We all know that paying attention to our breath can have a soothing and calming effect.
This simple practice of conscious breathing has inspired extensive research into the role of the breath in regulating the nervous system and our mental and physical health, alongside the expansion of breathwork practices with roots in ancient India and China.
This article explores the benefits and drawbacks of activating and relaxing breathwork and the purposes of different breathwork techniques. It then looks at breathwork training leading to certified practitioner status and the most popular breathwork books and apps.
The term “breathwork” includes a range of conscious interventions in our breathing process that have different purposes and effects on our health and wellbeing (Nestor, 2020).
The origins of breathwork can be traced back to the pranayama practices of the yogis of ancient India, and the qigong breathing exercises of ancient China. Both sets of breathing exercises are still used in the respective traditional medicine systems of ayurveda and Chinese medicine today (Nestor, 2020).
Breathwork practices have a range of proven health benefits, of which we’ve listed 10 below.
10 Benefits of breathwork
Breathwork dampens the acute stress response and can prevent the development of chronic stress-related health problems (Balban et al., 2023).
Deep abdominal breathing activates the body’s relaxation response and helps to reduce blood pressure and improve circulation (Ma et al., 2017).
Regular breathwork boosts your energy and enhances immunity, while shallow breathing can weaken the immune system (Hof & de Jong, 2016).
Breathwork can help manage acute and chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
Breathing exercises can improve sleep quality and help with insomnia (Ma et al., 2017).
Mindful breathing can improve mood and benefit those with depression by helping ground them in the present moment. This overcomes the tendency to worry about the future or ruminate on the past (Burg & Michalak, 2011).
Breathwork can help improve sports performance both physically and mentally. It can enhance cardiovascular fitness, improve focus, and reduce performance anxiety during training and competition (Carter & Carter, 2016).
Breathwork can help improve focus and lengthen attention spans in those who struggle to sustain concentration (Carter & Carter, 2016).
Complex breathwork methods like holotropic breathwork and the Wim Hof method (see below for details) have been linked to enhancing addiction recovery and supporting catharsis in those suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms (Hof, 2020; Grof, 2013).
Complex breathwork methods also offer a powerful method of self-exploration that can result in a deepening connection to reality, rather like psychedelic plant medicines. These breathwork methods can evoke experiences of bliss and union — or what are called non-ordinary states of consciousness — with life-changing consequences for practitioners (Grof, 2013).
Activating vs. Relaxing Breathwork
Breathwork can be broadly divided into two types: activating breathwork that energizes and stimulates and relaxing breathwork that soothes and calms.
Wim Hof (2020) is a Dutch endurance athlete who developed a system to enhance performance, boost immunity, and reduce stress called the Wim Hof method.
The breathing exercises are one component of his method, which also includes cold exposure and mindset training. These practices have their roots in ancient Indian yoga practices, Tibetan Tummo meditation, and martial arts (Hof & de Jong, 2016).
These breathwork exercises involve deep breathing followed by a breath hold, a fast and deep recovery breath, a further hold, and then exhalation. This entire cycle is repeated in a specified number of rounds according to the practitioner’s experience and proficiency.
Hof has participated in numerous studies investigating the effects of his breathwork techniques (Hof & de Jong, 2016). He claims it alkalinizes the blood and, when combined with the other practices in his method, improves oxygen uptake and optimizes all metabolic processes.
Practitioners report enhanced energy levels and euphoria after Wim Hof’s activating breathwork exercises (Kopplin & Rosenthal, 2022). However, some unwanted effects are also possible. Hof’s exercises should be practiced with caution or with a qualified breathwork instructor if possible. We discuss the potential drawbacks in the section below.
For now, if you’re in good health overall, you can give this technique a try using Wim Hof’s instructional video.
Guided Wim Hof method breathing - Wim Hof
Relaxing breathwork: Andrew Huberman’s physiological sigh
Andrew Huberman is an associate professor of neurobiology at Stanford University and hosts the highly successful Huberman Lab health and wellbeing podcast.
His research on breathwork and how it affects the nervous system focuses on relaxation to counter stress and what he calls the “physiological sigh” (Balban et al., 2023). This consists of a double inhale followed by an extended exhale, the type of breathing we do when sobbing or crying, or sometimes during the night when sleeping.
