Yoga Definitions: What is Breathwork?


erhaps while looking through holistic remedies or Eastern-based lifestyle changes, you've come across references to breathwork practices in yoga. Breathing techniques derived from ancient spiritual practices became increasingly popular in everyday health plans in the United States starting in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, yoga studios, hospitals, and multiple martial arts studios offer online and in-person breathwork classes and teacher trainings.

Breathwork is a variety of conscious breathing sequences meant to access and heal a person’s mental, emotional, or physical self. Although breathing techniques vary throughout different disciplines, at their core, every practice that incorporates breathwork focuses on controlled breathing to relieve stress and bring balance within the body.

Because these practices are so varied, breathwork has great appeal to many types of people. Just as there are many forms of yoga, there are many types of breathwork techniques you could learn and adapt to your unique circumstances.  To learn more about breathwork, keep reading.

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What Happens During Breathwork?

What happens during breathwork sequences depends on a yoga practitioner’s experience and intention. Like yogic sequences, breathwork can be broken down into physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels, each harder to recognize and master within one’s self.

Physically, breathwork relieves tension from the muscles, limbs, and organs, especially along the spine. On a deeper level, one can become aware of negative, trapped emotions and thoughts throughout the body and mind as they refine their breathing.

Breathwork practices help a person consciously slow down, control, and pattern their breathing. It also pulls and spreads oxygen into the lungs and throughout the body. Inhaling nourishes the body and the mind while exhaling gathers and lets go of negative emotions, toxins, and stress in the body.

Mindful breathing focuses one’s thoughts on where a person feels the body expand with each inhale and how those parts of the body change after they exhale. To fully accomplish this, effective breathwork hinges on mindfulness or being fully aware of how one’s self reacts during the practice. During classes, it isn’t unusual for practitioners to have intense emotional and physical reactions, especially if they suffer from trauma.

In a breathwork class, teachers guide students in the session to create rhythmic breath patterns designed to become more intense as it progresses. While you adapt these patterns, the teacher will further draw attention to possible tension trapped in the body and surfacing thoughts and emotions. Usually, these classes range from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the level.

What Does Breathwork Do for My Body?

Doctors and yoga teachers use breathwork for patients suffering from trauma, anxiety, or depression because patients who consistently take breathwork classes show remarkable improvement mentally and physically. Although research on these breathing techniques is still ongoing, thus far, researchers have found many surfacing benefits.

Possible physical benefits include:

  1. Reduced Inflammation throughout the body
  2. Balanced Blood PH levels
  3. Improved Sleep Patterns
  4. A Better Immune System
  5. Improved Breathing and Respiratory Function
  6. Improved Cental Nervous System Function

Possible emotional and mental benefits include:

  1. Reduced PTSD and Trauma Ramifications
  2. Reduced Stress Hormones
  3. Relief from Depression and Anxiety
  4. Increased Metal Focus
  5. Relief from Addictive Cravings

Since Western breathwork practitioners throughout the United States usually use breathwork to improve physical and mental health, it’s easy to assume that’s its primary purpose.

For example, many therapists use Breakwork to help patients suffering from anxiety, chronic pain, depression, emotional and physical trauma, PTSD, and anger issues. You can even get a trauma informed yoga certification online to help you understand how breathwork can help. The question is, “Why does breathwork help patients suffering from these particular conditions?”.

What is the Purpose of Breathwork?

The answer lies in ancient Eastern teachings. Breathwork practices intend to move and use energy throughout the body for greater spiritual enlightenment at their core. Martial arts such as Aikido and Shaolin Kung Fu refer to this energy as qi, while traditional yoga practitioners called this energy prana. Focusing and moving this energy connects the breath and mind, dissipating conditioned mental and physical blocks. Removing these blocks help one to remember or rediscover their Atman or divine self.

Prana is the energy that keeps every person alive. One’s quality of life depends on how well this energy can flow throughout the body. For yoga practitioners, one channels their prana, or energy, through energy channels, or nadi’, to energy centers throughout the body called chakras. Pranayama, or traditional yogic science of breathwork, literally translates to breath regulation or lengthening. You can learn more about Chakras in these Chakra courses online.

Ancient yogic priests, sometimes called Brahmans, developed breathwork techniques to draw in more prana, or life energy, into their bodies for better health, collective calm, and clear minds. Ultimately, pranayama created the best state for meditation and enlightenment. Generally, these techniques were not widely known among other caste systems outside the Brahman/Priest class.

Through pranayama, practitioners are encouraged to consciously control their breath to transform their physical selves, and in extension, their spiritual selves. This is possible because the body and spirit are intricately connected.

Pranayama brings physical healing and slowly allows trapped negative emotions to dissipate, allowing energy to flow freely through the body. Once one is free of physical and emotional turmoil, one can find ultimate peace and divine enlightenment.

How Did Breathwork Begin?

