Note: The following article should not be taken as medical advice. It is purely for informational and educational purposes. We are not medical professionals or doctors. Talk to a doctor before engaging in breathwork. See our Medical Disclaimer or Terms and Conditions for more details.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “Is an article about how to breathe safely really necessary? What could possibly be harmful about breathing?”
It might seem like overkill, but the truth is, there are certain inherent risks that come with ANY activity that changes your physical or mental state.
With certain activities, like weight lifting or big wave surfing, the risks of injury and physical harm are obvious and well-discussed.
For other activities, including yoga, meditation, and, you guessed it, breathwork, the risks are much less evident, but that doesn’t make them non-existent.
Research shows that even the most seemingly harmless activities, like a body scan or mindfulness meditation, can bring about negative outcomes, including an increase in cortisol, hyper-stimulation, and depersonalization.
Naturally, breathing techniques are going to have some risks and negative outcomes associated with them as well.
The goal of this article isn’t to scare you or make the risks of breathwork seem bigger than they are – rather, it’s meant to educate you on what can possibly go wrong, and then give you the information you need to avoid mistakes and minimize risks.
So, without further ado, let’s discuss the single most important topic for breathwork safety: context.
Context: What makes a breathing technique potentially dangerous?
How you breathe impacts an innumerable number of bodily processes, including hormone production, heart rate, blood pressure, pH levels, digestion, and a whole lot more.
So, it’s no surprise that these changes can have both positive and negative impacts on a person’s mental and physical health.
What’s important to understand is that what makes a particular breathing technique potentially harmful isn’t necessarily the technique itself, but rather the “context” it’s performed in – circumstances or events that make a particular technique for a particular person in a particular situation dangerous.
To illustrate the point, let’s take something as innocuous as taking a mid-afternoon nap: in 99.9% of contexts, naps are safe, natural, and healthy.
Now, consider napping while driving down the freeway: in this context, napping is obviously not safe.
Breathwork is no different: what works for one person might be harmful to another. Additionally, what works for one person, in one place, or at one time, might not work for that same person at a different time or place – this is why it’s important to understand the 3 key factors or categories that go into context.
The Three Pillars of Context: Setting, Health, Mindset
Within the realm of breathwork, there are 3 primary factors within context to consider:
- Setting – where you’re practicing breathwork, time of day, etc.
- Biology – your previous medical history, current health, and future risk factors
- Mindset – your mental health (anxiety, stress, PTSD, etc.) and current state of mind
Before practicing any technique, whether it’s on the One Deep Breath app or on your own, you should always consider these 3 factors:
- Is this the right place and time to perform the technique?
- Is your body healthy enough to perform the technique?
- Is your mind in the right place to perform the technique?
A (Non-Exhaustive) List of Important Safety Considerations
While we’d love to provide cut-and-dry answers to these questions for every single person who uses the One Deep Breath app, the truth is, there are no universal answers to these questions since the possibilities are nearly endless.
It’s your responsibility to access the safety of a particular exercise before performing it.
For this reason, we’re going to focus on the most common context factors, or considerations, for performing breathwork – so, remember, the list below is not exhaustive, and when in doubt, you should check with your doctor or healthcare physician before engaging in any physical activity, including breathwork.
1. Setting: Don’t Perform Breathwork While Driving, Near Bodies of Water, Etc.
Rapid breathing, breath holds, and other breathing techniques that may trigger hyperventilation can lead to something called acute hypoxia, which is a medical term to describe low-oxygen states.
Hypoxia can lead to tingling, numbness, or light-headedness, and in rare cases, loss of consciousness/fainting.
While these occurrences are rare, this means that it is of the utmost importance to practice breathwork in a location where if you were to lose consciousness, you would be safe from harm.
This means you should never perform breathwork while operating a vehicle, near bodies of water, or in positions where if you were to lose consciousness, you may fall or hit your head.
2. Biology: Don’t Perform Breathwork If You Have Certain Conditions
While we always recommend talking to a doctor about your specific situation and whether breathwork is safe for you, below are some of the most common conditions and situations to be aware of when considering breathwork.
Are you pregnant?
While hypoxia (low-oxygen states) may carry little risk to non-pregnant individuals, the risk may become larger for women who are pregnant.
In order to ensure that the baby has sufficient oxygen supply, pregnant women should consider refraining from any breathing techniques that focus on rapid breathing, breath holds or exercises designed to mimic high-altitude training.
Do you have heart-related issues or high blood pressure?
Additionally, individuals who struggle with heart-related issues, or have in the past, are generally recommended to avoid strenuous physical activity that can spike heart rate.
Certain breathing exercises, particularly those that involve fast or rapid breathing, can lead to an increase in heart rate and should be avoided in these cases.
Have you suffered from a stroke, seizures, or aneurysms?
Certain breathing techniques, particularly those discussed above, which may induce hypoxia, can potentially disrupt blood flow to the brain.
For this reason, individuals who have suffered from, or are at risk of, strokes, seizures, and aneurysms, should check with a doctor before performing breathing techniques.
3. Mindset: Be Prepared for A Change in Mental State
Breathing techniques alter your state of mind by influencing hormone and neurotransmitter production.
While many individuals find relief from mental health issues by using various breathing techniques, it’s important to be aware that for certain individuals with PTSD, depersonalization, or psychosis, this may not be the case.
There are subjective reports of certain breathing activities bringing unpleasant memories or experiences to mind, which may result in relived trauma or distress. Additionally, some individuals report worsening anxiety, depression, and panic attacks in conjunction with mindfulness and/or breathing practice.
For this reason, it’s important to consult a doctor or mental health professional before performing breathing exercises.
Conclusion: Consider Your Context
If you’re a little worried right now, we’d like to invite you to take a deep breath (pun intended).
I know dozens, probably even hundreds of people personally who practice breathwork daily and have never experienced notable adverse effects – this article is not meant to deter you from practicing breathwork, but rather to bring awareness to what can go wrong, too.
As a leading app in the breathwork space, we feel like it’s our responsibility to bring awareness and attention to not just the amazing potential of breathwork, but also the potential dangers and how they can be avoided.
Again, this resource is not meant to be an exhaustive list of various situations, circumstances, and factors to be aware of before performing breathwork – it’s simply impossible to create such a resource and plan for every single situation that may arise.
For this reason, I want to reiterate the importance of asking these three simple contextual questions before practicing:
- Is my body healthy enough to perform the technique?
- Is my mind in the right place to perform the technique?
- Is this the right place and time to perform the technique?
And finally, remember, we are not doctors. We are not healthcare professionals. We always recommend speaking with a doctor or healthcare professional before performing any physical activity, whether it’s breathwork or big wave surfing, to make sure your body and mind are ready for it.
We’ll continue to update this resource as more data and research arises, and as always, want to thank you for using One Deep Breath.
If you have specific questions regarding safety, you can email us at email@example.com or via the Feedback page on the app.