Breath goes from woo-woo wellness to a powerful health tool
By Sandra Ballentine
Breathwork used to sit squarely on the woo-woo side of the wellness spectrum, but in recent years, clinical studies conducted at schools like Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins have put modern science and real data behind something we’ve actually known for centuries—the way we breathe has profound effects on our mental and physical health and abilities.
“I think a lot of people have ignored breathwork because it’s so simple and it’s free—it costs nothing,” says James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (and a 2020 Global Wellness Summit keynote speaker). “But there is so much research out there, and so many people are discovering for themselves how transformative it is, that I think it will keep growing. I certainly hope so because we need it now more than ever.”
Breathwork may be simple, but it can seem daunting to the uninitiated. While it’s true that elite athletes, adventurers and soldiers harness their breath to achieve seemingly impossible things and beat incredible odds, the beauty of breathwork is that it’s something all of us can access. Even the simple act of reciting a Shakespearean sonnet can put you in a therapeutic zone, according to Dan Brulé, a pioneer in the spiritual breathing movement.
“Reading certain poems and prayers out loud slows your breathing to somewhere between four and eight breaths per minute, which lowers blood pressure and decreases cortisol levels,” says Brulé. “Breathwork training is very powerful for highstakes
situations where lives can be lost, but all the amazing abilities of the warriors and the gurus and the yogis and the masters and the saints— well, the average person can access those very same high states and extraordinary abilities just by breathing.”
What follows is a curated compendium of the people, places, techniques and tech developments pushing the practical magic of breathwork into exciting—and important—new directions.
Wim Hof is a Dutch extreme athlete, adventurer, daredevil and researcher known for his ability to withstand extreme cold and strengthen his immune system using a combination of breathing, mindset and cold therapy. Hof, who recently penned The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential, has devotees around the globe. “The breath is very able to effectively bring anxiety down, as well as fight acute stress of any kind, including bacterial and virus stress and inflammation,” he says. “It’s scientifically endorsed, and it’s the future of natural control within humanity.” (@iceman_hof)
The Breath Biohacker
Dutch human optimization specialist (and sometimes Wim Hof instructor) Kasper van
der Muelen takes a synergistic approach to breathwork, striving to “connect the dots
between ancient practice, modern science, human performance, personal healing and expanding consciousness.” As if that weren’t enough, he claims to have used focused breathwork to heal his broken arm. The author of Mindlift: Mental Fitness for the Modern Mind (published in 2016), van der Muelen teaches an intense five-week Breathwork Masterclass in Utrecht, the Netherlands, that’s a magnet for, well, intense
A leading expert in breathing behavior analysis (and breath trainer to global special forces), behavioral physiologist Dr. Peter Litchfield6 has been on the vanguard of breathing science for nearly 40 years. Specializing in the causes of dysfunctional breathing and solutions that help combat it, Litchfield is forging a new physiological learning model by combining the behavioral sciences with respiratory physiology. In 2001, he invented the CapnoTrainer, a game-changing educational capnography7 device and cutting-edge software program designed to help people identify their breathing habits and learn how to replace dysfunctional ones with adaptive, self-sustaining ones.
Make it fun, and they will come. If anyone can bring modern breathwork to the masses (in a safe, supportive way), it’s breath artist Sage Rader, whose rock-star delivery alchemizes science and spirituality into entertainment. Rader, who credits breathwork with saving his life and helping him manage devastating chronic pain after an accident, uses a combination of breathing, brain games and music to achieve rapid, deep shifts in consciousness and physical relaxation. He “breathes” private clients (major celebs, tech founders and CEOs who he calls his “super babies”) and is the founder of Breath Church, a (currently virtual) haven for rest, regeneration and relationship-building. “People who breathe together consciously over time begin to share a common bond that transcends words or rational explanation,” he says. “It is a sense of embodied belonging.”
The Community Builder
Motivated by what she saw as a lack of minorities in the breathwork space, Atlanta-based entrepreneur and innovator Jasmine Marie founded Black Girls Breathing in 2018 to provide consistent mental healthcare services to her community, which faces specific mental and emotional health challenges. “I wanted to bring the accessible tool of breath to Black women to help them relieve chronic stress, which too often can lead to disease,” she says. Marie launched a crowdfunding mission last year in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that will give 150+ Black women per session free entry to virtual breathwork circles in perpetuity.
