Breathwork vs. Meditation: Reasons to Choose One or the Other

October 16, 2021
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Now more than ever, people are looking for ways to prioritize their wellness. There are many options that can offer great benefits, such as traditional practices like meditation or newly-popular techniques such as breathwork. Both are great options, but they are often pitted against each other.

Breathwork and meditation are both forms of mindfulness exercises that can help treat stress. However, they each have their own unique benefits, too. If you’re wondering whether to choose one or the other (or even practice both), this article will explain the following:

  • Breathwork basics
  • Meditation basics
  • Key factors when comparing breathwork & meditation
  • 6 reasons to choose breathwork over meditation
  • 6 reasons to choose mediation over breathwork
  • How to get started with breathwork
  • 6 best breathwork techniques for meditation & mindfulness
  • The bottom line: breathwork or meditation?

To better understand the differences between the two, let’s start by exploring what exactly breathwork and meditation are.

If you’re already leaning more towards breathwork, check out breathing exercises to practice daily.

Breathwork basics

A group of people lying on a rock in a circle

Although it’s being talked about more and more, many are still confused about what exactly breathwork is. The following sections will help you understand what breathwork is and what it’s used for.

What is breathwork?

Breathwork refers to a wide variety of breathing exercises and techniques used specifically for breath control. They can help improve one's physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health. There are many ancient and modern practices that have varying levels of difficulty, from beginner to advanced.

Benefits of breathwork

Many people turn to breathwork for instant stress relief, as it helps relax our autonomic nervous system and helps us get out of a ‘fight-or-flight’ mindset. However, there are a wide variety of science-backed benefits that many have gained with regular practice. These include improvements to their lung health and corrections to their breathing patterns, improvements to their circulatory systems, help managing their moods, and assistance in their sleep routines.

Types of breathwork

Breathwork has been around for hundreds of years, beginning with ancient practices like Pranayama or yoga breathing. Many more techniques and exercises have been created in modern times, but both ancient and modern variations continue to be practiced today. There are easy-to-learn exercises that can be done whenever you’re ready, as well as advanced methods that you can learn through training and certification courses.

Meditation basics

A man working with sound bowls

Arguably one of the most common self-care practices, meditation has been widely practiced and talked about for years. However, with breathwork on the rise, some have found themselves struggling to differentiate the two. The following sections will cover the key facts about meditation.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a mindfulness practice that is used to help one ground themselves in the present moment. It is used to help people observe their thoughts and feelings without judging or acting on them. Many turn to it as a way to calm their mind, relieve stress, and improve their mental well-being.

Benefits of meditation

The benefits most often associated with meditation are relaxation and a calming of the mind. Regularly practicing meditation has been proven to greatly benefit mental and emotional health. This includes improvements in stress levels, focus, sleep quality, and positive thinking. It also includes lessening anxiety, fear, and symptoms of depression. It can even help with physical wellness, with many using it to aid in pain tolerance.

Types of meditation

The various styles of meditations can be grouped into two different categories: calming and insight. Calming meditations are done to help users feel relaxed, safe, and happy in the moment. Insight meditations are used to increase our self-awareness and reflect on our feelings and experiences. There are many guided and unguided options available, from easy-to-learn exercises to advanced techniques and practices.

Key factors when comparing breathwork & meditation

Both breathwork and meditation offer great benefits, so it might be difficult to choose which one you want to start practicing. Here are some things to consider when choosing between breathwork vs. meditation:

  • Getting started: Determine how easy it would be for you to start each practice, and if you know what resources are available to help you learn to do them.
  • Benefits: Ask yourself what you’re hoping to gain from these practices, and consider which one is most effective at delivering your desired results.
  • Time commitment: Consider how much time each practice will take you daily, and how long you need to practice before you see the benefits you want.
  • Your daily routine: Reflect on what your daily routine looks like and how easily you can incorporate each practice into your schedule.
  • Accessibility: Research how easy it will be to access resources and guidance for each practice, and how much effort (including money or travel) you’re willing to put in to do so.
  • Health concerns: If you have any underlying health conditions, make sure to speak with your doctor to determine which practice and/or specific exercises are best for you.

