15 Breathwork Benefits: The Science Behind Breathing Practices

Science
August 19, 2021

More and more people are turning to breathwork as a way to improve their physical and mental health. However, those unfamiliar with it might have a lot of questions, especially around why they should practice it. As it turns out, there are a lot of powerful breathwork benefits that can help change your life for the better.

If you’re someone who’s wondering “What does breathwork do?”, this article will help you answer that question by covering the following:

  • What Is Breathwork and Why Is It Important?
  • 15 Scientific Benefits of Breathwork
  • How to Incorporate a Breathwork Practice Into Your Daily Routine
  • 5 Resources to Learn About Breathwork Benefits

Before we get into the benefits, let’s discuss what breathwork is and why you should practice it.

What Is Breathwork and Why Is It Important?

Breathwork refers to a variety of breathing techniques and exercises that can be used to improve one’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health. It exists in a variety of forms; there are ancient practices, such as Pranayama, and modern techniques developed by doctors and other practitioners. While more complex practices exist, many easy, quick exercises can be worked into your daily wellness routine.

So why is breathwork important? In addition to being a popular relaxation method, breathwork has also proven to offer a wide variety of health benefits. This makes it one of the most natural methods of treating a variety of issues. Let’s explore the scientific benefits of breathwork to better understand how it can improve your life.

15 Scientific Benefits of Breathwork

Breathwork can help improve your well-being in many different ways. It serves as a quick, daily exercise that helps change your life for the better. To better understand the power of breathwork, here are some breathwork benefits that have been scientifically proven.

1. Reduces stress and anxiety

One of the top benefits of practicing breathwork is decreased levels of stress and anxiety. Breathwork can be used to help users complete their stress cycle, helping to cancel out their fight-or-flight response following stressful situations. Being a method of mindfulness, it also helps those feeling anxious ground themselves in the present moment while informing their nervous system that they’re safe.

The Science
Many studies have been done over the years to determine how breathwork can affect the body’s stress response. A 1979 study from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology proved that controlled breathing exercises could be used as an effective coping strategy in stressful situations. A more recent 2016 study introduced a diaphragmatic breathing program to participants with anxiety, who demonstrated a reduction in anxiety scores after practicing the technique daily.

Try These Techniques: Diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, box breathing, breath focus technique, equal breathing, resonant breathing, Pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, and Buteyko breathing.

2. Increases energy and boosts immunity

Another top advantage to regular breathwork is the ability to increase your energy levels and boost your immune system. Your immune system contributes greatly to your overall health (including your energy), and the way you breathe has more of an effect on it than we may realize. Practicing breathwork exercises allows our bodies to bring in more oxygen, which fuels the cells that keep us healthy and energized.

The Science
Dr. Jeremy Montrose explains in a 2020 article how improper breathing will lead to a weakened immune system. Shallow breathing can result in the presence of stress, which triggers the sympathetic nervous system and increases our level of systemic inflammation. This all has a negative impact on our immune system. He also explains that poor breathing will also send unfiltered air directly into our throat and lungs. This can allow dust, bacteria, and other foreign substances to make us sick.

Try These Techniques: Diaphragmatic breathing, Pranayama, controlled breathing, box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, and alternate nostril breathing.

3. Lowers blood pressure and improves circulation

Breathwork has also been proven to greatly improve your blood pressure. It also can help improve your blood circulation throughout your body, and even help in the treatment of hypertension (high blood pressure). This suggests that practicing breathing exercises regularly is a great natural method for helping to prevent heart disease.

The Science
According to Vital Heart & Vein, various blood and heart issues are caused by frequent activation of the sympathetic nervous system (the trigger for fight-or-flight mode). Practicing slow, deep breathing exercises helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which will help decrease your heart rate and dilate your blood vessels. This helps to reduce your blood pressure, as your body now knows it can relax.

Try These Techniques: Equal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, breath focus, and alternate nostril breathing.

