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Breathing Your Way To A Zen State
By: Dave Robinson
This article was inevitable since year 2020 and the beginning of 2021 have by far been the most stressful years of most of our lives, to say the least. Whether it be stress from getting this virus, loss of employment, or just overall loss of freedom, I believe we are all being deeply affected by it one way or another.
I’ll be completely honest - I wrote the majority of this post right at the start of this craziness. Ironically enough, this introduction is actually the last addition to this post. At the time of initially writing this, I thought I had my shit together and I was an anti-stress expert. In fact, I barely utilized the techniques in this article - at this time, I truly believed that I had evolved from breathing techniques, and that I was on a whole other zen level. Dear lord was I wrong!
Stress seems to appear when you least expect it and about three weeks ago it hit me HARD. Waking up with panic attacks, brain fog, poor digestion, anger, irritability, and depression all seemingly manifesting out of nowhere. What was it? Was I merely just repressing all of the emotions pent up from the changes that our world and communities have gone through? Maybe. All I know is that when chronic stress enters, it intends to stay and just fuck your shit up. Well guess what stress…NOT TODAY. Once I realized what was going on I knew I had to immediately refer to strategies described here, among others. Since then my well-being has improved tremendously and I can finally see the light at the end of this shit covered tunnel. My goal is for the readers to gain a fundamental understanding of what stress is, why it's wired into us, why chronic stress is a leading cause of chronic disease, and lastly, some breathing techniques to deal with it.
So what is stress and why is it so bad? Well, stress isn’t necessarily bad, as it is a natural component of human biology. Our bodies are meant to experience stress, and it is necessary for our survival. When we perceive a threat, our neurons within the hypothalamus (the part of your forebrain toward the front of your skull) secrete a hormone which then travels to our pituitary gland. This triggers the release of another hormone that tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Now I’m sure most of us have heard of our friend cortisol, right? Cortisol is the main stress hormone in our body. It is associated with our fight or flight response, and therefore is critical for our survival. Do not fear cortisol as it is responsible for things such as our sleep/wake cycle, regulating our blood pressure, and most importantly, giving us the ability to run from that Sabre Tooth Tiger.
This stress mechanism is intended for us to outrun perceived threats, be more resilient, and most importantly, to survive. But now these threats (such as being eaten by large animals) are almost non-existent, while the biological mechanisms are still in place. Instead of getting stomped on by a whooly mamoth, they are now triggered by things such as social media, our crappy boss at work, that mortgage payment that you can barely afford, A FUCKING PANDEMIC etc. When this is happening on a continual basis for extended periods of time rather than in short bursts, this is called chronic stress. Unfortunately we are living in a time where this is quite common, leading to chronically high levels of Cortisol. This is a problem as chronic levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, and Type 2 Diabetes. It also seems to be the root cause of many other chronic diseases that are ubiquitous in our society. So let's get down to the nitty gritty and explore some simple breathing techniques that will allow you to naturally lower our constantly elevated cortisol levels, reduce stress, and become happy, healthy, beautiful individuals.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor”- Thich Nhat Hanh
Now, we all breathe right? Well at least I hope so, otherwise you wouldn’t be alive! Breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system, and it’s automatic so we do not even need to consciously think about our breathing. That being said, what if I told you that if you brought some awareness to your breathing, you would be able to dramatically reduce your cortisol levels and alleviate that chronic stress? Sounds pretty good right? Well first, let's get into a bit of science and talk about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are both part of our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system works without us consciously thinking about it, and is responsible for fundamental things such as our breathing and body temperature. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the “fight or flight” response, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with the “rest and digest” response. Ideally, you want a healthy balance between the two. However, when you are chronically stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is dominant. The goal of conscious breathing is to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, thereby reducing our cortisol levels and allowing our body to recover. Here are some great breathing exercises that you can begin to implement in your everyday life which will reduce your stress and allow you to perform at your best.