Huberman claims that this type of breathing cycle offloads an extensive amount of carbon dioxide which de-stresses our nervous system and promotes the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest-and-digest relaxation response (Balban et al., 2023).
Studies based on the self-reports of practitioners claim it reduces stress almost instantly, and it is especially useful for managing anxiety, insomnia, and improving mood (Balban et al., 2023).
Research shows that sighing does indeed lower cortisol levels and heart rate variability (Vlemincx et al., 2017).
You can discover more about this in an interview with Dr. Huberman in the video below.
Breathing techniques to reduce stress and anxiety - Tim Ferriss
Safety and Contraindications When Using Breathwork
Breathwork is safe for most people but is best learned under the guidance of a qualified instructor.
While we have shared a couple of YouTube videos that are in the public domain and therefore deemed safe to practice at home, there are some contraindications (Othership, 2021) to practicing breathwork without direct supervision, including the following:
Cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure)
A history of aneurysms anywhere in the body
Asthma and other respiratory conditions
Any other physical or mental health condition that could impair or affect the ability to endure deep physical and emotional release (such as recent injury, surgery, osteoporosis, or a history of psychosis)
If in any doubt, please contact your health care provider before beginning a breathwork practice.
Dangers of breathwork
If you’re new to breathwork techniques, some can lead to hyperventilation (Othership, 2021). This is unpleasant and uncomfortable because you may experience:
Dizziness and light-headedness
Tingling in your limbs
Changes in vision because of a lack of oxygen
If you hyperventilate, then slow breathing through your nose with one nostril closed will help regulate your breathing and reduce unpleasant symptoms.
Breathwork techniques are varied, and it can be confusing to know where to start. Deciding what you want from taking up breathwork will help you choose.
The division between the activating or energizing techniques and calming relaxation techniques mentioned above can be applied to most breathwork in the short term. However, in the long term, many breathwork techniques will both revitalize and relax you by reducing stress because the better the quality of our rest-and-digest time, the more energy we will have overall (Carter & Carter, 2016).
Here, we will introduce three well-known breathwork techniques before going on to describe their purposes and effects.
1. Mindful breathing
Mindful breathing comprises focused, conscious attention to the breath while keeping the breathing cycle completely natural. The immediate short-term effect is to help bring our awareness into the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
This is perhaps the simplest breathwork practice and is where many start. Despite its simplicity, the effects of a long-term practice can be profound and have been widely researched.
The practice of mindful breathing is usually combined with other mindfulness practices; however, studies of mindful breathing alone have found beneficial effects for those with anxiety (Decker et al., 2019), depressive rumination (Burg & Michalak, 2011), and young people with behavioral disorders (McFall & Jolivette, 2022).
If you would like to try a brief mindful breathing exercise for anxiety, try this one by Christiane Wolf, mindfulness and insight meditation teacher at Insight LA, California.
Diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes referred to as belly breathing or deep breathing, is a breathwork technique for dealing with stress and other psychosomatic conditions (Ma et al., 2017).
Unlike mindful breathing, it involves a conscious intervention in the breath by contracting the diaphragm, expanding the belly, and deepening inhalation and exhalation. This decreases the frequency of the breathing cycle and maximizes blood gasses. It has been a common practice for martial arts practitioners and experienced meditators in Eastern religions for millennia (Gerritsen & Band, 2018).
This practice creates a calm body by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, which then creates a calm mind. It is a useful self-regulation tool during periods of stress or anxiety.
A recent research study (Ma et al., 2017) found that diaphragmatic breathing improves focus and mood and reduces cortisol levels in the blood. This study concluded that this breathwork practice has important implications for health psychologists and health promotion.
If you’d like to try it, look at this Therapy in a Nutshell video tutorial with licensed marriage and family therapist Emma McAdam.
Diaphragmatic breathing: anxiety skills #12 - Therapy in a Nutshell
Holotropic means “moving toward wholeness” (from the Greek holos, meaning “whole” and trepein, meaning “moving in the direction of something”).
Holotropic breathwork practice aims to move practitioners toward wholeness by activating the natural inner healing process to release emotional blockages and trauma. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof (2013) developed it when he had to discontinue his psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy research because of a change in US drug laws.
Grof (1971) noticed that deep trauma release during his LSD sessions was often accompanied by breathing changes and began experimenting with breathwork to establish its drug-free effects. He found that what he came to call holotropic breathwork could also evoke non-ordinary states of consciousness and energy release without LSD.
