Breath is our life force. It connects us to the deepest part of ourselves. The spiritual components of breath are obvious in the etymology of the word in various languages: In Latin, for instance, the word for breath and spirit is the same—spiritus. In Hebrew, there's a common root between the words for soul—neshama—and for breath—neshima. Breath can serve as a vehicle to carry us through everything from a jog, to a yoga class, to a panic attack to labor.
Breath is there for us, whether we're conscious of it or not—but if we learn to get behind the breath and become more aware of it, we can use it as a human superpower. As such, breathwork enables us to see respiration as a tool of transformation, if only we put it into practice.
Indeed, there's scientific wisdom to back up basic encouragements like "just take a breath." Through breath, we can access the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates physiological processes like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, respiration and sexual arousal. The ANS is synchronized by its two branches: the sympathetic, which acts as the "body's accelerator," and the parasympathetic, "which serves as its brake," as Bessel Van der Kolk describes it in his book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” The sympathetic activates in a state of fight-or-flight, while the parasympathetic ("safe mode") activates in a state of rest, digestion, repair and relaxation. Inhaling activates the sympathetic branch, and exhaling activates the parasympathetic. That's why mindfulness instructors will often tell you to breathe out for longer than you breathe in.
Meanwhile, heart rate variability (HRV) measures the balance between these two branches of the ANS:
"As we breathe, we continually speed up and slow down the heart, and because of that the interval between two successive heartbeats is never precisely the same," van der Kolk writes. "HRV can be used to test the flexibility of this system, and good HRV—the more fluctuation, the better—is a sign that the brake and accelerator in your arousal system are both functioning properly and in balance."
A lack of coherence between breathing and heart rate, he explains in the book, makes people vulnerable to physical illnesses like heart disease, cancer, depression and PTSD. Whereas, harmony in the HRV system—aided by practices like yoga—can improve anger, depression, high blood pressure, elevated stress hormones, asthma and back pain.
Of course, as Chris Keener—breathwork guide and head of MUD\WTR :films—so aptly put it, we couldn't stop breathing if we tried. It's happening automatically. But we have the power to use our breath in conscious ways to optimize our well-being. And so, without further ado, here are 10 reasons to start a breathwork practice (and ideally, to stick to one for the rest of your life), care of Keener.
Physical LongevityWant to live a long and healthy life? Take deep breaths often. Okay, maybe that's an oversimplification, but nonetheless breathwork may increase our body's resilience to stress, granting us greater access to the parasympathetic mode of the nervous system—a state of rest, digest, and repair. In this state, the body has greater access to healing, whereas the opposite state of the sympathetic mode is a state of contraction—of fight, flight, or freeze. By practicing breathwork, the body may come into greater stress resilience, enhancing its reactivity to physical and mental challenges, so that it can stay in greater balance. From lack of balance comes disease, from greater balance comes longevity. Through breathwork, we can also increase our lung capacity by up to 30%, which also boosts longevity and general wellness.
Boost CreativityIf you're feeling stuck in a creative process, taking a pause to breathe might get your wheels turning again. When the brain is in fight-or-flight mode, long-term thinking and creative problem solving suffers. But when we can breathe our way into "safe mode," we can think more clearly within a state of calm. From the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, there's greater availability for creative thought and long term planning. Through breathwork, we can quiet activity in the prefrontal cortex—the center of language, time, and the default mode network, which is the seat of the ego—and therefore become more in tune with the subconscious.
As Keener describes, there have been many stories of people (himself included) who come back from a breathwork session with new ideas for things they want to create.
"The easeful part of the brain can finally speak, instead of the anxiety ridden immediacy that we're always transacting in," he says.
Eat, breathe, sleep, right? The holy trinity—but really, breathing is at the foundation of all our basic functioning. As Keener explained, deep breathing before you fall asleep can help the heart rate slow down and put the body into a state of relaxation that enables it to fall asleep more easily and sleep more deeply. One simple trick is to lengthen your exhales so that they are longer than your inhales so that you can calm down and drift off faster.
