September 6, 2020
Respiratory physiology is absolutely fascinating to me. So fascinating, in fact, that I have a host of breathwork resources I've published over the years. I'll include a handy list of those resources at the end of this post that will allow you to take a deeper dive into all the breathwork podcasts and articles I've published in the past.
Just pause for a moment, take a deep breath in through your nose, then out through your mouth, releasing all tension in your body as you do so, and as you do so, dwell upon the complex and wonderful science of that single breath.
That breath you just took began with your nose. Your nasal passages are quite similar to a high-tech air conditioning and purifying system. They filter out large dust particles and microbial spores via the mucous membrane that line your nasal cavity where sticky mucus is secreted to trap and dispose of impurities. The nasal passages warm and humidify the air you breathe, primarily by the means of a rich blood supply below the mucous membrane. This blood acts as a kind of chemical cleanser of the air you breathe. Despite a microsecond contact time with the nasal mucosa, your inspired air is cleared of ozone, sulfur dioxide, and other water-soluble pollutant gases (far better than it is cleared by breathing through your mouth, in fact).
Nitric oxide, or NO, is a very important substance produced in large quantities in the nasal sinuses. When you inhale through your nose, NO accompanies the inhaled air in order to dilate the bronchial tubes to allow the air to pass through easily. NO also has antimicrobial properties that can kill viruses and bacteria that have escaped from the cilia inside your nose and throat (interestingly, including coronavirus). NO also causes the blood vessels inside your lungs to dilate, which allows oxygen to be transferred to your blood more easily. (This phenomenon also does not occur when you breathe through your mouth.)
After being warmed and cleaned, the air passes into your windpipe (trachea) and from there it diverts into two large branches—the main bronchi (where continue the cleaning process via removal of finer particles), followed by progressive branching into increasingly smaller bronchi called bronchioli. The mucous membrane lining these bronchi also contains cells with cilia, tiny whip-like hairs that beat directionally to move a layer of mucus upwards toward your throat, where the mucus and the particles it has entrapped can be swallowed.
Each bronchiolus terminates in a tiny air sac called an alveolus, which contain enzymes to dissolve mucus, thus keeping the alveoli from getting “plugged up” by mucus, along with a soapy substance called surfactant, which keeps the moist alveoli from collapsing due to surface tension. Within the walls of each these 800 million-ish alveolus in your lungs are tiny blood vessels, or capillaries, with incredibly thin walls tightly packed with these capillaries where gas exchange can take place. Used, deoxygenated blood coming into your lungs from the veins via the heart contains a surplus of carbon dioxide, which is then exchanged for oxygen through the alveoli. The prepared, oxygenated blood is then returned to your heart for circulation to the rest of your body—where the oxygen drives the metabolic reactions that give your cells life. This entire sequence only takes approximately 1.5 seconds, and during that process, your heart is spreading 8 tons of blood over a lung area of half the size of a tennis court, then shunting it back into circulation…about 100,000 times a day.
This incredible respiratory system I've just described has such an abundance of functional reserve built into it that studies have shown people can lose nearly ¾ of their lung tissue before serious respiratory difficulty develops! It is a staggeringly elegant system, showing every sign of being a complex, intelligently designed loop that allows you to maintain energy and life via something as seemingly simple as your breath.
5 Ways A Breathwork Practice Can Make Your Life Better
But breathing goes far beyond a mere exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
For example, in the fascinating book Breathing as Spiritual Practice: Experiencing the Presence of God, author Will Johnson describes how Western spiritual traditions, such as the Book of Genesis, the Jewish teachings of Ruach, and the poetry of Rumi, all contain “hidden” instruction for meditative breathing practices. He explains how breathing practices can bring you closer to a direct experience of the palpable presence of God. I've personally found many of his ideas to be quite insightful, and have been able to positively enhance my long walks, spiritual disciplines, meditation practice, connection to God, prayer time, sexual experiences, stress response, and much more—simply by using my breath.
Here are five such examples…
First, your breath is crucial for full mindfulness and presence.
It's absolutely mind-boggling the extreme clarity that one simple, focused breath can give you—and earth-shattering what can occur in your brain with 5, 10, 20, 30, or even 60 minutes of breathwork. But start small. Any time you desire to be more present and mindful—whether you are playing with a child, sitting in traffic, firing through e-mails, preparing for a workout, getting ready to eat a meal, or reading a meaningful text—simply try one to three mindful breaths.
The basic technique for mindful breathing is to focus your attention on your breath (the inhale and exhale) with openness and childlike curiosity. As you inhale (preferably through the nose) and exhale (preferably through slightly pursed lips), even if it is just for sixty seconds, you should:
- Notice how your body feels.
- Bring your awareness to any part of your body that feels tense, then contract and subsequently relax those muscles.
- Next, bring your awareness back to your breath.
- Notice where you feel the breath most in your body.
- Settle into relaxation as you follow the sensation of each inhale and exhale.
