How to Utilize the Power of the Breath
Photo by Louis Blythe on Unsplash
How you breath can have a profound effect on your body and mind.
Those who have learned to leverage the power of the breath are able to perform under pressure, relax at will, increase focus, and even influence their own immune system.
On the flip side, people with bad breathing habits — like shallow breathing, hyperventilation or mouth breathing — can experience dozens of negative side effects like sleep apnea, chronic fatigue, and even dental problems.
The Breath is a Gateway
Breathing is the common ground between two sets of nerves — the voluntary nervous system, and the autonomous nervous system. It’s the only function of the body that can be used automatically or manually — at the risk of stating the obvious.
In a situation of high stress, like a vicious argument with a coworker, the autonomous system is all like:
“We have a situation! Send that heart rate into overdrive and turn the breathing up a couple notches!”
You can’t control your heart rate. You can override the autonomous command of increasing respiration, by slowing your breathing and drawing it out.
This is why someone might tell you to take a deep breath when you’re upset, or why meditation is in large part a practice of focusing on breathing.
The “gateway” concept is simple enough on the surface, but the endless possibilities of influencing the body and mind through breath has driven curious individuals to explore and develop breathing patterns and techniques that produce a specific physiological response.
The Scientists are On-board
While breathing exercises have been practiced in ancient cultures for millennia, it has only recently been caught up to by science. Different techniques and methods now have scientific validation — thanks to a flood of studies and scientific papers — and as a result are gaining some mainstream exposure.
Here are three breathing techniques you can add to your toolkit of healthy habits:
Expert: Robert Lee
Applications: Relaxation, Focus, Performance, Stress Management
Difficulty Level: Easy
Time Required: 1–5 minutes
Robert Lee moonlights as a Freediving instructor — he teaches mindful breathing so divers can learn slow down their heart rate and relax before a deep dive, to maximize their breath hold.
This can be a helpful exercise for anyone, says Lee, because people generally get “overly amped” when anticipating a performance, and the physiological effects of this breathing technique help increase focus and calm down unhelpful jitters.
How It’s Done
Take a deep breath in using the diaphragm, which should feel like breathing into your stomach.
When the diaphragm is fully engaged, take an additional sip of breath into the chest area, taking in just slightly more than a normal inhalation.
Slowly exhale by pursing your lips or clenching your teeth, like a dam slowing the natural flow of water. Allow the chest and lungs to relax, with only the mouth holding the air back from rapidly releasing. Try to draw out the exhale to 15–20 seconds. You may feel a wave of sleepiness or relaxation during this phase.
Repeat 6–10 times.
This is also a great exercise for chronic shallow breathers, who tend to use their ribs and chest to breathe in. If you practice using the diaphragm it will strengthen, resulting in more efficient breathing.
The most important aspect of this exercise is the prolonged exhale. This helps promote heart rate variability, with subjects’ heart rates averaging 70 beats per minute on the inhale, and dropping to 40 BPM on the exhale. If your heart rate is elevated as the result of a stress response, this exercise will have a real, measurable impact on the physical body.
Give this technique a test drive the next time you are preparing for a presentation, walking up to the putting green or getting ready for a difficult meeting, to channel focus and relieve any pre-game jitters.
“The single most effective relaxation technique I know is conscious regulation of breath.” — Dr. Andrew Weil
The Buteyko Method
Expert: Patrick McKeown
Applications: Everyday breathing for: Asthma, Anxiety, Sleep, Children
Difficulty Level: Medium
Time Required: N/A
Take a breath in. Exhale. Now, did you breathe through your nose, or your mouth?
The Difference Between Nose and Mouth Breathing
According to the breathing expert and author Patrick McKeown, there’s a huge difference between the two. Breathing through the nose filters, warms and humidifies the air, which helps with oxygenation and flow.
The nasal airway is also smoother and more open than the airway of the mouth, and promotes breathing with the diaphragm — which is the proper way to pull air into the lungs. Nose breathing is like a sous-chef, expertly preparing the air to optimize the effectiveness of the lungs.
Research has shown for decades that mouth breathing has a long list of consequences. According to McKeown, chronic mouth breathing is likely to cause sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and can lead to the development of ADHD in children and interfere with other brain functions. On top of that, mouth breathers often wake up with dry mouths, causing dental problems, and tend to experience fatigue and brain fog, among other symptoms.
The Solution for Mouth Breathing and Hyperventilating
The Buteyko Method was created by a Ukrainian Doctor of the same name, when he observed that patients with “civilization diseases” like asthma, arthritis, hypertension and allergies were hyperventilating. He postulated that the heavy, deep breathing commonly associated with mouth breathing was feeding these diseases, and after years of study and clinical practice his theory was validated.
The method focuses on teaching proper breathing techniques for everyday use. Breathing has a sweet spot between too little breathing, and too much (hyperventilation), just like the consumption of food and water.
The CO2/O2 Relationship in the Body
As we all know, breathing is exchanging the gasses — O2 comes in, CO2 goes out.
The common attitude is that CO2 build up is bad, and a high concentration of O2 is good.
