Breathwork – sometimes referred to as “breath therapy” – refers to a unique form of therapy that focuses on the use of specific, focused breathing techniques to promote physical, psychological, and spiritual healing. Most types of breathwork are heavily influenced by ancient Eastern practices but also incorporate elements of modern-day Western science.
In breathwork, the emphasis on breathing may seem deceptively simplistic. However, the breath is central to life and well-being. It’s long been known that proper breathing, as well as altering the breath in a particular way (e.g. breathing slowly and deeply to self-soothe when anxious) when needed, can have profound benefits – in terms of healing as well as improving overall emotional, physical, and mental health and well-being. That being said, it’s important to note that breathwork, as a form of therapy, shouldn’t be confused with mindful breathing or deep breathing exercises.
The underlying premise of breathwork is that negative emotions from trauma and other painful experiences are often suppressed. Left unresolved, they can cause a variety of problems in your life, including unwanted behaviors, troubling symptoms, and full-blown disorders or conditions. Most types of breathwork are designed to naturally induce an altered state of consciousness that enables you to access these suppressed memories and emotional blocks. Once accessed, they can finally be resolved and either released or integrated in a beneficial way. Many people who used breathwork have experienced fast results and greatly enhanced their overall sense of well-being.
Many types of breathwork include other healing modalities or elements to enhance the therapeutic process. These may include evocative music, certain types of art, gentle movement, and aspects of talk therapy. Since breathwork is primarily a meditative, experiential, and body-centric type of therapy, any talking or verbal processing involved isn’t the primary focus – unless the breathwork is used more as an adjunct to talk therapy.
Breathwork is often done on an individual basis, but it’s also frequently offered in a group setting as well. Breathwork can also be used with couples and families, to enhance and deepen their relationships with each other or resolve conflicts and other problems that may be occurring.
Although breathwork may be offered as a stand-alone therapy, it’s often used to enhance the benefits of other forms of therapy or medical treatment.
Two Key Principles of Breathwork
Breathwork is based on two key principles. The first is that most people’s breathing is far from optimal. We didn’t start out this way; as infants, we instinctively breathed deeply, slowly, and fully most of the time. Of course, our breathing changed if we were distressed (e.g. due to hunger, discomfort, illness, or pain) or excited (e.g. when we were giggling and playing). But somewhere along the way – often in childhood – our breathing changed. For some it changed slowly, while for others it changed suddenly – usually in response to a traumatic experience. By adults, most people’s is in need of healing; something that will get it back to a natural – and optimal – level.
The second principle in breathwork is that healing our breathing – getting it back to an optimal level – has a very positive and healing impact on every system in our body. Our immune system, circulatory system, nervous system, etc. all function much better when we’re breathing properly. When our breathing is restored, our innate ability to heal ourselves is strengthened significantly.
Types of Breathwork
There are many different types of breathwork. Some are more well-known and practiced more widely than others. Although each form has unique elements or therapeutic goals, they all have many areas of overlap. In general, almost every form uses the breath as a means of accessing suppressed trauma in order to facilitate healing at the deepest level.
The most common types of breathwork include:
- Clarity Breathwork
- Holotropic Breathwork
- Integral Breath Therapy
- Integrative Breathwork
- Middendorf Breathwork
- Radiance Breathwork
- Rebirthing Breathwork
- Reichian Breathwork
- Shamanic Breathwork
- Transformational Breathwork
- Vivation Breathwork
- Zen Yoga Breathwork
Following is a brief description of each type of breathwork:
Clarity Breathwork – This form of breathwork stems from the teachings of Leonard Orr’s Rebirthing. Although there are many similarities, there are also some key differences.
Clarity Breathwork enables you to access your subconscious mind, gaining a new level of self-awareness and clarity that often doesn’t occur in traditional therapy. It’s based on the premise that breathing fully and completely (which few people do) allows blocked or constricted energy channels to open up. As a result, the emotional, physical, and behavioral issues that have been hindering you and causing problems in your life can finally be released. Clarity Breathwork can bring about a powerful cellular transformation, as circular breathing, intuitive counseling and somatic exploration are incorporated into the process.
