Breathwork: Let's get sciencey!

What is Breathwork?

Breathwork or pranayamic breathing, as it is known in eastern cultures, can be defined as an active form of meditation incorporating controlled deep rhythmic breathing. It is part catharsis, part psychedelic experience. The technique moves stuck energy and facilitate the release of strong emotions we may have been holding onto for many years, leaving us lighter and often in a state of total mind clarity.

What has it been shown to do?

The positive effects of breathwork can be experienced immediately. Studies have reported states of mental clarity, profound relaxation and sense of well-being after one breathwork session (Schwartz, 1996) and increased alertness and reinvigoration (Zacarro 2018, Jerath 2006). Research into controlled, deep breathing practices have shown significant effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular, cardiorespiratory and autonomic nervous systems as well as the potential for breathing techniques as a means of optimising physiological parameters associated with longevity. See Russo (2017) for a full review.

A theory of Breathwork

Anxiety, stressful environments and a general perception of the world being unpredictable, uncontrollable or overwhelming have all been shown to related to an inhibited breathing pattern (Fokkema 1999, Anderson & Chesney 2002, Anderson 2001).

Continued suppression of breathing leads to reduced oxygen and high CO2 levels in the blood which can lead to a reduction in serotonin synthesis (Erecinska & Silver, 2001; Nishikawa et al., 2005) and is associated with a tendency toward increased worry and negative affect (Dhokalia, Parsons, & Anderson, 1998).

It is theorised that sustained inhibited breathing patterns have been shown to develop in response to stressful environments. The suppression of which is required to maintain a sense of psychological balance i.e. “keeping it together”. Breathwork assumes a link between the defensive inhibited breathing and the presence of unintegrated psychosomatic experience. The approach aims to bring rejected somatic experience into conscious awareness through the removal of breathing inhibitions, integrating those experiences into the general flow of consciousness through somatic awareness, acceptance and relaxation (Lalande 2012).


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Anderson, D. E. Respiratory psychophysiology in hypertension research. Behavior Modification. 2001. 25, 606-620.
Erecinska, M., & Silver, I. A. Tissue oxygen tension and brain sensitivity to hypoxia. Respiration Physiology. 2001. 128, 263-276.
Fokkema, D. S. The psychobiology of strained breathing and its cardiovascular implications: A functional system review. Psychophysiology. 1999. 36, 164-175.
Jerath R, Edry JW, Barnes VA, Jerath V. Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Med Hypotheses. 2006;67:566-71.
Lalande, Lloyd, et al. Breathwork: An Additional Treatment Option for Depression and Anxiety? Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. 2012. 42, 113–119
Nishikawa, M., Kumakura, Y., Young, S. N., Fiset, P., Vogelzangs, N., Leyton, M., et al. Increasing blood oxygen increases an index of 5-HT synthesis in human brain as measured using α-[ 11C]methyl-L-tryptophane and positron emission tomography. Neurochemistry International. 2005. 47, 556-564
Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O’Rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe. 2017; 13:298-309.
Schwartz, M. S., & Schwartz, N. M. Problems with relaxation and biofeedback: Assisted relaxation and guidelines for management. In Biofeedback: A practitioner’s guide (2nd ed). 1996. New York: The Guilford Press.
Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, Garbella E, Menicucci D, Neri B, Gemignani A. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Front Hum Neurosci. 20187;12-353.

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