What is "Breath Biohacking?" And Does it Actually Work?

The concept of “biohacking” is one of many wellness trends that have permeated the health industry in recent years. Though it means different things to different people, it can broadly be defined as the pursuit of achieving optimal health and performance by taking control of your own biology. This can come in many forms, whether it be using a sun lamp to regulate your mood or experimenting with intermittent fasting.

But what does it mean to biohack your breathing? And what purpose does it serve?

Dutch health guru Kasper van der Meulen, also known as the “Breathwork Biohacker,” is one of several experts who have emerged in this niche field. As the author of Mindlift: Mental Fitness for the Modern Mind, van der Meulen endorses the many presumed benefits of conscious breathing, from immune support to stress relief. He even created a multi-day “masterclass” for those who want to learn more about the power of breath.

It may not have been popularized in the United States until the 1960s, but various forms of breathwork have existed in many Asian cultures for nearly 5,000 years. From the concept of Pranayama breathing in India—a technique that has become popularized by modern yoga—to the deep, rhythmic breathing used in Chinese Qigong, intentional breathwork is far from being a new practice.

Between “oxygen fasting” for athletic performance and pursed lip breathing to improve respiratory health, intentional breathwork has become a relatively widely accepted practice. Enhanced focus, stress reduction and increased lung capacity are just a few of the frequently touted benefits of regular breathwork. Its presumed health benefits have also drawn recent attention with the rise of COVID-19.

If you’re looking to biohack your breathing (or simply incorporate regular breathwork into your routine), here are a few methods to get you started:

  • Yoga or meditation.
    By simply taking a yoga class or adopting a regular meditation practice, you’ll learn the basics of Pranayama breathing. In Sanskrit, Pranayama loosely translates to “control of breath,” which is the primary purpose behind this type of biohacking. By taking deep, sequenced breaths, you’re practicing mindfulness while simultaneously strengthening your lungs. Note that there are several different types of Pranayama breathing techniques, so be sure to explore each before deciding which works best for you.
  • Tai Chi or Qigong.
    Much like yoga, both Tai Chi and Qigong have health benefits that extend far beyond breathwork, including increased flexibility, stamina and energy. Nonetheless, deep, controlled breathing plays a crucial role in the practice of each of these martial arts.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing.
    Also known as “belly breathing,” diaphragmatic breathing is meant to help your lungs fill more efficiently by activating your abdominal muscles and diaphragm when breathing. In addition to lowering your heart rate (which can help lower high blood pressure), diaphragmatic breathing promotes relaxation, improves core stability and helps enhance your respiratory health.
  • Resistance breathing.
    The most taxing of all the breath biohacking techniques listed here, resisted breathing is a method for training respiratory muscles that is used most often amongst athletes, divers, musicians and other performers. It also can be a useful method for those with existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma or lung disease. While some simply practice resisted breathing by holding their breath underwater, elevation training masks and inspiratory resistance trainers are a couple of popular tools as well.
  • Holotropic breathwork.
    Most often implemented amongst those who are most concerned with spiritual growth, holotropic breathwork (HB) is one of the more recently introduced forms of biohacking. In addition to the physical health benefits of controlled breathing, the purpose of HB is to enhance self-awareness and even reach an “altered” state of consciousness. Note that since this is a newer approach to breathwork, it currently can only be led by a certified practitioner.

While breathwork has many suggested health benefits, it's not safe for everyone—especially those with pre-existing heart conditions—so make sure to discuss any concerns you have with your doctor in advance. Additionally, if you’re experiencing shortness of breath or any other COVID-19-related symptoms, contact your doctor and get tested as soon as you can. Notch also offers at-home COVID-19 tests for those looking to get answers right away.

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