduce cortisol, and more. This specific breathing process can help you access an alternative state of consciousness. The point of this specific breathing technique is to help one find the meaning and healing that comes within. In other words, you are voluntarily invigorating the involuntary system while moving to a higher state of consciousness. 

What to expect?

Every person who tries breathwork can experience something different! Even the same person doing a breathwork session one day to the next can have a completely different experience. 

Although some people may experience euphoria during the session, breathwork is work, energy work! Most practice breathwork under a trained instructor who facilitates a specific pattern to breathe with. As you begin to breathe in the specific pattern your body may start to feel energy. This can manifest into tingling, vibrations, temperature changes and even emotional releases! These energy shifts are temporary during the breathwork session. Fortunately, the beautiful part about breathwork is that if it ever becomes too overwhelming, you can always return to a relaxed breath pace.

Breathwork and Mental Health

Many use different types of breathwork to support mood, positive thought patterns, and even to help increase self-esteem. Researchers who have studied breathwork's effects on helping manage mental health would have to agree! In this 2016 study, researchers had 25 patients suffering from depression who had been taking more than eight weeks of antidepressant medication treatment (and still felt symptoms) complete a six-session program featuring breathwork. The medicated patients were randomized to either the breathing intervention group or the "waitlist" control group for eight weeks. Patients in the breathwork and yoga group showed a significantly greater improvement with symptoms compared to the other patients. Therefore, breathwork can serve as an effective tool to use to help support emotional health, manage stress, and increase self love!

Breathwork and Physical Health

As much as breathwork sessions may positively influence your mental and emotional state, breathwork can benefit you equally for your physical health. In fact, breathwork can help support your detoxification organs. When we breathe in, we take in air and oxygenate our lungs and blood. At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from our blood to our lungs, and when we exhale, we detox waste products from our system in the form of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, this can provide other health benefits physically by helping alkalize the blood! 

The deeper you breathe, the more alkalizing the effect on your body. So what does this mean, and why do we want alkaline-rich blood? Well, when your blood's pH level is more alkaline, this puts the body in a less inflammatory state. When blood is more acidic there can be more carbon dioxide trapped in your blood, which makes your system highly acidic and more prone to inflammation. Breathwork can help support detoxification, as well as the circulatory and cardiovascular systems. In fact, one 2019 study published by Advances In Integrative Medicine, found that breathwork helped 83 patients with their hypertension levels. 

Take a Deep Breath

Breath is life! While it's not recommended to solely rely on breathwork to treat your physical and mental health issues on their own, breathwork can be an amazing tool to utilize for your physical and emotional health and happiness. With something as simple and as unconscious as breath is, through it, you may have the potential to unlock your body’s own ability to heal mentally, emotionally and even physically.