The holotropic breathwork process combines accelerated breathing with evocative music in a specially prepared setting.
People work in pairs and alternate the roles of breather and sitter. The breather lies down on a mat with their eyes closed and works with their breath and the music to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness. The sitter accompanies them to provide support if needed. Neither sitters nor facilitators intervene or guide the process in any way.
Instead, the breathwork technique activates the practitioner’s inner healing intelligence, including the perinatal and transpersonal dimensions, that naturally guide the process.
Grof (2000) developed a unique cartography of the psyche based on his observations and self-reported experiences of holotropic breathwork practitioners. When the practice connects the breather to perinatal memories in the womb and the birth process, a powerful healing experience can occur akin to a psychospiritual death and rebirth, as described in many world spiritual traditions.
If you are interested in adding breathwork techniques and interventions to your work with others, here are some tips to help you prepare.
Before offering breathwork interventions, consider screening your clients or workshop participants to ensure they have no prior contraindications.
Ensure that clients have the right clothing and equipment so they can participate comfortably.
Explain what will happen, the proposed benefits, and the effects of the breathwork technique being introduced. It’s especially important to explain what to expect during breathwork sessions that might release trauma.
Consider the soundscape. Will you use relaxing music or a natural sound backtrack to accompany the experience?
Consider lighting and ventilation to create a soothing atmosphere and sense of safety.
Ensure there is time to discuss and integrate the experience afterward.
Facilitator Training in Breathwork: 3 Certifications
If you searched online for “breathwork training,” you will be overwhelmed with sponsored ads and course listings. We have selected the most reputable sources of breathwork facilitator training to help you focus your search.
The Global Professional Breathwork Alliance (GPBA, originally called the International Breathwork Training Alliance) was set up in 2001 to establish training standards for the ethical practice of breathwork, both dyadic and in groups. It offers a directory of member training schools offering GPBA-approved certification worldwide.
You can also look at the following programs for an idea of what is involved.
1. Breathing Space
Breathing Space offers a GPBA-approved 400-hour breathwork facilitator training course focusing strongly on what they term the Conscious Connected Breath.
It is structured into six modules that include a practicum where trainees receive five one-on-one breathwork sessions, lead five one-on-one breathwork sessions, and facilitate five group breathwork sessions.
The holotropic breathwork approach, techniques, and their purposes were described in brief above. If this modality interests you, then you can find out more from the holotropic website.
5 Best Breathwork Books and Apps
The short list below is a tiny sample of what’s available regarding the fascinating subject of breathwork techniques. Hopefully, you will find it a useful starting point.
1. A Practical Guide to Breathwork: A Remedy for the Modern Human Condition – Jesse Coomer
Jesse Coomer is a leading breathwork facilitator. He wrote this book as a comprehensive guide to the full range of scientific researched approaches to breathwork to help optimize physical and mental health.
This is a practical, down-to-earth, science-based resource that will teach you how to use your breath to regulate your nervous system and all associated physiological and psychological processes in replicable ways, just by using focused conscious breathing.
The book is packed with exercises that use both activating and relaxing breathwork techniques as well as tips on how to build a daily practice around your existing routine.
3. Exhale: 40 Breathwork Exercises to Help You Find Your Calm, Supercharge Your Health, and Perform at Your Best – Richie Bostock
This book by “the breath guy,” Richie Bostock, includes over 40 science-based conscious breathwork techniques to improve your performance, focus, mood, and wellbeing.
This book describes and explains a range of breathwork techniques from exercises used by Sufi meditators to the breathing skills of US Navy SEALs. It’s a comprehensive resource designed to help you manage a range of health problems, including breathwork for stress and chronic pain and breathing exercises to boost your performance and creativity.
Richie Bostock is an experienced breathwork coach who writes with great clarity and authority on the science of breathwork and its real-world applications.
Othership is a breathwork app that combines music and guided breathwork practices to help you self-regulate physically, mentally, and emotionally. The app provides both energizing and relaxing practices, as well as body sessions that include mindful movement.
Breath Awareness While Waiting This worksheet introduces a conscious breathing technique for managing anxiety and frustration when waiting for something to happen, such as giving a presentation, medical test results, or taking examinations.