Clarity Breathwork broke away from Rebirthing and adopted its current name in 1999, primarily to expand the focus beyond healing trauma that occurred at birth and include issues that span your entire lifetime, including childhood trauma and other experiences, adult relationships, sexuality, money, career, and death. The other reason for the differentiation from Rebirthing was to place more of an emphasis on living fully in the present moment, rather than focusing on physical immortality.
Holotropic Breathwork – This rather unique form of breathwork stems from the work of psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina. Of all the types of breathwork, Holotropic Breathwork is probably one of the most controversial. This is largely due to the use of deep, rapid breathing that helps elicit a non-ordinary state of consciousness. Unfortunately, this method of breathing raised concerns regarding the risk of causing psychosis or seizures in vulnerable individuals. The goal of this altered state of consciousness is to bring unconscious issues into awareness. This would enable participants to work through them and experience healing. Only those formally trained in Grof’s method are allowed to use it.
Integral Breathwork – Often referred to as a “new world paradigm” with regards to breathwork, Integral Breathwork combines the calming impact of Optimal Breathing with transformational breathwork. Denis Ouellette and Mike White created this breathwork approach, which bypasses the need for over breathing. Optimal Breathing involves a less intense, less risky, and gentler technique that leads to an altered state of consciousness.
Integral Breathwork is conducted in 6-hour seminars that include teaching you about breathing, assessing your current way of breathing, and doing exercises to improve your breathing pattern. This is followed by an hour-long breathwork session, which addresses trauma and tension that’s been stored in your body. Like most types of breathwork, Integral Breathwork relies upon your body’s natural wisdom and capacity for healing.
Integrative Breathwork – This form of breathwork also developed as a result of Grof’s Holotropic method and philosophy. It was developed in the 1990s by Jacquelyn Small, a woman who had worked with Grof. In 1975, Small founded the Eupsychia Institute in Austin, Texas, where practitioners of Integrative Breathwork are trained. The actual process used in this particular approach is very similar to the one used in Holotropic Breathwork.
Middendorf Breathwork – Middendorf Breathwork is named after its creator, German-born Ilse Middendorf. She began teaching her method in Berlin in the mid 1930s, and thirty years later started teaching her method to other practitioners. Middendorf Breathwork focuses on allowing your breath to simply flow in and out without any attempt to force or control it. While breathing, your task is to focus on any bodily movements, thoughts, emotions, and sensations that occur. This helps keep you focused on the here and now while improving your body awareness. As with other types of breathwork, the primary goal is to promote healing. Middendorf breathwork didn’t come to the U.S. until 1986.
Radiance Breathwork – With its early beginnings dating back to 1974, Radiance Breathwork had its initial start while Hendriks was on a hike. Hendriks found himself asking profound questions of the Universe that day. Psychologist and author Gay Hendriks, along with his wife Kathlyn, gradually developed the breathwork technique over the next several years, as part of what came to be known as body-centered therapy. The name came from the radiant serenity Hendriks observed in the first client he worked with using the principles of this type of breathwork.
Rebirthing Breathwork – Perhaps one of the most well-known forms of breathwork, Rebirthing was developed by Leonard Orr. Orr reportedly re-enacted his own birth at home in a bathtub, which brought about resolution from birth trauma. He decided to help others experience the same healing and peace, using a breathing process that released trauma-based energy blocks stemming from the birth experience. In order to re-enact the birth, clients are instructed to lie down while relaxing their body and breathing as usual. Once they’re relaxed, they use circular breathing which allows them to access and release unresolved trauma and other issues. This leads to transformational healing.
When Rebirthing was first popular back in the 1970s, breathing through a snorkel while completely submerged in water was very common. The idea was to simulate the feeling of being surrounded by amniotic fluid in the womb. However, lying down on a sofa or floor works just as well, so the water method is used much less frequently today.
