How Should I Breathe – Wim Hof vs Conscious Breathing

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Ever since I founded Conscious Breathing in 2009, people’s interest in breathing as a health promoter, performance enhancer and a way to personal and spiritual growth has increased more and more, which brings me much joy. In yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and qigong, different breathing techniques are central. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Buteyko breathing method? It’s a Russian method that is spreading across the globe, founded by the late Professor Konstantin Buteyko. Rebirthing and Holotropic breathing are two other popular ways of using breathing to change the state of mind and improve one’s health.

One of the methods that has attracted the most interest is the Wim Hof Method. Therefore, a common question is what makes Conscious Breathing different from Wim Hof breathing. Which way to breathe is correct? Which method is best? Is it possible to combine the two?

In Conscious Breathing, we often talk about the seven good breathing habits, where we strive for a slow, low, rhythmic breathing, inhaling and exhaling through the nose as much as possible during the 1.000 breaths we take each hour. This makes us relax and triggers the parasympathetic system, which is our ‘rest and digest’ system.

The method Wim Hof, A.K.A. The Iceman, teaches is pretty much the opposite. It says to take large breaths and breathe forcedly and powerfully, often through the mouth. This activates the sympathetic system, our fight and flight system, and increases our levels of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. The Wim Hof method is extremely popular, and he is something of a rock star in the breathing community 🙂 The exercises originate from Kundalini yoga, and many who practice them experience better health.

Carbon dioxide

makes us relax

Many of us breathe too much, a low-level form of hyperventilation. This breathing increases the levels of oxygen and lowers the carbon dioxide pressure in the body at the same time. Oxygen is taken in from the outside, while carbon dioxide is produced in the body. A normal carbon dioxide pressure is connected to relaxation. For example, during an anxiety attack or when experiencing fear of flying, it’s common to breathe into and out of a bag, so you re-inhale some of the exhaled air.

The exhaled air contains approximately 100 times as much carbon dioxide as the inhaled air, so when you re-inhale the exhaled air, your carbon dioxide pressure naturally rises, and your anxiety or fear of flying is calmed thanks to an increased amount of oxygen being carried to your brain. The reason for this is the relaxing and dilating effect that carbon dioxide has on the blood vessels.

In a Swiss study, twelve healthy medical students hyperventilated. The first time they breathed normal air, and the next time, they hyperventilated air that contained five percent carbon dioxide, which is 125 times as much as normal. Their adrenalin levels increased by 360 percent while the CO2 levels decreased by 50 percent when they breathed normal air. When hyperventilating carbon dioxide enriched air, both their carbon dioxide levels, and their adrenalin levels remained unchanged.

In other words, when the carbon dioxide pressure is low, adrenalin levels are high, which is the same as a powerful fight or flight/stress response. When the carbon dioxide pressure is normal, the adrenalin-, fight/flight- and stress levels are normal. Carbon dioxide is our natural tranqualizer.

You can find more information in this article – Carbon Dioxide Pressure More Important than Blood Pressure

Lack of oxygen increase the

blood's oxygen carrying capacity

When you breathe powerfully and forcedly as in Wim Hof, you are hyperventilating, which lowers your carbon dioxide levels and increases your adrenalin levels. One exercise Wim Hof has popularized is “Tummo Inner Fire Breathing” which was developed by Tibetan monks and is something I’ve tried a few times. After the exercise, the monks can sit in ice cold temperatures and melt the snow around themselves or dry newly washed clothes.

Some time ago, I fasted and drank only water. After 72 hours of fasting, I planned to end my fast with Tummo breathing. However, because the exercise increases adrenalin levels and activates the sympathetic system, waking up the body, after the exercise I was so energetic I decided to keep fasting for another 24 hours. This was something that surprised me, as prior to the exercise I was rather tired of fasting and really wanted food.

The Tummo exercise involves taking 30 large breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. On the 30th breath you breathe out 75% of the air and then hold your breath as long as you can. Once you can’t hold your breath any longer, you take a large breath in and hold it for 10-20 seconds. Repeat this 3 more times (in total 4 x 30 breaths). The exercise takes about 20 minutes in total.

During the 30 breaths your carbon dioxide levels drop substantially, but this is reset when you hold your breath. At the same time, the oxygen levels in your blood drop, after the 30 breaths when we hold our breath. In my case it sank down as far as to 39% (I am not sure that I completely trust the oxygen meter though). For every time you hold your breath, after the 30 big breaths, it is common that you can hold your breath longer and longer and that the oxygen saturation is lowered more and more.

