The Cultish Practices of ‘Breathwork’

3 May 2023

There are a growing number of tutors who claim they can teach you how to cure cancer by changing how you breathe.

Are you as concerned as I was at learning that?

If so, read on to learn how common breathing techniques are being misused by some to push anxious and ill people deeper down a sales funnel at the expense of their mental and physical health.

Don’t Breathe and Tell Me How You Feel

I’m aware there’s a range of misinformation in any industry. It irks me every time I see it. It doesn’t mean the entire industry is rotten, it just means enough of its members are not debunking it.

My realm of Communication Skills Coaching is no exception.

Whether it’s voice coaches who demand students somehow “project their voice from their palms”, voice acting tutors who claim drinking certain teas can “protect their vocal cords” or communication consultants who repeat the Mehrabian myth, I try to admonish these claims whenever I see them, because they often cause more harm than good.

On the other hand, I have encountered numerous effective techniques that can help clients enhance their breathing and speaking abilities, such as exercise, diaphragmatic training and impromptu speaking. All of which focus on the breath in some way or another.

But, to avoid falling for the myths it’s crucial to differentiate these legitimate methods from the harmful practices I’m seeing practiced by some.

Genuine voice coaching emphasises developing controlled breathing habits for proper voice projection. In comparison, illegitimate breathing coaching tends to misuse these same techniques, leaving individuals vulnerable to manipulation by authority figures.

When working with a client on their voice, I briefly observe their breathing patterns to help them improve their spoken tone. I look for signs like hunching shoulders or sucking in their stomach while inhaling or speaking, as these habits can limit the amount of air available for speaking, resulting in a stifled sound. Given the voice works mostly on air, it sounds far better when there’s plenty of it and your muscles are relaxed.

But, none of my coaching involves making clients hyperventilate so they reach a state of susceptibility to be goaded into a deeper sales funnel, which is what I’m seeing more and more ‘Guru’s’ do via something called Breathwork. (Not to be confused with the similarly named practice of Breath Work which is the act of monitoring ones breathing when meditating).

Depending on the practitioner you contact, Breathwork claims it can do everything from resolve PTSD, heal broken bones to even cure cancer. But there’s no science behind any of this. Breathwork’s claims are nonsense, it’s a pseudoscience through and through and because of this it’s potentially dangerous. Yet, while it may not be ethical, it certainly is profitable.

That’s why this article is likely to be controversial, because there’s a lot of money involved in being what some call an emotional release salesperson.

Now Take a Deep Breath

Imagine for a moment you’re in one of those darker places in life.

Maybe a loved one has left you.

Maybe you’ve been involved in a traumatic accident.

Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

In the moment, there seems to be no solution.

Nothing you’ve tried to help has worked and so seeking solace in spiritual healing, you forgo the rational efforts and instead your desperation brings you to the online doorstep of one of the thousands of online ‘Gurus’ who markets themselves with something like the hashtag #SpiritualHustle and offers everything from sensory deprivation tanks to luxury meditation sessions.

For the sake of our example, let’s say you’ve decided to follow a Breathwork coach. An hour later and with less money in your bank account, you find yourself sat on your floor either listening to an audio recording or watching your likely chiselled Guru showing you how to focus on your breathing.

As you steadily inhale and exhale your body begins to relax. The tension in your body begins to fade. Your mind starts to rest and for the first time in months your worries begin to melt away.

Ten or twenty minutes later, your first Breathwork session ends and the resulting calm makes you feel as if you’ve made some progress. Sitting down to work on your problems, lo-and-behold this newfound mental clarity helps you find something which gives you that first step forwards towards recovery.

Thanking your Breathwork Guru for their sage advice on teaching you how to breathe, you look forward to the following exercises to arrive in your inbox the next day.

But a few weeks later, you find yourself trapped deep within a sales funnel, hundreds if not thousands out of pocket, perhaps at some exotic retreat, surrounded by other practitioners going: [inhale] HAAAAAAAAAAH, [inhale] HEEEEEEEEEEH, [inhale] HUUUUUUUUUH, [inhale] HOOOOOOOOOH for hours at a time. Practitioners who, like you, despite the happy face they show in public, are having panic attacks in private.

Nevertheless, you continue to practice as your athletic Guru advises, because in their world: “Breathing Heals All”.

