How does breathwork… work?

This active form of meditation taps into your most powerful and simple bodily action, to reduce stress, improve sleep, and promote self-love and wellbeing

Hero image in post
Hero image in post

This active form of meditation taps into your most powerful and simple bodily action, to reduce stress, improve sleep, and promote self-love and wellbeing

By Robyn Landau24 May 2022
9 mins read time
9 mins read time

On an average day, most of us will breathe about 20,000 times without giving it much thought. Unless we’re feeling anxious or tense, when we might notice our breathing accelerate. It’s automatic, and something very easily taken for granted, but it is tantamount to feeling alive and staying well.

The breath is directly tied to our emotions, digestion, mood and attitude. It influences every internal organ, sending signals to tell them when to turn on and off, and acting as the power switch to our very potent autonomic nervous system. Focusing on our breathing is the fastest way to become present – say, when you’re experiencing a panic attack. When we think of breathing as a highly intimate and personal experience, it helps form a special relationship to the self with profound impacts on our wellbeing.

Cue the rising trend of breathwork. Otherwise known as Pranayama (in Sanskrit), which is conscious, transformational, or holotropic breathing. While types of breathwork vary, putting it simply,, they are all forms of breath control and should be thought of as that.

You may hear fancy terms from your yoga teacher, doctor, scientist or holistic practitioner of choice, but here, we’re breaking breathwork down to understand the science, strength and simplicity of breathing.

Take a moment away from this article to take a few breaths, and experience it for yourself

The Physiology of Breathing

Breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous system (ANS), the very important part of our system that is controlled by the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) branches. Together they work to keep our bodies in a state of homeostasis, or equilibrium, allowing us to naturally heal and recover from things like illness, stress or disease.

The SNS (fight or flight response) helps keep us alert, active and quick to respond to situations needing attention. Taking short shallow breaths activates this, acting like an alert call. The PNS (rest and digest) helps us feel relaxed and calm, and blissed out. Both are vital to our wellbeing, however the SNS often gets a bad rep because most of us are working the system in overtime. Many forms of breathwork focus on dropping into the PNS (like slow, deep breathing), to create more balance, or activating the SNS in a way that better supports our health (like Wim Hof or Holotropic Breathing).

Just like breathing, other functions of the ANS happen without our conscious awareness. This also includes sweating, digestion, hunger or sexual arousal. However, what makes the breath such an interesting member of the ANS family is that it’s the only function we can consciously control, making it a powerful intervention tool.

The breath directs how the heart beats. Inhaling activates the SNS, accelerating your heart rate, and exhaling activates the PNS, which is why you are often told to elongate or focus on your exhales to relax into the body. Take a moment away from this article to take a few breaths, and experience it for yourself.


Think with your heart, your brain, and your breath

As our most powerful organ, the heart is continually sending messages to our brain and body, to tell us how we feel, influencing how we act and behave. Yes, the heart runs much of the show. Think of it as the conductor that synchronises our bodily system orchestra.

Connected to this of course is our emotions, which actually begin as physical sensations in the body. Think about it: when we are feeling anxious or scared, our heart (and breathing) accelerates. When we are sleeping or feeling calm, our heart decelerates. So partaking in a breathwork practice essentially allows us to trigger a specific physiological change in the body, which helps move and shift some of the emotions that are stored there. This is why it’s so supportive to releasing traumas or feelings of being stuck, and is related some of these altered states of consciousness people report help them think and feel in new previously undiscovered ways.

But the heart-brain interaction is a two-way interconnected system meaning our mind state alone also has a direct impact on our breathing. Thoughts of gratitude, contentment or joy are powerful enough to drop our breath rate into a state of coherence, or optimal state of balance. This means our thought processes are powerful enough to create some of those profound bodily changes experienced during breathwork.

Finding your vagus nerve

Perhaps the most fundamental messenger in this two-way system is the Vagus Nerve. It’s the longest nerve in the body made from thousands of fibres, and it communicates the body-based information (from sneezing and swallowing to your heart and respiratory rates) to the brain and back, playing a major role in these thinking-feeling states.

