Types of Breathwork: Learn how to harness the power of your breath
There are plenty of types of breathwork available to learn. Because of its powerful effects, breathwork has plenty of supporters and practitioners. There is good reason for this. Breath work in any form is one of the most powerful routes to wellness a person can take.
Oxygen gives us the fuel we need to do anything, including living minute to minute. However, simply breathing isn’t always enough. Your physical and emotional state affects the way you breath. Likewise, the way you breath has a profound effect on the way you feel.
It is a good idea, therefore, to train yourself to breathe properly, and to practice mindful breathwork on a regular basis.
There are plenty of types of breath work. It can be hard to know which to go with. If in doubt, go with whichever you have the easiest access to.
If somebody is running a class near you in any breathwork technique, go for it. You will benefit. However, if you have a choice, choose well. Below, we’ll run through some of the more common types of breathwork you may come across.
The benefits of all types of breathwork
Breathwork is ancient. Many traditions go back thousands of years. Some are newer, though. Many were founded in the 20th and early 21st centuries, fulfilling an urgent need within mindfulness and wellbeing communities.
However, they all share a few things. Indeed, the basic theory is very straightforward:
You can nourish your body and mind through proper, full inhalations, whilst releasing stress and tension as you exhale.
It gets more complex the more you study any individual discipline and Breathwork is no different in this respect. Many take a more spiritual approach to it, whilst others take a more medical one. Then again, some combine the two. There are more advanced techniques and meditations that can go hand-in-hand with the basics. But this is it in a nutshell – breathwork is nourishment.
Breathwork will lead to greater mindfulness, either inadvertently or, more commonly, deliberately as part of the practice. During breathwork exercises, we mindfully focus on the breath and on what the body is doing. We reset and find relaxation in the moment.
This comes together to provide an impressive list of potential benefits. These benefits are accessible to all regular practitioners.
The benefits of breath work include:
- Deeper sleep
- Balanced blood pressure
- Improved respiratory function
- Stronger immune health
- Reduction of trauma symptoms, including from PTSD
- Reduction of stress hormones like cortisol in the body
- Relieved symptoms of stress and anxiety
- Reduced feelings of depression
- More energy and better mental clarity
- Improved focus
- Relieved stress from addictive behaviours
- Heightened mood, including a more positive mental outlook
- Release tension throughout the entire body
- Improved regulation of heating and cooling of the body
Are there any downsides or dangers to different types of breathwork?
As with most things, there are a couple of side effects to look out for with breathwork. There are a couple of common pitfalls you will want to avoid.
Hyperventilation is perhaps the biggest danger when practicing different types of breathwork, especially in the early days.
The effects of hyperventilation include:
- irregular heartbeat
- tingling in your extremities, such as your hands, arms, feet, or legs
- muscle spasms
- changes in vision from mild oxygen deprivation
- ringing in your ears
If you suffer from anxiety or a panic disorder, you are likely to be very familiar with the effects of hyperventilation.
In severe cases, oxygen deprivation can cause permanent brain damage (though this won’t generally happen in regular breath work).
Then there are more mundane matters. Namely, breathwork can be ineffective, or at least inefficient, especially in beginners. This isn’t too much of a problem though. Of course, we all take time to learn new skills.
Try to manage your expectations. Breath work won’t be a cure-all in the early days. Nonetheless, the better you get, and the more you dedicate yourself to any of the different types of breathwork, the more you will benefit.
These pitfalls can be avoided with good instruction. A good instructor will keep you safe and secure as you learn and will enable you to learn effectively and ably. They will provide a quiet, soothing place in which distractions will be minimal. They will also be able to guide you fully through each technique.
Common types of breathwork
What do we mean when we talk about the different types of breathwork? What does breathwork look like?
Essentially, the term ‘breathwork’ refers to any type of breathing exercise or technique. You will intentionally change your breathing patterns during any practice. These techniques are usually performed with the above benefits in mind. Breathwork can improve your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
There are many types of breathwork. We’ve already seen that most of them share the same core ideals and methods. However, they also diverge quite a lot. Each offers something a little different. Bare your own goals in mind when looking to study the different kinds. What you want from your practice should inform the kind of breath work practice you choose.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many, many styles of breathwork out there. However, these are some of the more commonly practiced forms and should be quite easily accessible by most people.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a breathing pattern developed by Dr Andrew Weil. He based it on an ancient form of pranayama yoga technique. This breathing style helps practitioners to mindfully control their breathing in a meditative setting. It is designed to bring the body into a state of deep relaxation. It also fully replenishes oxygen reserves through a set breathing pattern.
4-7-8 breathing involves adding counted beats as you inhale and exhale. It works as a meditation. It allows you to quieten your thoughts and focus your mind.