When we lower the oxygen levels in our blood, more EPO is produced. EPO (erythropoietin) is a hormone that increases red blood cell production which increases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to our muscles. This is why it is popular among athletes to artificially (and illegally) inject themselves with more EPO.

Another effect of a low oxygen level is that our spleen, our blood bank that holds approximately 8% of our red blood cells, releases some of its reserves into our circulatory system, which once again leads to an increase in our ability to carry oxygen to our muscles and organs. Both these effects on the blood, EPO and the spleen, together with the increased adrenalin levels, are likely the reason I felt more energetic after completing Tummo breathing during my fasting.

Too much oxygen

is toxic

What is the reason why we die after just a few minutes after we stop breathing? Oxygen deficiency, right. We are so extremely dependant upon oxygen to produce energy efficiently. Do you know that we only store id I ever send you this? It is a really good paper discussing the storage of O2 and CO2 in our body – https://www.dovepress.com/comparative-respiratory-physiology-the-fundamental-mechanisms-and-the–peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-OAAP

“It is undoubtedly because of its toxicity (23,24) that O2 is not stored in the body in significant amounts. For example, for a human being weighing 70 kg, only ~1.6 L of O2 exists in the body, (25,26,27) with ~370 cm3 of it present in the alveoli, ~280 cm3 in the arterial blood, ~600 cm3 in the capillary and venous blood, ~60 cm3 dissolved in the body tissues, and ~240 cm3 chemically bound to myoglobin…….The body’s stores of CO2 in solution and in the form of bicarbonate ions (HCO3−1) far exceed those of O2. In a 70 kg person, the total CO2 store is 120 L.(27).”

• 1,6 liters of oxygen has a weight of 2,3 gram and 120 liters of carbon dioxide has a weight of 220 gram – https://www.aqua-calc.com/calculate/volume-to-weight (or actually slightly different if you factor in the body temperature)
• Each minute we consume about 250 ml of oxygen and produce about 240 ml of CO2 at rest.
• If we breathe 12 breaths per minute it means that for every increase of CO2 with 20 ml (240 ml / 12 breaths) the breathing center will trigger a new inhale. In gram it means that only 0,04 gram of CO2 is required to trigger an inhale… And if we take 24 breaths per minute it’s only 10 ml / 0,02 gram of CO2 required to trigger an inhale.

Relaxation

or activation

To summarize, we can say that the foundation for Conscious Breathing is relaxation and recovery, while the foundation for Wim Hof’s method is activation. There is no right or wrong. Both ways to breathe have their place, and which one is the most beneficial to you depends on where you are and what you wish to achieve, i.e. do you want to relax or do you want to activate yourself?

One comparison is when we exercise, we can do it at low-intensity with a low pulse or high-intensity with a high pulse. Conscious Breathing represents low-intensive exercise, while Wim Hof’s method represents high-intensive exercise. When I exercise, however, I do the majority, about 90%, low-intensity, and only about 10% high-intensity, which I think is best for our body in the long run.

It is highly likely that low-intensive activity, such as trekking or collecting nuts, berries, fruit, and mushrooms, has dominated our life during evolution, while the high-intensity activities such as hunting and fleeing, occurred less frequently.

Generally, it appears that Conscious Breathing, atleast up until now, primarily attracts women, while it is primarily men who show interest in Wim Hof’s method, something apparent both among those learning, as well as among certified instructors.

Both feminine and masculine energy are obviously important for an optimal balance. However, my understanding is that our society largely has excessive amounts of adrenalin, testosterone, activated sympathetic systems, and masculine energy, and we need to become better at relaxing, cooperating, and increasing our ability for internal growth, which is often associated with feminine energy.

Scientific study


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Anders Olsson

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Anders Olsson is a lecturer, teacher and founder of the Conscious Breathing concept and the author of The Power of Your Breath. After living most of his life with a ”hurricane of thoughts” bouncing back and forth in is head, Anders was fortunate enough to come across tools that have helped him relax and find his inner calm. The most powerful of these tools has undoubtedly been to improve his breathing habits, which made Anders decide to become the worlds most prominent expert in breathing. This is almost 10 years ago and since then he has helped tens of thousands of people to a better health and improved quality of life. His vision is "Together we change the world, one breath at a time." Read more about Anders here >>