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Category: Breathwork

Breathwork is the practice of respiratory & physical exercises, aiming to improve one’s ability to control the breath. The 2 pillars of breathwork are: hypercapnia & hypoxia. It can be used to:

a. improve control of the Autonomic Nervous System (Improve body temperature control, activation of the Sympathetic or Parasympathetic Nervous System, slow down Heart Rate)

b. delivery of oxygen to working muscles and biomechanics during exercise (Release tension around the diaphragm, strengthen the diaphragm, improve oxygen delivery to working muscles during exercise, accelerate recovery time after training)

c. unconscious breathing (Improve respiratory function by enhancing Carbon Dioxide tolerance)

d. enter meditation (Help you enter into an empty state of mind)

Breathwork can be practiced in conjunction with physical exercises: dynamic; or on its own: static.

Under this category you will find articles discussing the use of breathwork through the Yoga tradition (Pranayama), Buteyko Method, and modern systems such as the Wim Hof Method. My aim is not to get stuck in the method but look into the effects each technique has on the body on a biochemical, biomechanical, and psychological level.

If you are interested in the role breathing plays in the Nervous System you should sign up for the #FreeBreathing mini-course.

Articles in this category

Breathing in yoga

5 things I learned from Wim Hof.

 

Wim Hof Breathing Explained

Wim Hof Breathing Explained

The Wim Hof Breathing is part of the Wim Hof Method, which combines this breathing technique with cold exposure. The claims between the 2 are often confused. You can read about the benefits of cold exposure here. In this article, I will cover what science has shown about the technique and stay away from bogus claims.

 

What is the Wim Hof Breathing?

If I was to answer with one sentence I would say it’s:

“A series of breath holds, on steroids.”

Each round of Wim Hof Breathing has 3 stages:

  1. 30 rounds of hyperventilation.
  2. A maximum breath-hold (it starts on an exhalation)
  3. A 10-sec breath-hold (you tense the upper back muscles)

As Wim will often cue his breathing technique in different ways there is not much more detail you need. You may hear him say: breathe in from the nose and out from the mouth, or just the mouth, or take big, full breathes in and out, or big breath in and let go,… It is common for Wim Hof Breathers to perform x3-5 rounds but in workshops often a lot more rounds are covered.

 

Wim Hof Breathing Biochemistry

The Wim Hof Breathing is a Hypercapnic Hypoxic technique. Here’s why:

One round of Wim Hof Breathing

Hyperventilation phase

  • Oxygen increases marginally in the blood as saturation of haemoglobin is always 95-9&%
  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2) drops
  • pH increases (ie. blood becomes more alkaline) due to CO2 drop

Breath Hold phases

  • Oxygen levels in the blood reduce
  • CO2 in the blood increases until CO2 tolerance is reached and the brain signal it’s time for the next breath
  • pH drops due to the increase of CO2

This however is a theoretical model because what happens, in reality, is the levels of CO2 never return to the original levels let alone get higher.

A few rounds of Wim Hof Breathing

Based on the Nijmegen study on the WHM Breathing, the CO2 levels of the participants at the end of each round were lower than at the end. As a result, the participants’ blood was hypocapnic for the entire time. At one point oxygen levels drop as low as 50%, bringing the blood in deep hypoxia.

Nijmegen Wim Hof Study

 

Facts & Fads about the Wim Hof Breathing

Your Breath-Hold capacity will increase

Fad. Your breath holding time during the Wim Hof Breathing is long only because you have hyperventilated. With each round of Wim hof Breathing the Breath Holds get longer because (a) you start from a lower level of CO2 and (b) your spleen has released more red blood cells (due to hypoxia).

Wim Hof Breathing Biochemistry

Your breath-hold time depends on your tolerance to CO2 which is not trained in this breathing technique.

