Holistic Treatment

Breathwork Is a Healing Modality for Mental Clarity and Stress Relief—Here’s What It’s Like

Erin Magner

Ashley Neese Photo: Lani Trock
Years ago, a friend told me about a trippy and cathartic underground breathwork circle she’d attended in Venice Beach, California. People were convulsing, shouting, and sobbing uncontrollably, she said—and she couldn’t wait to do it again. At the time, I was unfamiliar with breathwork applications beyond pranayama in yoga class and using deep breathing as a technique to quell anxiety—and I was not sold on joining my friend at her next breathwork circle. Losing control of my emotions and bodily functions among a group of strangers? No thank you.

Since then, though, I've changed my tune on the varied ways to embrace a healing breathwork practice into your life in light of the benefits it stands to offer. With that in mind, get research-backed intel about the benefits to glean from a breathwork practice, plus how to try various forms of it.

The top 3 health benefits of breathwork

1. It reduces stress in the body.

One of the biggest benefits to gain from practicing breathwork, which includes simple deep belly breathing, is stress reduction. When you practice diaphragmatic breathing, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system and go into the 'rest and digest' mode, which helps lower your blood pressure and cortisol levels,” says certified breathwork teacher Ana Lilia. “Mindful breathing can also reduce the size of the amygdala, which promotes stress reduction effects. The amygdala is the part of the brain that detects if you are in danger and activates the fight or flight response.”

2. It helps manage depression.

Many people who seek out breathwork often deal with depression or anxiety, Lilia says. After a few weeks of practicing breathwork, she says her clients often experience a shift in their anxiety levels and the depression starts to lift. There’s research that backs this up, too: “A study found that after three months of active breathing, you can significantly reduce depressive symptoms,” Lilia says. “Breathwork can also be used as a way to help treat PTSD.”

(Editor's note: If you are experiencing symptoms of mental-health conditions, like depression and PTSD, seek the assistance of a trained medical professional to determine the best care plan for you.)

3. It can help to reduce inflammation.

“Chronic stress has been linked to an increase of inflammation in the body, which is associated with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stress, depression, and a weakened immune system,” Lilia says. “Active breathing has been shown to reduce levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva.”

What you need to know before trying breathwork

All that said, breathwork may not be best for everyone. If you’re currently pregnant or have a history of health issues, Lilia advises consulting with your medical doctor before trying breathwork for the first time, just to be safe.

It’s also important to note that there are many different types of breathwork that range from gentle practices to ones that feel more intense. Lilia says gentle belly breathing, which is technically a type of breathwork, is perfectly safe for anyone to practice to help calm the mind and body.

Lilia says deeper breathwork practices can often be very activating and trigger physical sensations, such as a tingling and vibrations, lightheadedness, or feeling hot or cold. Emotions can also bubble up. “For some people, this can feel overwhelming and even feel like you’re about to have a panic attack,” Lilia says. “Breathwork helps you feel more comfortable with being uncomfortable. It encourages you to let go of being in control and surrendering to the present moment.” For these reasons, Lilia recommends working with a trusted practitioner, especially if you’ve never practiced breathwork, before to ensure you feel safe and supported.

3 different breathwork styles

1. Holotropic breathwork

Holotropic breathwork involves taking quick breaths and is believed to take you into a higher state of consciousness. “It begins to activate your brain in ways that certain psychoactive drugs would,” Tegan Bukowski, founder of Serenebook, a wellness booking and content platform, previously told Well + Good. “Essentially you get into a really deep and vivid meditation.”

2. Wim Hof method

The Wim Hof method can be an effective breathwork technique whenever you need an energy boost. To practice it, Lilia instructs taking short, quick inhales and exhales for 30 counts. Then, hold your breath for 15 seconds and repeat the breath pattern for another 30 counts. “This surge of oxygen into your body is releasing more energy into your cells,” Lilia says. “It’s normal to feel tingly and more alert.”

3. Pranayama

Pranayama, or yogic breathing, has been around for thousands of years in yoga and meditation practices. “A simple way to describe it is controlling your breathing as a way to connect with your energy; your life force,” Lilia says. This breathwork style, she adds, involves inhaling using your diaphragm, then taking a second inhale from your chest, and ending with an exhale. Depending on how activated you want to feel, she says you can breathe through your mouth for a more intense release and movement of energy, or inhale through the nose for a gentle practice.