In Patrick Mckeown’s book “Oxygen advantage”, he talks about the importance of slow whisper-like nasal breathing. By contrast, the majority of us mouth breathe, which can lead to things such as poor sleep, sleep apnea, but most importantly, over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It turns out that when we breathe through our mouth, we use our chest to breath, in other words, “thoracic breathing”. Historically, mouth breathing is an emergency function, needed to respond to stressful situations such as going into battle or hunting. Mouth breathing makes our breathing more shallow and rapid, which actually activates our sympathetic nervous system and puts us in a stressed state. In contrast, nasal breathing forces us to breath with our diaphragm, and slows down our breathing rate which in turn, activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This is due to the fact that diaphragmatic breathing allows us to pull air deep into all three lobes of the lungs, whereas mouth breathing (thoracic breathing) rarely utilizes the lower lobes of the lungs. The lower lobes of the lungs actually have high concentrations of parasympathetic receptors, which balances sympathetic nervous activity and puts us in a calm state.
Something that I found to be incredibly fascinating in this book was that when you breathe through your nose, you pick up a gas called nitric oxide which is released from your paranasal sinus. Nitric oxide is a gas needed for blood pressure regulation, fighting bacteria and viruses, immune health, pain reduction and other beneficial functions. The interesting thing is that this gas also sterilizes the incoming air that you breathe. How cool is that!? We actually have a built in air filter in our nasal cavity which will sterilize the air we breathe in. Another benefit from slow nasal breathing is that the nitric oxide will increase our oxygen uptake in the blood by 5-15%. So as a result, simply by breathing calmly through our nose, we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system, sterilize the air being taken in, increase our oxygen uptake, and improve our sleep. Who would have thought simply closing your mouth and just breathing with the nose could have so many benefits?! Speaking of sleep, Patrick recommends that to train yourself to nasal breath while sleeping, you should tape your mouth shut when you go to bed. This practice is called Buteyko Breathing. This is a technique that you can try and I would recommend buying a hypoallergenic tape and to apply a bit of coconut oil over your lips to easily take the tape off in case of emergency. You should also try to solely breath through just your nose during the day and even try exercising with strict nasal breathing (this is incredibly difficult but you will get used to it).
Another great technique that I learnt from famous biohacker and fitness coach, Ben Greenfield, is Box Breathing. This is a technique used by Navy Seals to help calm the mind. It is a great technique to use in times of stress, meditating, or trying to fall asleep. I often do it while in bed and it completely relaxes me and allows me to have a superb sleep! To box breath, you simply close your mouth, then inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, then hold for 4 seconds, exhale through your nose for 4 seconds, and then hold for 4 seconds, and then repeat that entire process. Do this as long as you like until you begin to feel calm and relaxed. Like I said, it's a simple technique that is highly effective when experiencing bouts of stress.
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic breath control practice. In Sanskrit, it is known as Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, which translates to “subtle energy clearing breathing technique”. Like Box Breathing, you can use this technique in times of stress to calm yourself. I personally use it right at the beginning of my meditation practice to calm my mind and put me in the present moment. This technique has many health benefits such as lowering stress and improving cardiovascular function, improving lung function, lowering heart rate, and promoting well-being. All of these techniques thus far come down to achieving the same biological response. Each of them stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
Doing alternate nostril breathing is very simple - you just cover your right nostril with your right thumb and exhale through your left nostril. Then inhale through your left nostril and then cover your left nostril with your right ring finger and exhale through your right nostril. Then inhale through your right nostril while still covering the left with your right ring finger and then go back to covering your right nostril with your thumb (the process begins again). Repeat this process for as long as you’d like. I've been caught many times at work doing this technique and I look like a complete fool using my thumb and ring finger to block my nostrils, but the benefits are totally worth it!