- If your mind wanders, simply acknowledge the sensations, thoughts or feelings that arise with open curiosity, like wispy clouds passing from one ear across to the other ear, and then let them go.
- Continue to gently direct your attention back to your breath for as long you’d like.
I suspect that the reason this type of “pause” allows you to be present and mindful is that the relaxed breathing activates your restful parasympathetic nervous system, shifting you from a state of hyperalertness, scanning for danger, and somewhat shallow focus to a more blissful state of depth and awareness towards whichever activity you are engaged in. Of course, this tactic can be used in reverse also: You can do one to three minutes of rapid “hyperventilation” breathing to psyche you up for a workout, wake you up in the morning, or prepare your for a competition. Breath is in fact the best free method you own to shift your nervous system in any direction you desire. Learn that skill, and your life will be better for it. In my article, “How To Blast You (And Your Child’s!) Physical, Mental, & Spiritual Resilience Through The Roof With Breathwork,” I give you plenty of tools and tactics to do so.
Second, your breath can optimize your sleep.
While there is a multitude of forms of relaxing breathwork to prepare for sleep, many of which I discuss in great detail here and also in Chapter 3 of my book Boundless, two of my favorite forms of nighttime breathing are a “double-inhale-to-exhale” and a “4-7-8” pattern. For the former, my friend and brilliant neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman, claims that breaking up one long inhale as a double inhale through your nose and then exhaling through your mouth can calm you instantly. It definitely seems to work. In addition, Dr. Andrew Weil, in his podcast with me here, describes how he favors the 4-7-8 protocol, and this pattern of a “4 count in-7 count hold-8 count out” also seems to work quite well, probably because, based on a concept called “cardiac coherence,” a long, relaxed exhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system, slows the heart rate, and increases the heart rate variability—a sign of overall nervous system resilience and a de-stressed state. (Notably, I have found a 4-8 pattern with just a brief pause at the top of the inhale to work just as well as a 4-7-8 pattern.)
But I think the benefits of a long, relaxed exhale go beyond the nervous system. As I taught you here, I also view this long breath out as a sign of trust in God—a trust that the next breath in will be there waiting to fill me with life. So each night, as I fall asleep to the gentle diaphragmatic lull of my own “4-count-in-8-count-out” breathwork pattern, I'm silently thanking God and trusting God that there will be yet more oxygen available for me for my next inhale. Indeed, the mere act of mindful breathing combined with a silent gratefulness to God for each and every breath is a wonderful practice, and one I recommend you try the next time you're stuck in twenty minutes of traffic. After all, our great Creator smiles when we worship Him, and I certainly think that no king would complain of a subject entering their throne room for several minutes and saying with the deepest gratitude with each breath…”Thank you…thank you…thank you…”
The opposite also holds true. Hastily sucking your breath in with shallow chest breathing and rapid exhales is not only a fast track to activating of your fight-and-flight sympathetic nervous system, but also a sign that you've set aside trust in God to instead greedily consume the air around you like a glutton stuffing their face to sickness with every morsel they can find at the dinner table, because who knows if they'll be blessed with the same provisions the next day.
Third, certain breathing strategies can vastly enhance your sexual experience.
In Finding God Through Sex spiritual sexuality author David Deida presents a way to make love in which sex becomes an erotic act of devotional surrender that he describes as “making love, magnifying love, from the boundless depth of your heart through every inch of your body and in merger with your lover.” As you can read in this sample chapter from a separate book by David called Way Of The Superior Man, breath is an integral part of the practice that David teaches. Breathwork paired with sex has absolutely transformed my own lovemaking experience in such a powerful way that I often wish (with no regrets, but only gratefulness) that I'd discovered it earlier!
During sex, conscious breathing can help connect you with your body and intensify your sensations. In fact, breathing may be the most underused tool in your sexual “arsenal.” With the right type of breathing during sex, you can awaken sensitive nerve endings and experiment with different rhythms, patterns, and even shifts in body temperatures and blood or “chi” flow.
For example, during foreplay, you can simply rock back and forth with your partner, your face close to theirs, timing your breath so that as your partner exhales, you inhale, and vice versa. Play with your breath this way as you face each other—rubbing noses together, brushing cheeks together, teasing but not kissing, gently touching lips occasionally, and continuing to breathe together for several minutes. During this time, you can breathe onto a sensitive part of your partner's body to warm it, then move away as you exhale to cool it back down. During sex, avoid muffling or altering your sexual groans and grunts into moans or sighs, which can cause the rhythm of your breath to become unnatural. Instead, take deep full inhales and exhales, and welcome the audible sounds you may make as you do this.
To intensify your orgasms, you can slow down your breath just before you climax and take one deep inhale, imagining energy traveling all the way from your sexual organs up to the top of your head with a giant breath that you “trap” at the top of your head. If you combine this with a contraction of your pelvic musculature, you will often find that it keeps you from experiencing a full orgasm, after which you can exhale and continue the act of lovemaking for a longer period of time. This “tantric sex” tactic is something I learned in The Multi-Orgasmic Man: Sexual Secrets Every Man Should Know, which is an excellent companion to David Deida's two books cited above.
