Breathing - What it Means, What it Can Do, and Why

Originally Published: 2/15/16


This past month I had the privilege of attending a “Breathing Performance and Recovery Camp" down in Costa Mesa, CA.  Now, in hearing the title, you may be thinking: what could possibly be the purpose in that? 

Simply put, breathing is the base source of life.  Without it, we don’t stand a chance.  On average, we inhale and exhale around 20,000 times a day!  When we inhale, Oxygen (O2) is delivered to the body by means of the lungs, and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is then discharged by the exhale.  When we no longer breathe in oxygen, there won’t be enough oxygen in the bloodstream for the vital organs, and the result will ultimately be death.  This is not a trivial part of life, but rather an essential element.

Okay, enough with the basics, how does CONSCIOUS BREATHING impact performance, health, and human flourishing? 

 

Enter, Wim Hof.

Wim Hof, known as “The Iceman”, is a Dutch man that has accumulated over 20 world records, with most of the feats being done in extreme-cold scenarios.  A few highlights are – running a marathon above the Artic circle wearing only shorts, climbing the highest mountains on earth in only shorts, and submerging in an ice tub for 1 hour and 52 minutes.  He has developed a method (and believes he can train others) to influence and control the autonomic nervous system – a part of the body that the scientific community has said is not controllable. 

To further prove his method, Wim participated in a scientific study where he was injected with endo-toxins (components of the E-coli bacteria) to see how his autonomic nervous system could respond.  Through the method, Wim was able to withstand the majority of symptoms associated with the bacteria, only experiencing a slight headache an hour and a half after being injected.

The three basic parts of his method are 1) breathing exercises, 2) mindset and concentration training, and 3) gradual exposure to the cold.  Each of these areas play a vital role in producing the type of control he is able to exhibit over his body/physiology.  Since this post is about breathing, we will mainly stick to that topic, but each area has a wealth of information that will be explored at brief. 

 

First, let’s dive into the breathing exercises.

The first stage of the exercise is: deep “belly breaths” (also known as diaphragm breathing).  When you are breathing deeply using your diaphragm, you are raising the oxygen levels and simultaneously lowering the concentration of CO2 in your bloodstream.  This produces more alkalinity (reducing the acidity of your body), and can raise the pH-value of the blood.  It also allows you to operate at a much more efficient level in producing ATP (the molecule largely responsible for our energy levels), whereas, if you are out-of-breath you will be less efficient in producing ATP and your body will become more acidic in the process from lactic acids being produced. 

In the breathing exercises, you are working on practicing both hyperventilation and hypoxia.  Hyperventilation is: “a condition characterized by abnormally prolonged and rapid breathing, resulting in decreased carbon dioxide levels and increased oxygen levels that produce faintness, tingling of the fingers and toes, and, if continued, alkalosis and loss of consciousness.”(http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hyperventilation)  Hypoxia is: “a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching body tissues.” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hypoxia)  By combining these two practices, you are able to provide your system with a “supercharge” of oxygen, creating oxygen-rich blood and putting you in an optimal state for performance.

 

This is where the mental element comes into play. 

In doing the exercises, you will not be able to hold your breath for very long if you are only concentrating on what you are currently doing – holding your breath.  Being conscious of this triggers your mind into freaking out sooner, since you will be much more cognizant of the higher CO2 levels that start to accumulate.

Thus, a very tangible component of improvement can been seen in the ability to control your mind/consciousness.  I think everyone would agree there are times when it is extremely challenging to maintain control of your mind.  Whether it be a controversy you are trying to settle, or a relationship that has troubled you, or a problem you are trying to solve – our minds can often be captured by an incessant pondering/over-thinking of the topic at hand.  I firmly believe that the mind is a muscle that can be trained as much, if not more so, than your legs or arms or any other common muscle.