Your body will be more alkaline

Fad. Yes, your blood will temporarily be more alkaline. As the blood’s ideal pH level is 7.36, the body will excrete alkaline buffers through the kidneys to return the blood to the ideal levels. It’s for that reason why Wim tests his urine after the breathing exercise finds it alkaline.

You will oxygenate your body better

Fad. As a hypocapnic breathing technique, the Wim Hof Breathing causes the oxygen will get trapped into the bloodstream (due to the Bohr effect). So cells of the peripheral tissue, including the heart and the muscles will be deprived of oxygen.

The effects of hypercapnia

Litchfield, P. M. (2003). A brief overview of the chemistry of respiration and the breathing heart wave. California Biofeedback, 19(1), 1-11. 

You will improve your tolerance to cold

Fad. You will improve your tolerance to cold by practicing cold exposure not by breathing. The way that the Wim Hof Breathing will help you tolerate cold is by increasing your noradrenaline levels, which was shown to last for 2 hours. As the Wim Hof Breathing makes use of the mouth a lot of the time it has a cooling effect, not heating.

 

FAQ about the Wim Hof Breathing

What are the benefits?

Most of the benefits are derived from the increase in adrenaline. For people that:

  • feel depressed
  • have a hard time starting their day
  • have a slow metabolism
  • have a weak immune system

the increase of adrenaline is likely to help them initially. Also for those that have a hard time switching off their mind, the shutting down of oxygen supply during the technique will help them stop thinking.

When should you practice?

To answer this question you should first decide what you are trying to achieve. For a lot of people, first thing in the morning, if they want to get a boost from adrenaline, or last thing at night, they want to switch off, are good times. I also know people that practice prior to having sex.

You don’t want to practice prior to operating any machinery or swimming.

Can you combine the Wim Hof Breathing & Oxygen Advantage?

Yes. Ideally, you have a specific goal you are trying to achieve. Any protocol needs to be tailored to your lifestyle and experience. If you need help get in touch.

 

To improve your breathing when you are not conscious of it, check out the Breathe Right 2 week self-paced online course.

breathing in yoga

How to breathe during yoga

The way you breathe during a yoga class is affected by many parameters including :

• our level of experience

• the style of yoga

• our familiarity with the sequence

• how tense you are on the day

• the phase of the menstrual cycle

 

If you have been practicing yoga for a while you may have noticed how your breathing changed with time. You may have also noticed that beginners and more advanced practitioners will be performing the same poses (even with the same technique/form) but following a completely different breathing pattern.

In this article, I will analyze how the level of experience, style of yoga and phase of the menstrual cycle affect how you breathe during yoga. Let’s start with those starting out.

 

Breathing based on experience

Novice

When one starts practicing yoga (especially in a group class), she/he has many challenges to face. I remember having to :

• perform poses on the limit of my flexibility, if not poses completely inaccessible to me

• hold poses for longer than my lactic acid tolerance allowed me

• learn the name of poses

• remember the alignment my teacher indicated

• breathe in and out based on my teacher’s queues

 

While the whole experience at the end can leave the novice student with a sense of relaxation, there is a lot to take in. For that reason I suggest the following 3 rules for those starting out:

✔️ Remind yourself to breathe every so often & establish a slow breathing pattern.

✔️ Observe your breath. Usually, the moment we observe our breathing it is slowed down. Refrain from trying to alter it – just observe it.

✔️ Maintain nasal breathing at all times. The best way to achieve that is to refrain from mouth breathing at all costs. This may not be accessible to you in the beginning due to chronic poor respiratory habits, but it is the foundation of any breathwork, so do not give up.

 

Intermediate

By the time you consider yourself to be an intermediate practitioner, you should be switching to ujjayi breath throughout your yoga (asana) practice.

