Breathwork: The Benefits and the Bullshit

Breathwork: The Benefits and the Bullshit

Are there benefits of breathwork? Can the way you breathe affect your physical or mental health? Can controlling your breath bring about “mystical” experiences? “Breathwork,” the overarching term for a number of meditative breathing practices, has gained a lot of support in recent years.

It’s a practice that is attractive to “woo peddlers“—I won’t mention names, but two people whose names rhyme with Shmennith Shmaltrow and Weepack Boapra are both advocates, among many others who may not be as well-known. But, even the scientific and medical communities are beginning to explore its claimed benefits. So, is there any validity to it?

What is breathwork?

Street art - Inhale-Exhale

Breathwork is simply the act of controlling the breath in a structured way. Commonly, people who engage in the practice will set aside a period of time of a few minutes to an hour or more, and attempt to breathe in a defined, rhythmic pattern. It is similar to meditation in many ways and practitioners often combine it with meditation or even use it as a meditative practice on its own.

The exact breathing pattern depends on the type of breathwork, and there are several.

Types of breathwork

“Breathwork” is a fairly broad term and includes quite a few different practices. Some are based on the traditions of yoga and other eastern philosophies, while others have more modern origins. I won’t be making an exhaustive list, but here are a few of the most popular breathwork techniques.

Pranayama

Practicing pranayama breathwork by a lake

This may be the original breathwork practice. The word “pranayama” comes from Sanscrit, meaning “breath control.”

If you practice yoga, you are almost certainly also practicing pranayama as you attempt to synchronize your breathing with your movements. It is a part of most, if not all types of yoga, especially the more traditional forms. You can practice it on its own, as well, without performing any yoga routines or “asanas.”

Wim Hof method

wim-hof-breaks-world-record-for-longest-ice-bath-the-wim-hof-method“Ice Man” Wim Hof, a Dutch athlete known for his extreme tolerance to freezing temperatures, is the originator of this technique. He attributes his remarkable cold-tolerance to his breathing practice and teaches others how they can stand such temperatures, too.

According to Wim, sub-zero temperature tolerance is just one of the many benefits of his technique.  He also believes that cold exposure has its own benefits, but that’s a topic for another post.

Among the positive effects, people who practice the technique claim that they can achieve psychedelic states, allegedly from the release of the compound DMT (dimethyltryptamine)—a very powerful psychedelic drug you’ve certainly heard about if you’re a fan of the immensely popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast.

Holotropic Breathwork

This is another breathwork practice that produces psychedelic states, according to its advocates. Like the Wim Hof method, it is a relatively modern technique, developed in the 1970s.

That people claim to achieve psychedelic states with Holotropic breathing isn’t surprising—the technique was developed by psychiatrist Dr. Stanislov Grof, one of the pioneers of psychedelic therapy. The psychedelic experience is, in fact, a primary goal of this technique.

This type of breathwork is normally led by practitioners certified through the Grof Transpersonal Training program and is often done in a group setting.

As is common with anything related to psychedelic experience, there are a lot of pseudo-scientific and “spiritual” claims about Holotropic Breathwork and its benefits. People who practice it are almost certainly experiencing some type of altered consciousness. Spiritual claims, though, are unfalsifiable by their nature.

Rebirthing breathwork

This is a type of breathwork that is intended to “release” traumatic memories from childhood, in particular the trauma of your own birth. It appears to be one of the more pseudo-scientific practices and I have found very little support in the scientific literature. If you know of any peer-reviewed studies on the effectiveness of rebirthing breathwork, please let me know in the comments.

Integrative breathwork

If you search Google for this phrase, what pops up are mostly links to “spirituality” and other pseudo-science websites. Searching Google Scholar for the same phrase gives mostly articles on breathwork overall, or other types of breathwork.

Does that make it bullshit? Maybe not. But it doesn’t give it much credibility, either.

That aside, the practice was developed by Jacquelyn Small—a protege of Dr. Grof—and is similar to Holotropic Breathwork. It incorporates music and rhythmic breathing in a meditation practice. Like Holotropic Breathwork, people who practice integrative breathwork probably do experience “altered states of consciousness,” but the claims beyond that are almost entirely made up of woo-sounding buzzwords.

Claimed benefits of breathwork

I’ve mentioned a few of the claimed benefits of controlled breathing practice but they are not the only reasons people take up the techniques.

