The benefits of controlled breathwork have been known for thousands of years

Wim Hof, aka Iceman, speaks almost hypnotically while encouraging me to breathe like I’ve never breathed before.

“Breathe in, breathe out – don’t stop. Let’s give everything we have!’ he says. I think my lungs will burst. After 30 deep breaths comes the prompt to breathe out completely, stay there, feel my heartbeat, slow it down – and stop breathing for a minute.

A minute! No wonder they call the guy crazy. Then the strangest thing happens. His soothing voice fades and I feel the tension drain from my shoulders and flow south into the ground. Silence envelops me like a warm blanket and as I think to breathe again, I glance at my watch. More than a minute and a half have passed. But where has it gone?

Welcome to the world of breathwork: the latest must-have for the dedicated seeker of inner calm and outer health. It’s probably no coincidence that a newfound interest in it arose during a pandemic that has tragically taken the breath away of so many. Now it seems to be everywhere: in online training courses, in gyms and all over Instagram.

As early as 1,000 B.C. Chinese Taoists and Indian Hindus believed that some type of energy, an inner breath, passes through us and that breathing is the best way to tap into it

As early as 1,000 B.C. Chinese Taoists and Indian Hindus believed that some type of energy, an inner breath, passes through us and that breathing is the best way to tap into it

Among its most vocal supporters is Gwyneth Paltrow. Hof was virtually unknown before appearing on Netflix’s The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow in January 2020, doing breathing exercises and jumping into icy water. Within weeks the world was shut down because of Covid and Hof was a household name. The breathwork I tried is from one of his YouTube videos – it had 50 million views. But what is it, and will it do you any good?

First, controlled breathing has existed as a pillar of meditation for thousands of years. As early as 1,000 B.C. Chinese Taoists and Indian Hindus believed that some kind of energy, an inner breath, passes through us and breathing is the best way to tap into it. Hindus called it prana and this is used in yoga as pranayama or breath control.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that this type of breathing and meditation really helps to reduce stress and anxiety. Mindfulness (which has breathwork as a core element) has proven so effective that it is now recommended by both the National Health Service and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

dr Danny Penman, author of The Art of Breathing—and co-author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, which has sold more than two million copies—is a passionate advocate: “Breathing is based on the great, strong muscles of the diaphragm, abdomen and those between the ribs, and it is supported by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs. When you’re upset, anxious, or stressed, the abdomen tightens, preventing the major muscles from working. Instead, they start pulling on each other, letting the secondary muscles do all the work. But these are only designed to handle 20 percent of the load, so they get stressed.

Breathwork dos and don’ts


  • Breathe slowly – in and out
  • Let your mind wander


  • Only trust someone to guide your breathwork – make sure they are properly qualified
  • Limit yourself. Doing it a few times a day can relieve stress

“If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulder and neck area, headaches and fatigue, and breathing becomes increasingly shallow.”

I don’t feel stressed, but I do some breathing exercises with Penman. He tells me to sit comfortably, close my eyes, and focus on breathing — inhale slowly for a few seconds, exhale a few more — and let my mind wander if I want to. (It’s a myth that true meditation consists of not thinking about anything; that’s practically impossible.) After a few minutes I realize that I was tense and now I feel much more relaxed and focused.

Penman, who describes himself as “as spiritual as a house brick,” says, “Simple breathing exercises — even a three-minute breather — will quickly help you calm down. Do this a few times during a stressful day and you will have a much better day, with much more control over your life and the situations you face.

“And if you can meditate longer, your life as a whole will be materially better. Countless studies are now showing that breath-based meditation, such as mindfulness, has a dramatic impact on anxiety, stress and depression.”

But all is not rosy in the fast-growing Breathwork garden. Penman and other practitioners who have worked in the field for many years are concerned that their sudden popularity will bring inexperienced, self-proclaimed “facilitators” onto the scene. A quick internet search found “accredited” teaching courses that were no more than 15 hours of online instruction. Then you could call yourself a Breathworks teacher for $500 (£454) plus a £130 annual subscription.

There is no overarching internationally recognized qualification or regulation – a cause for concern considering that some practitioners claim to induce OBEs, hallucinations and depth psychological interventions to manage trauma, while others use unnecessarily elaborate and complicated New Age practices – style courses.

“It’s a bit like the Wild West out there right now,” says Vidyamala Burch, co-founder and director of respected charity Breathworks, which was founded 21 years ago to provide mindfulness classes to help people cope with pain, illness and stress. “In teaching mindfulness, you can check with BAMBA (the British Association of Mindfulness Based Approaches) to find qualified instructors. Ideally, in the realm of breathwork, there would be something like that – you play with something very powerful while breathing.’

Tom Granger, author of the award-winning beginner’s book Draw Breath: The Art of Breathing, says that gentle techniques are “very unlikely” to cause problems, but that some people may experience anxiety or panic attacks: “Any technique that involves hyperventilation has a big effect Number of contraindications for people with pre-existing health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure or a history of serious mental health problems. A good trainer will advise you not to try hyperventilation techniques if they apply to you.’

More than one coach has told me that more in-depth techniques designed to pull out physical or psychosexual trauma should only be used by very experienced practitioners. Performed by an inexperienced trainer, one said, they “could do more harm than good”.

Several instructors, including Vanessa Dietzel of the Netherlands-based International Breathwork Foundation, told me they turn to one organization to help tame the “wild west”: the US-registered Global Professional Breathwork Alliance (GPBA). Established in 2001, this accreditation body has strict rules of training, practice and ethics. For example, no instructor will be recommended who has not completed at least 400 hours of training in two years. It has accredited 31 schools worldwide, including a handful in the UK.

In the new breathwork boom, more mature members of the GPBA may have been left behind by Instagrammers and internet chancers. But the GPBA pulls itself together, says co-founder Jessica Dibb: “We recently created a new, very experienced board. We have a more user friendly website on the way and we will get better with social media.

“Breathing is like a medicine, a nutrient that can instantly transform the brain. It goes beyond socioeconomic status, gender, language, culture, disabilities, race. It belongs to the people and we will do our best to ensure it gets to them properly and safely.”

And if they can do that, then we can all breathe easier.


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Bradford Betz

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