Humans have been manipulating their breathing for thousands of years with many cultures referring to the breath as the life force. Looking at the evidence it is easy to understand why!
Our breath can deeply affect our physiology, our consciousness and even our whole perspective on life. It is very exciting that breathwork is becoming more popular, as more people around the world realise the amazing power of the breath and discover that they have the complete ability to heal themselves from within.
Breathwork is a powerful practise with ancient origins. In this video we’re going to look at a brief history of the practise, and gain a basic understanding of the physiological effects from the practise of breathwork.
History of Breathwork
Breathwork is a name for the practise of deliberately manipulating our normal breathing for therapeutic purposes.
Breathing practises and techniques are a core part of the Indian Yogic tradition which dates back thousands of years. Various breath practises have also been used by other ancient cultures such as the Native Americans, Hawaiians, Inuit, Tibetan and Burmese Buddhists, Taoists, Sufis and likely many, many others around the world in order to reach altered states of consciousness allowing deep meditation, peace, tranquility, inspiration, insight and a feeling of greater connection to life as a whole1.
In Yoga, Breathwork is known as Pranayama (with Prana meaning Life Force and Yama control), literally meaning control of the life force, or vital force. These Pranayama techniques have been practised for thousands of years on the Indian subcontinent and were first compiled together in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali between 500 and 400 BCE2.
In recent years Breathwork has been gaining a lot of popularity as a way to de-stress, release anxiety and depression, deal with difficult emotions, process grief and trauma and just to relax deeply and let go of the weight of life. A lot of the practises you see today are based on, or are very similar to the ancient teachings of Pranayama.
Physiology of the Breath
Let’s take a look at some of the evidence of how Breathwork can help us.
We’ll start with an understanding of a very important nerve in the body – the Vagus nerve. This is the nerve for mind-body connection. It connects the brain back and forth between the heart, our gut and even connects to our immune system3. When you hear about mind-body practises, they are really working on strengthening this nerve. The Vagus nerve is responsible for the communication between many parts of our body and the overall balance of our nervous system. A common measure of the strength of the Vagus nerve (or Vagal tone) is heart rate variability4. Our heart rates go up on the in-breath and down on the out-breath. You can test this out yourself, find your pulse and take a deep breath in, slowly breathe out. Repeat this a few times, can you feel your pulse change? Heart rate variability is the measure of this difference in heart rate on the in breath and out breath.
Improved Heart Rate Variability is an established indicator for greater control over the nervous system, meaning you can more quickly and effectively move from sympathetic dominance (basically the activation of the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system response) to parasympathetic dominance (activation of our ‘rest and digest’ nervous system response)5. Vagal tone is also an established protective factor for heart attack and stroke, meaning that among the many benefits of breathing, it may also help reduce risk of some of the biggest killers in Western society – but that is a topic for another video6.
So how do we actually strengthen the Vagus nerve? Practising slow breathing. Just 10 minutes a day has been shown to have lasting benefits for many medical and emotional disorders including depression, anxiety and PTSD7.
Slow breathing has also been shown to lower cortisol levels (which is a biomarker directly associated with stress levels)8.
If you want a guided practice of this slow, deep breathing, check out my video 10 minute breathwork to relax and release stress, anxiety and depression. (or practise with me on Insight Timer).
So we’ve looked at slow breathing, let’s now examine some faster breathing techniques which are also found in the Yogic Tradition. Similar techniques have also been used in many other cultures around the world to reach altered states of consciousness1 and are used today by therapists, coaches and healers to support psychological healing and optimised physical performance9.
When you breathe quickly, the greater volume of air moving through the lungs allows the increased diffusion of carbon dioxide out of the body. Normally the body maintains a close balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the blood giving the blood a stable Ph (this is because carbon dioxide is acidic). When you practise more intense breathwork your body’s balance of carbon dioxide to oxygen temporarily shifts to a lower concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood, causing the body to temporarily become more alkaline9.
This can explain some of the physiological changes experienced which are called alkalosis (commonly tingling or numbness in hands and feet or ringing in the ears). In the past there was some concern in the therapeutic field that these symptoms of temporary alkalosis can be harmful, however research has revealed they are harmless in healthy people9. In fact a recent study of over 11,000 people doing intense breathwork practise over 12 years found not a single adverse physiological reaction10.
Another study on these more intense breathing techniques found that after a single session, practitioners had significant improvements in their heart rate variability, which, as we discussed earlier, shows a greater control over the nervous system, leading to a significant reduction in anxiety levels (which are largely caused by dysregulation of the nervous system in the first place)11. If you want to learn more about the evidence of how breathing can help with anxiety – I have a whole video about that.