Breathwork has a deep history and is based on a thousand or more years of practice and application throughout the Eastern world. Well-known breathwork techniques are rooted in ancient practices like Buddhist Vipassana, forms of Chinese medicine like qigong, martial arts like tai chi, and yogic breathing practices like pranayama.

For yoga practitioners specifically, breathwork can be a positive addition to one’s daily routine for a variety of reasons.

Modern-day breathwork therapy is rooted in Eastern practices dating back thousands of years. In ancient India, breathwork techniques arose in sacred texts called the Upanishads as far back as 700 BCE.

The Maitrayaniya Upanishad references spiritualist Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutras, the first ancient Indian text to emphasize breath control, or pranayama, as part of an enlightened pattern towards self-mastery called the six/eight-limbed self-awareness system.

Other famous works like The Bhagavad Gita (a book from the Hindu scriptures the Mahabharata) and the Atharvaveda (an early Indian Medicine Vedic text) further developed and incorporated breathwork into traditional yogic practices. Over time, modern yoga practitioners added anatomical knowledge with ancient postures and breathing patterns to explain what physical and psychological happens while using breathwork techniques.

Originally, when the British Empire took over India, they suppressed yoga practices, labeling them as cultish, outlandish, and possibly dangerous. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th-century yoga, and other Eastern practices started drawing attention from Western historians and researchers.

For example, an Austrian doctor and psychoanalyst, Wilheim Reich, who studied Indian breathing techniques, pioneered muscle and emotional tension relief through breathwork. Later, researchers like Dr. Stanislov Grof and Dr. Christina Grof developed Holotropic Breathwork, which emphasized fast breathing accompanied by calm music to encourage healing.

Once Western doctors and researchers started to seriously study yoga practices and scriptural texts, pranayama sequences slowly edged their way into fitness centers and hospitals. Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s, breathwork practices became part of Western culture as legitimate therapy treatments. Other Eastern practices like Tai Chi, Buddhism, and Chinese Medicine became popular during this time.

Where Can I Learn More About Breathwork Training?

Over the years, breathwork became less of a spiritual practice and more of a secular tool for fitness and medicine. Without properly understanding their spiritual roots, practitioners used styles like Holotropic and Rebirthing breathwork to find inner peace and self-awareness. Sometimes these would be performed under the influence of drugs or other extreme circumstances.

Thankfully, today there are many studios online, and in-person you can go to that not only teach breathwork techniques but their traditional religious roots and complete application. With the right teachers, breathwork can not only be good for people suffering mentally and physically but for any who desire to become part of deep-rooted aesthetic traditions. Plus, you can always go back to the books. Here are some of the best yoga books for beginners that help with breathwork.

One sure way to learn about breathwork and fully incorporate it into your daily routine is to take breathwork Training courses. Not only are there varied types of breathwork techniques to learn, but there are many instructors online who offer great workshops you can continue to learn even after your training is over.

Loka Yoga School is a great option to study up on, especially if you’re interested in a self-paced training regime. Certified and accredited internationally by the Yoga Alliance, Loka offers multiple packages and course options. For access to their full breathwork program, you’ll pay $599, sometimes less, if you happen to catch special deals through their website.

In total, the full course includes special workshops like Guided breathwork practices,  Anatomy & Physiology of the breath, and Principles of breathwork and the Pranic Body, along with specialized classes for Yin yoga and Meditation.

Another great online training program is Breathe by Jon Paul Crimi. Though it tends to be a bit pricier, ranging from $999-$2100, Jon Paul Crimi has decades of experience training new teachers. He’s personally trained Olympians, celebrities, musicians, CEOs and has even been featured on TV shows like Good Morning America and magazines like the Huffington Post and The Hollywood Reporter. He has four courses to choose from, each building off the other.

The last training program you might consider is The Whole Health Project. Totaling at 25 hours, it is a self-paced breathwork training program designed to be completed from two weeks to three months. Taught by coaches Lucy and Rachel, it focuses not only on sit-down Breathwork exercises but also on how to incorporate movement through Yin Yoga. The full price is about $600. However, there is an option to pay it in three monthly payments.

If you are interested in taking breathwork to the next level, and wondering how to get certified in breathwork, check out that article!


Breathwork techniques have multiple health benefits sought for by fitness enthusiasts and doctors throughout the world. With its deep spiritual and cultural history rooted in multiple Eastern practices, it’s no wonder it has an exotic appeal to many people. For anyone striving for self-awareness, holistic ways to relieve stress and anxiety, or even for a permanent life change, studying and applying breathwork techniques is a healthy and mentally beneficial option. 

Caleb Sharbono is a writer, bio-hacker, wellness advocate, and yogi. Caleb, who grew up on a small Montana ranch, joined the Navy at 17 to study cryptology. He later graduated from the US Naval Academy with a Minor in Mandarin, a Bachelor's in General Engineering, and a Major in English Literature. Caleb's interests and career cover diverse industries and disciplines. Caleb lives in San Antonio and is a Certified Yoga Instructor. He is also studying Zen Buddhism, practicing Holistic Psychology, and working towards his 300-hour yoga teacher training.


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