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The Breath Revolution

December 29, 2017 | John Friend

Probably the most common breath instruction that we hear in modern postural yoga and among general health practitioners is to “take a deep breath.” In gyms and yoga classes worldwide an audibly strong, deep breath is encouraged to fill up the lungs as much as possible to gain more oxygen and to eliminate unhealthy carbon dioxide. Taking a big breath can enliven us in the moment and help us clear a layer of inner tension that we have accumulated during our stressful day. Certainly, deep breathing might feel good and have short-term benefits, but is it truly the healthiest and most natural way for us to breathe over the long-term?

To analyze this question, we must look at the two key factors of breathing technique – volume and frequency. Volume relates to the total amount of air breathed in and out within a period of time, and frequency is the breathing rate within that time period. Advanced yogis, martial art masters, and highly trained athletes including Wim Hof, the “Ice Man”, all naturally breathe only a few times per minute (3 – 5 breaths / min.) with low total volume of air (2 L / min).

In stark contrast, distressed, sickly, aged and dying people breathe rapidly (20 – 30 breaths per minute) while sucking a huge volume of air (~20 L / minute). Although someone might be moving a lot of air in and out of their lungs, their tissues can become hypoxic, literally suffocating without enough oxygen. This seeming paradox of increased volume of air to lower oxygenation will be explained physiologically shortly. On the other hand, when we are in a state of relaxed focus or meditation, or in a state without psycho-emotional inhibition, i.e. no stress, our breath is naturally very light with a low volume of air being moved in and out of our lungs per minute.

Another interesting fact regarding breath rate is the correlation among animals to their longevity. For example, the breath rate of a giant tortoise is about 4 cycles per minute and they can live over 150 years! A whale breathes about 6 rounds per minute and they typically live over 100 years, while a mouse breathes over 100 rounds per minute and they usually live no longer than 3 years. The average breathing rate for a human is 15 – 18 / min, and our life expectancy is normally around 80 years. Yet, it is typical for Qigong masters who breath imperceptibly only a couple times per minute to live well over 100 years.

So, how can breathing slower with less volume be healthier than deep breathing over the course of our life? A central key to vibrant health and longevity is high oxygenation of our tissues, vital organs and brain. The number one cause of disease is lack of oxygen in our cellular tissue. Yet, a healthy level of oxygen in our cells can only occur if there is a healthy concentration of carbon dioxide present in both our lungs and blood. Carbon dioxide is not a worthless, toxic by-product of cellular respiration as many people believe. It is actually a primary factor in the process of releasing of oxygen from the blood to our cells and in the regulation of our blood pH. As carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs, it then increases in the blood, which leads to a release of oxygen to our tissues and organs. This is called the Bohr effect, which describes the process of how hemoglobin releases oxygen to tissue based on carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Levels of carbon dioxide in the lungs and consequent levels of oxygen in our cells are directly related to our daily breathing patterns.

It is the sensitivity within our brain’s respiratory center to specific levels of carbon dioxide in our lungs that causes us to breathe. When our tolerance for carbon dioxide in our lungs is low, we tend to breath more frequently as the body struggles to eliminate the misperceived excessive carbon dioxide and to get more oxygen. With a low set point for carbon dioxide in our brain’s respiratory center, we automatically “over-breath” – breathing more quickly and with greater volume. This leads to low levels of carbon dioxide in our system, which creates constrictions of blood vessels and bronchi that in turn diminishes oxygen delivery to the body. Over-breathing due to stress or poor diet, mouth-breathing, or hyper-ventilation practices for altered states of consciousness (Rebirthing, Holotropic Breathwork, etc.) are all harmful to our health with frequent long-term use. These unhealthy long-term breath practices re-calibrate our brains to a lower tolerance of carbon dioxide in our lungs, which causes a vicious cycle of chronic over-breathing, and hence unhealthy low levels of oxygen in our cells. Habitual hyperventilation and regularly low oxygen levels in our tissues is scientifically correlated to heart disease, cancer, asthma, chronic fatigue, and other diseases including psychiatric disorders.

In the later half of the 20th century, a Russian doctor, Konstantin Buteyko scientifically showed the health benefits of breathing lightly like the yoga masters compared to modern society’s disease linked “over-breathing”. As Dr. Buteyko’s years of research showed, through regular practice of slower, lighter breathing, we gain more tolerance to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in our blood, which in turn allows for optimal amounts of oxygen to be released to tissues and cells throughout the body.

The breath practices in the Bowspring method are greatly inspired by the Buteyko method and classic Qigong exercises to gain maximum oxygenation and life force (Qi, Chi, Prana, etc.) flow throughout our body by breathing slow, light, and relaxed. Our long-term physical purpose of specific breathing practices is to consciously increase oxygen and Qi flow to all of our cells throughout our body, particularly to vital organs, glands and the brain for our optimal health. Balanced skillful breathing coordinated with our flowing movements and actions in our Bowspring alignment also helps us to better integrate mind, body, and heart in a harmonious way within our stressful world.

