Breathwork can mean different things for different people, but in its simplest term, it is the practice of utilizing some type of conscious or intentional breathing technique or exercise to enhance physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual health. It may be combined with other techniques like meditation or used as a stand-alone practice. It is one of the easiest and most cost-effective, holistic, self-care strategies at our disposal.
Dr. Andrew Weil tells us that the breath functions as a link between the unconscious and conscious mind, a tool to influence the involuntary nervous system, a technique to decrease anxiety and increase spiritual awareness and development, ground the mind, body, and spirit, and increase communication pathways between the mind-body connection. I would add that it can also be used to relieve pain and increase creativity and intuition.
For both those who have an existing health condition or those practicing prevention, the breath is a simple, yet an exceptional tool that can be used in day-to-day life to not only manage stress but to encourage optimal health. It is one of my favorite holistic health strategies because it’s free, convenient, practical, easy, and very effective on many different levels.
Now I know it can get a little confusing with all the health gurus, spiritual teachers, etc., and each one with their own beliefs and theories on how breathwork should be practiced. However, it really isn’t that complicated. There is no need to study long-lost ancient philosophy with the masters or attend weekend seminars.
I encourage you not to get caught up in all that. If you have the time and the desire to study, fine, but don’t feel that is necessary to reap the many benefits that breathwork offers. All you need to understand are the basics, which we are going to cover.
A lot of what I’m going to discuss here is taken from an excellent CD from Dr. Andrew Weil called, Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing (The Self Healing Series) I encourage you to get a copy. This is one of my most favorite learning sources I’ve ever come across. It is simple to understand and gives you a great overview of not only breath but the sympathetic nervous system as well.
However, I do want to caution you that I don’t like some of Dr. Weil’s actual breathing techniques because they are too stimulating for me. This probably won’t be an issue for most people, except those with a hypersensitive sympathetic nervous system, but even if that is the case, the greatest value of this CD is the educational aspect of breath and the autonomic nervous system.
The Science of Breathwork
Dr. Weil tells us that breathing is the only function in the human body that is done either completely unconsciously or completely consciously. It can be a voluntary act or involuntary and thus it is governed by two distinct sets of muscles and nerves depending on which mode is in use – the involuntary nerves and muscles and the voluntary. Each set of muscles and nerves can fully drive and manage the system. Therefore the breath has this phenomenal unique characteristic that enables it to affect the involuntary nervous system. It is the only function in the human body that has this ability. We can use our voluntary breathing to influence our involuntary nervous system. Isn’t that just amazing?
The involuntary nervous system, also called the autonomic nervous system, controls those aspects in the body that occur on their own, “automatically” like heartbeat, digestion, blood pressure, widening or narrowing of blood vessels, and breathing. It consists of two branches – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight system or stress response system, is activated when we are under stress. It triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol, noradrenalin, and adrenalin that increases our heart rate and blood pressure, directs blood flow away from the surface of the body, halts digestion, provides us with energy, and makes us alert, thus providing us with the resources to deal with the stressful situation at hand. The parasympathetic nervous system does the complete opposite. It relaxes, calms down, reduces blood pressure and heart rate, directs blood flow towards the surface of the body, and improves digestion.
When all is functioning as it should, these two systems work in harmony with one another and maintain homeostasis in the body. When we’re under stress, the sympathetic nervous system responds to get us through the crises, and then the parasympathetic system brings us back to a normal state of rest and relaxation. However, a common phenomenon found in many people today is an imbalance in the involuntary nervous system. Primarily, there is overactivity in the sympathetic nervous system and under activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s as if our bodies are in a constant state of stress, otherwise known as fight or flight. This results in a complex condition called Dysautonomia or autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
The sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive all the time because we are all under too much stress. Stress may come in the form of work, family, social, cognitive, emotional, environmental, spiritual, noise, financial, biochemical, and many more. Whatever the case may be, the negative effects of stress result in a sympathetic nervous system that doesn’t shut off. Ongoing overstimulation of the fight or flight system leads to burnout of the adrenal glands and an underactive parasympathetic nervous system.
Additionally, when we are under stress, we breathe fast, short and shallow. Since so many of us are under stress at all times, we have developed an unconscious pattern of chronic unhealthy breathing. Even when the stressful event passes, we continue to breathe as if we are still under stress and this keeps the sympathetic nervous system turned on as well.
This overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system has many negative effects on our health and is often at the root of or a major exacerbator of, a large number of health conditions we find in society today like heart disease, high blood pressure, circulation disorders, digestive disorders, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, anxiety disorders, irregular heartbeats, depression, adrenal fatigue, hyperactivity, addiction and poor health in general.
This is where breathwork comes into play. Voluntary acts of breathing with specific techniques can be used to turn off the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, the breathing is fast, short, and shallow, while when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated we breathe slower, deeper, and longer, therefore if we intentionally breathe slower, deeper and longer we can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. We can calm down, rev up or harmonize the nervous system with our breath. There is simply nothing easier, more affordable, and effective for reducing your stress.
