Science of Breathwork: How It Works + Top 14 Benefits

Science
October 17, 2021
Register for updates.
Thank you! You are now registered for updates!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Breathwork is increasing in popularity due to its physical and mental health benefits. However, those who are unfamiliar might be questioning how something as simple as breathing can be so effective. Luckily, these benefits are all backed with scientific proof.

Many of the reasons why people turn to breathwork are backed by science. If you want to better understand the science of breathwork, this article will teach you the following: 

  • An overview of breathwork
  • The science of breathwork: how does it work?
  • Top 14 scientific benefits of breathwork
  • How to get started with breathwork

To better understand the science of breathwork, let’s start with a bit of background information. If you want to jump right into learning breathwork exercises, check out breathwork exercises to practice daily.

An overview of breathwork

To best understand the science behind breathwork, you first have to understand what exactly breathwork is. This section will cover all the breathwork basics you need to know.

What is breathwork?

A woman practicing breathwork while lying on the ground

Breathwork refers to a wide variety of breathing exercises and techniques that are done for the purpose of breath control. It can be traced back to ancient practices that are still practiced today, and it also includes modern techniques that have been developed for medical and spiritual purposes. Practicing breathwork regularly helps improve our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being in a variety of different ways.

History of breathwork

Breathing exercises have been practiced since ancient times, having been traced back to cultures and religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Shamanism. While many ancient techniques have survived to the present day, breathwork was reintroduced to the modern world in the 1960s when Holotropic Breathwork and Rebirthing Breathwork were first developed. Since then, many more techniques have been created and adapted for the present day. Whether you’re a beginner or expert, need to treat a medical condition, or are interested in spiritual healing, there’s a breathwork technique that can benefit you.

Types of breathwork

Many ancient and modern breathwork techniques have multiple purposes that are often shared between each other. Therefore, it’s easier to explore the different types by the level of experience recommended to be able to practice them correctly. These are the best-known breathing exercises and techniques for beginner, intermediate, and advanced breathworkers:




Beginner Intermediate Advanced
Diaphragmatic breathing
Equal breathing
Box breathing
4-7-8 breathing
Pursed lip breathing
Alternate nostril breathing
Humming bee breath
Lion’s Breath
Breath focus technique
Resonant breathing
Numbered breath
Paced breathing
Sitali breath
Victorious breath
Skull Shining Breath
Zen Yoga
Complete breath
Buteyko Method
Bellows Breathing
Rapid Breathing
Wim Hof Method
Holotropic Breathwork
Rebirthing Breathwork
Shamanic Breathwork
Vivation
Integrative Breathwork
Transformational Breath
BioDynamic Breathwork
SOMA Breath
 

The science of breathwork: how does it work?

Now that you know what it is, you might be wondering: how does breathwork work? Many of us become shallow breathers over time, which can cause us to become stressed and enter fight-or-flight mode more easily. Breathwork helps us correct our breathing and take fuller breaths, which signal to our body that we’re safe. Most techniques are slow to help us relax, but there are also some rapid breathing exercises that can be beneficial to our health too. This section will cover the ways both slow breathing and controlled rapid breathing affect the body.

Psycho-physiological effects of slow breathing

Two women relaxing on the ground

When we practice slow, deep breathing, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system. This takes over the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for activating our stress cycle) and tells our body that it's safe to relax. This slows our heart rate and allows us to feel more physically comfortable, while replacing anxiety, depression, and anger with more positive emotions.

The science

A 2018 study confirmed that slow, deep breathing was linked to improvements in emotional control and psychological well-being. The results suggested that the combination of the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and the sensations of slowly breathing in through the nose were responsible for the positive changes seen in the participants. These included increased levels of comfort, relaxation, and alertness or decreased levels of anxiety and depression. An earlier study from 2012 found similar results, in addition to providing evidence of breathwork's ability to help with pain perception. These results showed that breathwork was able to effect reductions in depression, anger, and tension.

Benefits

  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Improves sleep
  • Boosts immune system
  • Improves mood
  • Increases focus
  • Promotes relaxation and positive thinking
  • Improves pain perception

Try these techniques

When you feel overwhelmed, try these techniques for beginners: diaphragmatic breathing, equal breathing, box breathing, and 4-7-8 breathing.

Effects of controlled rapid breathing on your brain

A woman exhaling while lying on the ground

Rapid breathing tends to be associated with poor breathing practices, as quick and shallow breathing is often what happens when we experience stressful situations. However, there are several deep breathing techniques that can be done at a fast pace to directly impact our minds. We can use controlled rapid breathing to send more oxygen to our brains, helping us to improve our cognitive functions and feel more positive or lively in the moment.