In the Bowspring method, we utilize a variety of breathing techniques that range from our basic breath practice in our postural sequences that is slow and of light volume to very strong pranayama practices (kapalbhati, bhastrika, and kumbhakas) in which we breathe forcefully with big volume including breath retentions. These forceful breath practices are considered specialized techniques that are essentially short-term bio-hacks to help us to improve our long-term breathing ability to increase Qi, oxygenation to the cells, and to remain balanced under stress. They are not regarded as breathing practices for normal everyday activity. In the Bowspring method we advocate a full spectrum of living from deep rest to fully embodied exercise that gives the heart and energy circulation a dynamic, harmonious variability through a regular diurnal cycle. So, we are not only about living in a sedentary state breathing a couple of times a minute nor in a high activity state with elevated heart rate and rapid breathing. We seek a variability of life that leads to a default level of the highest level of health which is reflected in a naturally slow, light breath and coherent heart rate variability.

In the vast majority of our Bowspring dynamic postures and exercises, we breathe through the nose gently and silently without force. This breathing practice provides a healthy build-up of Qi along with a relaxed, centering of the mind directed to our highest spiritual purpose of awakening.

Here is a summary of our “Taoist Breath” technique that can be used during any Bowspring practice:

  • Maintaining a circumferentially full ribcage (radiant heart), we inhale and expand a ball of Qi into the Hara (lower belly beneath the navel).

    • Widen the pelvic floor back and lift the glutes to tip the pelvis forward.

  • With every inhale, elongate the spine up toward the top of the head.

    • Diaphragm moves down and out with the inhalation.

  • Exhale, and direct the energy of the Hara downward through the legs. Contract the Hara back and in, hugging the ball of Qi. Pelvic floor contracts.

    • With every exhale, root your energy down into the legs.

    • Diaphragm moves up and in with the exhalation.

    • Exhale in a slow, relaxed way.

  • The breath should be delicate, calm and silent through it slow rhythmic flow.

Even as the flow and pulsation of the Bowspring poses speeds up or becomes more physically challenging, we train to relax our mind so not to breath too quickly or to suck big volumes of air in through the mouth. We learn to handle any mild feelings of air hunger with equipoise in order to build tolerance to increasing carbon dioxide levels for increased oxygenation throughout the cells of our body for a long, happy life.

One of specialized bio-hack breathing techniques is the Wim Hof method of conscious “over-breathing” as a means to reset tolerance levels for carbon dioxide within the brain’s respiratory center, so we can improve our capacity to breath slower and gain more oxygenation over the long-run. This powerful breathing technique also serves as a form of an internal reboot for increasing the mind’s effect on the autonomic nervous system.

Here is a summary of the Wim Hof breath method:

  • Inhale strong and deep through the nose or mouth completely filling the lungs. Then make a short burst of exhalation through the mouth emptying ¾ of the lungs. Repeat this 20 – 30 times with a steady pace until you get light-headed and experience the tingling sensations of hyperventilation in the body.

  • After the rapid successions of the breath cycles, inhale again to full capacity and then let all the breath out. At the bottom of the exhale, hold the breath out for as long as you can without force or strain. Hold out until you experience the gasp reflex.

  • Then inhale again to full capacity, and hold the breath for about 10 seconds.

  • Repeat this process 3 times.

In contradiction to the Buteyko method, the Wim Hof breathing method is basically hyper-ventilation. The benefit of the Wim Hof method is in the controlled holding of the breath out after purposefully plummeting the carbon dioxide in the lungs, and then training the mind not to react as the levels slowly normalize triggering the brain to breathe in. So, as a specialized bio-hack, the basic Wim Hof breathing technique can be very effective in recalibrating the set sensitivity levels in the respiratory control center for carbon dioxide levels. This is one of the keys that Wim Hof attributes to his body-mind control over  freezing temperatures, and his accomplishment of 21 world records including running a marathon on sandals above the Arctic circle wearing only shorts!

However, some Wim Hof students get so light-headed during the breathing practices that they faint, which can be particularly dangerous when performed in a body of water. Drowning has tragically occurred in

in some instances. In the Bowspring method, we generally perform this breath technique lying down on the floor, and with not so many rounds of this breath to reduce some of the common risks. Again, we use these short-term, specialized breath practices in the Bowspring method in the context of our long-term goal to training our nervous system to be less reactive and hyper-sensitive to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the lungs so to ultimately maximize oxygenation to our tissues, and bring radiant health to both body and mind!

The pathway to the healthiest and most natural breath is through sensation, feeling, and cultivating trust in the coherent rhythms and cycles of the body, of Nature. While most health experts today promote the salutary benefits of deep breathing, in the Bowspring method we emphasize consciously breathing less and slower for optimal health, especially in our fast paced, stressful modern world. Taking a “deep breath” may continue to have short-term use and benefit, yet the evidence shows that for long-term radiant health, training to breath with less volume and slower frequency moves us toward a universal pattern of life in harmony.

For further reading:

  • Oxygen Advantage  – Patrick McKeown

  • A Complete Guide to Chi-Kung – Daniel Reid

  • Breath Slower and Less: The Greatest Health Discovery Ever – Artour Rahkimov


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