Breathwork is becoming an increasingly-popular mindfulness activity due to its many benefits for physical and mental health. However, there will always be skeptics of any emerging wellness activity. And the biggest question they’re asking about breathwork is whether or not it’s safe to practice.
If you’re someone who is interested in breathwork but is concerned about potential risks, it’s perfectly valid to feel that way. This article will help you answer questions around the side effects of breathwork by covering the following:
Before we get into some common breathwork side effects, let’s answer whether or not breathwork is safe.
If you’ve been trying to decide between breathwork or meditation, check out breathwork vs. meditation.
In general, breathwork is a perfectly safe activity that almost anyone can do with limited risk. It’s been scientifically proven to offer many benefits for physical and mental health, and has even been recommended by medical professionals to help patients improve their breathing. Anyone feeling uneasy about trying breathwork can seek out private sessions, workshops, and retreats where they’ll be able to learn and experience breathwork under the guidance of trained facilitators.
While breathwork is relatively safe to do, there are specific conditions that could put you at risk for breathwork side effects. If you have experience with any of the below safety considerations, be sure to consult with your doctor before starting a breathwork practice.
This consideration might seem ironic, since breathwork has been proven to help strengthen lungs and improve breathing in those with COPD and asthma. However, anyone with breathing difficulties or a chronic respiratory condition should consult with their doctor before trying breathwork. Those with severe difficulty might struggle with certain exercises and experience negative side effects as a result. Your doctor will be able to recommend breathing exercises that will be the most beneficial to you, and also tell you which techniques to avoid.
Similarly to those with breathing issues, anyone with severe heart issues – including cardiac arrhythmia, slow heart rate, high blood pressure, angina or chest pain, a recent heart attack, heart disease, or any other heart condition – should be cautious before beginning a breathwork practice. Breathwork has been proven to regulate heart rate and blood pressure, but there is always risk for those struggling with their heart health. Be sure to ask your doctor if your heart is well enough for breathwork, and what techniques would be best for you.
Some who are pregnant or breastfeeding could find themselves more likely to experience the side effects of breathwork, due to their current physical state. However, they may still be able to use beginner's breathing techniques for stress relief. Consulting with your doctor is the best way to determine if you’re able to safely practice breathwork during and after pregnancy.
Different medications, especially antipsychotic medications, can have different impacts on your body. This is because of their potential effects on your oxygen and blood. If you’re taking any medications, be sure to ask your doctor if they’ll affect your ability to practice breathwork.
If you’re someone who was recently injured or underwent surgery, practicing breathwork could pose potential risks. This is especially true for those with more serious injuries or surgeries. Your doctor should discuss with you if breathing exercises pose any potential risks to your recovery.
Those with osteoporosis might also risk injury by practicing breathwork. Some intermediate and advanced techniques could be hard on people with this condition. Be cautious of the exercises you choose to do, and discuss any concerns you have with your doctor.
Many might not realize this, but the human body actually receives some oxygen through the eyes. So those with vision problems might want to avoid breathwork, as eye problems could potentially limit the amount of air they inhale during different exercises. Those with conditions including glaucoma or retinal detachment should seek professional guidance on whether or not to practice breathwork.
Breathwork is great at helping manage several mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. However, it should never be treated as a cure for mental illness. Those with a severe mental illness should work with their doctor to determine if breathwork would be helpful as part of their healing. While some greatly benefit from exercises, others might experience negativity when practicing them.
If you’re someone who has a history of seizures, you might also want to avoid breathwork. Certain breathwork techniques can occasionally affect how much oxygen enters the body, which could trigger a seizure. Be sure to discuss how specific breathwork exercises might impact your condition before trying them.
People with personal or family histories of aneurysms are also at risk of negative side effects from breathwork. Breathwork influences the amount of oxygen in the body, as well as the circulation of blood. This could affect those at risk for aneurysms differently than those who are not. As with all the other considerations above, be sure to discuss with your doctor whether or not breathwork is a risk for you.
Some skeptics have asked: “Is breathwork just hyperventilating?” The answer is that breathwork, when practiced properly, is safe and will actually help correct your breathing patterns. However, those who do it incorrectly or ignore safety considerations could be at risk for hyperventilation and various other side effects.
These are the side effects to be mindful of if you’re concerned that breathwork might cause hyperventilation or other issues:
Dizziness is one of the most common side effects. Doing breathwork improperly can limit the amount of oxygen entering the body, resulting in feelings of dizziness and lightheadedness. If this happens frequently, be cautious of the exercises you’re choosing to do and be sure that you’ve been breathing correctly during them.
Another sign that you might be experiencing hyperventilation is a tingling sensation in your arms, hands, feet, and/or legs. This is also due to having less oxygen in your body, which affects your blood’s circulation. Be mindful if this is something you begin to experience.
Chest pain can result from the way breathwork changes how the respiratory and circulatory systems function. It should never be ignored – if you start to experience chest pain, you’ll want to stop your breathwork practice immediately and try to relax. While chest pain is likely to subside with proper breathing and relaxation, be sure to seek help if it doesn’t go away.
Noticeable changes to your heart rate, including palpitations, can be another sign that you’re experiencing breathwork-related hyperventilation. Those who are prone to heart issues are best to avoid breathwork, especially if they’ve previously experienced these sorts of irregular heart rates. If your heart begins to race – or you notice another abnormal change to its rhythm – while practicing breathwork, be sure to stop and relax. And be sure to seek help if any of these heart irregularities continue.
During some advanced breathwork techniques, some might experience muscle spasms in their diaphragm or hands, or around their mouth. This is also caused by the change in oxygen levels being inhaled. If spasms occur, be sure to slow down your breathing and attempt to relax. This will help calm your muscles down.
The changes in breath resulting from advanced breathwork can also cause blurred vision. Although concerning, this is only temporary. If you notice changes to your vision when practicing a breathwork technique, stop immediately and return to slow, deep breathing. This will allow more oxygen into your body.
Ringing in the ears is another possible side effect when practicing more advanced breathwork techniques, especially by those who struggle with tinnitus. It’s most often seen with breathwork techniques meant to limit oxygen intake or change body temperature. If you experience this sensation during breathwork, take it as a sign to stop and switch to regular deep breathing.
Some advanced breathwork techniques are used for therapeutic purposes, and have the potential to evoke negative emotions and past trauma. While many people find this helpful, others may experience more distress than relief. Be sure to reflect on your situation, and consult with professionals to determine if breathwork is more helpful than harmful to your particular scenario.
Many advanced breathwork techniques can create new spiritual experiences. While some people experience healing, some might have a negative experience of psychosis. Before participating in a session, workshop, or retreat, do your research and speak with a professional to determine if the experiences offered are psychologically safe for you to experience.
While slow, deep breathing can help manage seizures, those prone to them still need to be cautious. They should carefully select the breathwork exercises they practice, and make sure to do them properly. Changes to oxygen levels can trigger a seizure in some cases, so it’s important to be mindful of what specific exercises and techniques entail. Those who are concerned should consult their doctor before beginning any type of breathwork practice or participating in a session, workshop, or retreat.
So, is breathwork safe or dangerous? Well, overall, breathwork is perfectly safe for most people to practice. Like taking vitamins or working out at the gym, breathwork remains a safe activity that will help improve your wellness as long as you continue to do it properly. Be sure to start with beginner’s exercises and techniques, and – as mentioned – consult your doctor if you have any concerns about whether breathwork is right for you.
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