Wellness

Wait, Am I Breathing Wrong?

Western medicine has caught on to the power of conscious breath — and so has the wellness industry.

Andrey Pavlov/Stocksy, Oscar Wong, yulkapopkova/Getty Images
By Claire Downs

My facial muscles twitched uncontrollably. My fingers were clamped into an awkward lobster claw shape. My feet tingled. I had been rapidly inhaling for close to an hour, and I was literally high off my own supply of oxygen, near what doctors call “the seizure threshold.” I was blindfolded, but 30 people witnessed my breakdown on Zoom, for which I had paid $30. I had entered the world of breathwork — an umbrella term for ways of consciously controlling one’s breath, ranging from doctor-prescribed exercises to Hindu-influenced New Age practices — and I was deeply regretting it.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, you’ve probably been encouraged to “breathe more” recently.

If you have an Apple Watch, it has reminded you to breathe twice a day every day since 2019. Maybe you’ve seen breathwork studios crop up in your neighborhood, like Frequency Mind in New York, or been invited to a Zoom breathing class with Black Girls Breathing. Maybe you’ve downloaded apps like Breath Ball and Breathwrk or been shown targeted ads for @thebreathguy on Instagram. Perhaps you’ve read that breathing can help one “overcome codependency” (Goop) and that it’s “the new yoga” (Vogue). You might have read a tabloid featuring Julianne Hough’s Kinrgy dance-breathing or the New York Knicks’ wellness lead, who initiated the first daily breathwork program in the NBA. Maybe you’re reading this on an airplane, headed to a four-night, $2,000 breathing retreat in the Canary Islands.

It’s honestly kind of suffocating. Shouldn’t completing an autonomous function (inhaling and exhaling automatically until we die) be easy? It’s breathing, but it’s work? In this economy?

Most cultures have long emphasized the positive energy caused by breathing (early Hindus called it prana, ancient Egyptians called it ka, ancient Greeks named it pneuma, the Chinese refer to it as qi, and the Japanese call it ki), and there’s plenty of scientific research to back up the United States’ newfound hyperventilation around oxygen and CO2. Centuries of healers, thousands of practitioners, and, as of late, the Western medical community agree: We’d be better off if we took time each day to breathe correctly.

In my quest to sort out what, if any of it, is total bullsh*t, I spoke with two pulmonologists and three breath therapists. I tried three different breathing apps that pinged me throughout the day. I taped my mouth. I held my breath for longer than I ever wanted to. I read two books by self-described “pulmonauts.” And I paid money to basically induce the previously mentioned panic attack on a video call. What I learned is that even skeptics like me will find something useful.

New Problems, Same Fix

Ask a breathwork practitioner why Google searches for breathing started spiking in March, and they’ll point out that, objectively, we need breathwork more than ever. Millions of us are currently infected with or have recently survived a deadly new respiratory virus affecting our breathing quality. We are required to wear surgical masks to cover our air holes. Pandemic aside, we increasingly live in environments where air quality is rapidly declining, causing allergies and asthma. According to Dr. Michael J. Stephen, pulmonologist and author of the 2021 book Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs, 45% of Americans today are exposed to toxic air levels by WHO standards, up from 38% in 2017. “Worldwide, the figures are even higher,” he says. “The No. 1 killer in low-income nations is respiratory tract infections. We have not taken threats to our breath seriously enough.”

Email apnea is a “temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while working in front of screens,” more common in women than in men, resulting from the “continuous partial attention” of multitasking.

Dr. Christy Sadreameli, a pediatric pulmonologist and sickle cell researcher at Johns Hopkins, said she and her colleagues have “seen many more presentations of anxiety-related breathing during the pandemic,” meaning a shortness of breath caused by increased stress levels and mental duress. Then there’s the new, darkly pertinent phenomenon known as email apnea, coined by writer Linda Stone. It’s a “temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while working in front of screens,” more common in women than in men, resulting from the “continuous partial attention” of multitasking. It causes reduced heart-rate variability and low-grade stress and, as I typed all of this up, I realized I was holding my breath, making me part of the statistic. D*mn it.

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The Nose Knows

The most basic, physician-approved tenets of breathwork are this: Shut your mouth, slowly breathe through your nose, filling your diaphragm, and exhale fully. “Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve,” says Stephen, “releasing dopamine, prolactin, and serotonin in the brain.” Translation: the feel-good hormones.

