We all breathe, but do you breathe in a way that maximizes your health?
Breath, it’s literally the link between life and death. It’s also one of the few bodily functions that is both automatic and under our control. Humans have been studying breath for thousands of years, way back to ancient India where yogic traditions created a specific branch related to breath, Pranayama, meaning control of life force.
While the science of breathing is still in its infancy, research in the last decade, spurred on specifically by the exploits of people like Wim Hof, shows many promising benefits such as:
- Decreased inflammation in the body
- Control of emotions – just like certain emotional states cause changes to your breathing, the reverse can happen – changing your breathing patterns can change your emotional state
- Decrease of anxiety and depression
- Release of trauma and improvement of trauma symptoms
- Improved sleep
- Regulation of cortisol stress hormones
- Better wound healing
- Alteration of genes responsible for stronger immunity
- Increased cardio and athletic performance
There are many breathing techniques currently gaining popularity: Holotropic Breathing, the Buteyko Method, Navy SEAL Box Breathing, and the Wim Hof Method; but one can start to gain benefits just by being conscious of your breath, and ensuring that you use deep diaphragmatic breathing rather than shallow chest breathing.
Try the following as an introduction exercise:
- Lie down on your back and put one hand on your stomach, another on your chest
- Take in a deep breath (don’t ever force it) for 4 seconds, first feeling your stomach rise, then your chest
- Hold for a 7 count
- Release slowly for an 8 count
- Repeat for 3-5 minutes
Once you’ve done that a few times, I highly recommend trying out the Wim Hof Method of breathing. The breathing is just one aspect of the method (gradual cold exposure being the other), but some of the results studied in recent years have been incredible. Everything from decreased symptoms of auto-immune diseases to significantly reduced acute mountain sickness at higher attitudes. Steps of the breathing method are as follows:
- Lie down on your back and do a set a 30-40 deep breaths. Breathe in deeply, and on the out breath, allow the breath to naturally release, but before it fully releases, breathe in again, almost in a controlled hyper-ventilation fashion.
- After 30-40 breaths, release everything and just lie there without breathing. Time yourself on this. You’ll be surprised how long you can stay without breathing.
- Once you feel you the urge to breathe, take in one deep breath and hold it for 10-15 seconds.
- Release the breath and restart the next 30-40 breath set. Do 3-4 sets of this.
Here’s a video link to the method: https://youtu.be/RW1C_3OXhEs
During the breathing, you might experience tingling or numbness in the body, and this will be due to the decreased carbon dioxide in your bloodstream from the breathing. This will also temporarily change your blood PH to slightly more alkaline. Finally, something about the breathing method allows your body to pump higher levels of adrenaline, noradrenalin, and epinephrine, which in turn leads to increased production of anti-inflammatory mediators.
There’s way too much science to the method to talk about in one blog post, but here’s a bunch of links you can all explore on breathing, its benefits, and how it’s presently being used by the medical community.
Research by Emma Seppala, Ph.D,
A podcast exploring the science behind the Wim Hof Method by Dina and Matthias Wittfoth, two German neuroscientists who became big fans of the breathing and cold exposure
Links to all the scientific studies done on the Wim Hof Method
A look into the therapeutic uses of breathing in the healing of emotional trauma
Further reading on breath science:
Science of Breath by Rudolph Ballentine, Alan Hymes, and Swami Rama
The Oxygen Advantage: Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques to Help You Become Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter by Patrick McKeown
What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength by Scott Carney
Photo taken from: https://agentleway.com/yoga-events/pranayama/