Breathwork programs can be extremely effective for reducing stress in the mind and in the body. Breathwork is any type of intentional alteration to one’s breathing patterns, with particular focus on the process of inhaling and exhaling, which is done with the intention of transforming one’s mental state. The benefits of deep breathing include the feeling of intense physical relaxation due to the increased levels of oxygen and blood flow to the brain, but many dedicated proponents of breathwork therapy programs believe that the techniques can also be psychologically and spiritually beneficial. While medical experts and psychologists express some concerns about the newer, more radical forms of breathwork therapy, the original and more basic breathwork programs can be very effective methods for relaxation and stress relief.
Breathwork therapy as we know it today originated in the practice of Yoga, with Pranayama being one of the five stapes of Yoga. There are a wide variety of Pranayama breathing techniques that vary based on the type of Yoga in which one is engaged, but generally most Pranayama breathing exercises share a similar end. The ultimate goal of Pranayama Yoga exercises is to unite the body and the mind through the act of breathing. By engaging in the process of mindful breathing, actively focusing on how and when each breath is taken, an individual engaging in Pranayama Yoga exercises can endeavor to bring the body and the mind together as one in the same state. This feeling, whether you call it tranquility, Zen or just simple relaxation, is one of the extremely positive benefits of breathwork programs. In our fast-paced modern society, people rarely take the time to slow down and relax, so these deep breathing exercises work really well as a simple (and free) way for individuals to take a few moments of each day to promote their own physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Increased motivation, memory, and will power, better sleeping habits, more emotional control, and even muscle toning can all result from engaging in breathwork programs such as Pranayama breathing exercises.
Though deep breathing exercises in Yoga are extremely popular, they are not the only activity that uses breathwork as part of the routine. Tai Chi and even Pilates stress the importance of breathing and being mindful of one’s breathing when engaging in those exercises. There are a number of recent forms of breathwork therapy whose focuses begin to shift away from pure relaxation and promotion of tranquility. The Re-birthing breathwork program uses breathing to draw out negative, subconscious emotions and allowing the participant to deal with those feelings in the present. Holotropic Breathwork is meant to elevate the participant’s consciousness to a higher state by depriving the brain of oxygen temporarily. This state is supposed to bring about knowledge and revelation about one’s own self and the world around him.
A number of researchers have criticized these forms of breathwork therapy and their derivatives. They found particular problems with some of the more recent programs that focus on altering one’s state of consciousness, rather than aiming at relaxation as the goal. Hyperventilation is a part of the process for many of the newer breathwork programs, which can be extremely physically dangerous.
When engaging in hyperventilation with the goal of elevating one’s consciousness in a breathwork program one must breathe in and out without taking a pause between the inhale and exhale. Many people who practice these types of deep breathing techniques feel that this type of breathing helps awaken the mind, bringing the individual to a state where they are ready to confront their problems or anxieties. However, this type of rapid breathing can actually lead to hypoxia or oxygen deprivation, possibly causing the participant to faint or perhaps even worse. However, most of the less extreme forms of breathwork therapy are extremely beneficial and can be highly effective relaxation techniques.