Fourth, breathwork (and fasting, as I describe here) pairs perfectly to prayer.
There is a concept in many religions, including Christianity, of spiritual breathing. Like physical breathing, spiritual breathing is a process of “exhaling the impure” and “inhaling the pure.” For example, while praying, during an exhale you may confess a sin or release a negative emotion such as shame, anger, or fear; then during the inhale, you can ask God to empower you to release any temptation you may have towards that sin, while “breathing in” or dwelling upon positive emotions such as peace, love, and joy. Or you may simply think or say one small phrase such as “fill me” on the inhale, and then “forgive me” on the exhale. In most cases, spiritual breathing during prayer simply involves some type of confession or release on the exhale, following by trust, love, and forgiveness on the inhale. You can click here to learn more about breath prayer as an ancient spiritual practice.
The Breath Of Life
Finally, and most importantly, breath is integral to life itself.
I must have read C.S. Lewis' Chronicles Of Narnia series nearly a dozen times when I was a boy. In the first book of the series—The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe—Aslan, the King of Narnia, who I describe in detail here, comes across creatures that were transformed into stone statues by a witch. He breathes on them, and they transform from lifeless blocks of stone into sentient, warm-blooded creatures once again. This is a perfect depiction of our own creation as humans: In the book of Genesis, God breathed into the nostrils of the first man Adam, and that was the final step for Adam to become a thinking, feeling creature.
As a matter of fact, the popular phrase “breath of life” comes originally from a verse in Genesis describing this creation of man.
Genesis 2:7 says: “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
In other words, it was a breath from God that transformed us from a lifeless corpse into a living human being. We find this same concept of the breath of life scattered frequently throughout Scripture, including in texts such as:
John 20:22 – “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” (this Holy Spirit is the same magical elixir that I talk about in my Hero’s Journey article here.)
Job 33:4 – “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
Genesis 2:7 –“Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
Job 27:3 – “As long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils..”
Ezekiel 37:6 – “And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Psalms 150:6 – “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!'”
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord, indeed. I am a miracle, you are a miracle, and our bodies – including our respiratory systems – are absolutely also miracles. You should be in awe and thankful for the magical complexity of breath every day. I recommend you begin by silently thanking God with each and every breath that you take when you engage in a daily mindful breathing habit, even if just for one minute. Eventually, this emotion of gratitude will subconsciously become woven into every breath you take.
Ultimately, I believe that an intimate connection to your own breath is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself, your loved one, or your children.
I'd even go so far as to say that I believe some kind of breath training should ideally be woven into the educational curriculum or parenting protocol for every young human on the planet.
As I explain in “How To Blast You (And Your Child’s!) Physical, Mental, & Spiritual Resilience Through The Roof With Breathwork.,” I've done this with my own twelve-year-old twin boys, and they can now turn to their breath for sleep, study, meditation, focus, prayer, workouts, and even ice baths.
Finally, if you want to take a deep dive into all things breath, here are a host of helpful podcasts and articles I've published in the past. If you were to pair a digestion of all of these along with the breathwork course I linked to above, you'll be well on your way to become a true breath “ninja.”
- How To Do Wim Hof Breathing “The Right Way,” Making Your Own DMT, Inhaling Pure Carbon Dioxide, Cold Showers, MDMA, & Much More – The Keys to Human Resilience.
- How To Blast You (And Your Child’s!) Physical, Mental, & Spiritual Resilience Through The Roof With Breathwork.
- Biohack Your Breath With Nose “Boners,” Carbon Dioxide Inhalation, Tibetan Longevity Stretches & Much More: How To Unlock The New Science Of A Lost Art.
- The Renegade Pharmacist: How To Increase The Effects Of Psilocybin, The Secrets Of Colostrum, Fixing Constipation With Breathwork & More.
- The Ultimate Breathwork Ninja Guide: How To Banish Stress & Kiss High Cortisol Goodbye.
- Pee Strips, Power Lungs & Pulse Oximeters: How To Flip The Switch On Your Body’s Own Natural Ability To Heal Itself (& Little-Known Ways To Breathe Better).
- Conquer The Cold And Get Quantum Leaps In Performance In This Exclusive Interview With The Amazing Iceman Wim Hof.
- The Iceman Returns: Wim Hof On Climbing Frigid Mountains In Underwear, Eating Only Once A Day, Activating Hormones With Breathing & More.
- The Zen of “The Zone” – How To Breathe The Right Way When You’re Working Out.
Now it's your turn. Do you have a breathwork practice? Have you found certain breath resources to be helpful? Do you use your breath to not only enhance your physical and mental health, but also your spiritual health? Leave your comments, questions, thoughts, and feedback below!