The science

A 2013 study found that fast breathing exercises helped improve mood and cognitive functions. Like slow breathing, fast breathing was able to reduce the stress levels of participants and improve their cognitive functions. However, only fast breathing could improve more executive functions like memory, processing, and sensory-motor performance. This was further backed by a 2020 study, which found that fast breathing exercises had a positive effect on the right and left prefrontal cortices. The exercises allowed for increased oxygen and blood flow to the brain, which contribute to greater cognitive performance.

Benefits

  • Increase energy
  • Improves alertness
  • Improves memory
  • Clears your thoughts
  • Improves mood

Try these techniques

When your brain feels foggy, try these techniques: Stimulating Breath, Skull Shining Breath, or Fast Breathing.

Other effects of breathwork techniques

A reflection in water of a woman bent forward stretching

Breathwork is best known as a stress relief practice, but breath control does more to our bodies than help us relax. By practicing breathwork regularly, we’re helping ourselves return to a proper breathing pattern that will improve our respiratory and circulatory systems. Many turn to breathing exercises to build strong lungs or improve their blood functions, both of which contribute to many great benefits for our physical health.

The science

Studies have shown breathwork to be an effective method of improving our physical health. A 2021 study showed that breathing exercises helped improve the respiratory muscle function of patients with COPD. Participants of this study saw improvement in the strength of their inspiratory muscles, and were able to better perform a walking exercise. Another study from 2015 also proved that slow breathing exercises could be used to fight cardiovascular disease. Those who participated found improvements with various health markers, including lower blood pressure. The results from both studies demonstrate breathwork’s ability to positively contribute to various health factors.

Benefits

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves lung function
  • Boosts immune system
  • Improves circulation
  • Helps manage pain
  • Boosts metabolism
  • Improves digestion
  • Releases toxins and CO2

Try these techniques

If you want to improve your physical health, try these techniques: alternate nostril breathing, pursed lip breathing, resonant breathing, and sitali breath.

Top 14 scientific benefits of breathwork

Now that you understand the power of breathwork, you might be wondering how you can actually gain all these great breathwork benefits. To help you understand, these are the top scientific benefits of breathwork.

1. Reduces stress

A circle of people smiling and lying on the ground with their arms in the air

Relieving stress and anxiety is one of the top reasons people turn to breathwork. When we become stressed, our body releases cortisol and triggers our sympathetic nervous system. This is what activates fight-or-flight mode. When we engage in deep, slow breathing, we send a signal to our body that we're safe. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to feel calm and relaxed.

The science

A 2018 review further backed the idea of breathwork helping to reduce stress. The results indicated that the slow breathing exercises practiced were able to affect the autonomic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. This illustrates breathwork's ability to help users complete a stress cycle and exit fight-or-flight mode.

Try these techniques

When you feel stressed, try these techniques: diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, the breath focus technique, and alternate nostril breathing.

Try it now by checking out this guided breathwork video.

2. Lowers blood pressure

Lowering blood pressure is another big reason why people practice breathwork. Our blood pressure can rise in tandem with our stress levels, which can result in an increased chance of having a heart attack and other health issues. Practicing breathwork daily helps relieve our bodies of stress, bringing our blood pressure down in the process.

The science

A 2001 study proved that practicing breathwork is an effective way of lowering blood pressure. Hypertensive patients who participated in the study were given guided music to lead them through breathing exercises for an 8-week period. The results showed that 10 minutes of breathing exercises daily had effectively lowered their blood pressure.

Try these techniques

When you feel stressed, try these techniques: diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, the breath focus technique, and alternate nostril breathing.

3. Alkalizes blood pH

A woman breathing and holding her knee while lying on the ground

Our blood has its own pH level, which is impacted by our ability to breathe properly. The blood in the human body should normally be at a slightly basic level, but the amount of oxygen we inhale and the amount of CO2 we exhale can cause our blood to either become too basic or too acidic. This can cause alkalosis or acidosis, respectively. Practicing breathwork regularly helps normalize our breathing patterns, allowing us to inhale oxygen and exhale CO2 in amounts that put our blood's pH level where it needs to be.

The science

A 1985 study proved that therapeutic breathing practices could help participants struggling with hyperventilation lessen symptoms and improve respiratory control. Participants who practiced the breathwork were found to exhibit greater improvements than those in the comparable procedure group. Since these participants were able to relieve their symptoms and slow their breathing, it is implied that their blood would also have alkalized to a preferred pH level as a result.

Try these techniques

If you need to improve your breathing, try these techniques: 4-7-8 breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and any pranayama techniques.

