Breathwork seems like one of those self-help techniques that you could easily learn on social media. After all, there are countless tutorials on YouTube and TikTok, along with numerous testimonials on Reddit. And anyway, could it really be that difficult to consciously change your breathing pattern to promote stress relief and relaxation, which breathwork practices promise to do?
As it turns out, experts say learning breathwork as a beginner is harder than most understand. That’s partly because many people are accustomed to drawing short breaths from their chest, rather than inhaling deeply from their abdomen. Altering this pattern can be challenging, as it requires an awareness that many people don’t possess, through no fault of their own. The body’s reflexes are powerful; it’s easy to take breathing for granted.
But there are also dangers to practicing breathwork without proper guidance and support. For those who’ve experienced severe anxiety or trauma, focusing on the breath can trigger intense discomfort and distress. Some people find that the stillness of breathwork can surface painful memories, or rapidly put them in touch with emotions or physical sensations they’ve suppressed.
Social media breathwork tutorials frequently leave out these details. On TikTok, the search term “breathwork” has more than 170 million views, with some videos notching millions of views. A successful breathwork video can win a creator clout and followers. Viewers eager to discover a seemingly quick self-help technique while scrolling through social media might be inclined to overlook any drawbacks.
Somatic healing practitioner Thérèse Cator doesn’t share breathwork content on social media. In her experience, when people attempt the practice on their own using online instruction that doesn’t provide appropriate context and framing, it can become an unexpectedly high-pressure or negative experience.
“[A] lot of times that hustle or grind culture mentality comes in even when we’re doing practices that are going to help us,” says Cator, who is also a leadership coach and founder of Embodied Black Girl. “We’re like, ‘I have to finish this breathwork, or if I don’t…I’m a failure, or I’m not good enough, or all of those things.”
Instead of looking to online breathwork tutorials, Cator and other experts say curious beginners should seek out a trained, trauma-informed practitioner in their local community. Specifically, she recommends looking for practitioners whose trauma-informed approach is connected to an understanding of social justice issues. This is particularly important given that the wellness world has not been immune to the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories. While this can negatively affect anyone regardless of their identity, Cator says that women, people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people with disabilities may be disproportionately affected by political and social trauma, and may need more complex or even outside support.
Cator says that virtual group sessions often begin at $25, and private sessions can range from $90 to upwards of $300. In-person training may be more expensive than virtual classes. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many practitioners have moved their trainings online. Instructors working in-person may choose outdoor and well-ventilated spaces. Beginners can search online for practitioners, ask for recommendations from friends who’ve done breathwork, or see if their local yoga studio offers breathwork instruction. If you have any health concerns, contact a trusted health care professional before starting breathwork.
If you’re curious about pursuing breathwork, here’s what you should know about how it works, the benefits, and when to stop:
What is breathwork?
Cator defines breathwork as “the conscious shifting of your breath pattern.”
This means that yoga and meditation practices that involve shifting your natural rhythm of inhaling and exhaling count as breathwork. Pranayama, an ancient yogic breathwork technique, takes different forms depending on the intended outcome. This can include alternate nostril breathing and bhastrika, also known as bellows breath.
Mindfulness methods like Tai-Chi, Qi-Gong, and mindfulness-based stress reduction promote slow and deep rhythmic breathing. The Wim Hof Method, which features breath-holding and forceful inhalation and exhalation, has become popular in recent years. Breathwork can also be based on various numbered patterns, like inhaling for four counts, pausing for seven, and exhaling for eight, a popular, Pranayama-style method developed by Dr. Andrew Weil and known as 4-7-8. Longer, meditative styles of breathwork that can last as long as an hour are typically designed to elicit profound or spiritual revelations and insights. This is true of the holotropic breathwork practice, which is done in a specific setting with music to produce a “non-ordinary state of consciousness.”
Cator says that breathwork has been practiced around the world by many different cultures. The way a certain technique is packaged may be about maximizing consumer appeal. Cator uses different patterns, including three-part breathwork, which means the breath is drawn from the abdomen, passes into the heart, and is exhaled through the mouth.
Dr. Selda Yildiz, Ph.D., a researcher studying the effect of breathwork on the brain’s health and sleep, says that beginners can prioritize finding an experienced teacher and become familiar with a number of practices to choose the ones that work best for them.
“What works for me is maybe not going to work for somebody else,” says Yildiz, an assistant professor in the department of neurology at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, and a certified yoga and meditation teacher.
The benefits of breathwork
Breathwork is thought to influence the vagus nerve, which stretches from the brain to the gut and makes up the majority of what’s known as the parasympathetic nervous system. This web of nerves promotes a relaxed state, shifting the body away from a “fight or flight” stress response and into a state of “rest and digest.”
