Picture this: The sound of your boss’ squeaky chair echoes through the silent conference room. You can feel her expectant gaze and the nervous energy of your colleagues as you make your way to the podium. For a moment that buckwheat scone you had for breakfast seems like it might make an encore appearance.
Sure, you’ve practiced this presentation 1,000 times: in the mirror, for your spouse, in front of your dog, but it doesn’t seem to matter now. You might not be visibly trembling or sweating through the lucky shirt you picked out this morning. But one thing gives your nerves away: shallow, quick breathing.
Your breath tells a story. Anxiety brings with it a tight chest and tiny gasps for air. Comfort, ease and confidence feel like a slow wave, rolling up from your stomach to your chest.
When we’re in a stressful situation our breath acts as a mirror. But unlike those automatic bodily functions we have no control over (welcome back buckwheat scone!), we can intentionally change the way we breathe.
Interrupting that pesky stress response gives you the ability to navigate challenging situations with more ease – and a breathwork practice can teach you how.
What is Breathwork?
Breathwork encompasses a wide variety of breathing techniques. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, there’s a good chance you’ve already tried a form of breathwork: alternate nostril breathing, ujjayi breath and lion’s breath are all common yogic breathing techniques that complement the asanas of your yoga practice.
Diaphragmatic breathing, holotropic breathing and clarity breathwork are types of breathwork you may have seen pop up at your local yoga studio or community center. Below we’ll dive into what makes each of these breathwork practices unique, so you know which one is best for you.
In diaphragmatic breathing, you slow your breath pattern down by contracting your diaphragm, expanding your belly, and exhaling almost all the air from your lungs before consciously drawing in another deep breath.
This type of steady, slow and rhythmic breathing has been found to decrease cortisol levels and improve cognitive function and focus in adults who practiced 15 minutes a day, several days a week over an 8-week period. Diaphragmatic breathing has also been shown to effectively treat anxiety in studies of participants who practiced twice a day.
Diaphragmatic breathing is often taught in meditation classes. If you’ve ever been told to “watch your breath” you’re using diaphragmatic breathing to help maintain focus and stay in the present moment.
While diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced alone, holotropic breathing requires the guidance and supervision of a professional instructor. Holotropic breathing employs a quick breath pattern that practitioners say encourages personal growth, increased self-awareness and emotional healing.
Developed by psychiatrists Stainslavs and Christina Grof in the 1970s, holotropic breathwork uses breathing exercises, music, art and reflection to access an altered state of consciousness.
In a typical session, participants pair up and alternate as “sitters” and “breathers.” Sitters and facilitators act as support, making sure the breathers are safe and comfortable.
Following the breathing exercises, participants create mandalas as a way to illustrate anything that came up for them during the session. At the close, they share their experiences freely with the group, without interpretation or guidance from the facilitator.
While less research has been done on holotropic breathwork, small studies found holotropic breathing reduced feelings of hostility and increased participant’s self-esteem.
An offshoot of “Rebirthing,” clarity breathwork was established by Ashanna Solaris and Dana Delong in 1999. For best results, it’s recommended that you commit to ten one-on-one sessions with a trained professional.
Clarity breathwork emphasizes a circular breathing style that’s meant to unlock and release old traumas and negative emotions. Unlike holotropic breathwork, where there’s minimal communication between the participant and facilitator, clarity breathwork instructors make recommendations, ask questions, and may even suggest assignments to be done between practices.
During your initial clarity breathwork session, you meet with a practitioner to discuss any issues you hope to heal in your work together. You’ll then be led through an hour-long breathwork session followed by time to discuss your experience.
Do Try This at Home
Take a moment now to feel your breath. Is it rising from your belly, slow and even like a wave? If not, that may be a clue that stress or anxiety has slithered into your life. By understanding the power of your breath and learning techniques to guide it, you can manage some of the challenging emotions we all face every day.
If you’d like to get started with breathwork at home, give this simple practice from Dr. Andrew Weil a try:
Lie down on a yoga mat and take a moment to relax your muscles. Place the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth and completely empty your lungs of air.
- Breathe in slowly for four seconds
- When you reach the top of your inhale, hold your breath for a count of seven
- Gently part your lips and make a “whoosh” sound as you release the breath for eight seconds.
Repeat up to four times to reduce anxiety or quiet your mind before bed.