Sanni Parkkinen

Let’s clarify some concepts! What is the difference between functional breathing, pranayama and breathwork? What defines each of these breathing modalities?

There is lots of breathwork out there, and breathwork can basically mean any type of breathing technique or exercise. How to know what is what? 

I like to distinguish breathwork from two other breath-related concepts: functional breathing and pranayama, as I find they have slightly different purposes as well as methods.

Functional breathing should be the basis for all work with breath. Retraining the breath to flow effortlessly and calmly through the nose, with a soft strong diaphragm, and to respond accurately to the body's needs is essential for health.

Unfortunately, this step is often skipped as it requires daily practice and usually, some kind of somatic practice as well to touch the problems in biomechanics of breathing (like frozen diaphragm). 

Pranayama and breathwork are essentially *not* practices for functionalizing and freeing up the everyday breathing pattern. Sometimes they can assist in that goal, though.

Pranayama translates into prana=spirit + ayama=expansion and comes from the world of yoga. Expanding the spirit, or life force. It does not mean breathing exercises in particular, but it is very likely that a yogi works with the breath when engaging in pranayama. The purpose of pranayama is, eventually, to be able to sense and guide the subtle currents of energy in the body. It is not a practice for regulating the nervous system or managing stress - these are just nice side effects of the techniques.

Breathwork, on the other hand, is a concept that emerged somewhere around the 1960s and 1970s. It is said to be based on ancient breathing modalities like pranayama, but it very often has some kind of therapeutic purpose. Breathing takes place through the mouth. Techniques are usually quite powerful, switching off the conscious mind and tapping into the subconscious while depleting the physical body of oxygen. Therefore, breathwork is often practiced to work with emotions and stagnations in the emotional body.

Breathwork is known to trigger a great deal of stuff. It can be a great experience for some, while for others it can be too much out of the comfort zone, too stressful and even amplify the existing trauma pathways. It is always wise to practice breathwork in safe settings with an experienced practitioner.

The hype around breathwork has, in my opinion, one big minus: the fact that the bigger seems to always outweigh the subtle. The higher the experience, the better the practice. The more it feels, the greater the results.

And that has never been the focus of the ancient breathing modalities like pranayama.

When it comes to breath, the subtle is the king. The subtlety of the breath can be experienced through many routes: there is no one right path for everyone. Any breathing practice can be transformational.

👉 What do you think about this way of categorizing the techniques? Makes sense or not?

Disclaimer. I’m sharing from my own as well as my clients’ experiences while choosing to trust research and experts that, in my opinion, look at the big picture of BREATH. I hereby acknowledge that my view is not the one and only right view. Feel free to discuss!

About the Author

Sanni is a breathing coach & educator, nervous system expert, yoga teacher and movement lover, spreading the wisdom of well-being, true embodiment and yoga in Norway.

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