If breathing through your nose doesn’t come naturally, you’re not alone: According to James Nestor, author of the 2020 New York Times bestseller Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, around half of us are “habitual mouth-breathers,” thanks to allergies, asthma, sleep apnea, environmental triggers, dental issues, and habit. And it’s terrible for us. “Nasal breathing, compared with mouth breathing, filters the air (filtering out airborne particles) and humidifies the air,” says Sadreameli. By warming up our oxygen in the nose, we reduce lung irritation and inflammation.

Around half of us are “habitual mouth-breathers,” thanks to allergies, asthma, sleep apnea, environmental triggers, dental issues, and habit. And it’s terrible for us.

Nestor writes of his time as a guinea pig in a grueling scientific study that had him plug his nose for 10 days. By the end of the survey, the author’s stress hormone levels had spiked, he developed a painful bacterial infection, and his blood pressure was through the roof. Afterward, Nestor tried to breathe only through his nose and reversed the effects. Inspired, I tried to sleep with my mouth taped using a small piece of Scotch tape in Nestor’s recommended “Charlie Chaplin mustache” position. I don’t snore or have sleeping problems, but I do have anxiety, and let me tell you, this did not help. I ripped it off after about an hour in a cold sweat.

Find Your Count

You can find evidence-based exercises to get you comfortable with nose-breathing on Breathwrk, a free app with 420,000 installs, and a TikTok account with 1.6 million followers. Lizzo is a recent convert. A little ball lights up to tell you when to breathe, when to hold it, and when to exhale, depending on the exercise. It’s incredibly satisfying. The “4-7-8” technique (breathing in the nose for four, holding for seven, exhaling for eight), pioneered by integrative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, puts the body into a state of deep relaxation. It’s perfect for falling asleep. Box breathing encourages a “balanced and energized physical state” with four seconds of inhaling through the nose, four seconds of holding, four seconds of exhaling through the nose, and four seconds of holding again. Navy SEALs use this technique for focus during stressful situations.

Stephen, who survived a severe bout of COVID last year after working the frontlines, says he starts every morning with “three to five minutes of 5-2-7 breathwork with my eyes closed and often while doing yoga poses.” He also mentioned a technique he does that “feels like a shot of espresso” to increase his energy. “You take a deep breath in and blast it out. I don’t do it for more than 30 seconds or a minute to wake myself up.”

For breathwork that uses similar methods but has more spiritual aims, there’s pranayama breathing in yoga; rebirthing breathwork, which claims to release traumatic childhood memories; Vivation breathwork, which uses circular breathing and promises the “quick and permanent resolution of your suppressed negative emotions”; and breath prayer, a Christian mindfulness technique. There’s also apparently shamanic breathwork, shamangelic breathwork, transformational breathwork, and radiance breathwork — all things for which I couldn’t find clear-cut definitions.

Shamanic breathing with yogi/pick up artist/YouTuber Connor Murphy.

Can Breathwork Fix My [Fill In The Blank]?

“Change your breath, change your life” is a common mantra among breathwork leaders. I heard it repeated during the live online class I took with Jon Paul Crimi, a celebrity trainer and sober coach who has appeared on Good Morning America to tout his breathwork sessions. He also told the class that a typical response from students he gets is “that felt like years of therapy without saying a word!” With any wellness trend comes some wild claims about its benefits. Here, I throw caution to the wind and consider them all — but not before saying that none of these exercises should be attempted without first consulting a doctor.

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Is breathwork a replacement for psychiatric therapy?

No, but it can help lower stress levels and be therapeutic to cope with emotional anxiety. “The scientific evidence that these same breathing exercises improve mental health conditions is also increasing every year,” Stephen writes in Breath Taking. He also references a 2014 study that split 64 women with post-traumatic stress disorder into groups and sent them to either yoga, which is considered a form of breathwork, or supportive education about their condition. Yoga significantly improved symptoms over those who attended the interactive health course.

Will breathwork help you lose weight?

Not necessarily. While Nestor says that “for every 10 pounds of fat lost in our bodies, 8 and a half pounds of it comes out through the lungs,” you need to exercise or enter caloric deficiency to get that CO2 output high enough. Speaking of exercise, though, breathwork could help you reach a new PR. Hypoventilation training, which involves increasing CO2 levels in the body, has been used to train Olympic runners and swimmers. Examples include holding your breath while doing cardio, holding your nose and testing how long you can hold your breath to strengthen stamina, and taping your mouth shut while performing an intense workout to stave off fatigue and increase endurance. I tried the latter, and it was exceptionally challenging. I didn’t feel like I was going to die, but I also didn’t feel like my current regular-woman fitness regimen called for it.

What about preventing panic attacks?