6 reasons to choose breathwork over meditation

A woman lying on the ground with her hands raised

Both breathwork and meditation can offer similar benefits, which makes it difficult to choose one over the other. If you’re leaning more towards practicing breathwork, here are some reasons to solidify your decision and choose it over meditation.

1. Less overwhelming

Although many meditations are guided, practicing mindfulness in this way can be a little intimidating and even uncomfortable. Breathwork is simply changing the way you breathe, which is much easier to follow. Other than following instructions, it doesn’t require the level of awareness needed for meditation.

2. More enjoyable

Many have actually found breathwork to be more fun than meditation. Meditation involves sitting quietly for a long time and paying attention to your thoughts and sensations, which can be boring for some. Breathwork actually serves as a workout for your respiratory system, requiring more active participation by breathing to a rhythm. Some breathwork exercises are upbeat and can even be done to music, making the experience more exciting than meditation.

3. Immediate stress relief

Meditation is widely known for its ability to help people relax, but some might have trouble using it to do so. Practicing breathwork helps people feel immediate, clear stress relief. This is because the exercises are designed to change your breathing in a way that helps your body complete the stress cycle. This, in turn, allows you to truly feel relaxed once you’ve completed an exercise.

4. More confidence

Many people who have tried meditation have said they struggled to know if they were actually doing it right. Breathwork exercises often have much clearer and more frequent instructions that aren’t as easy to misinterpret. They also have more immediate and tangible benefits (which the instructions can point out), reinforcing the belief that you’re doing them correctly.

5. Physical health benefits

While meditation has been shown to help with pain tolerance, breathwork also offers many benefits that aid in our overall physical well-being. The biggest benefits center on our respiratory and circulatory systems, with the most popular benefits being stronger lungs and lower blood pressure. Many people have used breathwork to improve their physical health, from athletes using it to improve their endurance to COPD and asthma patients looking to improve their breathing.

6. Corrects your breathing patterns

Meditation often asks you to focus on your breathing, but rarely does it involve changing how you breathe. Breathwork is all about controlling the way we breathe and improving it over time. Many people can unconsciously switch from diaphragmatic breathing to shallow breathing as they grow, which can actually create more stress. Breathwork helps you return to the breathing patterns you were born with so you can minimize your stress levels and experience the other benefits attributed to proper breathing.

6 reasons to choose meditation over breathwork

A woman lying on a rug during a mindful practice

While breathwork shares many benefits with meditation (and has a few unique ones of its own), meditation practice offers its own exclusive benefits. These are some reasons why you might choose meditation over breathwork.

1. Promotes self-awareness

As a mindfulness exercise, meditation allows you to focus on your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the present moment. Calming meditations can go beyond relaxing sensations to help you feel safe and grounded in the present moment, while insight meditations can help you process your thoughts and emotions to better understand your experiences. Since breathwork is predominantly focused on changing your breathing patterns, it’s difficult to focus on everything else happening in the present moment. However, there are more advanced breathwork techniques that will increase self-awareness, if you’d like to work towards them.

2. Improves attention span

While breathwork has been shown to help people focus, a daily meditation practice can help you make permanent changes to your attention span. Those who are prone to ‘mind-wandering’ and distractions can actually reverse their brain patterns and correct these issues with daily meditation. This can also contribute to greater performance on meticulous or highly-visual tasks.

3. Helps reduce memory loss

Another benefit of meditation is its ability to reduce age-related memory loss. Since meditation is a highly cognitive exercise, it helps your brain improve focus, memory, and mental quickness. It’s also believed to be a helpful factor in improving the memories of dementia patients.

