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July 18, 2023

What is Breathwork? History, Science, Benefits and Techniques

If you’ve landed here, chances are you’re looking for ways to improve your mental fitness. Rest assured, breathwork does indeed provide an effective way to do this. So, what is breathwork? In this article, we look at its history, science and benefits.


If you feel your stress levels are on the up, you’re most certainly not alone. Statistics show that the stress levels people experience has been on a continuous rise. According to the American Institute of Stress, 77% of people regularly suffer physical ill-effects of stress, while 73% suffer psychological symptoms as a result of stress. In the UK, the Mental Health Foundation found that in 2017, 74% of people felt unable to cope due to stress at some point during that year. The same picture appears in other developed nations. Burnout, mental health problems, and absenteeism from work or college are on the increase.


Stress has many causes. Among the most common are pressure at work, financial difficulties, loss of a loved one, divorce, moving house, and mental health or emotional issues such as anxiety or low self-esteem. Raised stress levels then lead to an array of health issues, while amplifying problems such as insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

If you ask among your friends and colleagues, chances are that most of them feel stressed at some point each week, with some feeling the pressure on a daily basis. So, how do you reduce your stress levels?


What do you do when you’re stressed out? Perhaps you meditate, exercise or meet people at a weekly knitting club. Any enjoyable pastime can help, like socializing, playing an instrument, or walking the dog. But what if your stress levels have gone through the roof?

One scientifically proven method to reduce stress is breathwork. Let’s take a closer look by examining its origins, scientific research, and then we'll introduce some breathwork exercises.


Breathwork is a very broad term describing the use of breathing techniques to induce relaxation and supercharge your wellbeing. Many varieties of breathwork exist. In this article, we look at the history of breathwork and describe some techniques. We’ll also examine what science has to say about the effectiveness of breathwork.

From that point, you’ll be keen to try out some breathwork exercises. The good news is, the Breathonics app has got you covered with sessions that are both fun and rewarding.


Throughout human history, people have been using breathing exercises to improve their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Yoga and Tai Chi incorporate breathing techniques while shamanic breathwork and newly-developed breathing techniques also belong to the larger breathwork technique group. The best-known breathwork techniques of today include pranayama, Vipassana, qigong, and tai chi. With each method, you control your breathing in a specific manner to bring about a sense of wellbeing on a physical, mental, and emotional level.

Over the last 50-75 years, breathwork has rapidly come to the fore as a health-enhancing methodology. Scientists have taken note, with the volume of research on breathwork becoming pretty substantial.

Breathwork is now a proven way to improve physical, mental, and emotional health for all, from endurance athletes using breathwork to improve stamina and performance, to people simply looking to manage their mental state.


So, what exactly do you gain from doing breathwork? Here’s a list:

  • Stress reduction
  • Relaxation
  • Personal growth
  • Healing from trauma
  • Facilitating mindful living
  • Improving emotional and mental health
  • Boosting the immune system
  • Finding happiness
  • Reducing negativity
  • Boosting self-awareness and self-esteem
  • Improving performance
  • Enhancing the ability to cope with everyday stresses and strains


Here are the breathwork methods commonly used today:

Holotropic Breathwork

Holotropic breathwork was developed in the 1970s by Dr. Grof and his wife in his work as a psychotherapist and transpersonal therapy inventor. Initially, Grof had used LSD as a psychotherapeutic tool. After the drug was made illegal, Grof sought new ways to help clients release trauma and bring about healing.

The term itself alludes to moving toward wholeness. If you want to practice this technique, you'd best find a holotropic breathwork therapist to guide you. People should use this method in a group or under the supervision and guidance of an experienced holotropic breathwork instructor.

The technique itself is simple. You spend 1-2 hours breathing at accelerated speed using your stomach to forcefully exhale and inhale. Music enhances the process of entering an altered state of consciousness. Throughout your holotropic exercise, you can expect a variety of experiences such as outburst of laughter, crying, muscle cramps, visions and more.

While some warn of possible health risks such as hyperventilation, others attest to the immense therapeutic benefits of holotropic breathwork. If you’re considering this method, consult your physician and contact an experienced holotropic breathwork practitioner.


Rebirthing is similar to holotropic breathwork with the omission of music and emphasis on achieving a relaxed exhalation each time. Like the previous method, rebirthing also originates in the 1970s, developed by Dr. Orr. He claims its creation was guided by Mahavatar Babaji, an immortal yogi. The concept behind this method is simple: by breathing in this way, you simulate your own birth and rebirth. Orr believed that during this rebirthing process, traumas and hurt dissipate, and you emerge a new, happy person.


This is the oldest known breathwork method. Prana signifies “life energy”, and Yama means “control”. Using a variety of exercises, you control your breath to bring about a healing process, and judging by the latest research, the ancient yogi who developed this technique knew what they were doing. Controlled breathing practices can have a positive impact on our stress response, help us focus, and induce more positive emotions.

Exercises include:

Omkar: chanting and extending your exhale with the OM mantra

Kumbhaka: holding your breath after inhaling or exhaling

Nadi Sodhana: alternate nostril breathing

Kati Mudra: Inhaling or drinking air into your gut to detox

These are just some of the many pranayama techniques.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing is one of the breathwork methods that has made its way into conventional medicine. Ample research proves its benefits and effectiveness when it comes to combating stress and inducing relaxation.

You can do diaphragmatic breathing exercises lying flat on the ground for comfort, or practice belly breathing throughout your day to promote a state of calm.

The Wim Hof Method

The Wim Hof Method combines cold therapy and breathing exercises. Unlike rebirthing and holotropic breathwork, the creator of this method has made science a cornerstone of his work.

Wim Hof started out studying martial arts and yoga from a young age. After he was left looking after four children following the suicide of his wife, Hof sought ways to ease his depression. Soon, he discovered that he was drawn to cold water and began researching the reasons. This led to him developing the Wim Hof Method. Scientific research proves the benefits, from reduced inflammation to prolonged states of bliss.

So, how does one perform the Wim Hof Method? Take deep inhales and exhales without pause or interruption 20-30 times. Each time, keep some oxygen in your lungs right up until your last exhale. At that point, fully empty your lungs and hold your breath for as long as you can. Then, take your last inhale and hold your breath for 15-30 seconds, squeezing your forehead a little to stimulate blood flowing to your brain. You can complete a cycle in around 5 minutes or more, and repeat two to three times.

Interestingly, the Wim Hof method is not only popular because of common breathwork benefits, but also thanks to its performance-enhancing effects for athletes. Hof discovered significant improvements in performance when partaking in extreme physical challenges.

We stress the importance of consulting a doctor before taking up any of these practices.