Ujjayi breath in my opinion is: SILENT • SLOW • INTENTIONAL

This description is in line with that of Timothy McCall (author of the book “Yoga as Medicine”) :

“When you first learn Ujjayi, you will breathe with an audible noise. But as you progress, the sound may become so subtle that someone sitting next to you would not hear it.” Ref 1

 

If you maintain ujjayi breath at all times you will be able to :

✔️ stay focused

✔️ maintain good energy levels throughout the practice

✔️ oxygenate your muscles and brain adequately

 

Advanced

As an advanced practitioner, you can work towards gaining control of your breathing, independent of the asana or vinyasa performed. Breathing can support your concentration and help perform the yoga poses but it can also challenge them. Advanced practitioners can challenge their asana practice through breathing.

 

✔️ The 2 pillars of breathwork are: hypoxia and hypercapnia and they can both be practiced during any yoga class. in the section

 

Breathing in different yoga styles

Ashtanga, Bikram, …

In sequences that are standardized such as Ashtanga and Bikram, practitioners are asked to follow a set breathing pattern. The breathing pattern usually requires:

• inhalation during spine extension (ie. upward dog)

• exhalation during spine flexion (ie. uttanasana)

• no breathing holding at the end of the inhalation or exhalation

Three things to keep in mind:

✔️ During a vigorous physical practice, CO2 levels will increase, challenging the respiratory system. If one maintains nasal soft breathing she/he can maintain good cellular oxygenation. if instead there is a shift to hyperventilation the muscle tissue will be deprived of oxygen (due to the Bohr effect) and thus promote fatigue.

✔️ Abdominal integrity may be challenged in poses (asanas) and transitions (vinyasas) that involve both spine extension & flexion. During exhalation abdominal tension is reduced as the diaphragm moves towards the stomach. Over time as abdominal strength increases, it will become easier for the breath and the movement to be synched.

✔️ In studios where yoga classes take place, the temperature is often elevated causing a shift of the Oxyhemoglobin Dissociation Curve (ODC) to the right promoting the release of oxygen to tissue. This should make breathing easier.

Iyengar inspired styles

In styles of yoga where postures are held for long the biomechanics & biochemistry differs from vinyasa style classes. The way we should breathe during poses depends on how comfortable we are with the pose. Breath becomes primarily important when we are learning a pose or when we are holding a pose for periods close to our limit.

✔️ When learning a pose that requires stability in the lower back (lumbar) we should brace our abdominals, as opposed to hollowing.

Bracing our abdominals is achieved by holding our breath aiming for an isometric co-contraction of all abdominal muscles (as if we were about to receive a punch in the stomach). Hollow belly, often cued as belly or naval in achieves the activation of the transverse abdominis (TVA). When the 2 techniques were compared: bracing was shown to achieve higher lumbar stability compared to hollowing [ref 2].

Once someone is comfortable with a pose, hollowing the abdomen and maintaining lateral breathing is good idea as this will maintain a calmer Nervous System and the ability to hold the pose longer.

Certain asanas (such as backbends & side flexions) will require specific breathing patterns to help us access the pose. The progression above is valid for the majority of introductory poses.

 

Inversions

When learning a new inversion, in most instances I suggest one tries to find balance while holding his/her breath (on the inhalation or exhalation depending on the transition/ pose). By holding your breath you will:
✔️ increase of abdominal pressure
✔️ maintaining of the chest & abdominal area unchanged
✔️ increase concentration
 
It also allows the practitioner to establish a pattern through which he approaches the pose. Too often every attempt is completely different which can slow down the learning process.
Once balance is established regular or even better ujjayi breath can be maintained.
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Breathing in different stages of the menstrual cycle

In the 2nd half of the menstrual cycle (luteal phase) the sensitivity to CO2 levels increases [ Ref 3 ] due to an increase in progesterone levels. Women during this phase are expected to breathe heavier or faster [ Ref 4 ]. However this will very much depends on their CO2 tolerance (in plain English their respiratory capacity). The better their respiratory capacity breathing can be maintained regular throughout the entire month.

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How good is your breathing?

