“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe better.” — Dr. Andrew Weil
Noticing your breath is the foundational skill of every meditation practice I’ve been exposed to. No matter the ultimate instruction — body scans, mantras, visualizations, etc. — almost every meditation session begins with noticing the inhale and the exhale. For therapeutic benefit, breath awareness serves as an effective way to simply calm down. For more a more transformative mental experience, the breath is a powerful object of concentration that can settle the mind and prepare it for deeper explorations.
At my first long meditation retreat, we spent several days learning about anapana breathing, and the instruction was to notice your inhale as the breath crosses your upper lip and into the inner nostril, and to notice exhale over those same places. Noticing the breath in this way, breath after the breath, served to quickly ground you in the present moment, and that presence was the gateway to the broader vipassana practice. I remember at the end of the retreat, chatting with a couple of the other guys (after the silence had lifted), and one of them telling me, “I struggled with the body scan instructions, but I’ll always have the breath practice when I need it.”
Later on, in a long concentration retreat, breath was my first and last object of concentration during the whole retreat (outside of a smattering of metta practices). This meant close to 100 hours engaging in microscopic analysis of breath. It started with awareness of the belly as the breath begins through the inhale, and then choosing a point on the body to rest your attention during the “pause” between inhale and exhale, and then noticing the full exhale.
So, I have a fair amount of experience with all things breath — in a meditation context.
But it turns out I knew next to nothing about “breath work” as a broader field. I began hearing about breath work a year or two ago, and it was only in my research into sauna and cold plunge that I discovered the sort of sister field of breath work practices that are often implemented with cold plungers.
(I’m probably especially ignorant here because I don’t do yoga and even casual practitioners of yoga know about pranayama breathing, one type of breath work.)
Breath work is a new piece of the puzzle of wellness and spirituality for me. I currently have three types of breath work I employ. First, when I’m seeking relaxation, I’ll do 3-4 seconds each of inhales, hold (full lungs), exhale, hold (empty lungs). “Navy SEALs use this technique to stay calm and focused in tense situations.” Second, before some meditation sits, I’ll do the pranayama type technique of rapid exhales and passive inhales. Third, in cold plunge, I do a version of Wim Hof of relatively quick inhales and exhales roughly 30 times, with a breath hold at the end. I’m still learning, to be clear — on the BOLT test to measure your current management of breath and carbon dioxide, I landed in the “average” zone.
I’m stunned that these types of breath work exercises are not discussed in more detail on Buddhist meditation retreats. At the Buddhist retreats I’ve been on, adjacent fields like qi gong and yoga are referenced or taught (as optional afternoon
activities, say) but more elaborate ways of managing your breath are not addressed. A huge opportunity awaits someone who can synthesize the knowledge of these fields.
James Nestor’s book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art is a splendid introduction to the research and practices of breath work. I learned a ton. The single most important lesson was about the benefit — the really amazing health benefit — of nose breathing over mouth breathing. And of taking fewer, slower, deeper breaths over many fast, shallow breaths. But there’s a bunch more beyond that’s pretty interesting. I recommend it. Below are my highlights from Nestor’s book.
Mouthbreathing, it turns out, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse. Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less space and making breathing more difficult. Mouthbreathing begets more mouthbreathing.
During the deepest, most restful stages of sleep, the pituitary gland, a pea-size ball at the base of the brain, secretes hormones that control the release of adrenaline, endorphins, growth hormone, and other substances, including vasopressin, which communicates with cells to store more water. This is how animals can sleep through the night without feeling thirsty or needing to relieve themselves.
But if the body has inadequate time in deep sleep, as it does when it experiences chronic sleep apnea, vasopressin won’t be secreted normally. The kidneys will release water, which triggers the need to urinate and signals to our brains that we should consume more liquid. We get thirsty, and we need to pee more. A lack of vasopressin explains not only my own irritable bladder but the constant, seemingly unquenchable thirst I have every night.
The interior of the nose, it turned out, is blanketed with erectile tissue, the same flesh that covers the penis, clitoris, and nipples. Noses get erections. Within seconds, they too can engorge with blood and become large and stiff. This happens because the nose is more intimately connected to the genitals than any other organ; when one gets aroused, the other responds.
