“When we practice Pranayama the veil is gradually drawn away from the mind and there is growing clarity. The mind becomes ready for deep meditation” (yoga sutra 2.52)
Pranayama, or breathwork, is a powerful tool that can be used to help reduce stress, bring in ease to the body, and calm the mind. Breathwork has been used for thousands of years in yoga and Ayurveda, an ancient Indian medicine, as a way of clearing emotional obstacles and distress, and strengthening the mind-body connection. Its influence and power is finally being recognized in the west, as mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy (MBSR) has become more mainstream and Wim Hoff breathwork has taken off.
Breathwork is so effective in fact that it has even been utilized by NAVY SEALS and healthcare workers as a way to calm the body down. However, it is important that we do not forget the roots of these practices and understand that their impacts on the body run much deeper than merely what the current research has validated.
This article will walk you through the history, the science, and the many benefits of utilizing the breath.
A Brief History
Breathwork has its deepest roots in yoga. While most people in the US consider yoga as merely a sequence of postures, it is actually an overarching term for many practices, from asana (what you may typically associate with yoga) to attitudes and belief systems, devotional practices, and pranayama.
Pranayama is the 4th limb of yoga and it is what encompasses breathwork. It is derived from two sanskrit words – prana meaning life force, and ayama, meaning expansion.
From this framework, pranayama is meant to be the bridge between the body and mind and is thought to help move and direct prana, our universal life force (similar to qi in traditional chinese medicine).
The practice of pranayama dates back to ancient India, around 6th or 5th BCE in the early yogic texts of the Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
In Yoga, there is the belief that if you can control your breath, you can control and influence many other aspects of your life. And with that, different breathwork techniques are meant to be bring about different energetic impacts. For example, some breathwork is meant to be used for increasing our internal fire, such as Dirgha Pranayama, while others are meant to calm and cleanse the mind, providing introspection, like Nadi Shodhana .
While these are ancient practices that have been used for centuries, their benefits have only just started to come to light in our modern science context.
Breathwork and Anxiety:
In recent years, breathwork has been explored by research. While its benefits extend far and wide, the most spotlighted area have been on its impacts on stress reduction.
Anxiety is overwhelmingly controlled by our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis), our body’s main physiological system that regulates the body’s stress response. This is the system that produces our stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, and what is responsible for shifting our body into the “fight v. flight v. freeze” state. While a certain level of stress can be beneficial, most of us are operating in a chronic state of stress, creating inflammation and disease in our body and negatively impacting our mind.
One of the most profound ways to move our body out of this state and towards one of ease is through breath. Deep, intentional breathing has been shown to enhance our vagal nerve activity, the main nerve pathway that brings us into the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” state. The vagus nerve innervates many of our major organs, including our lungs, so when we breathe deeply, we are able to activate our vagus nerve, decreasing our heart rate, lowering blood pressure, easing respiration, and signaling to our brain that we are safe.
Dating back to 2010, research has shown how the breath can shift us out of the sympathetic nervous system and towards the parasympathetic. A 2014 review, which looked at heart rate and biofeedback, found that diaphragmatic breathing (AKA belly breathing or a yogic breath) and slow deep breathing work to stimulate vagus nerve activity and ease depressive/anxiety symptoms. Other research has gone on to confirm this relationship between the breath and the vagus nerve, indicating that breathwork can work to alter the perception of and symptoms of anxiety, such as heart rate.
A 2022 systematic review, which analyzed 15 articles, found that overwhelmingly breathwork was associated with a statistically significant decrease in anxiety symptoms. One study even found that there was a dose-response relationship, showing that with every hour of breathwork practice, there was a statistically significant reduction in anxiety. This same review showed that breathwork could also lower depressive symptoms.
Lowering our stress response in the body can be particularly important if you are facing hormonal challenges, are pregnant or trying to conceive. While a little bit of stress is okay, long term or unchecked stress can impact our blood sugar levels, ovulation, fertility, pregnancy, and even affect our little ones in utero for years to come.
Breathwork and Other Benefits:
Breathwork has also been shown to imapct our brain waves. Some research has begun to look at how different breathing rates can impact brain waves, with studies showing that slow, deep breathing can increase alpha brain waves, which correlate to more feel-good neurotransmitters, and shift us into a more parasympathetic state, inducing greater feelings of relaxation. Other studies have shown that breathwork in the context of meditation can bring people into different levels of consciousness, further connected to our brain wave activity.
Breathwork may also benefit those with various diagnosed illnesses. A 2020 review that looked at 18 studies examining pranayama on various diseases found that breathwork practices may lower blood pressure in patients with hypertension or cardiovascular disease. Other studies have looked at how pranayama can play a role in reducing symptoms among those with asthma, cancer-related fatigue, and those with cardiovascular disease.
From an energetic level, breathwork practices are believed to change our energy, increase or decrease certain elements and qualities in our body, and play a vital role in preparing us for other limbs of yoga, such as meditation and concentration.
Breathwork is a powerful, accessible, and constantly available tool that can go a long way in benefiting both mental and physical health.
So maybe start small with 5-10 minutes of breathwork practice a day.
Not sure how to get started? Download by free breathwork exercise here