Your ability to breathe right during a yoga class is determined not only by your experience in yoga but also by your respiratory capacity. If you want to find out what is your respiratory capacity at the moment do the following 2 tests:

Controlled Pause

Breathlessness Test

References

1. McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine: the yogic prescription for health & healing: a yoga journal book. Bantam.

2. Grenier, S. G., & McGill, S. M. (2007). Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation88(1), 54-62.

3. Dutton, K., Blanksby, B. A., & Morton, A. R. (1989). CO2 sensitivity changes during the menstrual cycle. Journal of Applied Physiology67(2), 517-522.

4. Saaresranta, T., & Polo, O. (2002). Hormones and breathing. Chest122(6), 2165-2182.

 

5 things I learned from Wim Hof

It’s not every day that you meet a 20 times Guinness record holder. When you come to meet him though [ & you train under his supervision in the method he developed], the chances are you will get some insights. Wim Hof (the “iceman”) is an amazing person – like we all are. However, there are 2 good reasons why you will hear this expression about Wim all the time:
i. he has stripped himself off what he calls: “the programming”. He doesn’t dress his true self with a politically correct behavior (i.e. he encourages people to breathe, breath deep – not caring which hole the air comes in) neither takes himself seriously.

 

ii. he didn’t hold back in life. He “went deep”. I cannot pay justice to the importance of this comment but basically what it means is he went where he didn’t feel comfortable.

 

1. Nature is the teacher

Nowadays, science is, unfortunately in my opinion, perceived as the only source of truth. Science started as an attempt for humans to systematically understand nature.

“Nature is the teacher.” ~ Wim Hof

 

science-then-now

 

He encourages students to go to nature and learn everything he knows.

“Nature is merciless but righteousness” ~ Wim Hof

 

2. Train your body to adapt not tolerate

Up until recently cold exposure was for me similar to weight training. I lift weights → I get stronger → I can carry heavier bags from the supermarket [ i.e. I expose myself to the cold → I become more tolerable to cold → I am less likely to get sick in the winter (or something among these lines anyway) ]. While partly true there is a 2nd degree of benefits more significant.

We can moderate our body temperature whether we are exposed to cold or not. Cold offers feedback but the environmental temperature should not determine our body temperature. The day prior to the ascent of mount Snezka Wim told us: It will not be very low tomorrow* but you should go high.

* meaning the temperature will not be very low

 

3. Zorba the Buddha

Osho Rajneesh (1931-1990) spoke about how life should be a meditative practice, which should be equally enjoyed at the same time. Zorba the Greek (according to Osho) is the foundation and Buddha is the palace, on top of the foundation.

“If everything goes according to me, every man will die as Zorba the Buddha. Between the Greek and the Buddha there is not much distance, but first you must be the Greek.” ~ Osho

Wim is such a model. The word joy is not foreign to him, yet every breathing practice and exposure to cold is an opportunity to go into meditation.

 


 

 

4. The body’s calling, pick up the phone

Have you heard the phrase holistic approach? Well I do all the time and I have become more allergic to it than Dracula is to garlic. The reason is that while in principle the idea is good, it has become a marketing hashtag for pre-prescribed (usually expensive) protocols.

What’s Wim approach then: He gives you 3 basic tools (breathing, cold exposure, focus), encourages you to practice regularly and focus on the problem at hand. If you now think that’s one size fits all approach, I encourage you to go try some visits to a local cold lake or some deep breathing sessions. You will only go as far as you can. And why I am so confident about that?

These approaches are engaging. They are on the opposite end of the spectrum where drugs, vitamin supplements, or massage treatments will deal with the problem without your participation.

 

change

 

5. Be humble to be great

Wim is a warm-hearted man prior to being an iceman, in my eyes at least. I could list myriad examples I witnessed in 1 week which confirms that. Instead I would bring to your attention the reason WHY he does what he does: To empower people.

He is not competitive or tries to be an illusionist. In his own words:

“What I can do, everyone can do.” ~ Wim Hof

I remind you: 20 Guinness Records.