What is Breathwork and How Does it Work?

by | Blog

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, where stress and anxiety often reign, finding a simple yet powerful tool to enhance well-being is a pursuit many embark upon. Breathwork, a practice as ancient as time itself, has resurged in popularity, offering a pathway to mental, emotional and physical health. In this blog, we delve into what breathwork is, why it’s good for you and how Sophrology provides a unique approach to harnessing its benefits. If you’d like to learn about why breathing is important for our well-being, visit our previous blog.

What is Breathwork and How Does it Work? 

Breathwork comprises various practices which encompass regulating the way that one breathes, particularly in order to promote mental, emotional and physical health.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

The mechanics of breathwork delve into the intricate relationship between the respiratory system, the nervous system and the mind. Here’s a breakdown of how breathwork works to positively impact our well-being:

1. Autonomic Nervous System Regulation:

Breathwork has a profound effect on the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions. By practising specific breathing techniques, individuals can shift the balance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) branches, promoting relaxation and reducing stress.

2. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Enhancement:

Many breathwork practices contribute to increased heart rate variability, a marker of heart health and the body’s ability to adapt to stress. Higher HRV is associated with improved resilience to emotional and physical challenges.

3. Brain Function and Wave Synchronisation:

Intentional breathing, particularly slow and rhythmic patterns, influences brain function. It can lead to the synchronisation of brain waves, fostering improved communication between different regions of the brain. This synchronisation is linked to heightened focus, relaxation and emotional stability.

4. Emotional and Mental Impact:

Breathwork isn’t confined to physiological changes—it extends to the realm of emotions and mental well-being. Practitioners often report a reduction in anxiety, stress and depressive symptoms, coupled with an increase in feelings of comfort, alertness and overall pleasantness.

5. Role of Nasal Mechanoreceptors:

Some breathwork practices involve the manipulation of nasal breathing. This technique not only impacts respiratory mechanics but also engages nasal mechanoreceptors—sensory receptors that respond to pressure or movement. This engagement plays a role in affecting brain activity and contributing to the overall benefits of breathwork.

Why is Breathwork Good for You?

The profound benefits of breathwork extend across various aspects of our well-being. Here’s a glimpse into why incorporating intentional breathing into your routine can be transformative:

1. Stress Reduction:

Breathwork serves as a powerful tool for stress reduction by engaging the body’s natural relaxation response. When we deliberately control our breath, especially through slow, rhythmic patterns, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system—the rest-and-digest branch of the autonomic nervous system. This activation leads to a decrease in heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and an overall sense of calm. Additionally, intentional breathing influences the release of neurotransmitters such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which promotes relaxation and diminishes anxiety. The rhythmic and focused nature of breathwork acts as a meditative anchor, diverting attention away from stressors and fostering a mindful state. The practice also positively influences brain wave patterns, with an increase in alpha waves associated with relaxation and mental clarity. Through these physiological and neurological mechanisms, breathwork provides us with a practical and accessible means to alleviate stress, promoting a harmonious balance between the mind and body.

2. Emotional Regulation:

Conscious breathing has a direct impact on the limbic system, the brain’s emotional centre, fostering emotional balance and control. It influences the intricate interplay between the breath, nervous system and brain. Through intentional and mindful control of the breath, particularly practices that emphasise slow, deep inhalations and exhalations, breathwork engages the parasympathetic nervous system, triggering a relaxation response. This shift in the autonomic nervous system promotes a sense of calm and balance, reducing the dominance of the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” response associated with stress. Additionally, breathwork impacts the amygdala, a key region involved in emotional processing. Techniques that emphasise conscious breathing may modulate amygdala activity, contributing to a more measured and less reactive emotional response. By fostering a mind-body connection, breathwork provides individuals with a tangible tool to navigate and regulate their emotional landscape, creating a space for increased self-awareness, resilience and emotional well-being.

3. Improved Mental Focus:

Certain breathwork techniques, like those found in Sophrology, enhance cognitive function by increasing alpha brainwave activity, associated with relaxation and improved concentration. Additionally, conscious breathing fosters mindfulness, encouraging individuals to anchor their attention to the present moment. The deliberate focus on the breath serves as an anchor for the mind, helping to minimise distractions, alleviate mental chatter and cultivate a heightened sense of awareness. As a result, regular practice of breathwork becomes a valuable ally in optimising mental focus and cognitive clarity.

4. Enhanced Physical Well-being:

Breath control positively influences physiological functions, such as heart rate variability and respiratory sinus arrhythmia, contributing to overall cardiovascular health. This can lead to improvements in heart rate variability and blood pressure regulation. Additionally, breathwork enhances respiratory function, optimising oxygen exchange and supporting lung capacity. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, breathwork induces a relaxation response, reducing the production of stress hormones and alleviating tension in the muscles. This, in turn, contributes to pain reduction and improved muscular flexibility. Moreover, certain breathwork techniques stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals, providing a natural boost to mood and supporting mental well-being. The combination of these physiological effects underscores the holistic influence of breathwork on physical health, offering a simple yet powerful tool for individuals to enhance their overall well-being.

