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, small, 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 forcefully and powerfully, often through the mouth. This activates the sympathetic system, our fight and flight system, and increases our levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The Wim Hof method is extremely popular, and he is something of a rock star in the breathing community 🙂 Many who practice the exercises 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 in bag breathing, 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. When the blood vessels widens, more oxygen-rich blood reaches the brain, and the stressed, oxygen-hungry “panic-brain” can relax.
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 tranquilizer.
You can find more information in this article – Carbon Dioxide Pressure More Important than Blood Pressure
Lack of oxygen increases the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity
When you breathe powerfully and forcefully as in the Wim Hof Method, you are hyperventilating, which lowers your carbon dioxide levels and increases your adrenaline 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 adrenaline 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 really 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. You repeat this 3 more times (in total 4 x 30 breaths). The exercise takes about 20 minutes to complete.
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 adrenaline 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. But why are we so dependent upon oxygen? Well, we need the oxygen in order to produce energy efficiently. With the aid of oxygen we can extract up to 100% of the available energy in the food we eat, while only 6% of the energy can be extracted without oxygen.
This says a lot about how important oxygen is for our survival. But even though we are so extremely dependent of oxygen, we store very little of it at any given time. At rest we consume about 250 ml of oxygen per minute, so even if we were able to use up all of the approximately 1,6 liter of oxygen that we store (for a 70 kg person), which we probably can’t, it will still only last for about 6-7 minutes.
Here we need to take a step back and stop. Why do we have so little oxygen stored in our body? There is nothing that is as important to us as oxygen, and yet we only have a supply that lasts for a few minutes. This gas that we are so extremely dependent upon, why don’t we store more of it? In the same way that we store large amounts of fat, glucose, proteins, water and other life sustaining substances. The thing we need the most we have least of. What is the logic behind this? One reason is obviously because it is so easily availabe as there are 21% oxygen in the air we inhale. Another important reason is because oxygen is so reactive and that too much oxygen is toxic and dangerous.
The vast majority of our energy, 90%, is produced in the mitochondria in the cells, where the oxygen is used to convert the nutrients we ingest into energy. The mitochondria are often likened to an incinerator and it is easy to understand the danger of oxygen if we think of pouring it on an open fire. When the oxygen hits the fire, the reaction will be very explosive. That’s why the energy production in the mitochondria is divided into several steps, so that there won’t be any “oxygen explosions”.
Excess oxygen makes us “rust” from within
The atmosphere contains approximately 21% oxygen and at a normal breathing volume of six liters of air per minute we inhale about 1.25 liters of oxygen during this minute and exhale about 1 liter. The rest, 250 ml, is used in the body to make energy. Wim Hof-breathing likely means that we inhale upwards of 30-60 liters of air per minute. Since the need for oxygen is pretty much the same, 250 ml, the excess of oxygen is enormous. 21% oxygen of 30-60 liters means that in this forceful breathing we inhale 6.3-12.6 liters of oxygen per minute, a 5-10 fold increase.
We can compare this with what happens if we eat more calories than we use. The body stores the excess in our fat cells, right? It’s a natural process that has ensured our survival for thousands of years. By storing fat when food is plentiful, we’ve been able to survive during hard winters when food is scarce.
The same principle occurs if you have an excess of oxygen, in other words, more oxygen than you need to meet your energy requirements. Instead of contribution to the production of more energy in the mitochondria, part of the oxygen is converted into free oxygen radicals. Free radicals aren’t bad things in and of themselves. For example, the immune system uses them to create inflammation intended to deal with bacteria and other invaders.
The problem occurs when we produce too many free radicals and therefore have too much inflammation. The inflammation reaction in our body can be compared to when metal rusts, or when the apple turns brown after you take a bite and let it be exposed to oxygen for a while. One effect of the activation-exercises (over breathing) is that we get too much oxygen, which increases inflammations and makes us “rust” from within.
Another aspect is that we face the risk of permanently ending up with impaired breathing habits. When we do something often enough we establish new habits, and in the long run forecul breathing exercises can lead to irregular and chaotic breathing and overbreathing also in your everyday life. This is something I’ve often experienced at the gym – one huff, puff, groan and moan while lifting heavy and in the dressing room afterwards the breathing is also labored and noisy, for example when putting on a sweater or tying your shoelaces.
In this article you can find more information about how the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide affects our health Breathe Less – Live Longer >>
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Relaxation or activation
To summarize, we can say that the foundation for Conscious Breathing is relaxation and recovery via low, slow, small and rhythmical breathing via the nose, while the foundation for Wim Hof’s method is activation via forceful breathing that stresses the body. Many other breathing exercises I’ve tried, like Rebirthing, Holotrophic breathing and some Pranayama and Kundalini yoga exercises are based on the same principles as the Wim Hof-breathing, i.e. they focus on breathing that exceeds the body’s need, either a forceful breathing or a lower-grade form of overbreathing. However, 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 which approach speaks to you the most, i.e. do you want to feel harmonious, strong, filled with self-confidence through relaxation or through activation that challenges you and makes you stressed.
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 would then represent low-intense exercise, while Wim Hof’s method represents high-intense exercise. Personally, when I exercise, I do the majority, about 90% or more, low-intensity in order to create a stable ground, and only about 10% or less of high-intensity, which I think is best for our body in the long run.
It is highly likely that low-intense activity, such as trekking or collecting nuts, berries, fruit, and mushrooms, has dominated our lives during evolution, while the high-intense activities such as hunting and fleeing, occurred less frequently.
Cope or transforming
An important question we should ask ourselves is whether these activation-exercises, which change our state and makes us feel good in the short term, also have a positive effect in the long run? Chocolate, coffee, alcohol and exercising hard often have a positive effect short term, but it isn’t certain that it is the best alternative in the long run to gain energy, stay healthy or feel strong, relaxed and full of self-confidence.
Another important question is whether the activation-exercises mainly help us to cope with stress, fear and conflicts or if they actually make it possible to transform and upgrade our ability to react different to incoming stimuli. Over time do I get better at forgiving, deal with conflicts, cooperation, and standing up for myself etc.?
My belief is that the more forceful breathing being used in the activation-exercises increases stress levels and forces the body to adapt and develop, and that they first and foremost are powerful tools to cope with stress. The conscious, relaxed breath on the contrary, in my opinion, is more transformational by nature and over time it leads to a reduced need to deal with stress, fears etc. simply because we don’t end up in these situations as often, or because we don’t perceive the daily events as stressful as before.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, I hope you enjoyed it 🙂