Yogis, free divers and high performance athletes have at least one thing in common: they train their bodies so they can stop breathing. The practice goes back hundreds of years (at least), and as it turns out, is a very good practice to learn. Whether you are aiming for high performance, spiritual enlightenment or improving your health, breath holding, or intermittent hypoxia, will add life to your years and years to your life. This is why to do it and how to do it!
Ancient Yoga Breath Practices Were Actually About Not-Breathing
There are indications that breathing practices ('pranayama') may have started in India as early as 2,500 years ago. However, the first written reference to pranayama came much, much later- the very first hatha yoga text, called the 'Amritasiddhi' was from the 11th century CE.
While in this century, yoga has become mostly about the body, the 'asana' but in pre-modern India, it was all about pranayama. Every single one of the various schools and systems of yoga practice had pranayama at the heart of the practice- even more than body postures or meditation.
What not a lot of people know however, is that ancient pranayama was really about stopping the breath. It was not about breathing better or achieving health outcomes particularly. To the yogis of the day, stopping the breath meant stopping the mind. If one could stop the mind and enter into meditation, you could also stop accumulating karma and the process of being born again and again.
The Science of Breath Holding
When you hold the breath, you are reducing your levels of oxygen and increasing your levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. If you are new to this, you may believe that oxygen is "good" and carbon dioxide is merely a waste product (and a greenhouse gas). But the science on the necessity of carbon dioxide is very clear. You need it, and you might want even more of it than you think.
Each method can produce different effects however. In the same way that Conscious Connected Breathwork can be profoundly healing, consciously holding the breath can be good for your mind, and definitely very good for your body too. By practicing conscious breath holds, you will be directly influencing your health in a very positive way. It leads to more energy, better sleep, reduced risk of heart disease and lowered inflammation - which happens to be the key driver behind a huge number of the diseases of aging including cancer. Breath holding increases the oxygenation of the cells and strengthens your immune system. Respiratory disease-related bacteria and viruses don’t survive in a highly oxygenated environment. If you practice breath holding, your internal environment is likely to stay oxygenated which gives your immune system the strength to fight off the diseases and germs better.
The combination of reduced oxygen and increased carbon dioxide is both therapeutic and performance enhancing. Indirectly and directly we have been using CO2 to treat skin conditions, strokes, pneumonia, asthma, anxiety, and epilepsy for thousands of years. By practicing breath holds, you can also super charge your physical performance.
CO2 is the doorway by which oxygen reaches your cells. Unless a CO2 molecule is present, when an oxygen molecule comes around to wherever it goes in the body, there will be no way to use the air that you breathe. When you have more CO2 in your body, you conversely get more oxygen to your muscles and tissues.
Additionally, when there is less oxygen, our bodies produce more red blood cells. Since red blood cells carry oxygen, having a greater quantity in your blood will also lead to an increase in aerobic capacity and energy. Therefore, preserving carbon dioxide in your blood and minimizing breathing (in general practice) means more red blood cells, more usable oxygen and more energy. Studies also show that holding your breath gives you greater lung capacity.
Lastly, research studies suggest that intermittent hypoxia helps in the healthy regeneration of brain cells. Also, it promotes the production of various chemo-and-neuro-receptors to enhance neurogenesis which is linked to enhanced cognitive functions like improved memory, focus, concentration, etc. Studies have found conscious breath holding to improve many cognitive deficits in rat models.
World Record Performance
When you consciously hold the breath you are training your brain to tolerate more CO2. This ability can contribute to super human athletic performance.
Take for an example the hypo-ventilation training regime of Emil Zátopek, the world-famous Czech athlete who won 18 world records, four Olympic golds and was called the "Greatest Runner of All Time" by Runner's World magazine.
American swim trainer James Counsilman lead his team to the greatest performance of any US Olympic swim team in history by training his athletes to hold their breath longer and longer lead them to win 13 gold medals, 14 silver, 7 bronze and set world records in 11 events.
All these people have trained their brains to tolerate more carbon dioxide and not panic.
Not panicking in the presence of increased carbon dioxide is nearly the whole art. Holding the breath out can be challenging to the mind. There can be a subtle fear or panic that unless we breathe in, we may die and therefore you may feel like you must breathe in sooner than you physiologically need to. It's important to know that holding your breath consciously is not harmful. Blacking out, if it happens, is not harmful. Your nervous system will simply make you start breathing again. You can trust your body here.
Stig Severinsen, the Danish freediver who set the Guinness World Record for the longest breath hold: a dive time of a mind-blowing, 22 minutes! He advises to use your mind creatively, to drift towards pleasant and beautiful internal imagery. He writes,"different techniques such as relaxation, imagery, concentration and meditation can be employed. You can have various thoughts or recall memories from your childhood or holidays with your family, partner and friends. Or you can try to recreate beautiful moments or emotions you have had below the surface with oscillating ocean currents, dancing seaweeds and corals, or perhaps recall beautiful animals you have met below the surface – dolphins, sharks, sea turtles or tiny colorful fish"
Another technique that I use to prolong my breath is placing my mind at, and relaxing into six specific areas of my body.