Simply breath in deeply for four beats, hold your breath for seven beats, then exhale for eight. Each beat should last roughly one second. This longer exhalation enables you to empty your lungs more fully.
Alternating nostril breathing
Alternating nostril breathing (aka nadi shodhana) is another pranayama yoga technique. It helps to clear the airways and focus your attention fully on the breath’s rhythmic nature.
To practice alternating nostril breathing, you begin by placing your right forefinger and middle finger to your temple.
Then, use your thumb to block off your right nostril and inhale, using only the left nostril.
Hold your breath as you take the pressure off your right nostril and use your finger to close off your left nostril.
Exhale, using only your right nostril.
Then breathe in using your left nostril, and repeat, alternating. Alternating nostril breathing encourages balance and calm.
Deep Abdominal Types of Breathwork
Deep abdominal breathwork is one of the best-known, most approachable, and easily practised types of breathwork.
Abdominal breathwork like this is performed using very long and deep breaths. A practitioner will visualise their body filling with air, from the stomach upwards. (Obviously, this is a visualisation exercise – nobody is claiming that you can fill your stomach with air!) Then the chest, upper back and stomach should expand with each inhalation, broadening the collarbone and elongating the practitioner’s posture.
The chest then relaxes in turn with the exhalation, the stomach deflates and returns back towards the spine.
Holotropic breathwork is an advanced breathing technique that follows the teachings of Christina and Stanislav Grof.
Though all the techniques on this list should be practiced under an experienced teacher, this is especially the case with holotropic breathing.
Sessions are usually performed in group classes, with a certified practitioner facilitating and guiding them. This instructor will have you breathe at an accelerated rate for set amounts of time.
The aim is to bring about altered states of consciousness.
To achieve this, you will take no pauses between breaths as you aim to bring in as much oxygen as possible, giving you energy and eliciting rejuvenation.
Music will accompany practice, and afterwards you will try your hand at meditative art, practicing mandala drawing.
Vivation is a practice begun by Jim Leonard. It is a physically pleasurable meditation and a breathwork process that is quick and easy to learn. This makes it perfect for those just beginning to explore the different types of breathwork.
Through vivation, you will attempt to learn to resolve any kind of negative emotion, trauma, or stress afflicting you. Vivation will help you to experience the truth of your feelings as physical patterns of energy within your body in a gentle yet powerful way.
You will directly connect with your feelings and emotions in a very physical way. This should allow you to bring about much more honest and pleasurable experiences.
Your ultimate aim is to bypass negative thoughts about your feelings. Rather, the focus in vivation will always be on the inner body wisdom.
Vivation has its roots in ancient practices, most notably Indian Kriya and Tantra Yoga. It blends modern breathwork into a unique and greatly simplified process. You should be able to learn it in just a few days of instruction.
Ujjayi breathing is a pranayama breathing yoga technique for staying calm through stressful situations. Of course, this helps in the yoga practice itself. Using it, you can help to remain present and calm through stressful, difficult postures and transitions.
This practice translates into life more broadly. Ujjayi breathing can help you to deal with stress and pain in any situation.
Ujjayi is often called the ‘ocean breath’ as it should sound somewhat like the tide rolling in and out.
To perform it, keep your mouth closed, lightly constrict your throat so that your breathing makes this characteristic sound. Your tongue should touch the roof of your mouth. Control your diaphragm and breath slowly, with calm force.
Shamanic breathing is one of the more mysterious types of breathwork you might come across. It revolves around a ceremony designed to represent a powerful transformational journey. The end goal is to awaken your inner shaman. This will connect you more deeply to the natural world and the self.
During shamanic breathing, you will transform and release old wounds and dysfunctional patterns. In its spiritual tradition, you will regain lost parts of your soul. Then, this will help you to remember and regain the inner magic of your true self.
It is an empowering, highly experiential process for those who believe in these more mystical elements. Shamanic breathing blends ancient teachings with more modern concepts of healing and learning.
Leonard Orr developed the rebirthing technique, also known as Conscious Energy Breathing (CEB) in the US. According to practitioners, unprocessed and/or repressed emotions have a physical impact on the body. There is a lot of evidence for this in modern psychological research.
These could be traumatic experiences which were too difficult or painful to process at the time, which are then explored later on.
Rebirthing breathing exercises are a self-healing practice designed to unblock these emotions and the energy that practitioners claim is bound up in them. Working with a qualified instructor in a safe setting, you will make use of circular breathing. In this case conscious connected circular breathing.
In short, you will breathe continuously, with no lag or retention between breaths. This may allow you to release negative emotions and thoughts as they are triggered by subconscious feelings and thoughts. In this way, you will be able to explore them in a safe setting, bringing you some measure of peace and clarity.
The different types of Breathwork within our Wellness Hub
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Author - James
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