Science & Health

WTF is Breathwork?

Breathwork is a new healing modality sweeping the world, but what is it and how does it help? We've doing an exploration into what breathwork is, and how you can use it to better your wellbeing.

Min read
Lydia Mcclendon
December 23, 2023

How Does Breathwork Work? 

Whether you’ve been scrolling #wellnesstok or have had the luxury of experiencing an in-person event, breathwork in and outside the wellness space has made it to the mainstream. 

By controlling your breath, you’re giving your brain a much-needed reset from the usual hustle you may be used to experiencing… Plus, it’s a portable tool—no equipment required. Just you and your breath, anytime, anywhere.

Although breathwork is something anyone can do, not everyone may realize just how often these techniques can be used in day-to-day life. Breathwork comes in different shapes and sizes, but the goal remains the same: to harness the power of your breath for your well-being.

Different breathwork techniques can be used to get different results. Some are helpful for helping relieve anxiety or heightened senses, others for preparing our bodies and minds for sleep, and even others for getting a little more in touch with yourself (or someone else). A few techniques can be done in the moment, and are a great way to help regulate your nervous system as needed. 

Depending on your comfort level and personal accountability, when you try breathwork, you could attend a breathwork in-person event, hire an online breathwork instructor (easy to do over Zoom), or try a few breathwork techniques on your own. 

What is Breathwork?

Breathwork, beyond the rhythmic act of inhaling and exhaling, is a gateway to inner exploration and transformation through a focus on intentional existence. At its core, it’s a holistic practice leveraging intentional breathing to impact physical, mental, and emotional states.

This practice is as ancient as breathing itself and transcends cultural and geographical boundaries. From yogic traditions spanning millennia to contemporary therapeutic applications, breathwork manifests in diverse forms across spiritual, healing, and wellness communities globally.

At a deeper level, breathwork encompasses various techniques and philosophies, each offering distinct pathways to self-discovery and healing. 

Breathwork ranges from a quick 2-3 minute breathing exercise to regulate your nervous system, to lengthier breathwork sessions, often an hour or longer, guided by a facilitator. These breathwork experiences can induce physical sensations, and help the client transcend into an altered state of consciousness-- without any substances.

Breathwork induces physical, emotional, and spiritual changes. You may experience physical sensations like numbness, tingling, and cold as the body releases stuck emotions. It’s completely normal and even an ideal response to breathwork when you have things you would like to work through. Apart from the physical sensations, you may also experience emotional release as well through crying, yelling, and even within some experiences, screaming. Through each level of integration

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What are the Benefits of Breathwork?

Breathwork supports every facet of being a human. From the physical to the mental and spiritual, many can find real relief in the practice of intentional breathing. 

At the physiological level, breathwork techniques regulate the nervous system, reducing stress and promoting relaxation. Consistent practice improves lung capacity, boosts immunity, and optimizes oxygen flow, enhancing overall physical well-being.

Mentally, breathwork serves as a powerful anchor for mindfulness, sharpening focus and concentration. It helps manage anxiety, alleviates depressive symptoms, and cultivates mental clarity by calming the incessant chatter of the mind. Emotionally, it’s a gateway to emotional release and regulation, allowing individuals to process and let go of deeply ingrained patterns and unresolved emotions.

Breathwork also aids in heightening self-awareness, fostering a deeper connection to oneself and others. It serves as a bridge between the conscious and subconscious, unveiling insights and facilitating personal growth. Facilitators like Ilaria Chiantore explain that "Breathwork is the most powerful and natural way to expereince breakthroughs." Spiritually, it opens doors to altered states of consciousness, facilitating profound spiritual experiences and a deeper connection to the universe.

How does Breathwork Work?

Basic breathwork techniques, like diaphragmatic breathing, act as a bridge between body and mind, activating relaxation responses, and fostering mindfulness by anchoring attention to the breath and the present moment. Consistent practice rewires the brain, making it a powerful tool for stress reduction and heightened awareness. This isn't just breathing deeply. It’s been shown that breathwork has a direct impact on different areas of our body: 

  1. Autonomic Nervous System Regulation: The autonomic nervous system, comprising the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) branches, is influenced by breathwork. Slow, deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, a key player in the parasympathetic system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress response.
  1. Stress Hormone Regulation: Intentional breathing regulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, responsible for stress hormone release. Deep breathing signals the brain to decrease cortisol production, reducing stress and promoting a sense of calm.
  1. Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: Controlled breathing techniques impact heart rate variability (HRV), which reflects the adaptability of the heart to changing circumstances. Slower breathing patterns synchronize HRV, leading to reduced blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.
  1. Brainwave Activity: Breathwork alters brainwave patterns, influencing cognitive function and emotional states. Techniques like rhythmic breathing or alternate nostril breathing shift brainwave activity towards more relaxed states, promoting clarity and focus.
  1. Emotional Regulation: The connection between breath and emotions is profound. Conscious breathing engages brain regions associated with emotional processing, allowing individuals to regulate emotions and modulate stress responses.
  1. Oxygenation and pH Balance: Controlled breathing optimizes oxygen intake, improving oxygenation of tissues and organs. It also influences blood pH levels, affecting overall body function and cellular health.

Regular practice can strengthen neural pathways associated with relaxation and mindfulness. Over time, it becomes easier to access your calm state, even in challenging situations, empowering you to navigate stressors with more ease and presence. By consciously altering your breathing pattern, you’re influencing the autonomic nervous system. 

