When Hermosa Beach, Calif., entrepreneur Amy Lloyd took her first breathwork class, she never expected it to make her emotional. After all, the yoga and meditation classes she regularly attends leave her feeling refreshed and rarely stir up her innermost feelings. Yet after her first class, she says, “it was like years of therapy in one session.”
If you’ve ever practiced yoga, meditation or tai chi, breathwork was almost certainly a large part of the activity. But in recent years, breathwork classes that aren’t tied to any other practice have surged in popularity, in part because they don’t require skills or experience, just the ability to do something we all do every day without much thought: breathe.
“I call it free medicine because the breath is like the Swiss Army knife of the body; there are so many different ways to use it to create a positive effect for yourself,” says Richie Bostock, known as The Breath Guy and creator of Flourish, a guided breathing app.
Breathwork is a practice — and in some cases a therapeutic intervention — that involves consciously exerting control over breathing patterns to address mental, physical and spiritual health concerns, says Dr. Wayne Jonas, a clinical professor of family medicine at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
“Controlling one’s breathing helps focus the mind, detach oneself from immediate reactions to thoughts and make it easier to get in touch with one’s inner sense of peace and calm,” says Jonas. “It also induces multiple physiological and chemical effects such as altering heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone levels.”
The research behind the use of breathing techniques to treat everything from anxiety and asthma to insomnia and depression is well documented. Jonas says the way we breathe can have huge impacts on every system in the body, so learning to pay attention to it, to understand it and to control it can have profound effects on a person’s health. In short, our breath can be a built-in stress reliever.
Although breathwork is widely considered safe, there have been reports of side effects.
“After the second or third time I tried it, my entire body began to vibrate — my head, everything — and it lasted for a while afterward,” says Lloyd.
Overdoing some breathwork techniques can cause tingling in the hands and mouth, and a worsening of symptoms for patients with psychiatric problems has also been noted.
“Excessively rapid breathing can drop carbon dioxide levels and change the pH of the blood, causing muscle cramps and, on very rare occasions, seizures. Everyone should consult a doctor before engaging in intensive breathwork, but especially those with underlying conditions or psychiatric problems,” Jonas says.
Many medical practitioners recommend the practice for their patients, in moderation.
“Breathwork helps a lot of people understand both their feelings and their body,” says family therapist Tania Paredes, a licensed clinical social worker in Miami. Paredes’ trauma patients often use breathwork as part of their healing. “When paired with other health practices, it can be very beneficial,” she says, “but it’s just one piece of your overall health. I don’t recommend people take breathwork every day any more than I’d recommend someone go to therapy every single day.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, breathwork instructors have seen a surge in the number of people attending classes, most of them virtual.
“Since March, our followers on social media have gone from 700 to 3,000, and some of our online classes have had as many as 500 sign-ups, with people logging in from all over the world,” says Jason Amoroso, founder of Revelation Breathwork in Los Angeles.
There are several different types of breathwork, with different movements interpreting the practice in their own way. Some techniques, such as Amoroso’s, take a gentle approach and encourage you to breathe through the belly, then the chest and out through the nose, with moments reserved for primal screams designed to release your innermost feelings. Other practices involve repeated inhaling and exhaling at a fast pace for sustained periods.
“In its simplest form, it may just be breathing a certain way for a few minutes to help you relax or to help you create some energy,” Bostock says. “In its most intense form — often called rebirthing, transformational breath or holotropic breathwork — it’s used as a form of emotional therapy and spiritual development that involves lying down for more than an hour to create physiological changes in the body.”
Some classes are taught in group settings, either in person or virtually, while others are one-on-one. They may last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more. A few wrap up with a ritual: Holotropic breathwork students draw a mandala, a symbol representing their experience. Participants in the Wim Hof method, named after the Dutch athlete who started the practice, follow active, conscious breathing with immersion in ice water, reducing stress and inflammation in their bodies.
Despite reported health effects, breathwork classes are not typically covered by insurance. When picking a class, it’s important to do your homework as unlike other disciplines, there is no centralized organization that oversees the certification and training requirements for practitioners.
“If you’ve ever experienced trauma, make sure you work with an instructor who has experience with that, in case some of those feelings rise to the surface,” Paredes says.
Many say the rapid breathing can feel like crying, which is why breathwork is often described as an emotional experience.
“It creates a profound feeling that is hard to explain, like giving yourself a great big hug,” says Lloyd, who’s adopted breathwork as part of her health routine. “It’s like having another self-care tool, another lever to pull whenever you feel stuck or need some healing.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Breathwork classes may help you improve your mental and physical health