Wim Hof is quite the eccentric Danish yogi. He is better known as “the iceman”, and became famous for breaking many world records, by completing intense feats of physical endurance in extreme temperature conditions. Wim always had the innate feeling that we all have the power to heal ourselves both mentally and physically, rather than relying on pharmaceuticals. Through years of training and experimentation, Wim came up with a method to allow any individual to boost their immune system, reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep, and many other benefits. This method, called the “Wim Hof Method” (WHM), consists of daily breathing exercises, cold exposure, and lastly, mindset/concentration exercises.
In this section we will focus on the breathing exercises. This is an incredibly potent breathing exercise that I perform every morning before I get out of bed. Be warned, if you have a partner or a pet, I recommend doing this exercise privately as you will most likely scare the shit out of them. Also, you should not perform this while driving or in water. Wim says that you should perform this on an empty stomach, which is why doing it first thing in the morning is ideal as you are already in a fasted state. First, get into a comfortable position (I recommend lying down). Once in a comfortable position, you begin by cycling 30 deep power breaths. This means to fully exhale in with either your mouth or nose, and then gently exhale (you should not fully exhale all of the air, just calm release). Breathe at a pace and rhythm that feels most comfortable to you. Breathe in deeply, without forcing yourself, and then out again slowly (but not fully breathing out). Do this 30 times, or until you start to feel tingling and lightheadedness (this is a sign that your body is getting super oxygenated). Once you get to 30 breaths, take one last deep inhale and exhale, and perform a breath hold with all of the air out of your system. Once you do this, you should set a timer to see how long you can hold. The length of time that you are able to hold your breath is called retention time. Hold this until you get to the point where you need to gasp for air, and then perform a deep inhale and hold for about 15 more seconds. This is one round of the breath work. I recommend doing about 3-4 rounds of this. To know if you are doing this correctly, you’ll notice that the duration of your retention time will get longer with each round.
Now let's go into a bit of science as to what is happening in your body from doing this breathing exercise, and why it has so many profound benefits. I won’t go too much into detail as there is a lot of science behind this. If you are truly interested, I recommend downloading Wim Hof's free app and even reading his book that delves further into the science.
To start, let's talk about blood pH levels, as this is the major component of the Wim Hof breathing exercise. The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline something is. If you own a pool, you’ll know that when you open it, you have to get a pH value to test if it's safe to swim in. Our blood is the same, and it can either be too acidic or too alkaline. The pH value in a healthy person is usually around 7.4 which is more alkaline. The lower the pH value, the more acidic the blood is. Now, what can cause acidity in the blood? You guessed it. It's chronic stress! By doing this breathing exercise, you are taking in massive amounts of oxygen while simultaneously reducing your carbon dioxide, and therefore raising the pH levels in your blood to a more alkaline state.
Another major benefit of this breathing technique is the hypoxic state that comes from breathing once the air is out of our system. Hypoxia is a condition in which the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply, and can have profound health benefits when used properly and responsibly. When you exhale all of the air on that 30th breath, and perform a breath hold for as long as you can, you are entering a state of hypoxia. This induces a positive stress response in the body by turning on your survival mode, which has a plethora of benefits as it dramatically boosts your immune system. It also increases your number of red blood cells, induces certain proteins that can prevent cells from becoming cancerous, and increases your stem cell production!
As a result, this is an incredibly potent breathing exercise that I implement in every routine and I strongly recommend that you give it a shot!
Well, there you have it folks. These are some of the various breathing techniques that I have personally used that allow me to effectively mitigate stress. Obviously, there are copious amounts of other effective techniques such as meditation, exercise, and nature walking just to name a few. These techniques deserve a deeper dive in a future piece. For now, I really wanted to explain just how important conscious breathing is as it pertains to stress and overall wellness. We should not take our breathing for granted, because it is an incredibly powerful tool when used properly! It can be your best friend or your worst enemy. For those of you reading this that have been chronically stressed, I really hope you try these techniques, and that it makes as big a difference for you as it did with me!
When life takes you by the balls….breathe.