Very promising. A study at Southern Methodist University by researcher Alicia Meuret found that breathing slowly and almost holding your breath could blunt asthma attacks and stop the onset of panic attacks. Nestor tried carbon dioxide inhalation, a long-forgotten panic exposure therapy, and freaked the hell out (“I can’t breathe. Every sense feels like it’s being torn from my control, vacuumed out.”), but Stephen suggests lap swimming as a gentler alternative. “Swimming, in effect, doubles your CO2 response, so then out of the water, if CO2 builds up in your body with stress, you don’t react to it as much,” he says.

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Will breathing exercises make you healthier overall?

According to Stephen in Breath Taking, people who practice breathing exercises can “turn on anti-inflammatory genes and turn off pro-inflammatory ones, including genes that regulate energy metabolism, insulin secretion, and even the part of our DNA that controls longevity.”

Can breathing exercises save you from pooping your pants?

It’s a question Davi Brown, the head of content for the Breathwrk app, gets asked all the time. The answer is yes, and there are exercises proven to help you “hold it” in the event of an emergency.

Can they make you impervious to cold?

Perhaps, but proceed with caution. Tummo, practiced by monks in the Tibetan Kagyu tradition, combines breathing and visualization techniques to increase a person’s “inner heat” while withstanding freezing air. The Wim Hof method, named for the Dutch Guinness Record-breaking athlete also known as “the Iceman,” involves using more controlled hyperventilation to “self-regulate the nervous system.” Videos of his acolytes meditating in the snow, plunging into freezing waters, and acting like they’re in Cabo when they’re in Canada are extremely popular on TikTok.

One can achieve a kind of “high” similar to a drug trip, as well as experience convulsions, muscle spasms, hand cramps, and emotional outbursts, which practitioners liken to a “cosmic orgasm” and use to work through trauma and anxiety.

Can breathwork get you high?

Yes, according to fans of holotropic breathing, arguably the most extreme type of breathwork. Pioneered by Czech psychiatrist Dr. Stanislav Grof in the 1960s (after conducting LSD research), the technique involves breathing rapidly and rhythmically for up to three hours, thus oversaturating your brain with oxygen. In doing so, one can achieve a kind of “high” similar to a drug trip, as well as experience convulsions, muscle spasms, hand cramps (called tetany), and emotional outbursts, which practitioners liken to a “cosmic orgasm” and use to work through trauma and anxiety. A study by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (a nonprofit working to raise awareness and understanding of psychedelic substances) found that 82% of the 482 holotropic breathwork participants had “transpersonal experiences”: out-of-body experiences that seemed to transcend the boundaries of what it means to be an individual.

The one-hour class I took with Crimi uses “conscious connected,” or circular breathwork that involves accelerated intake in hopes of achieving, according to Crimi’s website, “mystical revelations, access to expanded states of consciousness, and release of toxins from the cells in the body.” Two deep breaths in rapid succession and one out, set to pop music like “Rise Up” by Andra Day. It kind of reminded me of Soul Cycle. Crimi assured us that his version’s short, one-hour session would not cause me to faint. In his years of teaching, Crimi says he has not seen any unsafe experiences during class. A relief, because one woman chatted that she was recovering from COVID, and her husband, also joining in, said he had been released from the hospital for the virus only five days prior.

But it was intense. The tetany didn’t let up for almost an hour. I felt dizzy — a post-Tequila shot feeling. My dog pushed open the door and jumped onto the bed — I think he thought I was dying. I started uncontrollably crying over a Mark Twain quote. I felt winded as if I had just gone for a run, but my Apple Watch had calculated a resting heart rate of 64 bpm, the same pace I get from watching Real Housewives on the couch.

Breathfluencers.

I asked my doctor sources whether I was okay. I had found a 1993 report commissioned by the SCO (Scottish Charities Office) that investigated the use of the hyperventilation technique on a commune called The Findhorn Foundation, finding that it could cause seizures or lead to psychosis in vulnerable people. Dr. Stephen said Holotropic breathing sounded dangerous. “You’re raising your PH to a point just below the seizure threshold, and that stimulates your brain in strange ways,”’ he says. “That’s something I would stay away from unless you know what you’re doing and know the edge to go up to without frying your brain.” Dr. Sadreameli was less concerned for me: “It sounds like your Co2 level became very low. This can cause muscle spasms. I don’t know if it’s detrimental, exactly, but it doesn’t sound very pleasant to me.”

We all deserve the right to try anything that makes us feel a little bit better. Before you shell out money, do your research. Ask your doctor before you become a full-fledged pulmonaut. Do not use breathwork as a cure for literally anything physical or mental you may be suffering in your life. On average, you’ll take 7.5 million breaths in 2021, so you might as well relax, shut your mouth and exhale.