The Spiritual Technologist
For her Blisspoint Breathwork method, digital nomad Lisa de Narváez curates clubby
soundscapes embedded with special, customized frequencies that help people connect with their breath, open their heart, and drop into a state of altered consciousness. De Narvaez’s international followers usually line up for Blisspoint at festivals and wellness events, but since lockdown, they’ve been logging in to her virtual events. “I have been blown away by how deeply and powerfully this work translates through technology,” she says. “It has given us access to tapping into unified fields during these times of uncertainty, literally showing us that we are truly one.” (@blisspoint.co)
The Wild One
In a town with a LOT of breathworkers, Los Angeles-based Estonian native Johann Urb stands out. His super-trendy Pyramid Breath Method is more somatic than most, combining sound-release therapy (think primal screams, guttural growls and everything in between), movement and visualization to cathartic effect. “It’s a pretty wild ride,” says Urb.
The Recovery and Integration Expert
Erin Bishop, a breathwork practitioner and integration coach who splits her time between Maryland and Washington, helps people manage chronic pain, addiction and trauma response by using their breath. She sees clients one-on-one conscious-connected, breathing. “I teach you the fundamentals of how to breathe to manage your
emotions and regulate your nervous system,” she says. “Then we slowly start to bring in the Eastern side, the spiritual side, and go into conscious-connected breath because, from a cellular perspective, that’s the technique that drives the kind of forbidden, hidden experiences and messages you’ve been trying to bury all your life and brings them to the surface so you can finally start to attend to them.” Many of her clients have experienced sexual or physical abuse, so Bishop eschews aggressive therapy techniques like holotropic, or rapid, breathing for a more gentle approach. “People nowadays—especially in view of the Me Too movement—are using their voices in
a way that they didn’t have permission to before,” she says. “So, talking through and integrating their experiences is something they really need.”
The Youth Advocates
What if just five minutes of slow breathing could significantly reduce adolescent and teen stress and anxiety? Brian Mackenzie8 and Tanya Bentley, PhD, the co-founders of the Health and Human Performance Foundation (HHPF), are raising funds for research supporting Breathe for Teens, a scalable, HHPF-designed school curriculum that uses slow breathing to help kids cope with anxiety. “We want to teach them how to breathe
so they can start managing stress like their parents did not learn how to do,” says Mackenzie, an elite performance and breathing expert. “Not only do the kids need this, but the parents and teachers need this,” he says, adding, “Mental health issues will no doubt be one of the biggest challenges people of all ages will face in the next four or five years.”
The Regeneration Specialist
“In my opinion, breath is the underlayer of all movement,” says Jill Miller, the co-founder of Tune-Up Fitness Worldwide and creator of Yoga Tune Up and the Roll Model Method, a self-massage technique. Miller, whose book Body by Breath comes out later this year, was an early adopter of self-myofascial release and teaches clinical professionals techniques she developed to work with the muscles of respiration and their fascial connections throughout the body using a soft, air-filled ball called the Corgeous. “There are so many regenerative applications for this work,” she says. “We have people using it for post- COVID recovery and post-cancer rehabilitation, as well as with athletes from the Cavaliers and the Dodgers.” Miller adds, “It’s like, how can I help people locate their own inner medicine chest by using tools, positions and practices that can lower their medical bills and take their health back—away from their pulmonologist, cardiologist
and allergist—all the things that spiral into breath pathology.”
The Workout—The Future of Respiratory Fitness?
According to elite performance coach Owen Monroy, you don’t have to be an Olympian
to benefit from intermittent hypoxic training (commonly known as oxygen training). Monroy heads up product development for HyperMax Oxygen, a consumer-focused fitness machine that works in tandem with most forms of indoor cardio (spin bike, treadmill, etc.) and combines altitude simulation with oxygen replenishment. Wearing
a mask connected to a cylinder filled with high-test oxygen, users exert themselves at various altitudes and intensity levels, and when ready for a refresh, can push a button that changes their environment to four times its normal level of oxygen. “In 15 minutes, you get a low-impact workout that allows you to challenge and recover at an accelerated rate, and this applies to elite athletes or people working on rehabilitation or
health journeys,” says Monroy, who adds that benefits can include better energy, increased circulation, improved nutrient delivery and reduced inflammation. “We’ve had particularly encouraging results with concussion recovery,” he says. “And numerous studies indicate that improving your VO2 max, or ventilatory maximum, can lead to increased longevity.”
This is an excerpt from the “Just Breathe!” trend in the 2021 Global Wellness Trends Report.