You can think of the vagus nerve as the autonomic superhighway, and queen of the PNS. Starting at the face, it travels all the way down through our heart and lungs to the gut and the pelvic floor. It essentially listens to the way we breathe, and then sends corresponding information to the brain and heart. So, if we’re breathing calm and controlled, it sends a cascade of messages to our system that we are safe and relaxed.


The types of breathing

Now, we’ve got the physiology down. But there are enough breathing styles, speeds and approaches to confuse and make your heart rate jump on its own. So here, we’ve broken down some of the most popular and effective approaches to try and drop into your own experience of.

Belly or Diaphragmatic Breathing

You may have heard people tell you to breathe through your belly. The reason for this is that it helps engage our diaphragm (a small umbrella-shaped organ below the lungs), versus placing the strain of breathing directly on the heart and can increase blood pressure. Breathing through the belly also helps us take longer, deeper breaths, enabling a slower and steadier breathing rate.

Slow, Controlled Breathing

Slow breathing is often the most commonly used, and helps reduce mental activity, lower stress level, increase PNS activity and the alpha waves in our brain. Ancient yogis say we each have a finite number of breaths we are given in this lifetime - by slowing down your breathing, they say you live longer. But the truth is, those who breathe less, more deeply and slowly are shown to increase their lung capacity, and lifespan. Slowing down the breath helps minimise overbreathing, which most of us naturally do. There is no “correct” way to do this: simply begin to breathe in and out through your belly, slowing the rate down to anywhere from 5-10 seconds on the inhale and exhale, trying to take a bit more notice of the exhales. Try this practice for five minutes daily for one week, and see if you can notice any knock-on effects during your normal unconscious breathing patterns.

Single Nostril Breathing

Super simple and easy to use when feeling both overwhelmed and underwhelmed. The right nostril is connected to the SNS, and the left nostril, the PNS, so by directing the breathing through one allows us to drop into our required state. If needing to energise and wake up, close off the left nostril and breathe slow and deep for a few minutes. If feeling overwhelmed and needing to de-stress, close off the right nostril and breathe through the left in the same way. Try this for 3-5 minutes at a time.

Resonance Breathing

As the most widely used and researched slow breathing technique, ‘resonance breathing’ synchronises our breathing rate to our heart rate. This achieves that state of homeostatic balance, which is a totally connected and synchronised bodily state. Simple and easy to do, it consists of a five or six second inhale and exhale through the nose, and has been shown to support anxiety and depression, while supporting key wellbeing markers in the body like raising Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and lowering blood pressure. Try this at home for a few minutes a day, at your desk, while on transport, or at that family dinner that might be ever so slightly overwhelming.

Holotropic and Wim Hof Breathing

Made famous by Wim Hof, and Stanislov Grof, these similar techniques force the body into a high state of stress one minute, then extreme relaxation the next. The body enters a highly oxygenated state, then shifts it, which helps our bodies become more adaptable and flexible. This process of overbreathing decreases blood flow to some of the brain’s core regions responsible for visual, sensory and time-based information, which is why some people might experience altered states of consciousness, out of body experiences and waking dreams during this practice. Without a doubt, this technique should be first practised with a trained facilitator.

This can be done by lying on your back with the head supported, relaxing your full body into the ground. Take 30 very deep and fast breaths through the stomach and then up through the lungs. Your stomach should look like a wave, air filling the belly then travelling up through the lungs and throat until you breath back out on the exhale and repeat the same motion. Try to connect the inhales and exhales so there is no pause in between. At the end of 30 breaths, exhale and hold that breath out for as long as possible (30-60 seconds). Once you’ve reached your limit, take a deep breath in, hold for 15 seconds, then exhale. Repeat that sequence three times.

The Everyday Breath

The reality is, we cannot engage in breathwork all the time, yet we are breathing at every given minute. That's why being conscious of your breath on an ongoing basis is perhaps one of the most important takeaways. At any time of day, try to be aware of your breathing. Ensure each breath is through the nose, with a slight movement in the abdomen. Try to keep the inhales and exhales rhythmic and regular. If you have to be particularly focused or need to reset your emotions, practise deep breathing in through the belly then up through the lungs and chest, in what is known as a three-part yogic breath.

Happy breathing, everybody!