Breathing is something many of us don’t think much about, unless we can’t get enough air, but breathwork practitioners believe it’s possible to improve wellbeing and create physical, emotional and spiritual changes by modifying the way we breathe.
Different cultures and traditions each have their own ideas about breathwork.
Yoga adherents are familiar with the concept of pranayama, which seeks to elevate life energies through focus on breathing exercises, including prolonging in and out-breaths, pausing at different moment of the breathing cycle, and alternate nostril breathing.
Where the breath goes, the mind follows
Many Buddhist traditions, including Tibetan and Zen, share the concept of anapanasati, or mindfulness of breathing, which is a meditation practice that seeks to train awareness of breathing in order to rise above physical and spiritual limitations.
The Buteyko Breathing Technique originated in Russia, Adherents claim it can assist with conditions including asthma and sleep apnea, by addressing unconscious hyperventilation, but studies have shown limited tangible benefits.
In terms of psycho-therapy, there are related breathwork approaches ranging from holotropic breathing, transformational breath and integrative breathing, which seek to access changed states of consciousness and deal with repressed or non-verbal memories, such as those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, childhood traumas, or drug abuse.
While claims of breathwork to deal with complex psychological issues remain controversial, there’s a growing body of research to show breathwork can assist the immune system, reduce inflammation and improve stress resilience.
Enter the Iceman
One of the rock stars of breathwork is Wim Hof, aka The Iceman. Born in the Netherlands in 1959, Hof has set multiple world records for athletic feats involving ice, which he credits to his combination of breathing techniques and other training.
Wim Hof’s breathing exercises – premised on ‘inhaling deeply and exhaling without any use of force’ – are designed to train the body to breathe actively, encouraging control over physiological process usually thought to run on ‘auto-pilot’.
He suggests that the way we process oxygen has a direct effect on the energy released by our cells, creating diverse health benefits if harnessed properly.
Wim Hof warns there are health risks if his techniques are not practised in a safe environment, while also suggesting that breath techniques in conjunction with exercising in very cold conditions (e.g. going jogging barefoot wearing only shorts in the snow) has major health benefits, allowing us to rediscover the lost abilities that kept humans alive before the modern age.
The following video shows a science experiment that put some of Wim Hof’s breathwork theories to the test: