Breathwork is a term with many different specific definitions. In the general sense, it refers to purposeful ways of breathing in order to accomplish certain goals, which could include greater spirituality, better overall health, psychological reconnection to different times in life, or psychological well-being. Breathwork isn’t a new idea and it has been employed in things like yoga for centuries. In fact, many of the modern breathing programs or exercises are based on yogic principles of pranayama.
Some of the more recent breathwork specialists merely reteach certain types of yogic breathing, or at least make these their principal focus. Many may be familiar with Dr. Andrew Weil, who is a specialist in integrative medicine. In 2000, he published an audio introduction to breathing purposefully to improve health, which is still enjoying popularity. It is adapted from yogic breathing, but explained so people can practice it on their own, instead of in a yogic class that teaches pranayama.
Farther back in the 1960s, people like Leonard Orr and Sondra Ray developed what they called Rebirthing-Breathwork. This method involves a kind of breathing where there is no pause between inhaling and exhaling. Orr advocated this as a means of therapy, and sessions involving rebirthing typically took a couple of hours and were accompanied by music or intense recorded drumming. Orr and Ray contended that learning this breathing technique would help connect people to their infancy and this could contribute to clarity of the mind and improved psychological status, while also helping to improve mental health illnesses.
Other breathwork specialists have adapted Orr and Ray’s work, or some simply return to yoga for inspiration and this leads to numerous types of purposeful breathing recommendations by a variety of people. Some people do use breathwork in the context of therapy sessions, and there are some who believe breathing is so powerful, it needs to be used in a supervised setting until people know what to expect and are accomplished at the techniques they’ve learned.
In once sense, this recommendation to do any serious and extended breathwork in a supervised environment is very sensible. Changing breathing may have a destabilizing effect on people who suffer from panic attacks. Since panic attacks often involve altered breathing patterns and hyperventilation, certain types of breathing techniques may need to be avoided altogether, or tried and discarded if they worsen mental panic and anxiety. On the other hand, there are many people who do find comfort and relaxation in learning breathing techniques and they do feel that using them can help promote calm or change destructive patterns of thinking.
There are many claims that come with breathing technique programs. People who use them are said to live longer, rid the body of toxins, have more energy, feel more youthful, and the list goes on. It is important to point out that most of these claims are not verifiable, and alone breathwork isn’t considered an adequate medical treatment or a cure to everything, as some practitioners seem to claim. As meditation though, breathing techniques may help to reduce stress, and this can indeed be useful for many people; stress alleviation certainly confers health benefits.
Another type of breathing technique with which many women are familiar is used in Lamaze childbirth classes and also during labor. Breathing associated with Lamaze changes during contractions and transition. Lots of women have found this attention to breath helpful in easing the discomfort of labor, though others find it difficult to do and not adequate for controlling the pain of childbirth.