5. Mind-Body Connection:

Breathwork serves as a bridge between the mind and body, promoting awareness and mindfulness, which are essential components of holistic well-being. As you engage in controlled breathing patterns, you navigate the intricate interplay between physiological responses and mental states. The rhythmic inhales and exhales act as a focal point, grounding you in the here and now. This heightened awareness facilitates a deeper understanding of the body’s signals, fostering a profound mind-body connection. Through breathwork, you can cultivate the skill of listening to the body’s rhythms, acknowledging tensions, and releasing them with each intentional breath. The result is an enhanced sense of self-awareness, where the mind and body communicate in unison, creating a symbiotic relationship that promotes relaxation, emotional balance and overall holistic well-being.

Sophrology Breathwork Exercises

Sophrology, a practice that combines intentional breathing with relaxation, visualisation, and gentle movements, offers valuable breathwork exercises to enhance overall well-being. Here are some Sophrology breathing exercises you can incorporate into your daily life:

1. Breathing to Deal with Anxiety

For managing anxiety, this Sophrology practice recommends taking deep, calming breaths that can help avoid over-breathing when feeling anxious. Focusing on conscious breathing can break the cycle of anxiety, especially in challenging situations, such as crowded spaces. A physiological sigh is an effective tool for rapid relaxation as it rapidly shifts your autonomic nervous system from a state of elevated arousal and agitation towards a state of calm. I tend to get anxious in crowded spaces, so this is a practice I recommend you use if you experience the same, even when you’re in public. We’ve seen it work countless times with our clients and it’s how we can help normalise taking care of our mental health in public spaces.

3. Breathing to Relax

This Sophrology breathwork exercise blends the power of intentional breathing with relaxation, visualisation and gentle movements. It’s about cultivating body awareness and finding a tranquil state and comfortable position, providing a powerful tool to calm the nervous system.

4. Breathing to Clear the Mind

When tension accumulates in our minds, it also does so in our bodies. The Sophrology clearing breath exercise encourages individuals to listen to their bodies, dividing them into six regions for precise awareness. By incorporating touch, breath and awareness of sensations, this exercise helps clear tension and promotes mental clarity. We finish by taking a pause to observe how we feel, inhaling a positive intention. It can be practised at your desk, on the go or at home, whenever you need it most. Whether you are in the office and looking for clarity or feel overwhelmed by racing thoughts, try this breathwork.

5. Breathing to Feel Empowered

I’m convinced that success starts within. It’s a combination of mindset, clearing tension and taking appropriate actions. This exercise is a nice place to start. The secret is to do short practices often so that your brain rewires towards incredible success. This exercise within Sophrology is positioned as a starting point for success, emphasising the importance of short, regular practices to rewire the brain towards achieving incredible results.

The Science Behind Breathwork

The study, ‘How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing’ suggests that practising slow breathing induces positive changes in various bodily systems. Notably, it increases heart rate variability and respiratory sinus arrhythmia, both linked to the autonomic nervous system. Moreover, slow breathing contributed to enhanced brain function, marked by increased alpha power associated with relaxation, improved concentration and increased mind-body awareness. A reduction in theta power indicated decreased anxiety, stress and better emotional control. 

Individuals practising slow breathing techniques reported heightened comfort, relaxation, alertness and a pleasant state, as well as reduced levels of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger and confusion. This research suggests that practising slow breathing contributes to increased flexibility in the body, brain and emotions. This improvement may stem from the regulation of internal bodily states and the involvement of nasal mechanoreceptors—sensory receptors responding to mechanical stimuli like pressure or movement, influencing brain activity.

Altering breathing patterns also has a rapid impact on the transmission of signals from the respiratory system to the brain, influencing brain areas responsible for behaviour, thought processes and emotions. Synchronising respiration with brain electrical activity, particularly through slow breathing, facilitates more effective communication among various regions of the brain.

What Happens to the Brain During Breathwork?

Breathwork has a profound impact on the brain, influencing various physiological and neurological processes. The changes observed in the brain during breathwork contribute to the practice’s potential benefits for mental well-being. Here are some key aspects of what happens to the brain during breathwork:

1. Autonomic Nervous System Regulation:

As we’ve mentioned previously, many breathwork techniques, especially slow and controlled breathing, activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This induces a relaxation response, reducing the activity of the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system. As a result, the heart rate decreases, blood pressure lowers and the body enters a state of rest and restoration.

2. Brain Wave Synchronisation:

Certain breathwork practices, particularly those emphasising slow, rhythmic breathing, have been associated with an increase in alpha brain waves. Alpha waves are linked to a state of relaxed alertness and enhanced mental clarity. Additionally, some studies suggest a decrease in theta brain waves, associated with reduced anxiety and improved emotional control.