4. Helps manage pain

Deep breathing has also been credited as a popular method of pain management (including  chronic pain). This is because many breathing techniques help trigger the feeling of relaxation in stressful or uncomfortable situations, and following the instructions for these techniques also provides a method of distraction. This makes breathwork contribute to a positive change in mood, which is beneficial for those experiencing physical pain.

The Science
A 2012 study published with the National Library of Medicine found that participants with chronic pain syndromes that practiced relaxing breathing techniques saw an increased ability to process pain. The study also found that their stress levels were reduced, and they experienced a decrease in negative emotions.

Try These Techniques: Diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing, equal breathing, Pranayama, Holotropic breathwork, 4-7-8 breathing, and paced breathing.

5. Strengthens lungs

Healthcare professionals often recommend breathwork for those wanting to improve their lung health. Everyone from athletes to the elderly can integrate these exercises into their daily routines and see improvements in their breathing capabilities. Those with chronic lung conditions, like COPD and asthma, will greatly benefit from practicing breathwork.

The Science
A 2016 study of elderly smokers found that regular breathing exercises helped them to improve their lung capacity. Those with a reduced chest diameter were able to strengthen their respiratory muscles and improve their oxygen intake. This suggests that breathing exercises, especially those focusing on the diaphragm, can help gain back strength that might have been lost due to health conditions and other factors.

Try These Techniques: Diaphragmatic breathing, pursed-lip breathing, equal breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, Pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, and Buteyko breathing.

6. Improves mood and self-esteem

Many use breathwork as a way to improve their mood and/or build their confidence, self-esteem, self-image, and self-love. Those struggling with negative thoughts and feelings, especially self-directed ones, can use breathing techniques to help ground them in the present moment. In addition, the relaxing sensations help to build a sense of peace. Breathing can help us feel happiness, joy, and gratitude, while also helping us to feel better about the way we see ourselves.

The Science
In a 2019 article, communication expert Russell Rowe explained that breathing exercises are ideal for helping people build confidence before public speaking. He explains that when under stress, our bodies will release increased levels of cortisol. This can contribute to poor mood and anxiety if our stress cycles are not completed. Improving our breathing allows us to bring in more oxygen, which helps to reduce our cortisol levels and help us feel better.

Try These Techniques: Alternate nostril breathing, Pranayama, box breathing, equal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and 4-7-8 breathing, Transformational Breath, and Holotropic breathing.

7. Releases toxins

Another major health benefit of breathwork is its ability to help you release toxins in your body. As we breathe throughout the day, we tend to breathe in everything bad that’s in the air: dust, bacteria, and various pollutants. Learning how to breathe properly allows us to help new toxins leave, while also alkalizing our blood’s pH level and helping us avoid a variety of health problems.

The Science
According to a 2020 article from Frequency, about 50% of the toxins we inhale are meant to be released when we exhale. Deep breathing allows us to strengthen our diaphragm, allowing us to breathe in more oxygen and clear out more carbon dioxide. It also helps improve our lymphatic system and generate more oxygen-rich blood, which assists in our body’s circulation.

Try These Techniques: Pranayama, diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, and victorious breath.

8. Improves sleep

One of the other big reasons many are turning to breathwork is to help improve their sleep. Regularly practicing breathing exercises can help regulate your energy levels so you can properly fall asleep. Many exercises can also help you settle down for the night, or quickly fall asleep, on nights when you’re having difficulty doing so. Breathwork is one of the top recommended natural sleep aids, and can also be helpful for those struggling with insomnia.

The Science
A 2018 study determined that self-regulated breathing was successful in helping participants with insomnia relax and fall asleep. It also suggested that breathing exercises proved to be a better method of treating insomnia than other pharmaceutical methods. This helps to suggest that breathwork is a powerful tool for helping users achieve a peaceful night’s sleep.

Try These Techniques: 4-7-8 breathing, Pranayama, diaphragmatic breathing, Buteyko breathing, box breathing, and alternate nostril breathing.

9. Helps manage depression

Breathwork has also proven to be effective, when paired with other treatments, at helping people manage their depression. Its ability to alter one’s mood and help ground people in the present is incredibly helpful in working to improve emotional well-being and practice gratitude. Many advanced breathwork methods focus on healing, which can also be very therapeutic for those struggling.

