How deeply are you breathing right now, in this moment?
Most of us move through our days breathing at only a very shallow level. And that makes sense. Breathing isn’t something many of us spend time consciously considering; it is, after all, one of the most automatic functions our bodies have. But intentionally engaging with and altering your breath — otherwise known as practicing breathwork — can bring with it a whole host of benefits.
Breathwork describes a variety of therapeutic exercises that use the breath in order to improve mental, physical and emotional health. Simple yet powerful, it’s a tool that’s been used across centuries and across cultures for holistic healing. At its core, breathwork’s roots are most connected to Eastern yoga and meditation practices. Pranayama, or the practice of controlling one’s breath in yoga, for instance, dates back to yoga’s origins in fifth and sixth century India, and references to it can be found in early yoga texts like the Bhagavad Gita.
Today, breathwork is often practiced as a standalone healing modality, separate from the movement-based practices, like yoga and Tai Chi, it was born from. Considering how accessible it is — all of us can breathe! — it’s a wonderful tool for anyone who’s looking to expand their care regimen, whether at home or in a sauna. We’ll walk through some of the benefits of breathwork, how it’s practiced, and why utilizing it in a sauna environment may be especially beneficial.
Benefits of breathwork
It can help you manage stress and anxiety.
The long, deep and from-the-belly breaths practiced in certain types of breathwork — think “Ujjayi” breaths in yoga classes — are an excellent way to instantly induce feelings of calm and groundedness. That’s because deep breathing activates your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and reduces your body’s cortisol levels.
And if you’re someone who struggles with a specific mental health challenge, including depression or anxiety disorders, breathwork has been shown to offer not only relief, but a means of improvement. For U.S. veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, breathwork was shown to reduce their symptoms.
It boosts energy and focus.
Most of your body’s 30 trillion+ cells need oxygen in order to produce energy. And yet, for people who struggle to manage stress especially, being in fight-or-flight mode so often means their breaths are usually shallow. This can lead to an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, something that’s been tied to sluggishness, fogginess and even chronic fatigue.
Breathwork helps make your blood more richly oxygenated and alkalized, directly influencing how energetic and alert you feel. Tellingly, in one Belgian study, patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome were found to have irregular breathing rhythms, which negatively impacted their oxygen levels. By working with the patients on retraining their breathing patterns, their chronic fatigue symptoms lessened.
It can help reduce body pains.
While we’d never suggest it was a total antidote, there are certain ways breathwork can help mitigate the effects of chronic pain. Deep belly breathing, for instance, helps relax muscles that have protectively tensed and stiffened around your source of pain — something that, unfortunately, often only further aggravates the pain itself. Breathwork has also been shown in multiple studies to influence the way we perceive pain which can, in turn, help reduce it. One study found that for people with chronic lower back pain, breathwork lowered their pain scores, while another study showed that for women with fibromyalgia, their pain scores decreased significantly the more deeply they breathed.
It can help you sleep better.
Deep breathing before bed can quiet your mind, calm your nervous system and lower your heart rate, putting you in a relaxed state that’s ideal for reaching deeper sleep. By deactivating your sympathetic nervous system and instead activating your parasympathetic nervous system, deep breathing triggers the opposite of fight-or-flight — namely, your body’s rest-and-digest response. Not only that, but focusing on your breath in the minutes before you fall asleep means you aren’t focusing on external stressors and distractions, like your phone or that argument you had today. Similar to meditation, breathwork is a great way of blocking out intrusive thoughts that could get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
On a related note, sauna use has also been shown to improve sleep — you can read more about that here!
It’ll help you release emotional pain.
A lot of people find breathwork an unexpectedly emotional experience, which is also a good reason to try it out alongside a practiced teacher first. It sounds extremely woo-woo, but unprocessed trauma and emotional pains do get stuck in the body. Breathwork can be used to help access, process and release that pain. One reason for this is that oftentimes, when people have experienced a trauma, they have blocks against connecting to the present in a full, embodied way. By practicing breathwork and being in your body, buried feelings of trauma may surface, giving you an opportunity to safely address and heal from them.
Even if you don’t have a specific emotional pain or trauma you’re working through, breathwork still offers a space for emotional nourishment. Many people who practice breathwork report feelings of joy, contentment and self-love afterward — and that’s never a bad thing!