Psychedelic experience

Psychedelic artwork - psychedelic experiences are one of the claimed benefits of some types of breathwork.
Psychedelic experiences are one of the claimed benefits of some types of breathwork.

I touched on this above. People who have practiced the Wim Hof method, Holotropic Breathwork, and similar types of breathing exercises very frequently claim to have experiences that closely resemble the effects of psychedelic drugs like LSD, psilocybin (the “magic” in magic mushrooms), and DMT.

Though that effect is somewhat subjective and the evidence is mostly anecdotal, it’s hard to deny that something is happening. There have been controlled studies of holotropic breathwork and the most compelling result is that volunteers report very similar experiences. Also, those reported experiences are very similar to the experiences psychedelic users describe.

Studies of DMT-like effects brought on by the Wim Hof method are harder to find. I haven’t found anything more than personal reports. Those reports are pretty consistent, though, which does give them a little weight.

DMT MoleculeAt the same time, I should point out that the claims that endogenous (i.e., produced within the body) DMT causes the reported experiences are as-yet unsubstantiated. Though it is true that we humans produce DMT, researchers have yet to determine its function.

It’s also worth noting, researchers have not yet found DMT in the human brain. We know that rats produce it in their brains—specifically, in their pineal glands. Many hypothesize that humans produce it there, too.

That isn’t unreasonable to think, but we still don’t know.

A safer way to explore?

The cause is largely irrelevant to most people who experience the effects. Those apparent effects are intriguing, regardless, and for anyone considering trying DMT or other psychedelics, breathwork practice might be a good way to “test the waters.” There are always risks to psychedelic exploration but it might be a safer way to get there than consuming illicit substances (I’m not saying safe, just safer). A very big advantage of using breathwork instead of consuming psychedelic drugs is that you can end the experience almost immediately if necessary (though some “psychonauts” might call this a disadvantage since many believe that difficult experiences are potentially the most beneficial).

If this is something that interests you, I would encourage you to approach the practice with caution and healthy skepticism. The psychedelic experience can be unpredictable and can be truly traumatic if you aren’t prepared for it and sometimes, even when you are.

Holotropic Breathwork, in particular, does come with its own set of risks. As most experienced psychedelic users will tell you, you shouldn’t explore without a knowledgeable guide. This goes for Holotropic Breathwork, too. It isn’t something to attempt on your own.

Gets you high

Man smoking a comically-large joint.
Could breathwork be a safer way to get high?

This is apart from the supposed psychedelic effects, and it is a real effect. The apparent cause is fairly simple—hyperventilation. Some forms of breathwork are, in essence, intentional hyperventilation. When you breathe rapidly, you tend to expel more CO2 than normal and this leads to a state known as respiratory alkalosis. Symptoms of respiratory alkalosis include “light-headedness, confusion, peripheral and circumoral paresthesias, cramps, and syncope.”

Those symptoms probably don’t sound completely positive, but when done in a controlled setting, as opposed to panic- or hypoxia-induced hyperventilation, the feeling can be very pleasant to many people. Hyperventilating, though, can be dangerous and breath therapies that induce hyperventilating are particularly risky for those who have seizures or those with severe psychiatric conditions. It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before trying these practices; working with an experienced professional to learn the techniques is recommended.

Once more, though, breathwork is likely a safer way to get high than using drugs, especially if those drugs aren’t coming from a reliable, legal source.

Relieve anxiety and depression

Drawing of a depressed man crying.

Among the reasons people begin practicing breathwork, relief of anxiety is one of the most popular. There are many breathing techniques that might calm an anxious person. Such techniques can even minimize and possibly stop a full-blown panic attack, or so goes the claim.

Many of the controlled-breathing practices do appear to be effective for this purpose. Still, while studies have been done, most of the data beyond anecdotal reports are preliminary. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the practice as “woo” at this point, but I’d like to see more controlled studies. Nonetheless, if you are one of the millions of people who regularly experience anxiety, breathwork practices are worth exploring.

One relatively uncontroversial claim is that controlling your breathing helps you to stop unwanted thoughts. This is almost certainly true. Concentrating on anything other than the disturbing thoughts will accomplish that goal, at least temporarily.

The questions we should ask, though, are whether breathwork does anything more than to simply distract you from unpleasant thoughts and whether it can relieve symptoms beyond just those few moments of distraction. Anecdotal reports seem to indicate that it can and studies have been promising.