Yildiz says the vagus nerve is moderated by respiration — or inhaling and exhaling. Slow and deep breathing can improve the strength or “tone” of the vagus nerve. The higher the tone, the faster the body recovers from a stressful event, says Yildiz.
She is currently researching how different yogic breathing patterns, practiced over a period of eight weeks, impact cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) movement and circulation. This clear, colorless fluid effectively bathes the brain and spine and helps play a critical role in removing waste products from the brain. So far, data from Yildiz’s study showed an immediate increase in CSF movement during initial slow and deep breathing practices compared to natural breathing.
The research team’s next step is to investigate whether the yogic breathwork interventions improve sleep quality. In the future, Yildiz hopes to determine whether sustained yogic breathing could be a potential tool or therapy for neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s.
“It was the first time I felt really connected to my body and heart in a way that was compassionate, not judgmental.”
– Tori Gordon, personal coach and breathwork practitioner
For Tori Gordon, a personal coach with a TikTok following of more than 800,000 people, breathwork was transformative. After a period of immense personal loss, Gordon attended a meditative breathwork session at a retreat designed to get participants out of their head and into their body. There, Gordon discovered the power of her own breath.
“It was the first time I felt really connected to my body and heart in a way that was compassionate, not judgmental,” she says.
Gordon returned home and soon completed a months-long breathwork certification course. While she has posted brief TikToks demonstrating how she relaxes with breathwork, Gordon doesn’t include detailed instructional information. Like Cator, she believes that people should attempt breathwork with a trauma-informed practitioner who can guide them through the process and help them integrate their experiences afterward.
However someone chooses to practice breathwork, Gordon says they shouldn’t be focused on performance. Instead, their experience should revolve around being with the sensation of the breath, cultivating an awareness of it, observing how that feels, and noticing where that takes you.
“It’s really about learning how to experience yourself and be with what is in a state of acceptance and openness and curiosity, instead of [saying], ‘I have to be efficient. I have to get this done. I have to check this off and get it under my belt so that I can feel accomplished or good about what I did today,'” says Gordon.
When to stop breathwork
When Thérèse Cator instructs someone in breathwork, she aims to keep them in what’s known as a “window of tolerance.” Since breathwork can be challenging for various reasons, that means making sure a person’s level of discomfort is manageable for them. For example, counted pauses between inhaling and exhaling can feel stressful but ultimately tolerable for some. Others may need to stop and take a sip of water or end the session.
Cator frequently begins breathwork instruction with somatic exercises that ease people into feeling their bodies. That includes gentle movement practices that help calm the sympathetic nervous system. For people who feel negatively activated during breathwork, pausing for a moment to orient themselves in the room can feel reassuring. Such preparation can help someone begin to sense more safety in their body.
“Depending on the body you’re in, we have a spectrum of violence many of us have experienced, or our ancestors experienced, that is lodged in our bodies,” says Cator.
For someone who’s dissociated from their body as a way of coping with stress or trauma, breathwork can quickly bring them into contact with a feeling, sensation, or emotion they’ve been avoiding, which may overwhelm their nervous system. If someone feels overwhelmed, or experiences anxiety or hyperventilating, Cator says they should immediately stop.
“You can only heal at the speed of your nervous system.”
– Thérèse Cator, Embodied Black Girl founder
In Yildiz’s study, people who’d experienced trauma were excluded to avoid this possibility. While pausing between inhaling and exhaling can be an important part of certain yogic breathwork practices, Yildiz and her fellow researchers also avoided breath-holding in their training for a variety of reasons, including that it can create tension for beginners.
The 18 study participants in the randomized controlled trial received eight weeks of training to practice 20 minutes daily at home, with a weekly 60-minute on-site session guided by a certified yoga teacher. Depending on which intervention the participants were part of, they learned breathing practices that included slow and/or deep patterns in various positions, and more sophisticated breathwork techniques. They could also choose from different counts, like separately inhaling and exhaling for counts of three, four, five, or more.
If this sounds basic, consider that Yildiz found most participants had chest-breathing patterns and had to work at developing breathing from their abdomen and diaphragm.
Yildiz says trying different practices is key to understanding what’s effective for a person, noting that their body will let them know when it doesn’t feel right. Still, beginners might be tempted to push themselves to perfection at first, and insist on sticking with an ambitious practice. They should resist that urge.
“It’s like giving somebody a 100-pound dumbbell on their first weightlifting session,” Yildiz says.
Similarly, Cator advises her clients to proceed slowly with breathwork: “You can’t bypass your nervous system in healing.”