According to scientist Stephen Elliot, these six zones are "bridges" into the autonomic nervous system. What these six places have in common is that they can be utilized to build the mind-body connection.
They are the primary areas through which our brain and nervous systems takes in and expresses information. When we are social and relaxed, we are more open in these zones. However, when there is danger in our environment- real or imagined - they then close down and tense up.
However, they are also zones which can easily be under our conscious control. One of the zones, for example, is the diaphragm. It has a dual nature. If you want to exert conscious control over the diaphragm, you can. That's called conscious breathing. Or, your autonomic nervous system does the breathing for you.
By making what is usually 'unconscious', conscious it becomes a bridge between body and mind. It is through this route that experienced yogis can perform extended breath holds.
Because of this dual nature, Elliot, calls them the Six Bridges - as in they are bridges between our conscious mind and body.
These six bridges are:
2. Back of the tongue, roof of the mouth, jaw, lips
3. The hands and fingers
4. The diaphragm
5. Pelvic floor: anal sphincter, urethral sphincter, vaginal sphincter
6. The feet
Try this brief tongue-mind exercise:
sit up in a meditation position so that your rib cage feels expansive, your shoulders relax down the back and the the roof of your mouth gently domes upwards.
look straight forward with a soft, wide gaze
relax the back of your tongue and roof of the mouth
repeat the previous step until you can maintain it for a few breaths
What did you notice?
Your mind will likely have gone completely quiet. You will notice the quality of your awareness changes and becomes more expansive and feels empty. Rumination will stop and the mind opens.
If you do this while you are also holding the breath, you can likely hold your breath much much longer and more comfortably. The tongue is one bridge which has huge leverage on our nervous system and brain. It's quite amazing when you think about it.
The diaphragm is another favorite focal point for me. By learning conscious breathing and breath holding you build a relationship with your diaphragm. It will reward you for doing so. Not the least of which that there proven links between lung capacity and longevity.
When you not-breathe for a while, your body will start to let you know of it's growing discomfort. At first quietly. And then more and more urgently. The bridges, will start to tighten, particularly the diaphragm. The more the diaphragm quakes, the louder it is complaining to you that carbon dioxide levels are going up. The art is to ride the wave of continuous relaxation and gently 'override' the complaints of your diaphragm.
The more you relax, the more you are gently forming this relationship with your diaphragm and it, with you. This is the process of mastering your breath.
Just keep relaxing.
Using an Oximeter
You can measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide upon releasing your breath after a breath hold session and compare them with normal or average values. This will help you monitor the concentration of gases in your blood effectively. This monitoring is essential for understanding the proper dosage needed to design your intermittent hypoxia protocol. An inexpensive hack you can use to get metrics on your breath hold is an oximeter. I ordered mine from the net for $20. It uses light to measure the amount of oxygen in the free floating oxygen in the blood. To effectively induce the therapeutic build up of carbon dioxide, you can check if you are on target by using the oximeter.
It's called hypoxia- a state of low oxygen and high carbon dioxide. The way we know if we have induced hypoxia is to see the number read out on the device.
Usually the device will read somewhere between 95 and 98 oxygen levels. This is normal. As you do breathwork you will see the number fluctuate, but even you breathe, a LOT the number will not go up to 100. Instead, we want to hold our breath until the number drops below 89% oxygen saturation.
Notice here that my starting oxygen saturation is 95%.
After practicing the breathwork technique explained below, I hold my breath out comfortably until the number drops. Here my heart rate down to 88bpm (from 111) and the oxygen level down to 77%. This is a clear state of hypoxia.
How to hold your breath
“The external holding of the breath is known as the divine state” -Yoga Vashistha
There are countless methods to approach this. This is the one I use:
Begin by practicing 30 or 40 conscious connected breathing cycles through the nose or the mouth. Then simply stop breathing and relax. As you relax your diaphragm, there will be a very small amount of air which remains in your lungs- maybe just a teaspoon of air.
place your attention on the back of your tongue and roof of mouth. Relax. When it tenses, keep relaxing it.
Notice your diaphragm. It domes up inside your rib cage as you sit - not breathing. When tension builds in your diaphragm, ask it to relax and keep relaxing.
Maintain this for as long as you feel comfortably can while giving yourself permission to challenge your limits. You can get better at it as you practice!
Come out of this with a huge inhale through the nose and then hold your inhale for 15 to 30 seconds.
Keep your eyes closed and gently allow your breath to return to normal.
Practice 3 or more times.
Breathwork Relationship with Yoga and Meditation
If you can hack successfully your nervous system you are naturally drawn into the state of yoga, at in the sense that is popularly defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali from approximately year 600BC:
"Yoga is a state of being in which the mind has ceased fluctuating"
Many yogic texts, including the yoga sutras make reference to the interrelationship between breath and mind. Often described as two fish which swim together, breath and mind. If we stop the breath, we can begin to stop the mind. That, is yoga. Call it a profound meditation if you will.
We find ourselves making a full circle- back to the yogis of thousands of years ago but armed with knowledge of science as well.
“He who knows pranayama and the external hold of the breath (kevalya kumbhaka) is the real Yogi. What can he not accomplish in this world, who has acquired success in kevali kumbhaka?” - Gheranda Samhita