What if I told you that a specific kind of healing breathwork could boost your immunity, help you process pain and trauma, reduce your anxiety and stress levels, help you overcome your addictions, improve lung functioning, and generally improve your joy, happiness, confidence, and self-esteem?
Today, we’ll be asking and answering the questions: what is breathwork in nature? Who and what is it for? And what does the science say about it? Read on to learn more.
What is breathwork?
Breathwork is one of those “New Age” concepts that’s quickly gaining traction in the mainstream; nowadays, pretty much every yoga studio offers a breathwork class, and soon it’ll be about as commonplace as avocado toast!
Breathwork as we know it originated in the ‘70s with a mish-mash of Eastern modalities, like yoga and Tai Chi, with Western psychotherapy techniques. Basically, it’s a structured breathing exercise wherein you intentionally and consciously change your breathing pattern.
Breathwork is actually an active and embodied form of meditation—and it especially tends to resonate with those who tend to drift during a basic mindfulness meditation. Because it requires engaging your breath and body, instead of just focusing on your thoughts, it allows you to “get out of your own head” and sink into the embodied practice. For some, this leads to bigger and more powerful healing breakthroughs than mindfulness meditation could do alone.
How many kinds of breathwork are there?
So what does that look like in practice? There are a number of different kinds of breathwork, such as shamanic breathwork, vivation, transformational breathwork, holotropic breathwork, clarity breathwork, pranayama breathwork, and rebirthing. Each type of breathwork uses its own techniques and structures, but what they all have in common is that 1) they ask those practicing to focus on conscious awareness of their inhales and exhales, and 2) they utilize some kind of deep, focused breathing lasting a certain amount of time.
One of the most popular types of breathwork, the kind you might see being offered at yoga or meditation studios, is pranayama breathwork. It involves a two-part breath: one breath into the low belly, a second breath into the chest, and then an exhale. Prompted and guided by a breathwork practitioner, a person practicing pranayama breathwork would cycle through periods of this intense breathing technique followed by a resting period—ending ultimately with the savasana (aka corpse pose) you might know well from your yoga class!
Another well-known type of breathwork is holotropic breathwork, a type of breathwork created in the 1970s by psychiatrists Stanislav and Christina Grof to help their patients achieve “altered states of consciousness” as a potential therapeutic tool (without using drugs, that is!). “Holotropic breathers” breath rapidly but evenly in the presence of a watchful “sitter” to “induce an altered state from which it is believed that a deeper understanding of oneself can be derived.” Holotropic breathwork has been used as a tool for deeper self-understanding, allowing folks to identify and heal parts of themselves that they might have been neglecting.
Does breathwork actually work?
Since the seventies, some folks have looked at breathwork as “woo woo” or even dismissed it simply as glorified hyperventilation—and by the way, the possibility of hyperventilation is to be taken seriously, as I detail later. But there’s been a surprising amount of scientific research in the last few decades that helps back up breathwork practitioner’s ultimate claim that breathwork is an excellent tool for fostering self-reflection, personal growth, and healing from certain kinds of mental illness.
One 2007 review article looked specifically at how holotropic breathwork’s tendency to cause hyperventilation—or, as they called it, “a prolonged, voluntary hyperventilation procedure”—might actually be useful in treating anxiety and depressive disorders. The authors suggested that, when used in conjunction with psychotherapy, holotropic breathwork’s breathing technique might help kickstart the nervous system and “facilitate generalized extinction of avoidance behaviors, resulting in therapeutic progress.”
Translation? The intense experience of holotropic breathwork helped break down “avoidance behaviors” and push patients through blocks faster than just psychotherapy alone. By activating holotropic practitioners’ nervous systems and kicking them out of their heads and into their bodies, so to speak, holotropic breathwork can release tightly-held blocks to healing that folks didn’t even know they were hanging onto. Talk about the power of the mind body connection!
What else is breathwork good for?
Breathwork has been known to boost immunity, help people process emotional pain and trauma, reduce anxiety and stress levels, help people overcome addictions, and generally improve joy, happiness, confidence, and self-esteem. Many people use breathwork to help overcome anger issues, chronic pain, and grief, and research has found it may be effective in treating anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder. Basically: if it’s going on in your head, or in your heart, breathwork (when coupled with therapy) might be exactly what you need to push through your resistance and start to heal yourself.
As is often the case when it comes to forms of nature therapy, more research is still needed—after all, while the practices are often age-old, the medical establishment’s interest in them is still relatively new. But the preliminary research is quite promising.
A 2016 study found evidence for therapeutic utility of breathwork, as the increased alpha and theta activity in the mind correlates to higher serotonin activation and has been found to be related to a 65% increase in dopamine release. A 1996 study (these guys were ahead of their game!) found that holotropic breathwork could be an “effective and useful alternative” therapy for those dealing with chronic alcoholism. And a 2015 study looked at the effects of holotropic breathwork on self-awareness and found that it could “induce very beneficial temperament changes, which can have positive effects on development of character, measured as an increase in self-awareness.”
An especially fascinating 2009 study took a look at the kind of yogic breathing, aka pranayama, that has been a part of health and spiritual practices in Indo-Tibetan traditions for ages. This review suggests that yogic breathing induces “stress resilience”—ideal for those with depression, anxiety, or PTSD, or for victims of mass disasters—which enables us to “rapidly and compassionately relieve many forms of suffering.” Stress resilience is crucial to maintaining a healthy body and mind, especially as our world becomes more stressful, so it’s heartening to see that several summarized studies show breathwork can help induce this quality in those practicing it.