Deep, intentional breathing signals safety to the brain, shifting from the fight-or-flight response to a relaxed state. This connection between breath and relaxation enhances self-awareness, helping recognize and manage stress triggers. This sustained attention fosters mindfulness, training your brain to stay present and observe without judgment.

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Breathwork Tips for Beginners 

  1. Breathe from the belly 

A sign that your breathwork is working smarter, not harder, is when you can feel you are engaging the diaphragm. You may not be familiar with how to notice the difference yet, but with practice, you’ll start to take note when you feel your lower abdomen filling and emptying. A good way to practice is taking your hard and placing it on your stomach while pushing in, and out. 

  1. Start low, go slow

Our favorite phrase doesn’t just apply to psychedelics. Within the world of holistic healing, conditioning your nervous system is key. A great way to make that more manageable is by breaking your meditations into smaller sessions until you feel more at ease with the practice of breathwork. 

  1. Un-fuck-up-able 

Breathwork isn’t rocket science. Whether you start at home with some downloaded meditations, with a virtual coach, or visit an in-person event; breathwork is (mostly) Un-fuck-up-able. In the simplest of terms, it’s the thing almost every person is best at. 

Breathwork Techniques

Box Breathing (4-4-4 Breathwork)

One technique, called Box Breathing, is super simple yet effective. Picture a square: you inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for another four, exhale for four, and hold again for four. It’s like hitting the reset button for your mind, calming the nerves, and fostering focus.


Then there’s the 4-7-8 technique, popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil. You inhale through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven, and exhale through your mouth for eight. This one’s a natural tranquilizer—that helps with sleep, stress reduction, and anxiety management.


And let’s not forget about Kapalabhati, a core part of yoga. It involves short, powerful exhales followed by passive inhales, almost like a forceful sniff. This technique wakes you up, clears your head, and pumps up your energy.

Breathwork Sessions: Online, in Groups, In-Person Events

Now, imagine experiencing this in person, surrounded by like-minded folks, guided by experienced facilitators who’ll amplify and accommodate your experience. There are a variety of ways to engage in breathwork practices. You can book with a facilitator online for a virtual session. For most, these sessions look like any other, with the facilitators holding space, instructing you on how to breathe, and keeping you accountable within your journey. 

You may also find that you want a group dynamic so that you can grow in the comfort of other like-minded people. For others, group programs like our Retreat Pods may be a better fit. These pods can include community building and incorporating different modalities including breathwork into in-person sessions. 

You can also find events all over for breathwork and alternative healing. From salons and sound baths to med spas and meditation, holistic healing has taken over the women's wellness space which has opened up for more to experience what breathwork and similar healing tools can do. 

Breathwork & Retreat

At Retreat, we love mixing these techniques and more, tailoring our retreats and coaching to suit different needs. Whether you’re seeking relaxation, mental clarity, or an energy boost, there’s a breathwork technique that can do wonders for you. 

That’s what you should experience at an in-person breathwork session, and that’s what we do at Retreat. We give you the ultimate breathwork journey in our retreats—immersing you in an environment designed for relaxation and growth.

Join our retreats to explore these techniques hands-on and make the most out of your breath’s potential. With expert facilitators, helpful healers, and a way to grow together and individually, an in-person retreat can be the ideal way to experience a variety of alternative healing methods in the safety and security of trained practitioners. 

Breathwork & Psychedelics 

Breathwork and psychedelics go hand in hand, more than people might think. Both practices offer complementary paths to altered or elevated states of consciousness and inner exploration. Historically, various cultures incorporated both practices in rituals and healing ceremonies.

In cultures like those of the Amazonian tribes, psychedelic plants like ayahuasca were combined with specific breathing techniques to induce visionary experiences. The rhythmic breathing was believed to enhance the effects of the psychedelic substances, deepening introspection and spiritual connection. In contemporary settings, this combination has gained attention within both therapeutic communities and wellness circles. 

Researchers and practitioners are exploring the potential of integrating breathwork techniques with psychedelic-assisted therapy. Breathwork sessions, often conducted before or after psychedelic experiences, aim to prepare individuals for the journey or help them integrate and process the insights gained during the psychedelic session.

Breathwork primes the mind and body, creating a conducive state for the psychedelic experience. Techniques like Holotropic Breathwork or Pranayama prepare individuals by altering consciousness and increasing receptivity. Post-psychedelic breathwork sessions assist in integrating the often-profound experiences, aiding in emotional processing and consolidation of insights.

Moreover, breathwork serves as a legal and accessible tool to access altered states of consciousness similar to those induced by psychedelics. It allows individuals to explore their inner realms without the legal or physiological implications associated with psychedelic substances.

The synergy between breathwork and psychedelics lies in their ability to dissolve ego boundaries, facilitate emotional release, and catalyze profound insights. Both modalities work on a deeply experiential level, encouraging introspection, healing, and personal transformation.

While research into the combined use of breathwork and psychedelics is ongoing, anecdotal evidence and preliminary studies suggest promising potential for therapeutic applications, particularly in trauma healing, addiction treatment, and mental health.

The evolving exploration of breathwork and psychedelics hints at a promising future, where these modalities, used thoughtfully and responsibly, may offer innovative avenues for healing, self-discovery, and psychological growth.

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About the Author

Lydia Mcclendon

Lydia Mcclendon is a freelance writer and editor within the world of psychedelics, plant medicine, parenthood and the intersection of working in marketing for a taboo industry. She has written for a wide variety of publications, worked within editorial coordination, and loves the creativity and chaos that creative content brings.

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