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Breathing Exercises, Pranayama, and Overbreathing: Which Is Right for You?

by Sanctuary Studios on 02/07/2022
Posted in Breathwork

Breathing exercises, Pranayama, Overbreathing… With so many variations of the art of inhaling and exhaling; how do you know which method is right for you?

This week, we’ll be explaining the main differences between these three categories, plus the benefits of different breathwork techniques, which range from general relaxation and stress relief to increased energy, improved performance, and healing from trauma.

But before we dive in, let’s start with a few definitions.

What are Breathing Exercises?

Breathing exercises are defined as any form of exercise that promotes healthy breathing and regulation of breath. Breathing is both automatic and not automatic, which means you don’t have to think about inhaling and exhaling. That being said, over time, how you instinctively breathe can lead to suboptimal health. For instance, shallow breathing causes the body to live in a cyclical state of stress, eventually leading to digestive issues, insomnia, and lowered immune function.

But you can change these unconscious patterns. By bringing awareness to your breath, you can become more anchored in the present moment, reclaim your health, and even catalyze expanded states of consciousness.

What’s Pranayama?

Originating from ancient Sanskrit cultures, the term Pranayama refers to the practice of moving energy through the body via regulated breath.

Prana = vital life force

Yama = control

A technique originating from yogic practices in India, pranayama was engaged to regulate vital energy in the body and to focus and concentrate the mind in preparation for deep meditation. If you’ve taken any of the yoga classes here at Sanctuary, you may be familiar with this style of breathwork, which can help you feel more relaxed, give you more energy, and even improve mental focus.

What is Overbreathing?

Primarily developed from the Holotropic and Rebirthing methods established during the 20th century, Overbreathing – also known as conscious connected breathing – is a technique that uses deep and continuous breathing to access the memory of the body and aspects of the psyche not generally available.

Stress and traumatic stress can impair the brain’s neural circuits, causing dysregulation of the nervous system. This can result in hyperarousal, which often exhibits as anxiety and panic. Or hypoarousal, a state of “freeze” and “shut down” that can present as dissociation. Practiced in a safe setting, can help you integrate incomplete energies of traumatic stress, so that you can be more at peace in your body and resourced to respond to the events of life. This type of breathwork is also practiced to induce shifts in brain activity and expanded states of awareness from which aspects of one’s experience and life can be seen from a new perspective.

Finding the Right Breathing Technique

Breathwork is an excellent tool for anyone who wants to improve their quality of life physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. Depending on your goals, you might choose a technique that up- or down-regulates your nervous system, improves performance and endurance, or helps you achieve an expanded state of consciousness.

If your goal is performance-based

Certain techniques are designed to use nasal breathing to improve lung capacity and oxygen absorption. Not only is this beneficial to athletes, it can help anyone seeking improved energy levels and sleep quality — especially those who primarily breathe through their mouths.

The Buteyko breathing method increases respiratory efficiency, as seen in this case study. And in this recent study on Wim Hof breathing, researchers found that a combination of deep breathing and breath holds before exercising increased CO2 concentration in participants. By performing one session of Wim Hof breathing, the athletes experienced elevated blood flow to their muscles, improved VO2 max (that’s the maximum amount of energy your body can use during exercise), and a lower perception of effort.

To improve your performance, try:

If your goal is to relax and unwind

When you’re under stress, choosing a breathing technique that shifts your nervous system from sympathetic or fight-or-flight mode, to parasympathetic or rest and digest mode, is a great place to start. In the fight-or-flight response, your heart rate is increased, your breathing is shallower, and your amygdala (that’s the part of the brain that senses danger) signals your brain to start pumping out stress hormones. With the right Pranayama breathwork practice, you can signal a sense of safety to your brain instead.

To relax and unwind, try:

If your goal is to increase energy

Sometimes you need to activate your sympathetic nervous system, like when you’re feeling fatigued, unmotivated, or disconnected from the world around you. Specific methods increase prana in the body and impact levels of noradrenaline, a chemical messenger that’s naturally released when you’re focused or emotionally stimulated. According to this study from the University of Belgium, they’ve even been shown to improve symptoms in chronic fatigue syndrome patients. Activation breathing techniques typically include breath holds at the top of your inhale and emphasis on more quick and powerful inhales and exhales.

To increase your energy, try:

If your goal is therapeutic self-discovery and healing

For those seeking deeper self-exploration and access to new dimensions of healing and self-awareness, techniques in the Overbreathing category can help. Breathwork stimulates physiological shifts that support regulation of the nervous system and resolution of traumatic stress. It also provides access to energies that can be integrated for deeper healing and holistic wellbeing. As a catalyst for expanded states of awareness, Overbreathing practices can be an accessible form of ‘psychedelic’ experience that brings meaningful insight and clarity.

To support healing and therapeutic self-discovery, try:


Breathwork is all about bringing greater awareness to your body and mind. While general breathing exercises can act as an introduction to more advanced techniques, the simple act of being conscious of your inhales and exhales can have incredible benefits. Pranayama refers to the act of moving energy (or prana) through the body, allowing you to up-regulate or down-regulate your nervous system as desired. And Overbreathing releases stagnant fight-flight-freeze energy, giving you access to an expanded state of consciousness.

At Sanctuary, you’ll find several different breathwork approaches designed to help reconnect you to the power and potential of your breathing. From yoga asana sessions that integrate pranayama to focus the mind to meditation programs that introduce breath as an anchor of awareness in the present moment. In the coming months, we’ll be adding new on-demand breathwork classes to the schedule here at Sanctuary and look forward to seeing you in our Seattle studio.

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