In applying this concept personally, mental strength is a huge factor of success in professional golf.  The best golfers in the world have merited that title largely from their ability to have complete control over their mind.  This means they are able to maintain the highest level of focus/concentration in the moments when there are the highest number of outside factors and circumstances trying to pull their attention away from the moment and away from the task at hand. 

This is not something you are instinctively born with, and it is something that this world constantly tries to keep us from improving on.  How much of life is built on distracting us, capitalizing on our “short attention-span”, working to keep us from thinking through the importance and meaning of life, or why God even created us into existence.  The breathing exercises are a small area in which you can tangibly workout these “mental muscles” and start creating mental quiet for those times in life when everything is trying to turn your mind’s volume to the max.

 

Circling around to the final component of Wim’s method, let’s look at the impact of cold exposure on our physiology and performance.

Cold showers have been shown (in a study done by Thrombosis Research Institute in 1994) to significantly increase the number of white blood cells in those who make a daily habit of the practice.  This is important because white blood cells are the ones that fight disease.  Additionally, in parallel form, "the immune system is activated, resulting in the release of more white blood cells.  This study indicated that exposure to the cold boosts the immune system.” 

Wait, there’s more?  YES!  Cold showers are also shown to increase your metabolic rate by training the tiny muscles within your blood vessels to support the blood flow.  This makes the blood flow more fluently and, in turn, strengthens your cardiovascular system.  If you aren’t sold on the simple act of taking cold showers in hearing that, I can’t imagine what it would take to finally force you to move the nozzle right. 

There is one more “fringe” benefit I should mention.  There has been a lot of talk recently about brown adipose tissue (BAT) aka brown fat tissue.  One of the things that BAT appears to be activated by is cold and cold exposure.  Humans are typically thought to not have much brown fat remaining after the first year of life, but recent developments and studies have shown that adults still have areas of BAT and can actually help generate more of this beneficial fat through cold exposure and cold therapy. 

On a more practical level, the original purpose I had in taking cold showers was to make myself tougher, both physically and mentally.  When you do something you don’t want or feel like doing, you are practicing discipline and self-control, and are experiencing first-hand the truism coined powerfully by Kelly Clarkson – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. 

In speaking to the mental aspect, it exercises the mental muscles in the act of forcing yourself to "enjoy" the cold.  The times when I especially don’t want to take a cold shower are the moments I become a motivational speaker to my mind.  In attempting to fully convince myself that I “love the cold and taking cold showers” (even when the opposite is true in that moment), you can shift your perspective towards reality (that a cold shower really isn't that painful or hard to do), versus that which our minds want to make reality (that we are going to die the second cold water hits our body), skewing our outlook and blowing the moment out of proportion.

 

The last element I want to briefly mention comes from an additional tool given to every attendee of the Breathing Performance Camp (put on by the founder of Unscared Inc. – Brian MacKenzie) - an Elevation Training Mask

The training mask works in many ways, but its main benefit can be seen in progressive adaptation to heightened CO2 levels.  The mask traps CO2 being exhaled through the mouth and recycles it when you inhale through your nose.  With this increase in C02 consumption and a restricted oxygen intake, you are naturally forced to breath more deeply and exhale for a shorter period of time.  This promotes and trains good breathing mechanics that can transition to how you breathe without the mask on (Cue: CONSCIOUS BREATHING).  The training mask can also act as a personal training coach for maintaining good positions in various lifts and static holds.  The reason behind this is: by limiting your oxygen intake, you are forced to maintain the best position possible so that you can optimize the already-limited intake of air.

 

To sum it all up, breathing is essential.  In a world where we are constantly searching for new discoveries and innovations to help us maximize our lives, sometimes what we really need is to return to the basics.  We must first focus on the core of life in order to maximize the rest of life. 

The bottom line?  BREATHE.

 


Literature Source:

Hof, Isabelle. "Wim Hof Method Explanation." Trans. Claire Van Den Bergh. (n.d.): n. pag. Icemanwimhof.com. Enahm Hof / Innerfire 2015, June 2015. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.