If you are looking to address symptoms related to your health concerns, sometimes all you need to do is breathe.
Breathwork is a practice and/or therapeutic intervention that involves consciously exerting control over breathing patterns to address mental, physical and spiritual health concerns. Controlling one’s breathing helps focus the mind, detach oneself from immediate reactions to thoughts, and make it easier to get in touch with one’s inner sense of peace and calm. It also induces multiple physiological and chemical effects such as altering heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
Breathwork is used to help both physical and mental health conditions and address symptoms related to chronic health concerns. It has been used for anxiety, asthma, chronic pain, anger issues, depression, trauma and posttraumatic stress as well as grief and loss, emotional effects of physical illness, insomnia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, labor pain, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, smoking cessation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions
Breathwork also has a positive impact on healthy individuals who are seeking to improve their physical and mental health. Breathwork has been shown to alter the immune system, stress levels, metabolic functioning, quality of life and emotional regulation.
The proof is in the evidence
In the last 20 years, as patients increasingly integrate complementary and alternative medicine into their treatment plans, more and more literature is being published exploring the impact breathwork has on treating symptoms of certain conditions.
- Healthy males who engaged in slow breathing exercises for 12 weeks had significantly perceived stress and improved cardiovascular functioning.
- A systematic review looking at the impact of breathing exercises on participants with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who participated in 16 randomized control trials found that patients with COPD who engaged in breathing exercises for over 4 to 15 weeks improved their ability to engage in and tolerate exercise.
- Healthy adults who participated in 20 intensive sessions of diaphragmatic breathing exercises had improved sustained attention, decreased stress hormones and increased positive mood.
- Children (ages 6–14) with moderate to severe anxiety who participated in a 12-week relaxation-breathing program had decreased anxiety levels which improved children’s asthma-related symptoms
Here are the four steps to start your breathwork practice:
- Find a breathwork session or practice on your own: If you do not have a history of severe psychiatric illness or seizures, you can begin developing a breathwork practice on your own. Applications on mobile phones like Headspace and Calm are available to help with breathwork practice. Research has shown that using online breathwork programs can replicate the benefits of in-person programs.
- Experiment and figure out the best duration for you: How often and for how long you attend breathwork sessions is dependent on the reason you are seeking the help and the type of breathwork in which you are engaging. Typically, classes or an individual session with a practitioner can run anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Many practitioners will encourage you to begin a daily breathwork or meditation practice in addition to attending your breathwork sessions.
- Educate yourself about the different types of breathwork therapy: The training and/or certifications that your breathwork clinician holds depends on the type of breathwork therapist you will see or the classes you will attend. Unlike in other disciplines, a centralized organization that oversees the certifications and training requirements of breathwork clinicians and practitioners does not exist unless they are attached to a specific meditation discipline. Currently, many independent organizations lead trainings and provide certifications to individuals who either take their courses or meet their qualifications. Before seeking the treatment of a breathwork therapist, please ask your practitioner for his/her qualifications and research the organization where they received them.
- Locate a breathwork class near you: Many hospitals and clinics have also incorporated breathwork and relaxation techniques into their inpatient and outpatient programs. To see if there is a center near you offering breathwork or similar training and/or classes visit, check out Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts.
If you decide that breathwork is right for you, be sure to let your primary care physician and any other health care providers treating you know that you would like to include breathwork in the tools you are using to address your medical condition or concern. Open communication can help you and your healthcare providers avoid complications that may arise from not openly discussing any treatments and help coordinate clinicians you employ to address your condition.
For more information, see the full Breathwork Guide here.