Breathwork Demystified: Understanding the Various Forms and Their Benefits

May 23, 2024

Breathwork, a form of meditation, is currently experiencing a surge in popularity and is a significant part of the $296.3 billion global alternative healthcare industry. This ancient practice is gaining recognition for its myriad benefits, supported by scientific research. From reducing stress and anxiety to improving cognitive function, lowering blood pressure, and healing trauma, breathwork can be a game changer for those who practice it.

Visit your local yoga studio or scroll through your favorite social media platform, and chances are you’ll come across a form of breathwork. Some clips might seem intense, with people screaming and crying, making you wonder what’s really happening. Just remember, there is not a “one size fits all” with breathwork.

As the breathwork movement grows, so does the need for clarification about what it is. The term itself can mean many things. Here’s a simplified way to understand the different forms of breathwork. Please note: this list is not exhaustive, and many forms overlap.

1. Pranayama
This is an ancient yogic breath practice and a main component of yoga. Frequently practiced with yoga postures and meditation, all other forms of breathwork are essentially offshoots of pranayama. In Sanskrit, “prana” means “life force energy,” and “ayama” refers to expansion, extension, regulation, and control. By controlling the breath, the mind is controlled, and prana is directed. When done correctly, pranayama brings harmony to the body, mind, and spirit, strengthening you physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Some well-known pranayama breathing exercises include:

  • Nadi Shodhan (alternate nostril breathing): This practice has several styles, all aimed at creating balance and regulating air flow through your nasal passages. “Nadi Shodhana” means “clearing the channels of circulation.”
  • Ujjayi breathing (ocean breath): This nasal breath uses a constriction at the back of your throat to control, slow, and extend your inhales and exhales. The sound is reminiscent of waves crashing up on an ocean shore.
  • Bhastrika pranayama (bellows breath): This vigorous technique mimics fanning a fire with a steady air flow. Actively fill and empty your abdomen and lungs during this energetic breathing pattern.
  • Bhramari pranayama (bee breath): Named after the humming sound produced at the back of the throat, this calming practice mimics the gentle humming of a bee.

2. Functional Breathing Techniques/Exercises
Functional breathing focuses on helping people breathe deeper or more effectively. Most of us have not breathed properly since we were babies. We often breathe constricted, failing to use the full capacity of our lungs, or we over-breathe. This leads to alterations in CO2 and oxygen levels, negatively affecting every system in the body and contributing to disease. Functional breathing exercises are typically short, do not alter consciousness, and are not used for transformation or deep emotional healing. They are usually self-guided and do not require a facilitator.

Common examples include:

  • Box or Square Breathing: Used by the military to create a relaxed state of readiness and boost mood. It involves counting the four phases of the breath: inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, and repeat.
  • 4-7-8 Breathing: Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, referred to as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” Inhale for four counts, hold for seven counts, and exhale for eight.
  • Pursed Lip Breathing: Helps slow your breathing, making it easier to perform physical activities and reducing stress. Inhale through your nose and gently exhale through pursed lips.
  • Diaphragmatic/Belly Breathing: This calming technique engages the diaphragm to take deeper breaths. A person will notice their stomach rising and falling. They will also feel an expanding sensation in the stomach rather than solely in their chest and shoulders.
  • Coherent or Resonant Breathing: Breathe at a rate of five breaths per minute by inhaling for a count of five and exhaling for a count of five. It helps regulate the nervous system, reduce stress, and prevent insomnia.

3. Conscious Connected Breathing (CCB)
All CCB variants stem from two major branches of modern breathwork born in the 1960s – Holotropic (accessing non-ordinary states of consciousness) and Rebirthing (releasing suppressed traumatic childhood memories). Despite differences among CCB variants, they all share the technique of having no pause between the inhale and exhale.

Conscious Connected Breathing is a powerful and safe way to infuse the body with oxygen and energy, recharging our often depleted systems to their healing capacity. It facilitates openings to higher levels of consciousness, releases stagnant energy in the body, and provides mental and emotional clarity, deepening our relationship with ourselves.

CCB sessions, often called journeys, typically last between 30 and 120 minutes. They usually include music and are led by a trained facilitator who coaches participants on the technique, encourages continuous breathing, and holds space for the group. The goals of CCB sessions vary; some focus on healing, others on mystical or psychedelic experiences, and others on endurance.

Common variants of CCB include Transformational Breathwork, Integrative Breathwork, Radiance Breathwork, Biodynamic Breathwork, The Wim Hof Method, Clarity Breathwork, Neurodynamic Breathwork, Somatic Breathwork, and Breath of Bliss.

I’m trained as a Pause Breathwork Facilitator, a form of CCB. Pause breathwork uses intentional stimulation (breath, music, and movement) to regulate the nervous system and restore harmony to the body. We offer integrative and meditative breathwork sessions. Integrative sessions are shorter, do not take you out of your conscious state, and involve slower, less activating patterns. Meditative sessions are longer, offering different breath patterns designed for various results. All sessions are trauma-informed and empower the breather to truly listen to their body.

You can find additional information here on the differences between Holotropic and Pause Breathwork.