Here's what happened when I tried breathwork

My odyssey began with Los Angeles-based certified breathwork practitioner, energy healer, and yoga instructor Ashley Neese. Neese’s breathwork method is a blend of yogic pranayama and hands-on energy healing. She says stress is a major reason why people seek her out.

“Usually what’s underneath [the stress] is a general discomfort with life—‘I’m not fully living how I want to be living; I’m not risking enough; I’m not as creative as I want to be,’” she says. “I feel like breathwork is the last house on the block. People are like, ‘I’ve tried therapy; I’ve tried this and that, and I’m still stuck.’”

She says there are differences between group breathwork circles and doing it one-on-one with a practioner, and everyone experiences each differently. “In a group, you get that amazing collective energy and you can feed off other people,” she says. “But I’ve also had clients who are overwhelmed by group energy. They come to see me privately, and they’re able to move things differently.” As someone who finds it hard to let loose in group settings, I think I was wise to choose the one-on-one session.

Before she gets into the heavy stuff, Neese typically spends some time teaching clients how to breathe using the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. (Most people take short, shallow breaths into their chests, which causes neck and shoulder tension). In my case, she decided that "Inhale-Exhale 101" wasn’t necessary—thanks to my longtime yoga practice—and we skipped right to the more advanced curriculum.

Next, Neese taught me a simple, two-part, open-mouthed pranayama technique, which involved taking a forceful breath down to my diaphragm, then a shallower, yet equally sharp, breath into my chest, followed by a long exhale. She prescribes breathing patterns based on her client’s needs. In my case, since I didn't have any major issues to address, she selected one that would deep clean my energy field.

Once I got into the groove, Neese had me lay down and hold two selenite rods, which she said would help energy move through my body. She put a pillow over my eyes, dabbed aromatic oils on my jaw, chest, and feet, and had me start sending my breath down to my hips.

Within minutes, I could feel my cells humming at a higher frequency, with most of the sensation centered around my jaw and diaphragm. As I continued to breathe deeply (but at a normal rate), the tingling became more and more intense, until eventually, my entire body felt as though it was being gently electrocuted. About 10 minutes in, my jaw completely locked up. My arms and legs turned to concrete. I noticed a heavy sensation at the base of my rib cage, and opened my eyes to make sure Neese's cat hadn't jumped on me.

She implored me to start letting out sloppy, primal cries, but I couldn’t manage more than a pathetic whimper. Just when it all reached peak intensity—after about 30 minutes, although it felt more like 10—Neese had me return to a normal breathing pattern with an extended exhale, applied more essential oils, surrounded me with chunks of rose quartz, and placed her hands on my legs and the bottoms of my feet.

It took about 10 more minutes before I was able to move or speak again. I couldn’t unclench my hands to release the selenite, no matter how hard I tried. Normally, this would have sent me into panic mode, but somehow I intuitively knew that I was okay.

According to Neese, what I was feeling was stagnant energy moving through my body. “When you notice heaviness or tension while you’re breathing, it’s your body’s way of showing you where you’re holding throughout the day,” she says. As for the heaviness around my diaphragm, Neese says “the solar plexus is all about emotional protection. This is our most vulnerable area, and that’s why we tend to tense it up.”

Neese suspects my lockjaw may have indicated  an imbalance in the throat chakra, which governs self-expression. “It’s possible you could be communicating more,” she says. Given my resistance to being vulnerable and habit of avoiding difficult conversations, these assessments were pretty spot-on.

Still, I wanted to know more about the science behind what I experienced. From a physiological perspective, rapid and deep breathing leads us to release more carbon dioxide from the body than usual, causing the blood to become more alkaline and retain more oxygen, according to Jeffrey Egler, MD, of Parsley Health. "This alkalotic state can cause numbness, tingling, muscle twitching, or spasms if more severe," he says.

While those side effects are common and not necessarily cause for concern, Dr. Egler adds that if you start to notice any kind of change in your cognitive state during breathwork, you should back off. Why? "Hyperventilation tends to also cause vasoconstriction in the brain—when the blood vessels constrict rather than dilate—which may reduce blood flow and oxygen to the brain," he says.

As for me, even though my post-breathwork buzz has long worn off, I now believe in the healing benefits of breathwork. And, with the right guidance, why not try it? All it takes is some breathing in and breathing out.

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