Breathwork: What Is It, And Does It Work?
So, I’ve tried some weird-ass stuff in my life for the sake of ~*wellness*~.
I’ve poked myself with needles, sunk my body into mugwort baths, been into shady backroom holistic clinics where no one spoke English, sipped herbs of all kinds, had crystals put all over my body, had ‘energetic chords’ cut by self-proclaimed shamans, drank herbal folk remedies, quantified every-single-aspect of my body (from my heartbeat to my cervical fluid), talked to angels, connected with other dimensions, and experienced past-life regression.
And the thing I was most skeptical of for many years?
I’d heard about it, and read glowing reviews of the practice. I’d tried pranayama — a breathing practice from the yogic tradition — and thought it was fine, but not for me. It seemed like something as simple as breathing couldn’t possibly be *that* groundbreaking.
You know where this is going, right?
After years of resistance, in 2017 I found myself sitting in a circle with four other people in a 400-year-old ancestral home in the Baleares Islands … about to try breathwork. A v Don Draper moment.
What happened in the next hour was nothing short of transcendent. Our breathwork guide instructed us to breathe into our belly, and then all the way out. We’d breathe to a beat, laying down on our backs. That’s it. “Whatever comes up, comes up. Just keep breathing through it.”
Jesus H. Christ, I had no idea what I was in for.
“Breathwork gets down, dirty and real,” says Keely Semler, Breathwork teacher and sound healer. “It’s a good way to cope with pain, address strong emotions, or simply to create more space emotionally to feel a sense of calm. It helps you manage stress and anxiety in a very manageable way. It also brings you back into the present moment as opposed to in your head which may pull you into the future or the past.”
What exactly does breathwork do?
It’s not exactly clear why breathwork practice is so emotionally penetrating, but it could be because the visceral act of breathing helps us center in our bodies. “It takes you to the deeper realms of the conscious while invigorating the physical body. Basically, it’s an express trip to where healing begins,” Stephanie Leah, a Breathwork teacher and listening guide explained to me.
Awareness is the first step to change — if we don’t notice what’s going on with us, physically, mentally, and spiritually, then we cannot begin to grow or heal. We’re so used to taking shallow half-breaths all day long. Breathwork oxygenates the body, bringing new physical sensations into the limbs, skin, and gut. “Physiologically, I may get a tingling sensation in my hands, or perhaps feel like I am observing my physical body outside of myself,” says Semler. “I experience myself in a different perspective or in a new light.”
Leah agrees — experiencing the sensation of your body in a different way allows for new discoveries. “Breathwork reveals pathways toward a higher consciousness and planetary awareness. Where awareness goes…energy flows. Basically, it brings forward self-reflection and self-love opportunities.”
What happens during breathwork?
“The technique is always the same, but the collective energy is always different. No breath is alike. They are like oxygen snowflakes carrying different patterns of the self with it,” Leah says sagely.
In a breathwork session, the teacher or guide will lead you through a specific type of holotropic breathing. It’s a circular, rhythmic breath that is often done to music. In a class, the teacher will check in on attendants throughout their 15- to 30-min breathwork journey. In a one-on-one session, your teacher will likely pay a closer eye on what areas of your body are holding tension as you breathe, and then provide cues to help you release into those spots.
During my first breathwork session, my entire body tensed up. Sounds a little scary (it was a bit overwhelming, at the moment), but it was actually an incredible experience that forced me to be present, calm, and surrender to my body. I’ve done breathwork many times since, and have had different physical reactions as well as emotional takeaways.
Breathwork helps me work through anxiety, seems to help me release mental blocks around partnership and work, and generally helps me feel more present and clear.
Semler also found breathwork as a way to manage feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. “I had tried talk therapy and exercise to manage my stress and anxiety and nothing seemed to work. At one point, I was really feeling exhausted emotionally and physically and on a whim, I heard about breathwork, went to a class and the rest is history. It was so effective for me in confronting my deepest thoughts and feelings related to the stress and trauma I had experienced.”
After a session, I usually feel calm, clear, and blissful. “It just brings an overwhelming sense of joy and peace,” agrees Leah.
Should you try breathwork?
The beautiful thing about breathwork is that it’s really accessible for most people. It doesn’t require special tools or equipment. It’s not complicated, and it can easily be done virtually (so you don’t need to be in LA to experience it!).
And breathwork can help to clear trauma and anxiety in a powerful way.
“Breathwork is this magical tool that meets you wherever you are. With discipline and time, you can breathe your way into a fresh understanding and inner awareness of life. It takes courage to follow the breath, one, because it can sometimes be boring and mundane and, two, because it reveals the real essence of life which is that things always move, change, fade and re-birth. It’s not something we can predict but it is something we can feel and lean in to and trust.” — Keely Semler
Hey, you’ve got nothing to lose. If you’re thinking of trying breathwork, I recommend setting up a session with a credible practitioner who has gone through a certification course.
This is also a really great source for more about breathwork, if you’re itching to learn more.
You can poke through Holisticism’s wellness marketplace for some of our favorite breathwork teachers. The best part? All of our breathwork services can be offered online, which means you don’t need to be in NYC or LA to work with the best teachers — you can enjoy a session no matter where you are.