Additionally, respiration can synchronise with brain electrical activity, and when breathing is slow, it can lead to the synchrony of brain waves. Studies have observed prolonged and skilled meditation practices by Buddhists and found that they can achieve states where brain waves are synchronised continuously. In a synchronised state, these brain waves are harmoniously aligned, meaning that the electrical activity across different regions of the brain is coordinated and working in tandem. This synchronisation is particularly associated with certain mental states, such as deep relaxation, meditation, or focused attention.

3. Neurotransmitter Release:

Intentional breathing can influence the release of neurotransmitters in the brain. Deep diaphragmatic breathing, for example, has been linked to increased production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety in the brain. The activation of the parasympathetic system is associated with an increase in GABA levels, which acts as a calming agent, inhibiting excessive neuronal activity and promoting a sense of tranquillity. The rhythmic and deliberate nature of breathwork not only influences the release of GABA but also contributes to overall stress reduction, making it a valuable tool for those seeking to enhance relaxation, manage anxiety, and promote a balanced mental state.

4. Brain Structure Changes:

The brain’s incredible neuroplasticity allows it to adapt and reorganise in response to experiences and activities, including breathwork. Studies suggest that engaging in regular breathwork, such as in Sophrology, may contribute to alterations in the structure and function of the hippocampus, a critical brain region involved in memory and emotional regulation. The rhythmic and deliberate nature of breathwork, coupled with the relaxation response it induces, may play a role in promoting neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons) and synaptic plasticity. These changes in brain structure, often observed in long-term practitioners, are thought to contribute to improved cognitive function, emotional well-being, and overall mental resilience. While further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms, the link between breathwork and positive brain structure changes highlights the potential of intentional breathing practices for enhancing neurological health.

5. Brain-Blood Flow Dynamics:

Breathwork can affect cerebral blood flow dynamics. Certain techniques may enhance blood flow to specific brain regions, influencing cognitive function and mental clarity. As you engage in deliberate breathwork, the respiratory and cardiovascular systems collaborate to optimise oxygen exchange, regulate carbon dioxide levels and improve blood circulation. This, in turn, supports the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, nourishing neurons and enhancing overall brain function. The rhythmic nature of breathwork, especially when synchronised with mindful awareness, promotes a state of relaxation and parasympathetic dominance, further influencing vascular tone and blood flow regulation. This intricate interplay between intentional breathing and brain-blood flow dynamics not only fosters a physiological environment conducive to cognitive clarity but also contributes to a sense of calm and focus, illustrating the multifaceted benefits of breathwork on the intricate workings of the brain.

6. Activation of the Vagus Nerve:

Deep and diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagus nerve stimulation has been associated with improvements in mood and stress reduction. The vagus nerve extends from the brainstem to various organs, including the heart, lungs and digestive system. Deep diaphragmatic breathing, a common element in breathwork practices, stimulates the vagus nerve, initiating a cascade of physiological responses. As the diaphragm contracts and relaxes with each intentional breath, it sends signals to the vagus nerve, prompting the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with calming effects. Vagus nerve activation induces a state of parasympathetic dominance, leading to a slowed heart rate, lowered blood pressure and enhanced overall relaxation. 

7. Endorphin Release:

Breathwork, especially when combined with movement or specific techniques, can stimulate the release of endorphins—neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood enhancers. As the breath becomes more controlled and rhythmic, oxygenation increases, and carbon dioxide levels are regulated. This controlled breathing, especially in practices like aerobic or yogic breathwork, triggers a cascade of physiological responses that include the activation of the vagus nerve. Through vagus nerve stimulation, breathwork promotes the release of endorphins—natural chemicals in the brain that act as powerful pain relievers and mood enhancers. The heightened oxygen levels, coupled with the orchestrated activation of the body’s calming systems, create an optimal environment for the release of endorphins, contributing to a sense of euphoria, stress relief and overall well-being.

Who Shouldn’t Do Breathwork?

While breathwork offers numerous benefits for many individuals, there are certain situations and health conditions where caution or avoidance may be warranted. It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional before engaging in breathwork practices, especially if you fall into any of the following categories:

  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • Respiratory conditions
  • Pregnant
  • Seizure disorder
  • Psychological condition
  • Recent surgeries
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Medication considerations

Always prioritise your safety and well-being. If you have any concerns about whether breathwork is suitable for you, consult with a qualified healthcare professional who can provide personalized advice based on your individual health circumstances.

Incorporating breathwork into daily life, whether through Sophrology exercises or other mindful practices, offers a potent tool for enhancing neural circuits, neurochemicals, and hormone systems in the brain and body. The ability to consciously control your breath emerges as a simple yet transformative approach to nurturing holistic well-being, paving the way for a calmer mind, balanced emotions and empowered living.

If you’d like to explore breathwork and Sophrology, try our online Sophrology courses.

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