We don’t think much about breathing, mostly because we don’t have to. This autonomic reflex occurs in healthy adults whether or not we consider what’s going on when we inhale or exhale. But breath is a remarkable tool we can use to heal a variety of conditions. Breathwork for chronic pain is just one way you can use your own body to heal itself. Here’s how to get started.

What is breathwork?

The term “breathwork” simply means using structured, conscious breathing techniques therapeutically. Although this term is relatively new, the practice goes back thousands of years and is referred to more traditionally as pranayama. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that combines “prana” (energy) with “yama” (control). The practice of pranayama is simply the control of energy through breathing.

In yoga, pranayama is the practice of moving energy through the energetic channels of the body. Inhaling, breath travels up through the left side of your body. Exhaling, breath travels down through the right side of your body. This yogic practice of breathing is one of the eight limbs of yoga. The goal is to bring more energy to the body and to use the breath therapeutically (more below in the types of breathwork).

Scientifically, when you inhale, your diaphragm moves downward to make space for breath to enter your body. This also opens the chest cavity to make room. As you exhale, the diaphragm moves up, pressing breath back out of the body.

Breathwork activates the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve reaches from deep inside your belly all the way up to the base of the brain. Our parasympathetic nervous system is a “rest and digest” system, only active when we are relaxed and at ease. Breathing lowers cortisol and adrenaline production to encourage the body to relax.

Whether you call it pranayama or science, the idea behind breathwork training is to use the breath to focus the mind, calm anxiety, and fully oxygenate the body. We will discuss breathwork benefits for chronic pain in a moment, but a brief explanation of the types of breathwork available will be helpful first.

Different types of breathing

Breathwork techniques focus on deepening the breath in the body. When we become anxious or stressed, we tend to take shallow, short breaths into the upper part of our lungs. The lungs neither completely inflate nor fully empty, leaving trace carbon dioxide in the lungs and inadequately oxygenating the body. The results of this type of shallow breathing mimics the effects of hyperventilation. Our bodies and brains experience a heightened sense of stress and anxiety, both of which can increase pain sensations.

At its most basic, breathwork for chronic pain slows down breathing to approximately half of the normal speed. Breaths begin in the lower belly and gradually inflate the lungs, then slowly release, with the belly deflating last.

Holotropic breathwork is a type of breathwork guided by certified practitioners of the Grof Transpersonal Training program. Conducted in a group, participants help each other and create a supportive network both in and out of the therapeutic setting.

Yoga breathing for pain relief has specific techniques that can also help treat anxiety that often accompanies pain (discussed below).

What are the major breathwork benefits?

The study of breathwork benefits is a relatively new field. Laypeople are not the only ones to take breath for granted – researchers have also not paid much attention to the value of deep, even breath when it comes to our overall health and well-being.

However, the field of research is catching up. Major studies illuminating the benefits of breathwork include these key insights:

Another major breathwork benefit is now coming to light: breathwork for chronic pain.

How could breathwork for chronic pain work?

Remember when you were little and scraped your knee, so badly that the skin came away and pain started immediately? Chances are, fear of the accident that caused the scrape combined with pain made your breath short and shallo