With the regular and repetitive practice of breathing deep, slow, and long we can change our breathing patterns and this will affect the underlying issue of these health conditions by helping to restore balance to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
However, it’s important to note that there are many factors that contribute to an imbalance in the sympathetic nervous system like diet, nutrition, environmental toxins, and nutritional deficiencies. Therefore, it is my opinion that breathwork is most effective when it is combined with other holistic strategies like eating a healthy diet and green living. For example, if you’re eating sugar, white flour, and other junk food and/or being exposed to chemicals like pesticides and herbicides on a daily basis, all of which disrupt the autonomic nervous system and thrusts you into fight or flight mode, then you’re fighting an uphill battle with breathing techniques.
The disruption that these substances cause to the nervous system inhibit, or at the very least, minimize the benefits you acquire with breathwork. On the other hand, if you remove those unhealthy foods from your diet and practice green living principles, then you optimize the results you can see. Identifying deficiencies in nutrients is also an important part of this puzzle as well.
Mind/Body Connection and Spirituality
One of the aspects I love the most about breathwork is that this is a practice where the world of science and spirituality come together.
Dr. Weil tells us that because the act of breathing can be either conscious or unconscious that it also serves as a gateway between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind and it is the channel that connects the mind and body. It has both a mental and physical element, therefore the breath can be used to influence the impact of the mind on the body and vice versa.
For example, we can use the voluntary element of breathing to influence the involuntary physical effects we experience when we’re angry, afraid, or upset. By simply changing the rhythms of your breath, both the body and state of mind can be calmed down.
Furthermore, he informs us that in many cultures the word breath and spirit, or universal energy, are the same and encourages us to see the breath in this manner. Life begins and ends with breath. In other words, the breath is where the spirit resides. The breath is what connects us to all other living things, including the earth and the Universe itself because we all share the rhythmic expansion and contraction of breath.
When we focus on our breathing, we are focusing on the non-physical essence (spiritual) of who we are. Essentially we are connecting with our spiritual self, which allows us to reach higher states of consciousness and inner peace, develop increased spiritual awareness, and experience spiritual nourishment, all of which enhance our spiritual health.
Putting Breathwork into Practice
Although we conceptualize our breath as beginning with the inhale and ending with the exhale, that is not reality. Again, to quote the wise words of Dr. Andrew Weil, breathing has no beginning and no end; it is a continuous universal wave of inhalation and exhalation. However, he suggests that if we try to view exhalation as the beginning of the breath cycle and inhalation as the end that it is more beneficial.
There are many different types of techniques that can be used in breathwork, not all of them may be effective for you. What works for one may not work for another. For example, I don’t like exercises that encourage breathing through the mouth, these are stimulating for me instead of relaxing. I like breathing through the nostrils with my mouth closed. You can read my favorite technique as well as more discussion on how to breathe properly by visiting my deep breathing exercises page.
When you practice your breathwork exercises, you want to use what is called abdominal breathing. The belly should protrude when you inhale, not your chest. Place your hands on your belly, when you breathe in, your hands should rise.
Most of us have been taught that the chest should expand when we breathe in and that the belly should remain flat at all times. This is an unhealthy practice and a primary contributor to the overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system.
Take a full, slow and complete breath in through your nose. Breathe out through your nose in a slow, controlled, and measured manner. Then repeat for a few minutes. Imagine that you are pushing your breath through your body so that it flows out your pores or through your fingertips and toes. You’ll notice that immediately your heart rate slows down and you probably feel more relaxed and less stressed.
Our goal in breathwork is to change our breathing qualities, When we are under stress, upset, angry, or afraid, our breath is shallow, irregular, noisy, and rapid. In a relaxed state, our breath is quiet, slow, deep, and long.
Therefore, we want to focus on making our breath deeper, longer, quieter, regular, and slower as often as possible. The more often we do this, the more often we put the parasympathetic nervous system in the driver seat and calm down the sympathetic.
If we practice this type of breathing on a regular basis, then eventually we can train the breath to follow this pattern on its own and the nervous system will respond accordingly. Repetition and frequency are important. With the continuous repetition of deep, slow, long, quiet breaths we can restore the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which results in a slower heart rate and blood pressure, decreased anxiety, relaxation, enhanced digestion, better sleep, etc. We feel more harmonious in body, mind, and spirit, the nervous system and organs function more smoothly.
Note of Caution:
Some people with a very damaged or sensitive autonomic nervous system, like that which occurs with advanced adrenal fatigue, have to be careful with the manner they practice their deep breathing exercise or they actually have the opposite result and stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. I have had this experience myself, but all the deep breathing exercises I share on this site, have worked very well at getting around this.
The way that you breathe is crucial. The mouth must be shut, the breath must come in through the nose, you must breathe from the abdomen. The breath cannot be too shallow or too fast or held too long. Each of these has the ability to stimulate the stress response system and/or excitatory neurotransmitters. Don’t hold your breath in the body. You want the breath to flow through the body and out. You want to imagine that you are pushing the breath out. Pushing the breath into and then out of the body is very important. It is the pushing of breath that moves out the stress.
