On your mat, you close your eyes taking a deep breath in and out. If you are familiar with yoga, you have probably heard an instructor guide you to focus on your breathing (1). Breathing seems to be an intricate part of practicing yoga but breathwork can also be powerful on its own as well.
Yoga District instructor Emily defines breath-work, its different types, and what to expect in breathwork sessions.
Alternate Nostril Breath
If you regularly attend yoga classes, you have likely heard the terms breathwork or pranayama in your asana classes (2,3). Perhaps in a class you’ve even tried alternate nostril breath or breath of fire (4). The practice of breathwork, however, goes far beyond a simple supplement to asana.
My first experience with true breathwork was intense. A friend brought me without much explanation to a class. I expected a group of people in a seated meditation practicing breath patterns that I had seen in yoga classes. I was wrong. This style of breathwork was completely new to me. I felt its effects almost immediately. We followed a three part breath (5), in and out through the mouth. Our instructor told us it was “to move stuck stress out of the body.”
After the first five minutes, my whole body started to tingle. I felt a huge surge of energy rushing through my arms. My hands tensed up as I resisted my emotions. Despite the intensity, I no longer felt my familiar, repetitive thoughts and negative self-talk. My body took over as I followed the breath pattern and my monkey mind (6) took a break. It was a new and fascinating feeling. I consider myself a bit of a control freak, so I was at odds with this feeling at first. Eventually, I surrendered to the process. At the end of the active breathing, I fell into the deepest meditation I’d ever experienced. I found clarity on things I didn’t consciously realize needed consideration. My interest was piqued. Today, I facilitate breathwork practice for clients both virtually and in-person.
Breathwork’s Definition, Origin, and Types
The best general definition I have come across for breathwork is, “the conscious control of breathing intended to impact a person’s mental, physical or emotional state(7).”
Breathwork (pranayama) is one of the eight limbs of yoga (8). Although it’s origins date back thousands of years, most of the breathwork therapy used today was popularized during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Breathwork is a broad term. It encompasses all types of breath practices. Just as there are many types of asana in yoga, such as power flow (9), yin, and restorative, there are varieties of breathwork. Breathwork practices can range from intense to gentle, highly controlled to more freeform, and be supine or seated. The breathwork possibilities are vast.
I teach a type of breathwork focused on emotional release and clarity. Other types create balance in the mind and calmness in the body. Some breathwork styles include Shamanic Breathwork (10), Vivation (11), Transformational Breath (12), Holotropic Breathwork (13), Clarity Breathwork (14) and Rebirthing (15). Each has a slightly different philosophy. They all try to drive practitioners towards clarity and connection with our higher selves. I practice a type of breathwork type without a specific name, but was popularized by the teacher David Elliott. It takes a softer approach than styles like Transformational Breath or Holotropic.
Breathwork Class or Workshop
The type of breathwork completely dictates your experience. In my workshops and sessions, I start with an open dialogue to set a clear intention for the breath practice.
When in a group setting, we may opt to share what we are working through in our personal lives. There is so much power in group breathwork. I am consistently taken aback by the unique connections and energy in the room. Next, we move through a short seated meditation to set the stage for the breath practice. This is done lying down on yoga mats or a blanket and is accompanied by music. A full session includes around 25 minutes of active breath (16). At least five minutes of it is savasana meditation. During the session, I use scents such as sage, cedar, and a specific essential oil blends developed to facilitate emotional release.
The breathwork experience varies greatly from person to person. Some folks feel deep sensations in their bodies, and others simply feel more calm and relaxed. There is no wrong way to feel throughout the session. The most important part is to keep going with the breath.
Explore these great resources to learn more about breathwork:
- My teacher, David Elliott, has great podcasts and articles on his website: https://www.davidelliott.com/
- Stan Grof, founder of Holotropic breathwork podcast: https://tim.blog/2018/11/20/stan-grof/
- Free meditations to do on your own:
- Science of Breathing, https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/science-breathing
- Pranayama, https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/4990/pranayama
- Asana, https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/4951/asana
- Breath of Fire, https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/7533/breath-of-fire
- Dirgha Pranayama (ThreePart Breathing), https://www.yogapedia.com/dirgha-pranayama-an-introduction-to-three-part-breath/2/11311
- Monkey Mind, https://www.yogapedia.com/2/6761/meditation/mindfulness/your-mind-isnt-actually-you-how-to-quiet-the-monkey-chatter
- Breathwork Definition,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breathwork
- Eight Limbs of Yoga, https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/7274/the-eight-limbs-of-yoga
- Power Flow, https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/9500/baptiste-power-vinyasa
- Shamanic Breathwork, https://www.shamanicbreathwork.org/shamanic-breathwork/what-is-shamanic-breathwork
- Vivation Breathwork, http://vivation.com/
- Transformational Breath http://www.transformationalbreath.com/
- Holotropic Breathwork, https://www.healthline.com/health/holotropic-breathwork
- Clarity Breathwork, https://claritybreathwork.com/
- Rebirthing, https://www.globalbreathingawareness.com/rebirthing-breathwork/what-is-rebirthing-breathwork
- Active breath, https://www.cff.org/Life-With-CF/Treatments-and-Therapies/Airway-Clearance/Active-Cycle-of-Breathing-Technique/