The Origin of Breathwork

The Origin of Breathwork

The act of breathing is such a basic, fundamental aspect of living that we do it roughly 20,000 times per day without giving it very much thought at all. But breathing can do much more than supply our bodies with life-sustaining oxygen. When breathing is controlled and done in a purposeful manner, it can yield profound benefits. Harnessing the power of breathing is known as breathwork.

The concept of breathwork dates back thousands of years to ancient cultures in India, Japan, and China. It was not until the 19th century that breath regulation techniques were introduced to western society and modern breathwork did not take shape until the social revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

The history of breathwork extends for millennia and has been a process of constant evolution. From ancient scholars to radical free-thinkers, many forces have shaped the art of breathwork into what it is today. The fascinating story of the origin of breathwork is below so keep reading.

Article Topics

The Origin of Breathwork

Much like yoga, the art of breathwork is an ancient practice dating back not just hundreds, but thousands, of years. With benefits ranging from the physical to mental to spiritual, breathwork is simply the conscious control of breathing with measured inhalation and exhalation. In recent years, the popularity of breathwork has seen a dramatic resurgence, so where did this ancient art originate?

Who Invented Breathwork?

When it comes to the question of who invented breathwork, the answers can vary depending on the time period involved. In fact, there are actually three ways to answer this question correctly and they each relate to a distinct phase in the history and development of breathwork.

Breathwork in Ancient Times

In ancient India many centuries ago, the great sage and scholar Patanjali wrote what is considered the first complete text devoted to the yogic and meditative arts, The Yoga Sutras. It was in this groundbreaking literary work that the 8 limbs of yoga were established, and one, pranayama (meaning breath regulation in Sanskrit), is widely considered to be the origin of modern breathwork principles.

Breathwork in the 19th Century

The introduction of breathwork to western cultures is largely attributed to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century. As a respected international ambassador of the yogic and meditative arts, the warm reception he received in the U.S. and other western societies, planted the seeds from which the popularity of yoga and breathwork sprung in the decades that followed.

Breathwork in Modern Times

As far as modern breathwork practices are concerned, their origins can be traced to the social and cultural awakenings that occurred during the 1960s and 70s. Renowned figures like Leonard Orr and the husband and wife team of Dr. Stanislov Grof and Christina Grof conducted landmark studies that firmly established the validity of breathwork therapies and their incredible benefits.

What Culture is Breathwork From?

Historically speaking, the culture with which breathwork is most closely associated is ancient India, which is also widely accepted as the birthplace of yoga. The art of pranayama, which is the fourth limb of yoga (there are 8 in total), is viewed by scholars as representing the original breath regulation practice from which all others developed.

In fact, pranayama comprises over 50 breath control methods including ones familiar to yoga practitioners:

  • Ujjayi breath
  • Breath of Fire
  • Belly breathing

But aside from ancient India, early forms of breathwork can also be traced to cultures in Japan and China, with the Japanese breathing technique known as ki and the Chinese concept of chi, which is rooted in ancient traditional Chinese medicine.

Thus, it is likely that the modern versions of breathwork practiced all over the world today have been influenced by the breathing techniques of multiple cultures, as has been noted by Dr. Grof himself.


From sacred temples in India to local neighborhood studios, the art of breathwork has traveled the globe and spanned many centuries to reach its modern forms. While its evolutionary journey may be far from over, breathwork is a dynamic practice that is enjoying a surge in popularity like no other in its long and fascinating history.