The sympathetic nervous system is also affected by the position of the eyes as you breathe. The eyes should be closed, but don’t close too tightly, don’t roll them around in your head, don’t look upwards or sideways, and don’t put any strain on them. If you practice with your eyes open, the same guidelines apply.
Go slow at first and engage in only a few minutes. You may have to train your body and mind by easing them into practice a little at a time. Your body and mind may resist, so be gentle. Over time you’ll begin to feel the positive effects and then you’ll become more responsive and embracing, and a snowball effect will occur. The more you practice, the more effective it becomes, the more effective it becomes the more responsive you are. Please visit my deep breathing exercises page to learn the specific technique that I have found to be most effective, even for those with a hypersensitive autonomic nervous system.
When to Practice Breathwork
Breathwork can be practiced at any time of day, but find a time that fits comfortably in your life. A few minutes here and there every day where you won’t be interrupted will be sufficient. Then make a commitment to yourself to practice during these times.
For example, I personally practice my breathwork faithfully every morning when I get up and each night when I go to bed, and I encourage my clients to do the same. I find that practicing right before going to bed is particularly beneficial as it quiets my mind, helps me relax and let go of the day, and literally puts me to sleep in a few minutes, this is likely because it stimulates the release of melatonin, our hormone that puts us to sleep. And beginning each day with at least 8 to 12 minutes of deep breathing sets the tone for the day and gets you started on the right foot.
Additionally, I practice again around 11 a.m. or noon each day when I take a break to relieve stress from the morning. If I have periods throughout my day that feel particularly stressful, I will have another breathwork session. Anytime throughout the day when the thought crosses my mind, I make it a point to focus on deep, slow, breathing during my daily activities as well. I often combine it with meditation, which enhances the benefits of both.
Anything that fits your schedule or preference will do. It’s the consistency that’s important. Although some results like decreased anxiety, less stress, relaxation, increased creativity, and better sleep can be experienced immediately, the long-term results will come with time.
Dr. Weil tells us that breathwork can be used to change the function of the nervous in the same way that the constant flow of water can cut carve a canyon through rock. The gentle, but constant pressure produces magnificent results over time.
Scientific Benefits of Breathwork
The scientific benefits of breathwork are vast. Many studies show that it can be used to improve overall general mental, physical and spiritual health or to improve an existing health condition. If there is an existing condition or disease, breathwork will help the body and mind to function better and assist in the healing process.
One of the primary reasons it is so beneficial is because of its impact on the brain. Deep breathing will increase our levels of calming and mood-enhancing neurotransmitters serotonin, endorphins, and Gaba and balance dopamine. Thus, it can help alleviate anxiety, depression, and pain.
One study has shown that deep breathing can increase Gaba levels in the brain by as much as 27 percent. Another study found that deep breathing can lower cortisol levels by as much as 50 percent. By lowering cortisol levels and increasing Gaba we have less fear, anxiety, and stress.
Other conditions that respond the most to breathwork may include arrhythmias and other heart conditions, cold hands, atrial fibrillation, high blood pressure, circulation, depression, generalized anxiety, anxiety attacks, stress, panic attacks, adrenal fatigue, constipation, irritable bowel, indigestion or other digestive disorders, hyperactivity or ADHD, insomnia, chronic pain, and addiction, but there isn’t any condition that is out of reach.
Deep breathing also stimulates the release of melatonin, our primary hormone that is responsible for inciting sleep, which makes it a supreme and easy natural sleep aid. A few minutes of deep breathing when you can go to bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night can be highly effective.
The most profound benefit of breathwork is its ability to span the physical, psychological and spiritual spheres all at one time. On the physical level, you can acquire benefits like improved sleep patterns, digestion, and circulation, an increase in energy levels, a calmer more balanced nervous system, natural pain relief, lower blood pressure, less stress and anxiety.
On the psychological level, you may experience more stable emotions, improved relationships, less depression, enhanced feelings of well-being, a better outlook on life, less internal conflict, and a more centered state of mind.
While on the spiritual level you can achieve higher states of consciousness and spiritual awareness, more meaning and purpose in life, more creativity, insight, and intuition, a deeper more meaningful relationship with self, a richer connection with the Universe.
At the very least, you’ll see improvement from the relaxation aspect alone. There isn’t anyone who can’t benefit from relaxation and neutralizing or minimizing the negative effects of stress.
Where else can you find such a vast amount of benefits from one health care strategy? There is no other medical treatment, traditional or otherwise, that has this much power and to top it all off it costs us absolutely nothing, so it is available to each and every one of us.
There simply isn’t any self-care strategy that is less time-consuming, easier, affordable, convenient, and provides so many benefits than the use of breathwork. Your breath is available to you at all times. Take advantage of it and you’ll enhance your emotional, physical, and spiritual health.