McKweown disagrees. On the Bulletproof Radio podcast, he mentions that CO2 actually plays a part in oxygenation:
“Yes, it’s true that we breathe to get rid of access CO2, but we need to retain a certain quotient to allow the oxygen that’s in the blood to get released to the cells. So carbon dioxide is actually very important for the cells to receive oxygen.”
So how do you find out if you’ve actually been over-breathing? The Buteyko method offers an easy DIY test.
Sit straight without crossing your legs and breathe comfortably and steady.
After an exhalation pinch your nose.
Hold your breath and start a stopwatch.
When you feel a slight discomfort resume your breathing and note the time.
The time lasted is known as the “control pause”.
Individuals with a healthy breathing pattern have a control pause in the 40–60 second range, while the majority of people today last 20–40 seconds. Anyone below 10 seconds is likely to have a chronic problem of some kind, and would benefit from Buteyko training.
When we feel the need to breathe, it’s a build up of CO2 that triggers the feeling, not a lack of oxygen. If your control pause is less than 40 seconds, you may be breathing out too much carbon dioxide on the regular, and your body is used to hyperventilating. Without adjustment, this style of breathing can lead to any of the problems mentioned above, and is a known contributor to anxiety.
What if I can’t breathe through my nose?
Get that schnoz clear! If it’s a structural problem like enlarged tonsils or a deviated septum, talk to a doctor about potential solutions. Other reasons may be allergies, or environmental factors like mold.
If it’s temporary, try this nose clearing hack from the Buteyko method, which is almost identical to the test:
Breathe in and out through your nose normally.
After the exhale, pinch your nose, hold your breath, and sway side to side.
Hold your breath until you feel a relatively strong air shortage.
Breathe in through your nose, slowly, and out through your nose.
Calm your breathing, take a minute to recover.
Repeat six times, or until you feel your nasal passages begin to clear.
As you hold your breath you’re changing blood gases, and nitric oxide is released from the paranasal sinuses and into the nasal cavity helping to open up the upper airways, as well as the bronchioles of the lungs.
Once the nose is clear, make a concerted effort to regularly breath through it. Only breathing through it regularly will keep the airways open, and ensure that you continue breathing through it while sleeping.
Other principles of the method that result in more effective and ultimately healthier breathing:
Always keep your mouth closed when breathing.
If the test showed you to be a hyperventilator, try to breathe less than you normally do.
Never open your mouth and keep your breathing under control when you do sport.
Control your breathing at any time, especially in situations of stress or anxiety.
The Wim Hof Method
Expert: Wim Hof
Applications: Athletics, Focus, Immunity, Mindfulness, Confidence
Difficulty Level: Medium — Challenging
Time Required: 20 Minutes
While Buyteyko breathing focuses on correcting chronic hyperventilation, McKeown admits that there are benefits from using hyperventilation exercises to stress and train the body. In a recent podcast, the Buteyko practitioner spoke of his fascination of the wildly popular breathing/meditation exercise known as the Wim Hof method.
Also known as “The Iceman”, Wim Hof is an eccentric Dutch daredevil who holds 26 Guinness World Records, including farthest swim under ice, running a full marathon in the arctic circle with only shorts on, and longest time spent immersed in ice. Many of his feats have challenged the scientific understanding of the human body.
In one such feat, he was injected with a bacterial endotoxin that should have caused a severe immune reaction: fever, chills and headaches. Instead, Wim was able to suppress the immune response by secreting adrenalin on command, suggesting for the first time that we are able to influence are immune system at will. He then trained 12 other individuals to do the same. Scientists were baffled.
He attributes his shocking accomplishments to his method, which combines heavy breathing with meditation and cold exposure.
Here’s the quick and dirty version:
Lay on your back, or sit tall with a straight spine.
Inhale deeply using your diaphragm.
Exhale fully, but don’t force it out. Just let the breath go.
Repeat the inhale and exhale for 30 rounds.
After the last exhale, hold your breathe until you have a strong urge to inhale.
Inhale deeply and hold for 10 seconds.
Repeat the previous steps 3–6 times.
After your final round, recover briefly then jump in a cold shower. Start with 30 seconds and work your way to a few minutes.
Please Note — You will feel very light headed. Different people have different reactions to the rapid CO2/O2 saturation changes, and fainting is a possibility. If you think you might be at risk of fainting, do the exercise laying on your back. Never do the exercise standing up, or in or near water. Wait to recover before jumping in the cold shower.
During this cycle, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels dance up and down. The physiological effects are many, leaving you with a pleasant buzzing throughout the entire body. Check out The Renegade Pharmacists infographic on what happens in your body during and after practicing the method:
You don’t have to be a superhuman daredevil to put this method to good use. It's a super effective stress buster, and works wonders for getting you out of your head and into your body when feelings of anxiety or depression are consuming.
Experts who have studied the method also report that the benefit of suppressing an overactive immune system means that it could be used to treat Crohn’s disease, or Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Tinker With Your Breathing
Each of these techniques takes a little practice. Adding them to your tool kit can help you to get to know your body a little more, helping you to gain more control over how you feel, how you perform, and how you think. Whether your trying to putt for birdie, sleep better, or start the day off on a powerful foot, taking control of your breathing can help you take control of your situation, and your life.
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