The Science Behind Breathwork + 5 Benefits Of The Practice
Take one big inhale that expands in your belly. Hold it. Now exhale deeply.
Congratulations, you've just engaged in breathwork, an ancient practice that's quickly gaining popularity. If you're thinking, "Wait, I've been inhaling and exhaling continuously since the day I was born. Does that mean I've been practicing breathwork this whole time?" the answer is, unfortunately, no. Most of the time, we don't even realize we're breathing—it just happens automatically while we go about our day. That kind of breathing is certainly important for keeping us alive, but a true breathwork practice is about the intentional manipulation of breath. While many people are familiar with tuning into their breath in yoga or meditation, recent research is validating the powerful benefits that breathwork all on it's own can have on the mind and body.
Why breathwork is having a moment.
Many people first got a taste of breathwork on their yoga mat or meditation pillow. Now, increasing numbers of people are seeking out full-fledged classes on breathing for better health.
According to Google Trends, searches for "breathwork" have increased 6-fold over the last five years. Anecdotally, yoga and breathwork teacher Emily Ridout has noticed an uptick in breathwork requests from clients over the last two years. She suspects the practice continues to gain traction because of its versatility and efficacy: "Simple practices can create huge, noticeable results quickly. Whatever the motivation for practicing, from well-being to mindfulness to increased vitality, there are breath practices that help."
"Breathwork is a trend right now because yoga has come into maturity in the U.S., and anytime a practice comes into maturity in a culture, then the individual parts of that practice start to get recognized and emphasized in their own right," adds Suzanne Hill, a licensed acupuncturist and owner of the OHM Center, a meditation and wellness studio that offers breathwork classes in New York City.
In addition to offering classes, studios and teachers have responded to the growing interest in breathwork with respiration-focused retreats, corporate seminars, digital classes, and private workshops across the country. Some classes pair breathwork with movement or music, while others are dedicated exclusively to the art of proper inhales and exhales.
Here's a peek into the ongoing research on the impact that something as simple and accessible as breathwork can have on our health:
1. It provides (super-quick) relief from stress.
Conscious breathing could be one of the fastest ways to combat the stress of everyday life. A 2017 study published in the journal 1Frontiers in Psychology1 found that participants who completed 20 breathwork training sessions over eight weeks had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared with those who did not receive the training. Cortisol is responsible for our body's stress response and high levels of it can cause chronic inflammation.
"We try all these different things for stress, but if you're not breathing in a way that tells your nervous system that it's time to relax, you won't get there," clinical psychologist and breathwork instructor Belisa Vranich, Ph.D., explains of the breath's ability to combat stress and anxiety.
2. It trains us to breathe slower and deeper, which can lower blood pressure.
A 2001 study2 found that practicing breathwork to music for 10 minutes a day is an effective, nonpharmacological way to reduce blood pressure. Building upon those findings, a 2015 study found that patients with hypertension saw a big drop in blood pressure after practicing slow, deep breathing. One portable electronic device designed to help users engage in slow, deep breathing is now an FDA-approved tool for reducing blood pressure. A clinal review of the device3, called Resperate, found that it "significantly lowers office BP without adverse effects" and deemed it "a useful adjunct to current antihypertensive medications and to nonpharmacologic interventions in achieving better [blood pressure] control."
3. It can reduce symptoms of depression when paired with other treatment.
In 2017, researchers took a look at the effects of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing on depression. The results? People who engaged in the practices for 12 weeks had a measurable decline in depressive symptoms and showed clinical improvements. The findings echoed the results of a 2016 report from the University of Pennsylvania4, which found evidence that breathing-based meditation could ease severe depression in people who did not respond well to antidepressants.
Meditative breathing's mood-boosting powers could be due to its ability to actually decrease the size of the amygdala5, a part of the brain that detects fear and triggers the body's fight-or-flight response, which in turn increases the prefrontal cortex’s ability to engage in complex thinking.
4. It paves the way for sharper focus.
Having a hard time staying on task? Try breathwork. A 2018 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition6 found that breath-focused yoga boosted the attention span in participants. Another study from Trinity College Dublin that same year found that breathing in a regulated way can balance the amount of noradrenaline, a natural chemical messenger that affects attention and certain emotions, in our brain and ultimately enhance focus.
5. It can help with pain management.
With the serious problems stemming from the opioid epidemic, doctors and patients are increasingly looking for safer alternatives to prescribing pharmaceuticals for pain management. Breathwork has the potential to be the answer for some. Multiple studies have found that slow, deep breathing could reduce the perception of chronic pain or help patients better cope with physical discomfort. The pain pathway is mediated by norepinephrine, therefore if we can balance cortisol and decrease inflammation, the perception of pain can also decrease.
Breathwork can also help alleviate back pain in particular, said Vranich: "Your diaphragm attaches right to the part of your spine where people have back pain," she explains. "If you're not using your diaphragm to breathe, you won't get as much blood flow and movement in that space." Trigger points along our spine can also be activated by those cortisol spikes mentioned earlier, exacerbating pain. A 2017 literature review7 backs this idea up (no pun intended): "Athletic trainers and physical therapists caring for patients with chronic, nonspecific low back pain should consider the inclusion of breathing exercises for the treatment of back pain," it reads.
There are a number of techniques that can help you get started with breathwork. Vranich recommends trying diaphragmatic breathing, which involves expanding and contracting your belly as you inhale and exhale. Other approaches to breathwork include box breathing, 4-7-8 breath, 2-1-4-1 breath, and alternate-nostril breathing. Experiment with different options to see which works for you.
As more people search for simple, effective self-care techniques, it's no wonder that breathwork has surged in popularity. Not only does it have the science to back up its perceived benefits, but it's something we can practice anytime, anywhere, and at absolutely no cost. Talk about a breath of fresh air.
Joni Sweet is an NYC-based freelance writer specializing in travel, health, and wellness. She earned her bachelor's in journalism at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications.
Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, The Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Real Simple, Prevention, HealthyWay, Healthline, Thrillist, and more.