Reichian Breathwork – This form of breathwork was developed early in the 20th century by Dr. William Reich. Many regard Reich as the grandfather of body psychotherapy and the realization that powerful psychological and physical healing occurs when repressed trauma-based energy blocks are finally resolved and released.
Reichian Breathwork involves a breathing technique that unlocks the unconscious mind by altering the carbon dioxide to oxygen ratio of the air flowing in and out of the body. The problematic blocks are brought into conscious awareness, enabling you to finally release them. Once released, healing can begin and vitality starts to return as energy now flows freely throughout your body. Reichian Breathwork is widely practiced in countries across the globe. Practitioners include psychologist and other mental health professionals, physicians, chiropractors, and many other healthcare professionals who specialize in mind-body healing methods.
Shamanic Breathwork – This form of breathwork involves a combination of movement, chakra-attuned music, specific breathing methods, and introspection. Similar to other forms of breathwork, the goal is to shift into a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This allows access to the emotional blocks so that healing can occur at the deepest level. One of the more unique aspects of Shamanic Breathwork is the use of mandala artwork and other types of modern-day
Transformational Breathwork – This type of breathwork, often referred to as Transformational Breath – was developed by Dr. Judith Kravitz. She had originally used Rebirthing Breathwork back in the 1970s, but later began to make changes to the process in as she discovered ways to enhance the impact it had on her clients. She eventually renamed her approach Transformational Breath. The breathing technique involves taking uninterrupted and repetitive full, relaxed breaths.
Transformational Breath is regarded by many well-known health experts, including Christine Northrup, M.D. and Deepak Chopra, M.D., as one of the most effective forms of breathwork being practiced today. The elements of Transformational Breath include an elegant and unique blend of body mapping, Kundalini Yoga, breath analysis, metaphysics, and other powerful forms of physical and spiritual healing.
Vivation Breathwork – Developed by Jim Leonard, this kinesthetic form of breathwork also uses circular breathing. Like several other types of breathwork, Vivation Breathwork originally grew out of traditional Rebirthing. Leonard originally called his method “Integrative Rebirthing”, but changed the name to more clearly distinguish it. The name “Vivation” was inspired by the Latin word “vivere”, which means “to live”.
Vivation Breathwork focuses on healing all trauma, not just the trauma experienced at birth. Also, unlike Orr’s Rebirthing, this approach to breathwork isn’t designed to eliminate negative emotions by releasing them. Rather, all emotions – both negative and positive – are regarded as having value. Vivation Breathwork helps you resolve and integrate your emotions in a way that promotes happiness and well-being.
Zen Yoga Breathwork – This is, perhaps, more appropriately classified as a specific type of yoga rather than a distinct form of breathwork. However, the emphasis on proper breathing makes it worthy of inclusion. Created by Aaron Hoopes, Zen Yoga is an elegant blend of Shanti yoga, tai chi, and qigong. Gentle stretching, meditation, flowing movement, and mindful breathwork help reduce stress and promote serenity. Zen Yoga can improve circulation, increase flexibility, and alleviate chronic pain – in addition to its countless other physical and psychological benefits.
Benefits of Breathwork
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of breathwork is the long list of potential benefits that many people report after experiencing it. For most individuals, the benefits they receive extend far beyond just psychological and emotional improvement or healing. Many people report significant benefits in terms of their physical health as well. Cognitive and spiritual benefits are also frequently reported by those who participate in this unique type of therapy. Although many – if not most – of the potential benefits listed below are associated with breathwork in general, some benefits are more frequently associated with one or two specific types of breathwork.
