Breathwork and Alpha, Theta and Delta waves
Alpha brainwaves are slow frequency and high in amplitude, occurring during states of non-arousal. Frequency ranges from nine to fourteen cycles per second. When resting or taking a break after having completed a task, a person is in an alpha brainwave state (or oscillation). Alpha brainwave states have been associated with storage and retrieval of information (Rodriguez-Larios, Faber, Achermann, Tei & Alaerts, 2020). Theta brainwaves are slower in frequency and higher in amplitude than alpha brainwaves. Frequency ranges from five to eight cycles per second. When someone is daydreaming or does a task automatically, they are in a theta brainwave state. This can also occur when washing the dishes or making the bed, whereby tasks are so automatic you go on ‘auto-pilot’, or mentally disengage. Theta brainwave states have been associated with the manipulation of information (Rodriguez-Larios et. al, 2020). Delta waves are even slower in frequency and greater in amplitude than alpha and theta waves. Delta wave frequency ranges from one to four cycles per second, with lowest frequencies occurring in deep sleep.
Breathwork can involve both alpha and theta oscillations, due to the practice of controlling mind-wandering and focus (such as on a particular thought or on breath) while being in a relaxed position. According to Rodriguez-Larios et. al, (2020), from a cognitive perspective, such breathwork practices require retention and manipulation of information to gain this state of thoughtless awareness. Various EEG studies have provided evidence into an increase in alpha and theta band power during meditation, by those who are experienced in the practice (Ziegler et. al, 2019; Lomas, Ivtzan & Fu, 2015). Acceleration of alpha peak frequency is induced by effortful cognitive tasks (such as when initially engaging in breathwork) and theta peak occurs when such cognitive tasks are complete or effortless (Mierau, Klimesch & Lefebvre, 2017). In regard to delta waves, a study (by Jaiswal, Tsai, Juan, Muggleton, & Liang, 2019) found that those who were skilled in mindfulness had lower delta oscillations during task completion than the other participants present. This indicates an increase in attentiveness from practicing meditative breathwork, aligning with the concept of being in the present moment.
In addition, a study by Rodriguez-Larios et. al, (2020) found that compared to being in a state of rest, experienced meditators have reduced retrieval, retention and manipulation of information during a meditative state. This is in line with the common experience of reduced mind wandering and heightened sense of thought awareness during meditation (Brandmeyer & Delorme 2016), reflected in an interplay between alpha and theta waves. Further elaborating on this, a study by Tang, Holzel and Posner (2015), provided evidence suggesting meditative breathwork might be associated with greater cortical thickness and might lead to enhanced white matter integrity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). The ACC enables executive attention and control and is part of a network facilitating cognitive processing. In other words, breathwork can improve the practice of sustained attention.
Jaiswal, S., Tsai, S. Y., Juan, C. H., Muggleton, N. G., & Liang, W. K. (2019). Low delta and high alpha power are associated with better conflict control and working memory in high mindfulness, low anxiety individuals. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 14(6), 645-655.
Lomas, T., Ivtzan, I., & Fu, C. H. (2015). A systematic review of the neurophysiology of mindfulness on EEG oscillations. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 57, 401-410.
Rodriguez-Larios, J., Faber, P., Achermann, P. et al. (2020). From thoughtless awareness to effortful cognition: alpha - theta cross-frequency dynamics in experienced meditators during meditation, rest and arithmetic. Sci Rep 10, 5419
Ziegler, D.A., Simon, A.J., Gallen, C.L. et al. (2019). Closed-loop digital meditation improves sustained attention in young adults. Natural Human Behaviour 3, 746–757