Breathing and Relaxation


Breathing or breath work, also known as ‘intentional control of breathing’ or ‘conscious breathing’ is a healing technique that is meant to:

  • Meant to promote physical healing
  • Induce emotional changes
  • Impart a sense of spirituality and well being.

Controlled breathing is integrated into other forms of alternative therapies including guided imagery, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, hypnotherapy, and yoga.  Breath work is used to induce a relaxation response to get the patient to focus on the impact that breathing and their own emotion has on each other.  The aim can also be used to induce altered states of consciousness that some practitioners believe can offer access to the unconscious which would help people recover early forgotten memories, reflect on past experiences, and resolve hidden conflicts that are stored in both mind and body.  Breath work can also be used in conjunction with other forms of psychotherapy and spiritual healing. 

History of Breath Work

Since ancient times and in various cultures such as in China, India, and Tibet, there have been several times to control and manipulate breathing in order to enhance physical health, awareness, inner harmony, and self-knowledge.  Breathing techniques have been implemented in such Asian practices as yoga, martial arts, and meditation.  Leonard Orr, an American spiritual healer in the late 60s, believed that memories of birth events can be uncovered during the altered states of such practices as hot water immersion and rhythmic breathing exercise.  Orr eventually coined the refining breathing techniques as ‘rebirthing’.  This developed into a breathing therapy that is performed on a mattress and became popular in the 1970s. 

Breath work techniques have several variants and are used by both psychological and body therapy practitioners.  There is claim that breath work helps with different emotional conditions.  One application is emotional conflict by promoting peace of mind, resolving emotional issues by increasing awareness, gaining acceptance, and healing of repressed problems.  Since relationship and sexual problems stem from emotional issues, breath work can help with these as well.  Some people even use breath work to enhance their spirituality in order to achieve higher consciousness. 

How Breath Work is Practiced

The breath work sessions may be conducted individually or in group therapy.  The treatment may also incorporate psychotherapy or bioenergetics practices.  When it is learned, the techniques can be used for self-help.  The therapist may begin the session by ensuring the participant is calm and comfortable, and sole attention focused on the present, before being guided to become consciously aware of their own breathing.   The facilitator may even request that a specific breathing pattern is adopted.  

Most forms of breath work will involve concentrating on breathing more deeply in order to avoid the common, unhealthy pattern of shallow breathing that is often a response to stress.  A common technique that is taught is called circular or connected breathing- inhaling and exhaling without the usual pause between breaths.  This is said to allow for stored memories and repressed feeling to come up.  It may even promote emotional release and give a deeper understanding of personal issues and enhanced spiritual awareness.  Practitioners may believe that this breathing can lead to regression to earlier experiences, including those that may have occurred before birth. 

The typical session may last an hour or two.  Some are open-ended in order to allow for issues to be fully evaluated.  The experience can reveal a lot; facilitators may need psychotherapeutic skills in order to deal with emotional issues that may surface which make it important to only practice more intense forms of breath work under the guidance of a highly trained professional.

The practitioner may ask the patient’s medical history and anything that may cause stress and anxiety.  The person will be asked to either sit on a chair, lie on a couch, or on a mat on the floor.  The practitioner will talk through the various breathing and relaxation techniques and might even suggest some exercises that can be performed at home.  The first session typically last an hour.  The second and subsequent session will be slightly less.  Most techniques can be learned in about five sessions. 

Types of Breath Work

There are several types of breath work.  Practitioners may also use trans-personal psychology, aims to connect with the universe or higher forces. Different energy techniques may also be incorporated to encourage the release of negative emotions that stem from traumatic experiences that have occurred in the past.  The therapist may encourage the patient to make mandala drawings, an ancient circular form that is said to develop from unconscious inspiration and also used in art therapy to help people interpret their experiences.


In this therapy, breath cycles are focused to flow with rhythmic music to induce altered consciousness.


Known as ‘intuitive breathing’, the purpose of rebirthing is to allow memories of birth trauma to surface and be released


The goal of Middendorf is to breathe without interfering with the natural rhythm in order to allow the essence of self (the sense of one’s unique qualities, place and purpose) to unfold. 


Vivation uses continuous, circular breathing and ‘uncondtional love’, complete and unconditional positive acceptance of oneself as well as any emotions that may arise, in order to relieve pain, stress and negative emotions. 


The purpose of radiance breath is emotional release through breath work, which is combined with various forms of bodywork, particularly massage.


Optimal breathing, otherwise known as ‘advanced working breath’, uses exercises that are based on enhancing breathing mechanics and respiratory capacity in order to boost energy, optimum health, and possibly even, longevity. 

Self Treatment

Breathing and relaxation techniques are simple to learn and are essential in order to keep fit or help with healing.  It is best to talk to a practitioner before doing self treatment in order to ensure that the techniques are done correctly. 

Before going to a therapist, it is important to find the method of breathing one currently uses, in order to see if there can be improvement in the technique.  There are two types of breathing, chest and abdominal breathing.  Chest breathing is what occurs when someone physically exerts themselves; it could be due to fear, anxiety or anger.  It is part of the fight or flight and used to tense them.  Abdominal breathing is what is done to promote relaxation and should occur for when relaxed.  Those that undergo permanent anxiety, tension, and stress have forgotten how to breathe abdominally, and may need retraining.  But before learning how to properly do abdominal breathing, it is important to recognize what chest breathing is. 

Steps to recognize chest breathing

  1.  Find a place where there will be no interruption.  Shoes will be removed and tight clothing will be loosened.
  2. The person will next lie on a firm but comfortable surface (though not on a bed) as the head is supported with a pillow.
  3. The hands are placed on the upper chest (for women, above the breast) as that person slowly breathes in and out through the mouth utilizing the musculature of the chest.
  4. The hands should rise with each breath and fall when each breath is expelled.

Chest breathing is fast and shallow, since the rib muscles will contract, forcing the chest to expand upwards and outwards with the air being drawn quickly into the upper chest.  If chest breathing continues for too long, it may become a regular habit. 

Steps to learning abdominal breathing

  1.  Lie down and place one hand on the upper chest, with one hand on the upper chest and the other on the abdomen.
  2. Breathe in and out slowly and through the nose
  3. Breathe so that the lower hand (on the abdomen) moves.  When one is tense, this is a difficult.
  4. Once this is learned, place both hands on the abdomen and breathe in slowly through the nose.
  5. The abdomen should rise while the diaphragm moves downwards, while the chest should be nearly still.
  6. The breath is held for five seconds as exhalation occurs through the nose.
  7. This is repeated five times.

Good abdominal breathing will help with relaxation since it ensures for a proper balance of carbon monoxide and oxygen in the bloodstream.  It will alleviate the quick and shallow breathing brought on by stress and help the body and mind to release physical and mental tension. 

What Breath Work is Used for?

Almost every form of controlled breathing exercise help to:

  • promote relaxation
  • relieve tension
  • cut down on the different physiological responses to stress
  • boost energy


When under breath work therapy, some people have reported experiencing effects such as:

  • Tingling of the hands and feet
  • Sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting has occurred during intense breath work.

People that have asthma or any other respiratory complaints, epilepsy, and those with severe emotional disturbances or mental health problems are advised to talk to their physician or mental health provider before undergoing a breath work therapy session.


  1. Bratman, S. The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions, Prima Health A Division of Prima Publishing (1998)
  2. Brown, L. Alternative Medicine, NTC/Contemporary Publishing (1999)
  3. Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
  4. Nancy Allison. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, The Rosen Publishing Group (1999)
  5. Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)

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