Addiction recovery

A heroin addict.
Breathwork has been used to treat addiction.

Addiction is a serious issue affecting millions of people. Its effects are devastating, not just to the addict but to the addict’s family, friends, and often coworkers. A very large part of the problem is that it appears to outsiders that an addict can simply choose to stop.

While there are certainly examples of addicts who’ve given up their drug of choice “cold turkey,” that is far from typical. Most who try to stop without some form of treatment eventually return to using.

Although few people these days will deny that some form of treatment is important, we’ve seen little change in the methods used. Some version of a 12-step program is the almost-universally prescribed remedy.

As 12-step programs are anonymous by design, there isn’t a lot of concrete data on their effectiveness. Limited studies show that they do help—addicts are about twice as likely to abstain when they participate in 12-step programs. Nonetheless, “relapses” are common and often even considered part of the recovery process.

Psychedelics might help

Interestingly, psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin seem to help many addicts to recover very quickly. Even Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, aka Bill W., was an advocate for LSD as a part of recovery.

Despite what many of us have been brought up to believe, these drugs are quite safe when used in an appropriate setting, ideally under the guidance of a trained therapist.

Breathwork as an alternative

Still, the drugs are not entirely harmless. If breathwork can get you to the same place as those chemicals (plant- or fungus-derived chemicals are still chemicals), maybe it’s a better option.

I need to point out, none of the “classic psychedelics”—LSD, mescaline (the active ingredient in peyote), psilocybin, and DMT—are legal in the U.S. for any use. There have been limited government-approved studies, but as of yet, none of these drugs are approved for widespread therapeutic use. The drugs’ legal status might be one of their biggest risk factors, currently.

The good news is that breathwork—Holotropic Breathwork in particular—does seem to help. There are therapists who specialize in this form of treatment and they’re seeing great results. Whether as a supplement to a 12-step program or on its own, breathwork looks to be a good way to treat the problem of addiction for some people.

Recovering from trauma

Soldier experiencing PTSD
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a common issue for war veterans.

If you’ve lived through a traumatic event, you might know first-hand how it can continue to impact your life long after the event has past. Most people think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a problem of war veterans. While vets are more likely than most of us to experience severe trauma, they are far from the only ones.

Fortunately, there are treatments available. It usually involves some form of talk therapy along with prescription medication—Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) like Lexapro and Prozac are among the most commonly prescribed, and sedatives are fairly typical too. Of course, as with all medication, these drugs can have side-effects and they can sometimes be quite severe.

The process of finding the right medication is a bit of a crapshoot, too. A patient might have to try several combinations of meds to find the one that works, and the medication could stop working or become less effective after a period of time.

Can breathwork help to heal trauma?

Once more, psychedelics seem to help quite a few trauma-sufferers to recover. It appears that some types of breathwork are similarly effective, too. This isn’t surprising—if psychedelics help, and if breathwork practice can mimic the psychedelic experience, it makes sense that the same practices would be similarly effective for trauma recovery.

Once again, the psychedelic effects appear to be real, but this is based on limited data. And once more, legal restrictions limit studies of the benefits of psychedelics. This makes it difficult to form a conclusion.

Whether a victim of trauma should try it is something to discuss with a therapist. People have had good results but it would be irresponsible to make a recommendation on a blog.

Breathwork has benefits… but…

There are a lot of pseudo-scientific claims regarding breathwork. Many of those are unfalsifiable and therefore, not scientific in any way. Of the benefits that have been tested, some have had very positive results.

At the same time, many less-than-ethical “practitioners” (as opposed to licensed therapists) exaggerate breathwork’s benefits far beyond what the studies show. Most of the supposed “spiritual” claims are at best unfalsifiable and at worst, outright bullshit.

So, is it worth exploring? I’d say that depends on what you’re expecting to get from it. If you’re just curious and would like to see what the hype is about, you’re in good physical health, and you’re willing to work with an experienced guide, there’s minimal risk.

If you’re an addict who’s tried to give up your addiction multiple times and still struggle, breathwork as an addiction therapy might be a good option.

If you’ve experienced severe trauma and you’re looking for help in living a regular life, and you’re working with a licensed therapist experienced in this form of therapy, it may very well be effective for you.

If you want to experiment with breathwork the way college kids might experiment with drugs, with minimal understanding of the risks and without any kind of medical screening, I’d suggest reconsidering.

What are your own experiences with breathwork? Let me know in the comments.

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