What our bodies really want, what they require to function properly, isn’t faster or deeper breaths. It’s not more air. What we need is more carbon dioxide.
In other words, the pure oxygen a quarterback might huff between plays, or that a jet-lagged traveler might shell out 50 dollars for at an airport “oxygen bar,” are of no benefit.
It turns out that when breathing at a normal rate, our lungs will absorb only about a quarter of the available oxygen in the air. The majority of that oxygen is exhaled back out. By taking longer breaths, we allow our lungs to soak up more in fewer breaths.I realized then that breathing was like rowing a boat: taking a zillion short and stilted strokes will get you where you’re going, but they pale in comparison to the efficiency and speed of fewer, longer strokes.
Gerbarg and Brown would write books and publish several scientific articles about the restorative power of the slow breathing, which would become known as “resonant breathing” or Coherent Breathing. The technique required no real effort, time, or thoughtfulness. And we could do it anywhere, at any time. “It’s totally private,” wrote Gerbarg. “Nobody knows you’re doing it.”
One thing that every medical or freelance pulmonaut I’ve talked to over the past several years has agreed on is that, just as we’ve become a culture of overeaters, we’ve also become a culture of overbreathers. Most of us breathe too much, and up to a quarter of the modern population suffers from more serious chronic overbreathing.
In Japan, legend has it that samurai would test a soldier’s readiness by placing a feather beneath his nostrils while he inhaled and exhaled. If the feather moved, the soldier would be dismissed. To
The key to optimum breathing, and all the health, endurance, and longevity benefits that come with it, is to practice fewer inhales and exhales in a smaller volume. To breathe, but to breathe less.
The takeaway is that hypoventilation works. It helps train the body to do more with less. But that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.
They discovered that the optimum amount of air we should take in at rest per minute is 5.5 liters. The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. This is the perfect breath.
“In ten years, nobody will be using traditional orthodontics,” Gelb told me. “We’ll look back at what we’ve done and be horrified.”
Breathing is a power switch to a vast network called the autonomic nervous system.
The stress-inducing breathing method that brought me to this roadside public park is called Inner Fire Meditation, and it’s been practiced by Tibetan Buddhists and their students for the past thousand years.
Here’s the information: To practice Wim Hof’s breathing method, start by finding a quiet place and lying flat on your back with a pillow under your head. Relax the shoulders, chest, and legs. Take a very deep breath into the pit of your stomach and let it back out just as quickly. Keep breathing this way for 30 cycles. If possible, breathe through the nose; if the nose feels obstructed, try pursed lips. Each breath should look like a wave, with the inhale inflating the stomach, then the chest. You should exhale all the air out in the same order. At the end of 30 breaths, exhale to the natural conclusion, leaving about a quarter of the air left in the lungs, then hold that breath for as long as possible. Once you’ve reached your breathhold limit, take one huge inhale and hold it another 15 seconds. Very gently, move that fresh breath of air around the chest and to the shoulders, then exhale and start the heavy breathing again. Repeat the whole pattern three or four rounds and add in some cold exposure (cold shower, ice bath, naked snow angels) a few times a week.
It can work wonders, but few of us will ever reap these rewards, because the vast majority of people who try to meditate will give up and move on. For those with chronic anxieties, the percentages are far worse. “Mindful meditation—as it is typically practiced—is just no longer conducive to the new world we live in,” Feinstein explains.
I increased my performance on the stationary bike by about 10 percent. (Olsson had more modest gains, about 5 percent.) These results paled in comparison to the gains reported by sports training expert John Douillard, but I couldn’t imagine any athlete who wouldn’t want a 10 percent—or even a 1 percent—advantage over a competitor.
Down the street from my house is a startup called Spire, which created a device that tracks breath rate and alerts users every time respiration becomes too fast or disjointed.
Any gum chewing can strengthen the jaw and stimulate stem cell growth, but harder textured varieties offer a more vigorous workout. Falim, a Turkish brand, is as tough as shoe leather and each piece lasts for about an hour. I’ve found the Sugarless Mint to be the most palatable. (Other flavors, such as Carbonate, Mint Grass, and sugar-filled varieties, tend to be softer and grosser.)