Potential benefits of breathwork include:
- An overall sense of “lightness”
- Inner peace and tranquility
- Emotional healing
- Greater clarity (e.g. regarding purpose, life goals, what’s really important)
- A profound sense of calm
- Feeling more grounded and centered
- Significant reduction in anxiety
- Clearer head
- A deeper or renewed sense of connection – to self, others, nature, and the Universe or higher power
- Greater self confidence
- Increased self-awareness
- Improved motivation / less procrastination
- Less stress / improved ability to effectively handle stress
- A sense of empowerment and inner strength
- Being more in touch with one’s intuition
- More fulfilling relationships with others
- Improved communication
- Reduction in muscle tension
- Greater freedom of movement
- Decrease in physical pain
- More positive, optimistic outlook
- Improved mood / decrease in symptoms of depression
- Increased energy
- Better sleep / alleviation of insomnia and other sleep disturbances
- Elimination of limiting beliefs
- More joy
- Improved breathing
- Increased or revived libido
- Greater ability to concentrate and focus
- Greater self-acceptance and self-love
- More positive body image
- Greater strength in the midst of adversity
- Release of chronic, toxic emotions (e.g. grudges, resentment, self-loathing, anger)
- Greater capacity for forgiveness
- Deeper connection to one’s spiritual self
- Healing of unresolved grief
- Elimination of bad habits
- Healing of deep childhood wounds, particularly those related to abandonment and rejection
- Improved creativity
- Improved performance in various areas of life
- Feeling more “alive”
- Improved immune functioning
- Enjoy life and experience pleasure more deeply
- Improved self-reliance
- Greater ability to quickly let go of negative emotions when they appear
- Improved circulation
- Decrease in “death anxiety”
Disorders, Conditions, and Concerns that can benefit from Breathwork
Because breathwork promotes healing at the deepest level, and because many health issues, disorders, behavioral problems, and other issues are rooted in unresolved emotional issues, breathwork can be beneficial for a wide range of disorders, conditions, and concerns. Most types of therapy have the potential for a positive “ripple” effect in terms of benefiting other aspects of your life – in addition for the “presenting problem” that led you to seek help. Breathwork is no exception; in fact, for some, the ripple effect is even more pronounced.
Following are just some of the disorders, conditions, and concerns that can benefit from breathwork:
- Unresolved grief and loss
- PTSD and unresolved trauma
- Alcohol or drug addiction
- Generalized anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Anger problems
- Sleep problems
- Chronic pain
- Emotional impact of serious physical health issues
- Chronic stress
- Low self-esteem
- High blood pressure
- Circulation problems
- Digestive problems, including IBS
- Somatic disorders
Contraindications for Breathwork
Like most types of therapy, breathwork isn’t appropriate for everyone. It’s also important to note that a contraindication for some types of breathwork may not be one for another. For example, types of breathwork that use rapid breathing may be very risky for someone with certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, a recent surgery, or osteoporosis. However, a type of breathwork that utilizes a more gentle and relaxed form of breathing may be perfectly safe, and even beneficial. It’s recommended that you consult with your healthcare provider (including any mental health provider) and consult with the breathwork practitioner before participating in any form of breathwork.
Following is a list of some of the most common contraindications for breathwork:
- Cardiovascular problems
- High or abnormal blood pressure
- History of aneurisms
- Epilepsy or history of seizures
- Anyone on heavy medication
- Severe psychiatric symptoms, particularly psychosis or paranoia
- Bipolar depression
- Recent surgery
- An active addiction
- Any person with mental illness who isn’t in treatment or lacks adequate support
- Anyone experiencing an emotional or spiritual crisis
Finding a Breathwork Practitioner
If you’re interested in doing breathwork, it’s imperative that you work with a practitioner who is properly trained and certified in the type of breathwork he or she offers. There are different training and certification programs for the different types of breathwork available. If you have a specific type of breathwork in mind, an online search using the name of the breathwork (e.g. Transformational Breathwork [your city]). If that doesn’t bring up any relevant results, you can broaden your search by just searching for breathwork [your city].
Some types of breathwork have associated websites with a directory of certified practitioners. For example, if you’re interested in Rebirthing Breathwork, the Rebirthing Breathwork International website (RebirthingInternational.com) has a directory of providers that will help you locate a qualified Rebirthing practitioner in your area. For a certified Holotropic Breathwork practitioner, you can use the directory at Grof-Holotropic-Breathwork.net.
Many people have experienced deep levels of healing, in addition to multiple other benefits, with breathwork. Even though it’s a non-traditional approach to healing and enhancing your well-being in general, it’s certainly an option worthy of consideration.