“Conscious breathing teaches us to be the pilots of our bodies, not the passengers.” – James Nestor
A Natural Mistake
It’s embarrassing to admit that I didn’t start learning how to breathe until 2020!
To be fair, every meditation teacher I’ve come across has interpreted the original mindfulness manual’s section on respiration as “use the breath as the focal point of your attention.” It was a natural mistake. The first instruction goes like this.
Sit down, bend in legs crosswise on your lap, keep your body erect, and arouse mindfulness in the breath.
But the instructions that follow, while deceptively simple, go much deeper.
An Audience of Yogis
It took journalist James Nestor’s excellent book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art to help me recognize what any yoga teacher already knows. The people on the receiving end of that ancient discourse had already practiced a wide range of sophisticated breathing skills.
“Like all Eastern medicines,” writes Mr. Nestor, “Breathing techniques are best suited as a preventative maintenance, as a way to retain the balance in the body so that smaller problems don’t blossom into more serious illnesses. Should we lose the balance from time to time, breathing can often bring it back.”
The book also shares great stories about a wacky brother-and-sisterhood of pulmonauts who experimented with millennia-old breathing skills to tackle modern-day maladies including stress, panic attacks, asthma, depression, immune system deficiencies and more.
Understanding the Effect of the Breath on the Whole Body
When my ancestors turned on their sympathetic nervous system to fight, flee, or freeze, they stoked up on oxygen for quick bursts of energy.
After the immediate danger had passed, they were ready to exhale or laugh it off in order to engage their parasympathetic nervous system so they could resume resting and digesting.
I’m not often faced with immediate physical danger these days, and there’s no distinct all-clear signal for the kind of pervasive stress that I experience.
Still, these five ancient breathing skills can help.
Keeping My Nose Clean
I’ve no idea whether it was nature (my father eventually passed away from COPD) or nurture (my mother smoked pretty heavily, both during pregnancy and when I was a child), but I spent my early years as an often sickly, asthmatic mouth breather.
While it’s great to be able to breathe through my mouth for short bursts of energy, doing it routinely has its downsides, including a spike in stress hormones, frequent bacterial infections, higher blood pressure, decreased heart rate variability, snoring, and sleep apnea.
Looking back at my mouth breathing days, I can see how I probably wired my brain to associate a number of innocuous situations with stress. I also caught frequent colds.
It took my dad almost his entire life to develop sleep apnea, but he suffered from every other side effect of mouth breathing.
Today, I’m able to breathe through my nose most of the time with the help of antihistamines, but when I have trouble, I try a skill from the crazy pulmonaut Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko as popularized by disciple Patrick McKeown. It’s safe to try unless you’re pregnant, have high blood pressure, or have another serious medical condition.
Nose Unblocking Skill
Block one nostril and breathe through it.
Block the other nostril and breathe through it.
Small inhale through nose.
Small exhale through nose.
Pinch nostrils shut.
(Here’s the crazy part.) Sway back and forth holding breath.
Keep holding breath until it gets pretty tough.
Breathe in through nose for a while.
Repeat about 5 times, then thoroughly blow your nose.
“Amygdali, which help govern perceptions of fear, also control aspects of our breathing. People with anxieties likely suffer from connection problems between these areas and can be unwittingly holding their breath. Slow and steady breathing could be more effective than medication,” writes Mr. Nestor.
I face situations that stress me out from time to time, but I can’t think of the last time I faced one as stressful as being a Navy Seal sniper.
Snipers assume a prone possession, not to hide, but to feel their heartbeat against the ground while they employ the box breathing skill.
Box Breathing Skill
Breathe in for a count of four.
Hold breath for a count of four.
Breathe out for a count of four.
Hold for a count of four.
Repeat until there’s enough time between heartbeats to pull the trigger without blood coursing through the finger to disrupt your aim, or until, you know, the immediate stress has passed.
