What is Breathwork?
Breathwork describes a group of exercises that teach you to manipulate your breathing rate and depth with the goal of bringing awareness to your breath and ultimately providing the same benefits you might get from a meditative practice. Most formal practices involve 20 minutes to an hour of sustained, rhythmic breathing techniques. People who practice breathwork describe feeling tingling sensations throughout their body, feelings of clarity, alertness, increased mind-body connection and even emotional purging. People who read the rest of this blog post will find out why…
Types of Breathwork
Some breathwork practices are rooted in yogic traditions such as Pranayama or the breath and movement sequences of Kundalini yoga. Other breathwork practices are entirely secular and were developed help people heal their minds or bodies or even to withstand extreme physical conditions.
Benefits of Breathwork
You’ve probably read about the benefits of deep breathing — (even a few deep breaths can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels and increase parasympathetic tone), but breathwork is a little different. Formal breathwork practices exert some even more impressive positive effects on the body and work in a different and almost opposite way. Here’s the science behind the magic:
Shifts in Blood pH
The physiologic changes we see during sustained, rhythmic breathing are caused by a shift of the blood pH that follows hyperventilation – a state called “respiratory alkalosis.” Thanks to the field of anesthesiology we know a LOT about what the body does during respiratory alkalosis.
You probably remember that we take in oxygen during the in-breath and get rid of CO2 with the out-breath. When we take faster breaths we get rid of more CO2. CO2 is an acidic molecule, so you can think of hyperventilating as getting rid of acid in the blood and shifting to a higher, or more alkaline pH (thus the term respiratory alkalosis).
When the blood becomes more alkaline a few things happen. First, calcium ions floating around in the blood go into hiding, binding onto large proteins in the blood called albumin. The body now experiences a short-term low-calcium state which causes increased firing in sensory and motor neurons. The artificially low blood calcium now manifests in the neurological system as tingling sensations, smooth muscle contractions and increased muscle tone. If you’ve ever not been able to move your mouth after a breathwork class you know what I’m talking about.
The Innate Immune System and Anti-Inflammatory Activity
Neurons in the autonomic nervous system also fire more during hyperventilation, releasing epinephrine (what many people call “adrenaline”). A 2014 study out of Yale School of Medicine found that the epinephrine surge causes the innate immune system to increase its anti-inflammatory activity and dampen its proinflammatory activity. After being given intravenous bacterial toxins, the subjects who were taught a breathwork routine had a less severe inflammatory response than those who didn’t. The paper was the first in the scientific literature to describe the voluntary activation of the innate immune system. (That’s kind of a big deal).
Breathwork Gets You High
The “high” feeling some people experience during breathwork can also be explained by hyperventilation and respiratory alkalosis. Increased blood pH decreases oxygen delivery to tissues (a phenomenon called the Bohr Effect). Within one minute of hyperventilation the vessels in the brain constrict, reducing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain by 40%. The effect is probably responsible for the feelings of wellbeing that breathwork practitioners experience. That’s right – you are actually getting a little high in your Kundalini yoga class.
Considerations and Precautions
Breathwork is generally safe, well-tolerated, enjoyable and definitely worth a try for most people. It might be particularly good for people with autoimmune disease as there’s evidence that it can change the inflammatory response from our innate immune system. There are a few cases in which I’d advise against breathwork; namely for anyone with a known cardiac arrhythmia (including very slow heart rate), a history of heart block, or people taking certain antipsychotic medications.
Read more by Zandra on the Parsley Health Blog
Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2014;111(20):7379-7384. doi:10.1073/pnas.1322174111.