4. Increases anti-inflammatory activity

When we're stressed, our bodies can become more subject to inflammation. Occasionally, our body might even send out these signals without them being necessary. Breathwork is most commonly used to exit fight-or-flight mode and, in doing so, tell our body that inflammation is no longer needed.

The science

A 2016 research study found that practicing yogic breathing, or pranayama, was successful in reducing inflammation. Adult males and females who were in good health participated in the study by practicing pranayama and then submitting their saliva for review. The results showed that practicing these breathing techniques reduced the presence of pro-inflammatory biomarkers.

Try these techniques

If you’re struggling with inflammation, try these techniques: diaphragmatic breathing, the breath focus technique, humming bee breath, and any additional pranayama techniques.

5. Improves blood circulation and increases energy

A woman dancing with her shadow reflecting on a rock wall

Breathwork techniques are also great at improving blood circulation, which also leads to an increase in energy levels. The oxygen we breathe in helps to energize our blood cells and get the blood moving throughout our body. This is significantly helpful for improving many other bodily functions and, most importantly, increasing our energy levels.

The science

A 2020 study found that pranayama breathwork helped undergraduate students increase their energy levels, among other benefits. Participants who participated in the pranayama classes were found to have better results than those who took classes on meditation-focused yoga. This supports the theory that breathwork is effective at boosting energy.

Try these techniques

When you feel low on energy, try these techniques: 4-7-8 breathing, alternate nostril breathing, ujjayi breath, or sitali breathing.

See how breathwork can increase your energy by checking out this guided breathwork video.

6. Increases muscle tone

Breathing exercises can be used to help build muscle tone and improve stiffness, whether you prefer to focus on your respiratory muscles or simply incorporate breathwork into your workout routine. Deep breathing makes use of the diaphragm and respiratory muscles, and the more we use them, the stronger we become. Breathwork is also widely used by athletes, since its ability to improve our oxygen levels and circulation helps us get more out of our muscles.

The science

A 2017 study determined that breathing exercises, combined with diaphragm taping, could be used on stroke victims to help strengthen their diaphragm and respiratory muscles. The group who practiced the exercises found a significant increase in muscle tone of all measured muscles. This indicates that breathwork is helpful in improving muscle tone.

Try these techniques

If you want to increase muscle tone, try these techniques: diaphragmatic breathing, equal breathing, and Skull Shining Breath.

7. Strengthens lungs

A circle of people happily exhaling with their tongues out

Another big reason why many have turned to breathwork is to help strengthen their lungs. Since all breathwork techniques make use of the diaphragm and respiratory muscles, they’re often viewed as workouts for your lungs. Breathwork is often recommended by medical professionals for those wanting to improve their lung health and breathing.

The science

A 2017 study confirmed that diaphragmatic breathing can help improve respiratory function. Participants who practiced diaphragmatic breathing exercises were found to have more improvements in their functional vital capacity, as well as some improvement in their slow vital capacity. This suggests an improvement in their ability to intake and exhale air, and thus improved overall breathing.

Try these techniques

If you want to strengthen your lungs, try these techniques: pursed lip breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, humming bee breath, and numbered breath.

Learn more about these techniques by checking out breathing exercises to strengthen lungs.

8. Increases lung capacity

In addition to strengthening lungs, breathwork is also used to specifically increase lung capacity. People with COPD, asthma, and more have used breathwork as a way to increase their ability to intake oxygen. It’s a practice that’s also recommended by medical professionals, as variations of breathwork have been used in medical treatments for many years.

The science

A 2016 study found that breathing exercises were effective in helping elderly smokers improve their lung capacity and respiratory muscles. The results showed that various breathing exercises could successfully improve pulmonary function and increase the strength of respiratory muscles. This demonstrates breathwork's ability to help increase lung capacity.

Try these techniques

If you want to increase your lung capacity, try these techniques: diaphragmatic breathing, pursed lip breathing, and complete breath.

Try it now by following this guided breathwork video.

9. Boosts immune system

Practicing breathwork daily can also help maintain a strong immune system. Our stress levels can greatly weigh on us in many ways, including weakening our immune system. By regulating our breathing, we allow more oxygen into our body that energizes our cells and helps us build a stronger immune system.

The science

A 2015 research article demonstrated how stress, immunity, and disease can all affect each other. Psychological stress resulting in us regularly entering fight-or-flight mode can weaken our immune system. This suggests that any activity that lowers our stress levels will help improve our immunity.

Try these techniques

When you want to boost your immune system, try these techniques: 4-7-8 breathing, Skull Shining Breath, humming bee breath, and complete breath.

