Breath therapy is an umbrella term covering a broad range of therapeutic approaches that emphasize the importance of breathing and its potential to affect human health. Most breath therapies employ specific types of breathing exercises, often done in conjunction with other practices. In addition to the ones mentioned here, other yoga-like breath therapies include qigong and t'ai chi ch'uan.
The therapeutic use of many breath techniques has been explored in various forms since ancient times.
Developed thousands of years ago in India, yoga today takes many forms. Patanjali, sometimes known as the "Father of Yoga," codified yoga philosophy and technique in his Yoga Sutras, written sometime during the last several centuries of the pre-Christian era.
Breathwork refers to a number of different breath-based therapies, most of which have developed since the 1970s. Rebirthing, also known as intuitive breathing, uses breathing techniques (in conjunction with affirmations and other cognitive practices) as a form of psychotherapy. The intent is for the person to reexperience and release birth trauma and other emotional and psychological blockages.
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School began studying the physiological effects of breathing and meditation techniques on the human body in the 1960s. This led him to pinpoint a specific psycho-physiological condition said to offer various therapeutic effects. In the 1970s, Benson founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard.
Most breath therapies are commonly used both to promote general well-being and to address specific psychological, physical, and/or spiritual conditions. General benefits may include reduced stress, enhanced energy and vitality, and (in the case of yoga and other similar practices) increased flexibility. Breath therapies have also been used to treat a wide range of specific complaints, such as asthma, high blood pressure, headaches, and rheumatoid arthritis. Breathing exercises have helped some children avoid asthma attacks and improve lung function. Breathing therapy has been used to help reduce anger, exhaustion, hostility, and risk of new heart problems in some people who have had heart surgery. Yoga, in particular, is increasingly being used as a companion therapy to conventional treatment for such critical illnesses as cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
Used as a form of psychotherapy, both breathwork and meditation are said to help practitioners address old conflicts, enhance their self-esteem, and achieve greater peace of mind.
In addition to these benefits, spiritual seekers may explore these therapies to achieve higher consciousness.
Most schools of yoga incorporate breathing exercises (known as pranayama) as one key component, along with physical poses (asanas) and, sometimes, chanting and/or sitting meditation. Perhaps the most basic form of pranayama is three-level breathing, in which the practitioner first fills the abdomen, then the rib cage, and then the upper chest, before exhaling in reverse order. Another breathing technique sometimes used in yogic practice is alternate-nostril breathing, in which air is taken in through one nostril and expelled through the other, often using the hand or a finger to close the unused nostril. A more intensive breathing technique, often associated with the kundalini school of yoga, is the breath of fire. This involves pumping the diaphragm to draw in and expel air rapidly. More advanced yogic practice may also involve any number of other breathing techniques.
Various types of breathwork employ a breathing technique originally associated with rebirthing, known as conscious (or circular) connected breath. This technique, performed lying down, involves a continuous cycle of inhaling and exhaling air through the mouth. The person inhales as fully as possible and allows a natural, relaxed exhale, with no pause between intake and release. Holotropic breathwork uses deep and rapid breathing coordinated with dramatic sounds and rhythms to induce psychedelic states.
Based on his study of the effects of transcendental meditation (a popular approach brought to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India), Dr. Herbert Benson developed a nonreligious approach to meditation that combines breathing techniques, sitting quietly, and focusing the mind in order to achieve the "relaxation response."
Many breath therapies are intended to be practiced in a safe, controlled environment, under the guidance of a trained facilitator or teacher. As a general rule, it is wise to ask about the training, qualifications, and experience of such facilitators, especially before beginning a rigorous or costly program based on a little-known therapy.
Although breathing is a natural process that is essential to maintaining human life, and breathing exercises are generally taken to be beneficial, some precautions may be advisable. People suffering from asthma or other breathing-related disorders should notify their doctor about any alternative therapy they are exploring. They should also notify their guide in the therapy of choice about their condition and any medication currently required. People suffering from mental disturbances or disorders should be cautious about experimenting with practices designed to induce altered states of consciousness.
Prolonged, intensive breathing can sometimes create dizziness, or the person may even faint. Related techniques used in some of the various breath therapies may have other side effects that should be considered before starting a therapeutic program.
Research & general acceptance
Many clinical studies over the last several decades have demonstrated specific benefits associated with various breathing techniques and/or breath-based therapies, particularly certain types of yoga and meditation. Yoga (whose effects have probably been explored more by researchers than those of other breath therapies) has been shown to lower blood pressure and respiratory rate, increase skin resistance (a sign of stress reduction), and decrease the frequency of asthma attacks.
It is now generally accepted that yoga and meditation can be helpful in curbing stress and increasing flexibility. But the more exotic claims made for these practices have yet to be scientifically substantiated. Other breath therapies, such as various types of breathwork, have not been extensively studied.
Training & certification
There is no uniform standard for training or certification for breath therapies. Specific training can vary widely, even among the different schools of yoga. This is even more true for the many other types of breath therapies.
Cassileth, Barrie R. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Woodham, Anne, and David Peters. DK Encyclopedia of Healing Therapies. New York: DK Publishing, 1997.
Appels et al. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 43, no. 2 (1997): 209-217.
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