The next time a good friend or wise teacher encourages you to take a few deep ones, know that they aren't just wasting their breath!
The notion of life is inseparably connected to the breath. Breathing inserts vital oxygen, which then runs through our tissues, keeping us alive. Our magnificent bodies instinctively know how to breathe, even doing so when we sleep.
But once we shift our focus to our breath, we can consciously control it. Modern society comes closer and closer to the realization that breath is a powerful tool for overall well-being. Ancient breathing techniques are making a comeback in western medicine, and there is an increasing number of studies supporting their numerous benefits.
Are you curious to find out why breathwork works? Read on to discover the science of breathing!
What Is Breathwork?
Breathwork is the conscious manipulation of our breath in systematic patterns that can be slow or quick. It has been around for centuries, having its roots in ancient Eastern Asian cultures. Now, modern therapy is integrating this old wisdom as a way to boost physical health or as an addition to classic psychotherapy due to its numerous health benefits.
Overview: Benefits Of Breathwork
Mental Health Benefits Of Breathwork
Reduces General Stress and Anxiety
Aids in Addiction Recovery
PTSD and Anxiety Disorder Management
Aids in Trauma Recovery
Helps Build Self-esteem
Physical Health Benefits Of Breathwork
There are a *Few* Different Types Of Breathwork
There is an increasing number of breathwork practices. Some are old (like 6000 years old), but others have emerged recently (thanks, 1960's Summer of Love), proving that breathwork is currently quite a hot topic, as it should be! Each one of these practices applies its own respective breathwork techniques based on the context it was developed in. Over time, our REESHI breathwork experts will expand on each practice here in our blog so you can determine which method fits best with you, your beliefs, and your lifestyle.
A few well-known examples are the following:
However, some simple breathwork techniques can be applied on their own without an attachment to a greater philosophy or school of thought, including:
Why Does Breathwork Work?
Our mind and body are linked in millions of ways we still have very little understanding of. Yet, one known point of connection is breathing. Your mental and emotional state affects the way you breathe, and your breathing patterns can affect your mental and emotional state. So much so that sustained imbalanced breathing practices, like hyperventilation or strained breathing, can take its toll on physical health and eventually lead to disease.
This article highlights the importance of breath and its crucial role in overall health. So, let’s dive into the science of breathwork!
Overview: The Nervous System and Stress Response
Understanding how your body experiences stress is an important foundation to understanding how your body can induce relaxation and stress relief via breathwork. Your body's nervous system is composed of two players: the Central Nervous System/CNS (your spinal chord and brain) and the Peripheral Nervous System/PNS (the trillions of nerve branches that extend out from your spine to your arms, hands, feet, organs, etc). The PNS contains the Autonomic Nervous System/ANS, which regulates the functions your body does regularly but you don't really think about- such as your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal. Your ANS is composed of your Parasympathetic (rest & relax) and Sympathetic (fight or flight) Nervous Systems. These two particular systems are what we will be referring to throughout this piece!
The stress response is the body's way of responding to a challenge or threat. It is also known as the "fight or flight" response, because it involves the activation of the body's sympathetic nervous system. When your body's stress response is activated, your body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. These changes can help the body to respond to the challenge or threat by giving it the energy and focus it needs to either fight or flee. However, if the stress response is activated too frequently or for too long, it can have negative effects on the body, such as increasing the risk of heart disease, anxiety, and depression.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Research shows that breathwork techniques- specifically slow respiration and extended exhalation- stimulate the Vagus Nerve., which is the key nerve network of your PNS (the rest & relax system). This important nerve network provides information to our organs on when and how to function, regulating processes like breathing, digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, sexual arousal, and immune response. Breathwork-induced Vagus Nerve stimulation helps your parasympathetic system overpower your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system), which can lead to decreased heart rate and blood pressure, improved bowel function, boosted immune system, and increased feelings of relaxation combined with heightened awareness.
The Endocrine System
Our hormones are powerful messengers that interact with the nervous system and affect multiple organs. Research shows that there is a link between the breath and the endocrine system, and that disordered breathing leads to altered levels of hormones in your blood.
Breathwork affects hormone blood levels via our favorite Vagus Nerve, which has the power to nudge the brain to release prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin (along with some of their friends). While stimulating the release of these "zen" hormones, breathwork can also simultaneously reduce stress-hormones in the blood (adrenaline and cortisol, we are coming for you!). Since anxiety and depression are directly related to heightened release of stress-hormones, breathing techniques, such as the Sudarshan Kriya method noted in this Penn Study, have shown significant anti-depressant benefits.
Physical and emotional strain leads to the release of cortisol and adrenaline in the blood, which in turn leads to increased levels of oxidative stress, which denotes a period wherein free radicals (basically, unhinged molecules trying to start fights in the body) are produced en masse, causing tissue damage and inflammation; sustained periods of oxidative stress can be so detrimental to living organisms that they can result in genetic mutations, cancer and chronic illness. Yes, you read that right. Environments, relationships, accidents, and trauma that result in a sustained stress response can eventually lead to some serious diseases.
Luckily, breathwork can help alleviate these periods of oxidative stress by reducing the impaired (short, staggered, rushed) breathing that leads to a hypoxemic state (that's the medical term for low blood oxygen: hypo= low, ox = oxygen, emia= blood). Research supports that diaphragmatic breathing, such as the Sudarshan Kriya method linked above, can reduce oxidative stress and increase the body's inherent anti-oxidant response.
Breathwork and Psychology
Strained breathing patterns, in addition to their negative physical consequences, can also affect our psychology. Brain hypoxemia leads to decreased serotonin synthesis (creation), which then can lead to the onset of depression. Fortunately, breathwork has been proven to assist in the treatment of PTSD and depression , anxiety disorders, and stress-related mental health concerns. So, the next time you feel stressed out, overwhelmed, angry, pained, and/or dark, please please consider taking a moment to take ten deep breaths or put on a diaphragmatic breathing meditation. Maybe that sounds overly simplistic or "too easy" of a solution, but the linked research studies have proven that these methods can significantly help reduce the symptoms of these disorders.
Mindfulness and Relaxation
Retaining awareness of the breath and its mindful manipulation is a key element of breathwork. Therefore, mindfulness is a secondary benefit of breathwork techniques, which assist with guiding you to tune in to your inner world, root yourself to the present moment, and shift your attention to bodily sensations.
When we are engaging in focused breathwork, and thereby experiencing mindfulness, we are able to let go of critical judgments, negative thoughts and complex emotions that might be causing us stress, which can help us feel more calm, relaxed and in control. Over time, this process of gaining awareness of ourselves and letting go can enable us to respond to stress in a more constructive way.
Breathwork techniques are an affordable, accessible and effective method that can be easily applied to enhance one's overall health and wellness and reduce the body's stress response. Although there is still much to be studied between the somewhat mystical mind-body connection, the impact of breathwork on the body and mind is well studied. However, be aware that advanced breathwork, like jumping into an ice bath for 15 minutes or walking on hot coals, requires guidance from certified practitioners. So, no matter how many YouTube videos you've watched on how to accomplish either of those things alone in your bedroom, please don't.
Avoid engaging in pursuing deep breathing techniques if you have breathing or cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, a history of aneurysms, injuries or surgeries, or severe mental health disorders. If you are unsure whether breathwork is right for you, consult your healthcare professional.
If you ever experience an overwhelming urge to harm yourself, harm those around you, and/or end your life, please know it is totally OK/not shameful/not embarrassing to call 988 and be connected with a trained crisis professional. We at REESHI are proud of you for reaching out for help during unimaginably difficult times.