4. Lowers your biological age

If you’re wanting to feel younger, meditation can help you do that. Those who practice meditation are said to have younger biological ages than those who don’t. Stress on our bodies and our cognitive functions are key factors that impact our biological age, and meditation can tackle these areas and keep us feeling youthful.

5. Improves REM sleep

Breathwork is highly effective at helping us relax and fall asleep, but meditation is great at helping us stay asleep. In order to wake up feeling refreshed, we need to be able to complete a full REM cycle. Meditation is able to help us do that by enhancing the REM cycle and releasing more melatonin to help us build a better bedtime routine and keep us asleep. You might want to consider combining breathwork and meditation to get a great night’s sleep.

6. Helps stop overeating

Being a mindfulness exercise, meditation can help you pay more attention to the sensations you are experiencing in the present moment. That includes hunger and the urge to eat meals throughout the day. By reducing your stress levels and improving your focus, meditation can help you pay more attention when you’re eating and stop you from mindlessly eating more than you need. This will help you enjoy your meals more and realize when you’re full.

How to get started with breathwork

A group of people at a retreat

If you’ve decided that breathwork is the right choice for you, you might now be wondering what to do next. Follow these steps to get started on your breathwork journey.

Step 1: Do your research

Before you can get started, you have to know what your options are. Spend some time exploring the different exercises that exist for beginners, and what options you have for learning and guidance. This can include exploring local workshops and facilitators, or breathwork apps that offer guided sessions.

Step 2: Make a plan

Determine how you want to approach incorporating breathwork into your life. Whether you want to make a daily commitment, join online sessions, participate in a challenge, or attend local workshops is entirely up to you. If you’re someone with a medical condition, you might also want to inform your doctor of your plans and work with them to determine what exercises will work best for you.

Step 3: Schedule your sessions

Once you know how you want to start practicing breathwork, be sure to schedule all of your sessions into your calendar. Be sure to actually note your sessions/events in your planner or add them into your phone app so you can truly commit to doing each one.

Step 4: Create reminders

In addition to scheduling your breathwork sessions, you’ll want to also set up reminders to help you remember to do them. Set a reminder or alarm on your phone that will alert you when it’s time to practice, or leave yourself a post-it note that you’ll see in the morning. Use any method that will help you stay on track.

Step 5: Change things up

Beginning your breathwork journey presents you with an opportunity to explore your options. Try to switch up your exercises and techniques so you can keep things interesting and find what ones work best for you. Some exercises will also recommend you increase the lengths of your inhales, exhales, and pauses to further your practice; you’ll build up the ability to do this over time.

Step 6: Keep going

When starting something new, it’s okay if you forget to do a session or find yourself feeling discouraged. Take a moment to remind yourself that this is normal and there’s always tomorrow. If there’s still time in the day, you can even take a moment to do a quick and easy exercise that will leave you feeling positive. Remember to not give up, and keep doing what you can to help yourself advance on your breathwork journey.

6 best breathwork techniques for meditation & mindfulness

A man lying on the ground with his arms wrapped around him

If you’re having trouble choosing between breathwork and meditation, there are actually several exercises you can try that can also be used to meditate. Here are some breathwork techniques that pair well with meditation and mindfulness.

1. Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also referred to as abdominal breathing or belly breathing, is one of the most popular and easiest breathwork techniques. It’s designed for the simple purpose of helping us correct our natural breathing patterns, which makes it easy to practice mindfulness simultaneously. It’s often incorporated into beginner’s meditation exercises and is the most recommended exercise for strengthening lungs.

How to do it:

  1. Find a comfortable position, either sitting up or lying down.
  2. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
  3. Breathe in through your nose, allowing your stomach to press against your hand as it fills with air.
  4. Slowly exhale, noticing how your belly shrinks while you do this. Your chest shouldn’t move at all during this time.
  5. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

Try it now: See diaphragmatic breathing in practice by watching this video.

2. Equal breathing

Equal breathing, also referred to as circular breathing or Sama Vritti in Pranayama, is a breathing exercise that involves inhaling and exhaling for the same amount of time. It’s a great exercise to practice as a meditation, as it promotes balance while helping ground you in the moment. It’s easy to pair with mindfulness since its instructions are easy to learn and habituate.