And a phenomenal clinical report on Holotropic Breathwork in 11,000 psychiatric inpatients in a community hospital setting found that “transpersonal [spiritual/mythopoetic] experiences were reported by 82% of participants”—and, most significantly, “among the 11,000 inpatients, the experience was well tolerated. There were no reports of problems at the end of the sessions.” This suggests that breathwork, at least in this case, did a fair bit of good while doing no harm—quite important when it comes to nature therapy. If you’re not sure what a “transpersonal experience” is, give the report a read—it’s an eye-opener!
Plus it’s not all in your head—breathwork can have an impact on your body too, especially your respiratory system. A systematic review of 16 studies involving 1233 participants in a Cochrane Collaboration analysis summarizedt the impact of pranayama timed breathing techniques on those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Folks participated in 16 randomized control trials over 4 to 15 weeks, and the Collaboration found that participants with COPD who engaged in breathing exercises had actually improved their ability to engage in and tolerate exercise and concluded that “breathing exercises may be useful to improve exercise tolerance in selected individuals with COPD who are unable to undertake exercise training.” These data are now being used in support of a RCT online for healthcare workers. Similarly, a 2020 Cochrane analysis of 22 studies with 2880 asthma patients treated with yogic breathing and breathing retraining showed positive effects on quality of life, lung function and hyperventilation symptoms.
Turns out, our breath can be pretty powerful!
Why should we do it in nature?
Of course, this article isn’t just about the benefits of breathwork: it’s about breathwork in nature! And if you can ditch the stuffy yoga studio and take your breathwork practice to the natural world, research says you should definitely do it.
Breathwork in nature can be an exhilarating, relaxing, and even life-changing experience. In fact, many breathwork practitioners—that is, the people who train in and facilitate breathwork sessions—actually prefer to lead breathwork sessions in natural environments, like on a beach near roaring ocean waves, in a fragrant garden, surrounded by tall trees in a forest, or even on a rooftop in view of the full moon. And pandemic rules against congregating in indoor spaces have helped classes and workshops like this pop up all over the globe. From Los Angeles to London, folks all over are rolling up their mats and taking them outdoors to breathe!
Taking your breathwork to the great outdoors amplifies all the positive results of regular indoor breathwork, as being outside has been proven to improve blood pressure, cortisol, anxiety, mood, and focus. One Japanese study found that just viewing plants altered EEG recordings and reduced stress, fear, anger, sadness, blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension. Another found that within five minutes of viewing a natural setting, changes in your blood pressure, pulse rate, muscle tension, and electrical activity within your brain occur. And a third found that the level of pollutants indoors, including particulate matter 10, often present in air pollution and smoke, was about six times greater indoors than the exerciser would have received outdoors.
But one of the most fascinating data points about moving your breathwork practice outside is that doing it in nature can actually alter your perception of how much effort you’re putting in, tricking your brain into thinking you’re working less hard than you really are! There are a number of complex factors that contribute to perception of effort, but one 2012 study that attempted to account for this difference found that the “greenness” of outdoor spaces was a precipitating factor. The study asked participants to cycle for five minutes in three different conditions: an unedited video (which predominantly showed green foliage), the same video with a red filter, and the same video with no color. Despite the fact that the videos were identical apart from the color, participants perceived their rate of perceived exertion as far less in the first condition with the greener image—and their total positive mood increased, despite no differences in heart rate, oxygen consumption, or any other physical markers.
It turns out when you exercise in nature, you perceive your workouts to be less difficult than when you’re sweating it in the gym—and the same logic applies to breathwork which, while not exactly a workout, still takes a good amount of effort and stamina. This also makes you perceive the work itself as more enjoyable, which means you’re more likely to keep it up rather than seeing it as a slog or a chore. Sounds like a win-win to me!
Are there any risks?
Be sure to inhale lightly, though, especially if you have certain pre-existing conditions. Breathwork does have some risks associated with it; as mentioned above, the deep breathing method can cause some people to hyperventilate and experience hypoxia, and it may not be the right fit if you have cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, a history of aneurysms, or severe psychiatric symptoms.
On a mental health level, breathwork can also lead to powerful realizations or paradigm shifts—and that can be exciting but also scary, depending on what you’re personally dealing with at the moment. Be sure to always practice with a trained and trusted practitioner who can help guide you through any physical or emotional changes you might feel as a result of breathwork—and, of course, make sure to double-check with your doctor before trying breathwork, especially if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have had recent surgery.
Nature therapy is such a diverse field full of all sorts of techniques that might be right for you and your symptoms. If you’re struggling with emotional stress or pain and haven’t been making the progress you’d like in regular therapy, or if you have COPD or asthma or heart failure, adding breathwork in nature to your natural first aid kit might be just the ticket to a happier, healthier you. It all starts with a single breath!
Remember: EcoMedicine is a far more diverse and practical field of medicine than people might realize—it’s much more than just “going outside!”—and so the purpose of these blogs is to show you the exciting range, diversity, and nuance of the many therapeutic interventions that fall under its umbrella.
You can check out the other blogs I’ve written on the site, on topics like gardening for dementia, therapeutic horticulture, pet therapy, adventure therapy, blue care, ecotherapy, care farms, forest bathing, hydrotherapy, earthing and grounding, light therapy, and greening the indoors.
For weekly EcoMedicine advice and my exclusive, free ebook on how to be less stressed and happier using nature, subscribe to my email list: https://www.drjohnlapuma.com/join-our-community/