High frequency breathing may also help to increase something called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps with the creation of new neurons, the repair of old neurons and neuroplasticity (which is the brain’s ability to change). This is important for all of us, but especially important to help reduce brain aging as we get older. There is also evidence that breathing can help with improved mental clarity and function12.
It seems that breath practises, whether slow and relaxed, or more intense may be effective in increasing the strength of the Vagus Nerve, improving Heart Rate Variability and increasing parasympathetic control, basically meaning we can relax more easily and enjoy the many benefits that follow including lowered levels of anxiety, stress, depression and potentially even lowered risk for cardiovascular disease13. As well as improved mental and physical performance.
Cerebrospinal fluid is a fluid that is produced in our brain and moves through the brain and down the spinal cord (cerebro-spinal fluid). It is responsible for the supply of nutrients to our neuronal cells in the brain and glial cells (which are the cells of our central nervous system). They’re very important cells! The CSF also transports hormones and neurotransmitters through the CNS as well as removing waste products14.
One of the main influences of CSF flow is the breath. Stress and anxiety tend to lead towards a restriction in breathing, leading to a reduction in CSF flow14. When CSF doesn’t flow effectively… Well, you can imagine the health effects of not having sufficient nutrients in the brain!
One proven way to increase CSF flow is through the conscious deep breathing we have discussed. When we breathe deeply, the pressure on our abdomen from the breath acts almost like a pump for our CSF, helping to increase CSF flow and to experience all the health benefits that come with it14.
Now we have a basic understanding of how the breath can affect us physiologically. Check out my other video Breathwork: The Science of Healing Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Trauma & More for an understanding of the evidence of what these physiological changes actually mean for our psychological well-being, healing and life satisfaction. Or if you want to experience these benefits for yourself – try one of my guided practises – 10 Minute Breathwork to Feel Amazing or 10 Minute Breathwork to Relax & Release Stress, Anxiety & Depression.
Interesting resources to find out more:
The Science Of Yogic Breathing | Sundar Balasubramanian | TEDxCharleston
Ha Breathing Meditation – The Teaching of HA-WAI-I
- Grof, S., & Grof, C. (2010). Holotropic breathwork. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
- White, D. (2014). The “Yoga Sutra of Patanjali”: A Biography. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt6wq06f
- Yuan, H., & Silberstein, S. D. (2016). Vagus Nerve and Vagus Nerve Stimulation, a Comprehensive Review: Part I. Headache, 56(1), 71–78. https://doi.org/10.1111/head.12647
- Shaffer, F., McCraty, R., & Zerr, C. L. (2014). A healthy heart is not a metronome: an integrative review of the heart’s anatomy and heart rate variability. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1040. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01040
- Jerath, R., Crawford, M. W., Barnes, V. A., & Harden, K. (2015). Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 40(2), 107–115. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-015-9279-8
- Rastogi, T., Reddy, K. S., Vaz, M., Spiegelman, D., Prabhakaran, D., Willett, W. C., Stampfer, M. J., & Ascherio, A. (2004). Diet and risk of ischemic heart disease in India. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 79(4), 582–592. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/79.4.582
- Gevirtz, Richard. (2013). The Promise of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback: Evidence-Based Applications. Biofeedback. 41. 110-120. 10.5298/1081-5937-41.3.01. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272703513_The_Promise_of_Heart_Rate_Variability_Biofeedback_Evidence-Based_Applications
- Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
- Rhinewine, Joseph & Williams, Oliver. (2007). Holotropic Breathwork: The Potential Role of a Prolonged, Voluntary Hyperventilation Procedure as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.). 13. 771-6. 10.1089/acm.2006.6203.
- Eyerman, J. (2013). A clinical report of Holotropic Breathwork in 11,000 psychiatric inpatients in a community hospital setting. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Bulletin Special Edition, 23(1), 24-27.
- Puente, Iker & Cervantes, Julio. (2014). Effects of Holorenic Breathwork on Anxiety and Heart Rate Variability: Preliminary Results. Journal of Transpersonal Research. 6. 134-142.
- Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2009). Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172, 54–62. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04394.x
- Dekker, J.M., Crow, R.S., Folsom, A.R., Hannan, P.J., Liao, D., Swenne, C.A., Schouten, E.G. (2000) Low heart rate variability in a 2-minute rhythm strip predicts risk of coronary heart disease and mortality from several causes: the ARIC study. Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities. Circulation, 102: 1239-1244.
- Whedon, J. M., & Glassey, D. (2009). Cerebrospinal fluid stasis and its clinical significance. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 15(3), 54–60.