April 2023 Issue | Breathwork Is All the Rage Right Now, But Does It Work?
By Juliane Bergmann
Breathing loudly through my mouth in a rapid pattern reminded me of having sex, giving birth, or maybe even dying. After a few minutes, my body started tingling, and my hands cramped involuntarily. Pressure settled on the bridge of my nose, other times in the back of my throat, or my knees. About two-thirds into the 40-minute session, I felt a deep sob building that finally broke through and offered intense relief. This session on inner child work conjured an image of my six-year-old self, crying on my bedroom floor. My breathwork teacher Iona Holloway’s voice became my own: “I will not leave you here on the floor.”
Afterward, I felt both grounded and light, as if liquid gold had spilled from my core into my toes and fingertips. I stood in front of the mirror wondering: “What kind of witchy magic is this?”
I thought breathwork was B.S.
I learned from family members with alcohol and drug addictions and severe eating disorders that my body was not a safe place. It was an appendage to my mind in need of domination, or else its cravings would take over. I tried to control this scary bottomless pit of needs and wants. I rarely took sick days. I restricted, then binged. I repressed my sexuality. I denied emotions that made me look weak.
I came by these coping mechanisms honestly. I was just a child trying to survive. I didn’t understand then that “it’s not a good thing to be the one nobody worries about,” as Holloway says. Controlling myself cut me off from my body’s signals, sensations, emotions, and thoughts. “And how’s that working for you?” Not very well. And yet, Holloway doesn’t judge: “We’re actually loving ourselves the whole time, and somewhere down the road, we realize that our tools have become weapons. Can we crack the door open far enough to follow our curiosity and try something new?”
Different talk therapy options helped me analyze my behavior, thoughts, and coping mechanisms. And yet, therapy didn’t change how I felt, only how I acted. I gained rational understanding but lacked a deep knowing in my gut. Holloway had a similar experience dealing with depression and disordered eating: “I lived in my body for 29 years without understanding my internal world.”
Still, I was suspicious of the body-first approach. Years ago, my therapist asked me to kick and punch a pillow while screaming, which I found ridiculous. I’d spent decades ignoring my body whispering this marriage is a bad idea, flickering in excitement about a job way out of my comfort zone, and tightening my throat in anger that I only allowed to emerge as tears, never screams.
I tried Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), therapeutic writing, running, yoga, weightlifting, and attending Al-Anon meetings. I tried meditation, but I’d either fall asleep or start ruminating. I couldn’t clear my mind and often got more anxious and dissociated.
I gravitated towards movement and breath to remain present in my body, rather than retreating into my mind. The more embodied the practice, the greater impact on my well-being.
I cracked the door open to the possibility that the body I’d ignored for most of my life held the clues. This is what Holloway calls turning your body into a brain. “I go to my body first, and then my mind executes. I use my breath to drop into my core and mine for deep knowledge. If you have your breath, you have yourself.”
What happens during breathwork?
Temperature changes, tingling, pressure sensations.
Hand cramping (temporary tetany can occur when CO2 levels drop, reducing cellular calcium and increasing blood pH, which turns your hands into lobster claws. If it gets too uncomfortable, slow and soften your breath, especially on the exhale.)
Big emotions, crying, spontaneous vocalizations.
Is breathwork safe?
Generally, yes, but always consult your doctor, especially if you’re pregnant, take medication, or have a diagnosed mental illness, seizure disorder, cardiac problem, or respiratory issue.
Does it work?
Breathwork can lower stress, anxiety, and depression, improve respiratory, circulatory, and immune function, sleep, and focus. It’s even been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms and addictive behavior.
A 2020 study at Yale University found that breathwork outperformed other stress-reduction protocols in reducing depression and stress, improving mental health, mindfulness, positive affect, and social connectedness.
Breathwork improved stress and mood immediately and after three months in this 2019 University of Arizona study, while also impacting the performance on a simulated high-pressure task. Participants who had received breathwork instructions showed no stress-related physical symptoms, while the others exhibited elevated breathing and heart rates.
In a 2020 HarvardBusiness Review article, Yale researcher Emma Seppälä explained that “when we are in a highly stressed state, our prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain responsible for rational thinking — is impaired, so logic seldom helps to regain control[…] How we breathe can change how we feel.”
Depending on which breathing rhythm you adopt, you signal your body to relax, activate, create, or focus.
Various coaching programs and certifications exist but the breathwork industry has no regulatory body. Although breathing techniques overlap, you’ll find as many approaches as teachers. Holloway doesn’t fit the “pink, fluffy, goddess vibe” of many programs and combines guided visualizations, breathwork, spoken words, and music. “It’s important you resonate with your teacher’s style and feel they embody their teachings. This is the difference between a facilitator and a practitioner,” she says. “However, working with your breath is so powerful, it can fundamentally change you all on its own. No time in your body is ever wasted.”
How often do you practice?
“Shorter breathwork sessions can be used daily for focus, creativity, and nervous system regulation,” Holloway recommends. “The longer sessions often bring up emotions or discoveries that require integration. Don’t just keep cracking the nut over and over. Once you’re open, pull at the threads and see where they lead. Integration is what truly creates transformative change.”
It’s been months since my first session. Last week, I considered a risky and far-reaching decision. The anxiety and panic I expected didn’t materialize. Instead of white-knuckling the situation for illusory control, my insides stayed soft, and my fingers unfurled. I didn’t have to convince myself.
For the first time in my life, I felt a gut-level desire to let go.