A lot of people are supposedly breathing easier thanks to renewed interest in, well, breathwork. Of course, the idea—or at least the association between breath and spirit—is nothing new. It has been rooted in various civilizations for thousands of years. In fact, the Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Andean/Amazonian Quechua and Hawaiian languages all have words for “breath” and “soul” that bear similar roots. Modern interest in psychotherapeutic breathwork surfaced in the 1960s thanks to a growing focus at the time on yoga, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist meditation, African spirituality, Hawaiian Mana and Siberian and Native American shamanistic work. More recently, it has grown in popularity due to its promise to strengthen, relax, energize, heal, reduce pain and even alter the consciousness of practitioners. It’s attraction is no doubt helped along because no equipment is needed and it can be practiced anywhere. Plus, air is free. While the concept is universal, breathwork techniques vary by pace, cadence, depth and forcefulness, session length and whether guidance or visualization imagery are part of the practice. Questions, of course, abound as to whether breathwork is all a lot of hot air or can deal research-backed benefits. Read on and find out.
None other than the U.S. Navy SEALs, among coaches, trainers, physical therapists, claim breathwork can foster endurance, strengthen the chest muscles, respiratory and cardiovascular systems and help decrease and manage pain.
Breathing techniques, such as counting, pacing and briefly holding one’s breath, have long been seen as a calming influence. The perceived impact is believed to have psychotherapeutic potential for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, addictive behaviors, anxiety and depression.
Breathwork can not only calm someone, but it can also supposedly energize practitioners, especially when forceful breathing techniques are accompanied by movement and visualizations. The approach is used in sports, military, physical and psychotherapeutic settings.
Breathwork is reputed as the ability to generate significant emotional effects by altering oxygen and carbon dioxide ratios through hyperventilating. The technique is often used with visualization, guided imagery, crystals and “New Age” tools.
Research On Display
There are numerous studies that deal with many of the claimed benefits of breathwork. Recent research includes:
- One study reviewed research behind breathing techniques’ well-known ability to effectively decrease pain.
- Another examination of 16 research studies confirmed breathwork’s effectiveness in treating anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias and related restlessness, fatigue and insomnia.
- A meta-analysis of 12 studies on calming breathwork, subjective stress and mental health research concluded that slow, regular breathing affects the vagus nerve and the autonomic nervous system. The analysis noted that the combined impact lowers physical and subjective stress, anxiety and depression, helps regularize heart beats and synchronizes brain waves.
- Some consciousness-altering claims don’t always hold up to well-designed research. One example is “rebirthing,” which is focused on healing birth trauma. This claim isn’t scientifically supported. Breathwork’s effectiveness for astral projection and past life regression also lacks scientific support.
Breathwork can have unintended and even harmful consequences that can exacerbate the conditions it’s supposed to treat. Rapid, deep breathing techniques, which is also known as hyperventilation, can cause dizziness, ringing ears, clouded vision, tingling extremities and even chest pain. These issues can trigger serious problems for people with a history of respiratory or cardiac problems, aneurysms, blood pressure abnormalities, glaucoma or retinal detachment and seizures. Hyperventilation can also generate emotions ranging from fear, sadness, anger, anxiety and distress to psychotic symptoms.
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