Breathe, Just Breathe

My 6-year-old daughter mentioned that her uncle (my brother) told her about someone who could hold his breath underwater for 22 minutes. Thinking her young sense of time must be off, I checked in with my brother. Turns out she was right – 22 minutes.

Breathing is an autonomic system function. We don’t have to consciously think about it to do it. But it turns out that it is an incredibly powerful tool when we do think about – it can predict our longevity, help us lose weight, boost our immune system and regulate our moods. Here are three examples:

The Pressure Breath

Long before I learned to meditate, I learned a breath practice while climbing mountains. Guides call it the “pressure breath” and it involves intentionally breathing out all the air in our lungs so we can take a full inhale. They explained the reason for the pressure breath because we often don’t exhale all the air in the lungs. Without consciously thinking about it, our bodies can short cut a full exhalation. But at altitude, the air is thinner so we need a full inhale.

If you climb to Camp Muir on at 10,000 feet on Mt. Rainier where I learned the practice, you will be taking in only 70% the amount of oxygen that you would at sea-level. For every 1,000 feet you climb, it decreases by about 3% so at 18,200 feet (my personal high point), it is about 45% of the oxygen at sea-level.

So the pressure breath helps to counter the effect of thinner air by forcing a breath that takes in more air and therefore more oxygen. (For anyone who is interested, the reason there’s less oxygen is that there’s less pressure at altitude so that there are fewer oxygen molecules in the same volume of air).

Twenty years after I learned to pressure breathe on a mountain, I’ve stumbled on the science of other reasons to fully exhale. It feels like a moment of a unified theory – understanding why something I learned in one context is so healthy for many other reasons.

Lung Capacity as an Indicator of Life Span

The book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor inspires me to try to reform everything about my breathing. It is so well-written, researched and told through personal anecdotes and other living examples. In his chapter, Exhale, he cites two studies that set out to measure lung capacity as it related to longevity. They both found “that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity.”

And the way to bigger lung capacity? James Nestor provides a couple of different examples but they involve extending the range of the diaphragm (the typical adult only uses about 10% of the range) by practicing exhaling fully. In short, Nestor said we need to take as few breaths as we can to sustain our metabolic rate. Take fewer breaths and get more oxygen and then the diaphragm moves up and down and helps with circulation and moving lymph fluid. The perfect breath is 5-6 breaths/minute. Cite the Ava Maria or Om Mani Padme Om or the Sa Ta Ma Na (Kundalini Chant) – they all take about the same amount of time of 5.5 seconds.

Regulating Our Nervous System

Adding to this science, I also recently heard Ten Percent Happier podcast with therapist and author, Deb Dana. In it she explained poly-vagal theory and the three states for our nervous system:  ventral state which is calm and regulated, sympathetic which the fight or flight response and dorsal which is when the nervous system has been so overstimulated that it shuts down. And while all three states work to help us navigate particular circumstances of life. But when we need to get back to a ventral or calm and regulated space, there are breathing practices that help us do so. A longer exhale is one of them.

So there it is – the unified theory of the full exhale. I thought living at sea-level made pressure breathing unnecessary for me. Until I realized that I’ve been doing it in different ways all this time – the exasperated sigh, the mindful breath practices and everything in-between that continues to teach me that the things we learn in one context continue to be effective everywhere else, helping me climb all sorts of metaphorical mountains one step at a time.

Have you tried a breath practice? Or can you breathe underwater for an extended period of time? Have a favorite meditative breathing technique? Tell me about it!

This post is an adapted version of a post I published on my personal blog: Come visit me there and follow me on Instagram @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)

12 thoughts on “Breathe, Just Breathe

  1. I knew free divers could hold their breath for a long time, but 22 minutes? WOW! How do they avoid brain damage, I wonder?

    I definitely have a lot of work to get done to get to the perfect breathing rhythm as a rule, not only when I’m focused on it. How do we turn that into a habit?

  2. Very interesting explanations. I’ve tried to empty my lungs slowly and then breath it all in slowly both for relaxation and for sustaining my long distance running, but I’m not sorry to have missed the opportunity to try these techniques for long/deep dives or climbing at truly high altitude. Those activities are too extreme for me! My hat is off to you.

  3. While meditating I practice the 4-4-8 breathing. I count til 4 for inhaling then I hold the breath for 4 seconds and I exhale counting til 8. For the rest, I have a very short breath and sometimes I don’t breath at all. After reading this useful post, I will try to practice more the 4-4-8 breathing.

  4. Very interesting post Wynne – thank you. I like to think of the breath as our anchor to the present. Concentrating on it brings us back to earth. I regularly tell myself to S.T.O.P. – Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed. Wishing you well Wynne 🙏

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