We are sometimes programmed to think results can only be achieved through a significant, and intense, amount of effort. But, in the case of maintaining well-being and addressing the underlying factors that can negatively impact your mental health, the simple act of breathing can often play a substantial role.
By consciously exerting control over breathing patterns you can begin to address mental health concerns and properly manage your physical and spiritual wellness. Serving as a treatment for such conditions as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and even high blood pressure, breathwork calls for control of one’s breath to help focus the mind, detach oneself from immediate reactions to thoughts, and make it easier to embrace your inner sense of peace.
More specifically, the actions of controlled breathing can induce multiple psychological and chemical effects. It alters the heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. It’s the reason why mind-body practices including yoga, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, and guided imagery rely on breathwork as foundational elements.
Evidence of Impact
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 reduced perceived stress levels 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.
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 depend 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 training 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 training 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 their 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 your medical care. 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 pocket guide here.
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