I haven’t tried using this for sniping or even lying with my heart against the ground, but I tried it while doing a heart-to-heart hug at the end of a cuddle training session once, and both of our hearts slowed down noticeably, at least until I started explaining how snipers used this skill. Then the cuddle trainee tensed up a bit.
Video Visualization/Timer: https://youtu.be/n6RbW2LtdFs
Training to Calm the Body
The phrase “whistling past the graveyard” is a simple way to remember how to calm the body. If reminders of my impending mortality were stress-inducing, whistling, or singing, or laughing, or anything that extended my exhales would help restore order.
To do this without annoying people around me with my tune selection (whistling or singing) or raising concern that I might be crazy (laughing) I can use straw breathing.
Inhale through nose.
Breathe out fully through a straw or pursed lips.
Repeat until calm.
Video Tutorial: https://youtu.be/ZlyWO5TpRLQ
Freedivers are highly motivated to calm their bodies. The more relaxed they are, the longer they can hold their breath.
I learned this breathing skill from Noah Rasheta’s Secular Buddhism podcast, but don’t worry that doing it will make you a Buddhist, secular or otherwise. Mr. Rasheta learned about it from a freediving teacher. (And it hasn’t turned me into a freediver, either.)
Inhale for two seconds.
Hold for two seconds.
Exhale for ten seconds.
Hold for two seconds.
Repeat at least four times for a noticeable effect. (I currently do it for five minutes.)
Video Tutorial: https://youtu.be/rNGKj8iiFK4
Tip: The woman in this video inhales through the mouth. If you’re not freediving, it’s probably better to take in air through the nose.
Piloting Upcoming Stressful Situations
Sometimes a bug, sometimes a feature, I’m often able to anticipate stressful situations by looking at my calendar or to-do list. This gives me a chance to skillfully stress myself out first.
My favorite crazy pulmonaut, Wim Hof, has risen to fame by doing just that: stressing himself out doing extreme sports in extreme cold. His breathing skill of choice: an ancient Tibetan breathing skill called “Inner Fire” or Tummo.
This skill emphasizes full exhales. It actually raises the stress hormone cortisol, which doesn’t seem like a great idea. But neither does stepping into a cold shower. I’ve tried taking a cold shower after performing this breathing skill and found that while it’s still unpleasant, it’s not stressful.
Since I don’t know of any way to opt out of all stressful situations (even attempting to do that would be extremely stressful), skillfully building up my tolerance for stress on my own terms begins to seem less crazy.
I haven’t been motivated enough to build Wim Hof’s stress training into my routine, but I highly recommend trying it at least once just for the experience.
Video Tutorial: https://youtu.be/tybOi4hjZFQ
I discovered a variation on “inner fire” from an anonymous pulmonaut I found through the instructional video page on James Nestor’s website.
It claims to boost energy and improve focus (which I’ve experienced) and reset the nervous system (which seems likely, but difficult to measure).
Inhale through nose for two seconds.
Exhale for two seconds.
Repeat five times.
Super ventilation for twenty breaths with full nasal inhales and partial nasal exhales.
Repeat twenty times.
Round two: inhale/exhale three seconds five times.
Round three: inhale/exhale four seconds five times.
Optional rounds: increase inhale/exhale by one second each time.
This likely works by building up an oxygen surplus during rapid breathing and bringing it under control during the breath holds.
Video Tutorial: https://vimeo.com/406672427
The Low-Tech Approach
Mr. Nestor notes that Silicon Valley is busily deploying a variety of apps and wearables to maximize the utility of these and other breathing techniques.
I use a metronome backed by a little brown noise to cancel house sounds while meditating. When I’m not meditating, simply counting to myself to monitor breathing patterns can help me regulate stress by giving my mind a little bit extra to do.
“The stripped-down approach is as good as any,” writes Mr. Nestor. “It requires no batteries, no wi-fi, no headgear or smartphones. It costs nothing, takes little time and effort, and you can do it wherever you are whenever you need.”