Types of breathwork
Also known as square breathing, this slow-breathing breathwork technique is used by everyone from U.S. Navy SEALS to nurses in order to simply, efficiently reduce stress. Through a series of slow, deep inhales and exhales at four-second intervals, box breathing has been shown to produce an instantaneous sense of calm, as well as an improved mood. You can read more about how to try out box breathing here.
A fast-breathing practice, Holotropic breathwork was developed by two psychiatrists in the 1970s with a goal of helping participants reach therapeutic, psychedelic-like states of altered consciousness — no drugs needed. Through rapid, even breathing, the body receives a prolonged rush of oxygen that comes close to that of hyperventilation. While experiencing this rush, most often in a group setting and to music, participants have the chance to discover and sit with whatever personally comes up for them. You can read more about how to try out Holotropic breathwork here.
The basics of the Wim Hof method are centered on 30 quick, deep breaths that are inhaled through the nose and out through the mouth. Hof, a Dutchman most often pictured barely clothed and surrounded by Arctic snow (seriously), developed his method as a way of boosting energy, lowering stress and increasing the body’s natural adrenaline production. He described the process to Discover Magazine as this:
“If you oxygenate the body the way we do it, the oxygen gets into the tissue. (Regular) breathing doesn’t do that. What happens in the brain stem, the brain says, ‘There is no oxygen anymore.’ Then it triggers adrenaline to shoot out throughout the body. Adrenaline is for survival, but this time it is completely controlled … the adrenaline shoots out throughout the body and resets it to the best functionality.”
You can read about how to try out the Wim Hoff method here.
The 4-7-8 technique
Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil and based on Pranayama breathing, this is a slow-breathing technique designed to induce a deep state of relaxation. Many people who struggle with sleep, in particular, find this method helpful. Quickly summarized, it’s done first by making a whooshing sound while exhaling completely. Next, close the mouth and inhale silently through the nose while counting to four. Now, for seven seconds, hold your breath. Finally, make another whooshing sound as you exhale deeply from the mouth for eight seconds. You can learn more about trying out the 4-7-8 technique here.
Alternate nostril breathing
A form of breath control done by yogis for centuries, alternate nostril breathing has been shown to lower stress and was also found in one 2013 study to be the only type of breathwork that positively influences cardiovascular function. Done while sitting in a comfortable position with your legs crossed, it involves alternating exhalations and inhalations through one nostril at a time while the opposite nostril is blocked by your thumb. You can read more about how to try out alternate nostril breathing here.
Also called Conscious Energy Breathing, similar to Holotropic breathwork, this practice is used as a means to work through unprocessed or repressed trauma and emotions. Under the supervision of a practiced teacher, something called “circular breathing” — or continual breaths with no pauses between them — is done as participants have the opportunity to explore whatever feelings internally come up for them. You can read more about trying out Rebirthing breathwork here.
Sometimes called belly breathing, this is a type of breathwork that works to strengthen your diaphragm, a muscle that’s key in helping you breathe in the first place. Found in essentially all meditation and relaxation practices, it’s perhaps the most ubiquitous form of breathwork. Rather than being achieved through one breathwork technique only, there are a few diaphragmatic breathing exercises, including rib-stretch breathing and numbered breathing, you can try. Read more about the different methods for diaphragmatic breathing here.
How to get started
If you’re interested in incorporating breathwork into your personal care practice, you might try out some of the simpler exercises for yourself at home. Alternatively, if Holotropic or Rebirthing breathwork is what you feel most drawn to, you may want to attend a guided class; many yoga studios offer these!
Even if you’re just trying out breathwork solo, for the deepest possible benefits, your environment still maatters. If you’re doing breathwork before bed, for instance, make sure your bedroom is dimly lit and a quiet, restful space. And if you’re using a sauna or are somewhere else with moisture-rich air — say, your bathroom while taking a hot shower — this may be a particularly good time to try out some simple breathwork techniques.
That’s because another common obstacle to getting deep, oxygen-rich breaths is clogged and congested nasal and airways. While enjoying the heat and steam of a sauna, any restricted airways, mucus and phlegm preventing you from taking deep-reaching breaths will be loosened and cleared. That makes the sauna an especially effective place to practice breathwork. (Just make sure not to do it while taking an ice bath after your sauna or, if you’re at home, while you’re taking a cold bath or shower! When in cold water, your body’s rate of oxygenation is already in flux, which means this isn’t the right time to further tamper with it via breathwork.)
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