What is Breathwork?

Breathwork claims that regulating your breathing can heal your mind and body. Whether it’s blunt force trauma, cancer or “releasing suppressed traumatic childhood memories related to one’s own birth”Breathwork practitioners often promise it can help “release toxins and remove free-radicals from your body”.

Yes, you’re reading that right. Some tutors of Breathwork claim their students can learn how to (quite literally) breathe away their physical or mental illnesses.

Frankly, I’ve always found it quite insidious when someone suggests their alternative method could be a potential cure for cancer, but many espouse it really can achieve such a lofty goal.

Not to be mistaken for the breath control found in meditation, Breathwork was brought to the West by an Austrian doctor named Wilhelm Reich in the 1940’s along with a similar pseudoscience named Orgone therapy. It experienced a revival in the New-Age spiritualism movement in the 1970’s and has since become increasingly popular thanks to a deluge of misinformation and medical scepticism fuelled by homeopathic practitioners with flashy videos on social media.

Mechanically, Breathwork is the act of forcing yourself to control how you breathe. Whether it’s three minutes of rapid inhalation and exhalation, or expelling the breath for 60 seconds or more, it doesn’t matter. Its tutors demand students follow a regime of absolute control over their respiration.

Now, given you can survive for three weeks without food, three days without water, but only three minutes without air, to place this most crucial part of your survival in the self-professed hands of a Breathwork expert who is likely a similarly self-styled, awakened individual from the increasingly popular and unregulated life-coaching industry, I’d say that’s quite a dangerous thing to do.

Soldiers and athletes have known for years how controlling their breath helps steady their heartrate and focus their mind, but I doubt many of them think it can cure all that ails you.

Like most pseudoscientific therapies, a common thread ties them to China where many gained prominence after the intellectual purge. Subsistence farmers lacking any form of medicine desperately tried to help their loved ones through esoteric wishful thinking; inedible animal parts became traditional Chinese medicine. Massage therapists rebranded themselves as Chi energy manipulators.

Breathwork on the other hand doesn’t come from China, meaning it lacks much in the stereotypical image and requires the least investment or equipment given we all have a set of lungs, that’s probably why it’s so popular amongst its teachers. There’s no start-up cost, barely any education necessary and the student can learn from the comfort of their own home.

A Typical Breathwork Session

If a student of Breathwork follows the typical techniques of their Guru they’ll be told to do three things:

  • Spend a few minutes breathe gently
  • Spend a few more minutes rapidly inhaling and exhaling
  • Scream, shake or cry out any ‘negative energies’

Following this morbid practice causes the student to initially feel a sense of relief as they focus on calming their breath, only to then be hit by an enormous wave of anxiety as they become red in the face whilst their body desperately tries to regulate its delicate O2 & CO2 balance. The added screaming, crying or convulsing only heightens the emotions, making the anxiety all the more real.

The Guru, then seeing their student at the very pinnacle of their pain steps in to calm their breathing – all whilst congratulating them on “expelling their toxins / negative energies / realigning their chakra’s” etc…

In many students, they feel as if they’ve achieved something, when in reality they’ve simply whipped themselves into a furore and then brought themselves back to sanity.

The Guru on the other hand, has established themselves as a highly profitable Emotional Release Salesperson. It was the Guru’s ‘teaching’ which made the student feel calm during a moment of anguish.

Imagine then if this happens amongst your peers and you succumb to groupthink. Here’s a documentary on that very scenario, with tens of people screaming, convulsing and crying in union. It’s spiritual hypnotism bundled with anxiety causing techniques.

What’s Really Happening?

The reality is, the teacher of Breathwork is doing nothing more than placing the student in a state where they are likely to accept coercion:

  • The student is usually first told to talk about their life struggles, placing them in a state of anxiety.
  • They are then lulled into a calm state through gentle breathing, causing them to let down their guard.
  • They then wilfully force themselves into a state of anxiety and passionate emotional expression by following the Guru’s method.
  • At the right moment, the Guru then makes suggestions which claim to be ‘healing’ their client.
  • The student slowly returns to a state of calm.
  • After the exercise, the Guru applauds their student on their ‘progress’ and pushes for more intensive lessons.

It’s dangerous and it’s nonsense.