Soothing Breath This worksheet introduces a breathing technique used by Somatic Experiencing® therapists to help clients regulate their body responses by using the breath and touch to self-soothe.
Breathwork is a popular health trend with a strong scientific evidence base showing wide ranging health benefits.
Working consciously with the breath can help regulate the nervous system, which benefits all other metabolic processes. Breathwork techniques can both energize and relax practitioners because over time they all reduce stress, which improves sleep quality and increases vitality.
However, be sure to find a qualified facilitator to guide your breathwork journey, if possible. For most people in good health, breathwork is safe, but those with an undetected health condition may be risking considerable discomfort or worse. Those with any existing physical or mental health condition would be wise to consult their health care provider before beginning a breathwork practice.
If you have had any interesting experiences of breathwork you’d like to share, let us know in the comments.
Breathwork can alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as anxiety, depressive rumination, poor sleep, and associated fatigue (Balban et al., 2023). Holotropic breathwork may help heal trauma by bypassing the conscious mind and freeing embodied memories for conscious processing (Grof, 2013).
What is breathwork meditation?
Breathwork meditations focus attention on the breath to bring awareness into the present moment and relax and refresh the meditator.
Can breathwork be dangerous?
Breathwork can be dangerous for a person with any existing physical or mental health conditions. First check with a health care provider and a certified breathwork facilitator before beginning any breathwork practice.
What is breathwork therapy?
Breathwork therapy can be a useful adjunctive intervention for treating depression and anxiety. It typically involves mindful breathing for relaxation and other breathing exercises to regulate mood.
Balban, M.Y., Neri, E., Kogon, M. M., Weed, L., Nouriani, B., Jo, B., Holl, G., Zeitzer, J. M., Spiegel, D., & Huberman, A. D. (2023). Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Reports Medicine, 4(1).
Burg, J. M., & Michalak, J. (2011). The healthy quality of mindful breathing: Associations with rumination and depression. Cognitive TherapyResearch, 35, 179–185.
Carter, K. S., & Carter, R. l. (2016). Breath-based meditation: A mechanism to restore the physiological and cognitive reserves for optimal human performance. World Journal of Clinical Cases, 4(4), 99–102.
Decker, J. T., Constantine Brown, J. L., Ashley, W., & Lipscomb, A. E. (2019). Mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises: Reduced anxiety for clients and self-care for social work interns. Social Work with Groups, 42(4),308–322.
Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of life: The respiratory vagal stimulation model of contemplative activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12.
Grof, S. (1971). Varieties of transpersonal experiences: Observations from LSD psychotherapy. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 4, 1–45.
Grof, S. (2000). Psychology of the future: Lessons from modern consciousness research. SUNY.
Grof, S. (2013). Revision and re-enchantment of psychology: Legacy from half a century of consciousness research. In H. L. Friedman & G. Hartelius (Eds.). The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology (pp. 89–120). Wiley Blackwell.
Hof, W., & de Jong, K. (2016). The way of the Iceman: How the Wim Hof method creates radiant long-term health: Using the science and secrets of breath control, cold-training and commitment. Dragon Door.
Hof, W. (2020). The Wim Hof method: Activate your full human potential. Sounds True.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Piatkus.
Kopplin, C. S., & Rosenthal, L. (2022). The positive effects of combined breathing techniques and cold exposure on perceived stress: A randomised trial. Currents inPsychology, 7, 1–13.
Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N.Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(8).
McFall, A., & Jolivette, K. (2022). Mindful breathing: A low-intensity behavior strategy for students with behavioral challenges, Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth.
Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The new science of a lost art. Riverhead Books.
Othership. (2021). Is breathwork safe? 10 common side effects you may experience. Retrieved September 16, 2023, from https://www.othership.us/resources/breathwork-side-effects
Vlemincx, E., Meulders, M., & Abelson, J. L. (2017). Sigh rate during emotional transitions: More evidence for a sigh of relief. BiologicalPsychology, 125, 163–172.
About the author
Jo Nash, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and writing coach. Jo obtained her Ph.D. in Psychotherapy Studies from the University of Sheffield, where she was a Lecturer in Mental Health at the Faculty of Medicine for over a decade.
Today, Jo combines her passion for language with mindfulness skills when coaching writers to help them cultivate flow and optimize productivity. She is the creator of the ‘focused flow’ approach to writing coaching.