The Science
A 2016 study conducted by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that participants with severe depression saw improvement after practicing Sudarshan Kriya yoga, which incorporates Pranayama breathwork. These participants had not been fully responding to their prescribed antidepressants, and they found that this type of activity was effective as an add-on for their treatment plans. The study concluded that there was enough evidence to support the idea that yogic breathwork techniques, like Pranayama, could be used to help manage symptoms of depression.

Try These Techniques: Pranayama, diaphragmatic breathing, equal breathing, box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, alternate nostril breathing, Holotropic breathing, and Transformational Breath.

10. Increases muscle tone

Many athletes have turned to breathwork due to its ability to help increase muscle tone throughout the body. It’s also a great way to focus on strengthening your diaphragm as a method of improving your breathing. Practicing breathing exercises regularly can help increase your strength all around, making physical activities – and breathing during them – easier to do.

The Science
In a 2021 article, Parsley Health explains that breathwork’s impact on our blood is what helps to increase our muscle tone. When our blood is alkalized, it builds upon our sensory and motor neurons. This helps to smooth our muscle contractions and achieve more movement from the muscles throughout our body.

Try These Techniques: Diaphragmatic breathing, box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and pursed-lip breathing.

11. Helps heal from trauma and manage PTSD

Those looking to reflect on their past trauma or learn a new way to manage their PTSD will benefit greatly from practicing breathwork. Breathwork’s ability to help us relax makes it great for dealing with trauma triggers or highly stressful emotions as they arise. Many advanced breathwork methods can also be used as guided healing experiences. This makes them useful for those who want a mindful way to move forward with their lives.

The Science
A 2014 study found that Pranayama was successful in helping US veterans manage their PTSD symptoms. The results of the study showed that those who’d practiced this form of breathwork saw fewer symptoms and lower rates of distress and anxiety. Several participants continued the practice for years following the initial study.

Try These Techniques: Box breathing, alternate nostril breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, Pranayama, Buteyko breathing, Holotropic breathwork, Rebirthing breathwork, Shamanic breathwork, Vivation, and Transformational Breath.

12. Improves digestion

Those who struggle with digestion will also benefit from regular breathwork. If you’re dealing with digestive problems – including constipation, diarrhea, and IBS – breathing exercises can help. They relax you and get your blood circulating enough to help improve all of your bodily functions. They’re also effective whether your digestive issues are random or occur regularly.

The Science
Frequency explains in their 2020 article that breathwork can help with the digestive process, as it increases the blood flow throughout your digestive tract. Also, since breathwork helps to reduce stress, this allows your body to reduce your cortisol levels. This, in turn, helps decrease your levels of gut inflammation. Reducing your stress and anxiety levels will also help you to make smarter food choices that will be kinder to your digestive system, rather than those you might choose to eat while struggling to relax.

Try These Techniques: Diaphragmatic breathing, Pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, and 4-7-8 breathing.

13. Helps to overcome addictions

Breathwork has also become more common as a therapeutic tool for treating addiction, especially when paired with 12-step programs or other varieties of therapy. Breathing exercises and techniques are great at helping users achieve a sense of calm and focus that can help them fight cravings. Many say they achieve a great sense of control and self-awareness when practicing breathwork regularly.

The Science
A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction found that Holotropic Breathwork was successful in helping participants abstain from alcohol and other addictive substances. It was also helpful in helping the participants manage their depression, anxiety, and/or trauma associated with their addiction. The study notes that it is not the only one to validate the success of Holotropic Breathwork for treating addiction, especially when combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy, 12-step programs, and other methods of treatment.

Try These Techniques: Alternate nostril breathing, Pranayama, 4-7-8 breathing, equal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, victorious breath, Rebirthing Breathwork, Transformational Breath, Shamanic breathing, Vivation, and Holotropic breathing.

14. Improves focus

Those who struggle with their level of focus have also turned to breathwork. Practicing breathing techniques when you’re struggling to pay attention can help increase your attention span. It can also calm any emotions that are distracting you the most.