Despite what these Guru’s advise, it’s never a good idea to make yourself feel lightheaded through oxygen starvation to induce an artificial high.

Likewise, expelling all the air in your lungs for long-periods of time to ‘cleanse yourself’ of CO2 is similar nonsense: our bodies need both oxygen and carbon dioxide to regulate the delicate PH levels of the fluids surrounding our cells. If unbalanced, our cells rupture and die. Here’s an expert clinical study on the topic which explicitly states how Breathwork “may (also) exacerbate the symptoms of certain mental and/or physical health conditions”.

But none of this matters to the student, because most are unaware.

They are unaware of how a cunning Guru could use a painful moment as the perfect opportunity to suggest something they would normally never accept.

They are unaware of how this moment is being used as a sales pitch which suggests removing ‘negative energies’ or ‘toxins’ can only be ‘cleansed from the body’ by following the Guru’s profitable, yet benefit lacking breathing technique – which also usually comes bundled with the repetition of some trite tagline, copywritten mantra or a memorable phrase.

They are unaware that they are being driven on an emotional rollercoaster which first reminds them of their struggles, throws them over the edge of a fearful precipice and then gently glides them back to a state of calm.

This wild ride does only one thing: it makes many believe the Guru has some special insight into their suffering. If the student is also the victim of ‘toxic positivity’ thinking (the nonsense that negative thinking is the cause of all one’s problems), they are all the more susceptible to see their newfound Guru as a saviour of their sins and is far more liable to become an avid follower, promoter, or better yet, a purchaser of their next lesson.

The Business of Breathing

For this luxury, some coaches charge hundreds per hour or thousands per course, only to watch you breathe and then tell you how you’re either holding back some deep trauma, or perhaps a great breather.

Other coaches have branded apps. For only £1.99 you can buy one of a plethora of apps on Breathwork which will be a little more expensive than the typical cost of breathing, but you also get to hear the New Age ringing of crystal bowls, low frequency shamanistic droning and the irregular clangs of a Yak bell – along with someone breathing in your ears – if you enjoy that.

Have a Gentle Flow

Breathwork draws upon meditative techniques which all seem to aim at the same idea of letting go, but that’s about as little in common it shares with those ancient arts.

In 2014 as a Japanese Language and East Asian Philosophy student of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, I was lucky enough to speak to a fifty year Yoga practitioner and so-called Guru named Radhanath Swami on the topic of how to best breathe whilst meditating.

His softly spoken advice was simple: “Keep a gentle flow and let go“.

That same advice would later be added to my book on building vocal strength which would emphasise the dangers of inducing hyper and hypoventilation. It’s the same advice I give to any of my voice coaching students.

Yet, unlike Radhanath, the online Guru of today doesn’t usually build hospitals, advise Obama or inspire the creation of a foundation which distributes over a million free meals a day.

Instead, the new-age Guru markets their new-age spiritualism via social media, using professional looking videos which promise an alternative cure for all that ails you. Their methods usually include a panoply of pseudoscience: Reiki, Touch Healing, Quantum Sound, Crystal Therapy, Tarot and Homeopathy are all available.

Like all these pseudoscience’s, they only really invite you to let go of your money.

Now Relax

I want to make it clear that not all Breathwork coaches are charlatans, but the growing number of them taking to social media showing their clients screaming in oxygen-starved agony isn’t a good look for their industry.

As many find themselves choking in the unregulated world of Spiritual Healing, it’s not surprising some will be taken in by those who want to take advantage of them; after all, who needs a license to teach you how to breathe?

If you’re looking for a breathing coach, remember this: if they suggest you practice rapid breathing, demand to know why. If they talk of ‘negative energies’, ‘removing toxins’ or similar spiritual woo-woo, refuse and run. If on the other hand they explain the neurology behind the process and the training of the mind to manage induced stress, consider practicing in private.

Understanding the difference between legitimate breathing coaching, which aims to improve vocal abilities through healthy techniques and the dangerous practices like Breathwork which can have detrimental effects on one’s physical and mental well-being will save you hours of anguish. Furthermore, always be cautious and sceptical when encountering self-proclaimed ‘Gurus’ promoting alternative healing methods.

To avoid falling prey to such scams, be diligent in researching alternative claims, prioritise critical thinking and ask yourself: if this person is claiming to be a Guru, is it really true?