10. Helps manage pain

A closeup of a person standing on a rock while dipping their toe into a small puddle

Another proven benefit of breathwork is pain management. Breathing exercises can help manage pain in a variety of ways, from soothing the pain by increasing oxygen and blood circulation to improving the mood to help with pain tolerance. Breathwork is often recommended as part of treatment for chronic pain, and has even been used to help improve function in the parts of the body experiencing the pain.

The science

A 2011 study found that relaxing breathing exercises could be used to help with pain management. Participants who practiced breathwork for relaxation showed improvements in pain threshold, along with reductions in pain perception and negative feelings resulting from the pain. This suggests that breathwork is helpful in managing chronic pain.

Try these techniques

When you want to better manage pain, try these techniques: alternate nostril breathing, equal breathing, ujjayi breath, and Lion’s Breath.

11. Improves focus

Those who want to improve their focus can also greatly benefit from practicing breathwork. When we're stressed or anxious, it can be really difficult to focus on anything other than our stressors. Many breathing exercises have the ability to help us leave this fight-or-flight mode faster. They also help us calm our thoughts and hold our attention on the things we want to focus on for longer.

The science

A 2017 study began to demonstrate the link between diaphragmatic breathing and attention span. Based on the results, it was believed that the reduction of stress levels helped participants return to a calm state of mind, allowing them to focus on things other than their stressors. While it was suggested that more research be done, it was hypothesized that breathwork could be used to improve focus.

Try these techniques

When you want to improve your focus, try these techniques: pursed lip breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, the breath focus technique, and 4-7-8 breathing.

See how breathwork can improve your focus by checking out this guided breathwork video.

12. Improves sleep

Women lying on the ground with their arms stretched above their heads

Those who have trouble falling asleep will also greatly benefit from practicing breathing exercises. Since breathwork is known to help us relax, it is effective at helping us fall asleep. Many have used breathwork to improve their sleep quality, even those struggling with insomnia.

The science

A 2020 study confirmed that breathwork was able to help hospital patients improve their sleep quality. Patients with severe sleep problems who practiced breathing exercises for 5 days showed significant improvements in sleep quality (when compared to the control group). The study confirmed that breathing exercises were effective at improving sleep and reducing the occurrence of delirium.

Try these techniques

When you want to fall and stay asleep, try these techniques: 4-7-8 breathing, alternate nostril breathing, box breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing.

Learn more about breathing techniques that can improve sleep by checking out breathwork for sleep.

13. Improves mood

Breathwork has also been shown to have a significant effect on our mood. Many people who practice breathwork regularly often do so in order to increase their feelings of joy and happiness. Breathing exercises have also been shown to be effective in promoting positive thinking, self-love, self-esteem, and confidence.

The science

A 2002 study of two focus groups determined that breathing patterns could be linked to specific emotions. The first group of participants was asked to associate different breathing patterns with emotions such as joy, anger, fear, or sadness. The second group was asked to practice the breathing patterns based on the results of the first group. This resulted in different emotional states being experienced, based on the breathing patterns used.

Try these techniques

When you want to improve your mood, try these techniques: box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing.

14. Reduces symptoms of depression

A reflection in water of three people holding hands

Similar to how breathwork can help improve mood, it has also been shown to be effective in improving symptoms of depression. In addition to helping reduce stress and help our body feel relaxed, it also can increase our alpha brainwaves. This helps us form more positive thinking habits and helps combat levels of depression.

The science

A 2020 study found that a stress management program that included practicing breathwork regularly helped university students relieve symptoms of depression (among psychological factors). Students who participated in the SKY program were the only ones that saw improvements to their levels of depression. This validates breathwork as an effective method of helping to treat depression.

Try these techniques

If you need help managing depression, try these techniques: the breath focus technique, diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, and box breathing.

How to get started with breathwork

Now that you know a lot more about breathwork science, you probably want to know how to work breathwork into your daily routine. Here are some tips to get started with breathwork:

  1. Do your research: Look into different exercises, techniques, apps, and local workshops to determine what will work best for you.
  2. Make a plan: Commit to daily breathwork practice and/or attending local sessions.
  3. Set reminders: Use your calendar or another visual aid to remind yourself to practice.
  4. Take breaks: If you find yourself struggling with an exercise, feel free to get up and do something else. You can always come back to it later.
  5. Try different techniques: Make breathwork more exciting by trying different exercises and techniques.
  6. Keep going: Stay positive and, if you accidentally miss a session, take a moment to take a few deep breaths. Something is always better than nothing.


Ready to incorporate the healing power of breathwork into your life? See what people had to say about the Othership app’s guided breathwork experiences and sign up for a free trial.