Stop the Hiccups
It's not just the folklore you first heard floating around the playground, like hanging upside down or eating some peanut butter on the roof of your mouth: Holding your breath really can help cure the hiccups. As Keener explained, hiccups are defined as spasms in your diaphragm. When you inhale deeply and hold your breath in, then slowly release, you can often dispel the hiccups.
Have a Psychedelic Experience
Through the breath alone, you can quite literally “get high on your own supply,” as Keener puts it. Techniques like holotropic breathwork (which involves lying down with your eyes closed and breathing in fast, deep, strong breaths) can induce non-ordinary states of consciousness that feel like vivid, waking dreams. Holotropic breathwork is so powerful that it's been used to help people work through conditions like trauma, stress, addiction, depression and chronic pain, while increasing self-esteem and self-awareness. Indeed, through holotropic techniques or other formats of breathwork, Keener says, people have been able to see dead ancestors, travel to other dimensions and regress to babyhood and experience being reborn.
It's true that proper breathing can help nearly every aspect of our body's functioning. By breathing our way into a parasympathetic state, our bodies are best able to rest, digest and repair. When we are calm and relaxed, the body produces less of the stress hormone known as cortisol, which could otherwise cause gut inflammation. Additionally, breathwork can help increase blood flow through the digestive tract, while also reducing ailments like bloating or gas.
By breathing through discomfort—and confronting it—rather than fighting it or ignoring it, pain may be able to better run its course, Keener explains. Indeed, through breathwork we may be able to feel into the body, and gain greater access to our healing potential. Breathwork may also release endorphins, which can reduce pain sensitivity, while also decreasing the body's cortisol levels.
Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
As Tolstoy once put it, "If you want to be happy, be." And the way to simply be starts with simply breathing. Beyond the autonomic nervous system, breathwork can also impact your brainwaves. Breathwork can help conjure alpha waves, which are associated with relaxation and present-moment-awareness, and have been scientifically proven to help decrease depression. Breathwork can also help bring on theta waves, which can herald deep insights beyond our ordinary consciousness. By entering into these high states, we are less enmeshed in our ordinary awareness—often colored by anxiety, alertness and basic functioning—and more in tune with a channel of consciousness that transcends the malaise of the mundane.
Increase Physical Performance
"Breath is always a component of when we meet our edges," says Keener. It's what helps us run a marathon, or excel in other physical activity. Professional athletes themselves have credited breathwork as the secret weapon behind their performance.
"When you breathe well, I feel like your game is capable of reaching the top," said pro tennis player Stefanos Tsitsipas after one of his biggest wins. "If you can't breathe, and you're trying to play, it makes it twice more difficult to perform at your best."
Knowing how to breathe can be a literal game changer in sports. For instance, for athletes, it's recommended to breathe with your mouth closed, and to breathe into the stomach and diaphragm rather than the chest.
Tune Into the Soul
According to religions of the world, from Hinduism to Judaism, the soul or spirit is considered to be the breath of the divine. The Kabbalists used the metaphor of a glassblower to envision the process of creation, whereby the divine is a glassblower and the breath is the soul that animates our bodies (the glass). As it's written in the first book of the Bible, "God blew into his nostrils a breath of life, and man became a living being." Such is the creation of the human soul. According to Nachman of Breslov, a renowned 18th century Ukrainian rabbi, with each breath we exhale impure and inhale vitality; we are renewed in each moment that we breathe—and can start the process of spiritual redemption with a simple sigh.
Just as "your body wants to thrive and your heart is eager to eat, your breath is eager to breathe," says Keener. "When you tune into that internal yearning for life, your perspective on being alive can change." If breath is our life force, he adds, "the force of life within you is eager to participate in this world. Breath is the symbol of presence, [enabling you] to tap into that zest, that well spring for life."
Madison Margolin is an author and journalist covering psychedelics and spirituality. Co-founder of the Jewish Psychedelic Summit and DoubleBlind Magazine, she is currently a contributing editor to Ayin Press and Lucid News, and hosts a podcast called Set & Setting on the Be Here Now Network. Her writing has also been featured in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vice, and other publications.
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