How to do it:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of 4.
  3. Feel free to hold your breath for a few seconds if that’s helpful.
  4. Breathe out slowly through your nose for another count of 4.
  5. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.
  6. You may choose to change the length of your inhales and exhales over time, according to your experience and comfort level.

Try it now: Follow this guided audio to practice meditative equal breathing.

3. Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing, or Nadi Shodhana in Pranayama, is a breathwork technique that involves alternating how you breathe in and out of your nostrils. This exercise helps to find balance and awaken your mind, even helping to energize both sides of your brain. It’s often worked into yoga and meditation.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up straight in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your right nostril using your right thumb.
  3. Inhale through your left nostril.
  4. Unplug your right nostril and use your right ring finger to close your left nostril.
  5. Exhale through your right nostril.
  6. Now inhale through your right nostril.
  7. Unplug your left nostril and close your right nostril with your right thumb again.
  8. Exhale through your left nostril.
  9. Continue the cycle for as long as desired.

Try it now: Follow this guided video to practice alternate nostril breathing.

4. 4-7-8 breathing

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is one that has its instructions right in the name. It’s often used to help promote relaxation and quiet the mind. This is another easy-to-learn exercise that can help users feel safe and calm in the moment.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a comfortable position.
  2. Part your lips and exhale your breath, making a whooshing sound.
  3. Close your mouth, then breathe in through your nose for a count of 4.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  5. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of 8, making another whooshing sound.
  6. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

Try it now: Follow this guided audio to practice 4-7-8 breathing.

5. Skull Shining Breath

Skull Shining Breath, known as Kapalabhati in Pranayama, is a powerful breathing technique used to warm the body and release negativity. It’s great for mindfulness as it allows you to comfort yourself in the moment. It can be used anytime and anywhere you need stress relief.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up straight in a comfortable position.
  2. Slowly breathe in, filling your lungs and stomach with air.
  3. Quickly exhale the air out of your body. Feel your abdominal muscles contract as you do this.
  4. Relax and allow yourself to breathe in naturally.
  5. Repeat these steps around 20 times to complete the round.
  6. Once you’ve finished, take a moment to relax, observing the feelings and sensations throughout your body.
  7. Complete another full round, or do as many rounds as you’re comfortable with.

Try it now: Follow this instructional video to practice Skull Shining Breath.

6. Breath focus technique

Breath focus, also referred to as mindful breathing, is a breathing technique that incorporates meditation to create feelings of positivity. It requires users to focus on an image, word, or phrase that promotes joy or relaxation. This exercise can also be done whenever needed.

How to do it:

  1. Find a comfortable position, either sitting up or lying down.
  2. Pay attention to how you’re breathing while trying not to change it.
  3. Switch between your normal breathing and deep breathing for a few minutes, noting how each technique produces different sensations in your body.
  4. Continue deep breathing for a few minutes, placing a hand on your stomach to help you notice how it moves with your breathing.
  5. Incorporate a loud sigh with every exhale.
  6. Combine this with thoughts of your chosen image, word, or phrase.
  7. Picture the air you breathe into your body bringing you peace and calm.
  8. Then picture the air you breathe out taking your anxiety and tension with it.
  9. Continue to do this for as long as desired.

Try it now: Follow this guided audio to practice mindful breathing.

The bottom line: breathwork or meditation?

When it comes down to practicing breathwork vs. meditation, your choice should really depend on what will be the most helpful for you and what benefits you’re hoping to gain. Both are wonderful mindfulness practices with a variety of shared and unique benefits, but they both definitely have their differences. Overall, meditation is great at getting yourself to live in the present moment, while breathwork is ideal for those looking to improve their breathing. Do your research, or try them both out, to determine what one is right for you.

Want to start trying breathwork? Explore the available class styles on the Othership app.