The Science
A 2018 study by Trinity College Dublin found that mindfulness exercises like breathwork were effective in helping improve the attention spans of those with poor focus. Research showed that there was a correlation between the level of focus and the quality of one’s breathing, so breathwork could be used to help those struggling make this improvement. This is because breathing impacts the chemical messenger noradrenaline, which plays a role in how our brain perceives our work and how well we can give it our attention.

Try These Techniques: Box breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, pursed-lip breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and Pranayama.

15. Increases creativity

Breathwork is also big among artists and other professionals for its ability to help them create. Regular breathing exercises can be a crucial part of a creative’s routine, as it allows them to relax and clear their mind. This lets new ideas begin to develop and flow. It’s also incredibly helpful for situations where people need to problem-solve.

The Science
A 2014 study published by Behavioral and Brain Functions suggested that short-term meditations could assist participants in the completion of creative tasks. Upon completion of the breath-focused meditations, participants were more able to engage in emotional, creative tasks than those who hadn’t practiced the meditations. A 2017 article from the Harvard Business Review also suggests that practicing 10 to 12 minutes of mindfulness meditations increases employees’ creative thinking. This helps them perform more creative and innovative work tasks.

Try These Techniques: Pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, box breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, SOMA Breathwork, and Transformational Breath.

How to Incorporate a Breathwork Practice Into Your Daily Routine

Now that you understand the importance of breathwork, you’ll want to find ways to easily incorporate it into your daily routine. Here are some tips to help you easily begin a breathwork practice and start feeling the benefits:

  1. Schedule a time(s): Plan one or more specific times a day when you want to do your breathing exercises. This will help you establish a commitment.
  2. Start small: Begin your practice with the easiest techniques and breathe for only 2 to 5 minutes per session. You can increase the length of your sessions as you progress.
  3. Set a reminder: It’s easy to forget to do new things, so set a reminder in your calendar for each of your sessions to help you remember.
  4. Take a break: If you’re struggling to get through the exercises or are losing motivation, get up and take a break to do something else. Then come back and finish when you’re ready.
  5. Change it up: Try a variety of exercises to keep things exciting and find what works best for you.

Do what you can: Life can get hectic. If you miss a breathwork session, it’s okay to stop and do a quick, easy exercise whenever you remember. This will still count as practicing and help you achieve the many breathwork benefits.

5 Resources to Learn About Breathwork Benefits

Over the years, a lot of work has been done investigating the many powers of breathwork and how it can affect us. For additional learning, here are some studies that have explored the various benefits of breathwork:

  1. The Use of Breathing Exercises in the Treatment of Chronic, Nonspecific Low Back Pain: This 2017 study explored diaphragmatic breathing as a method of rehabilitation for those experiencing low back pain. The results proved breathing exercises are effective in improving lung health, back pain, and quality of life.
  2. The effect of movement-focused and breath-focused yoga practice on stress parameters and sustained attention: A randomized controlled pilot study: A 2018 study from Consciousness and Cognition on the impacts of movement-focused yoga and breath-focused yoga on stress levels. While both helped to reduce stress, breath-focused yoga, or Pranayama, was the only one that helped participants remove their attention from the stressor(s).
  3. Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study: This 2017 study from The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine explored the effects of Pranayama and breathwork on depressive mood. The results indicated that Pranayama is effective in significantly reducing symptoms of depression in participants.
  4. Slow Breathing Improves Arterial Baroreflex Sensitivity and Decreases Blood Pressure in Essential Hypertension: A 2005 study from AHA Journals that provides detailed context on how slow breathing impacts blood pressure and cardiovascular functions. The results of the study proved that breathing exercises could be used to reduce blood pressure in those dealing with hypertension.
  5. Promoting Mental Health and Psychological Thriving in University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Three Well-Being Interventions: A 2020 study from Yale University that explored the impacts of multiple wellness activities on the mental health of participants. The group of students that received the yoga, breathwork, and Pranayama sessions showed significant improvement when it came to depression, stress, overall mental health, mindfulness, and social connections.