Here is an interview Dr. John Douillard, DC, CAP, did with me. When I started to delve into the world of breathing more than 10 years ago, one of the first books I read was his book “Body, Mind, and Sport: The Mind-Body Guide to Lifelong Health, Fitness, and Your Personal Best“. In the book Dr. Douillard talked a lot about the positive effects of nasal breathing during exercise, which inspired me a lot.
Dr. Douillard is the author of seven health books. He is a former NBA nutritionist and creator of LifeSpa.com, a leading wellness resource with thousands of free articles, resources and videos, nine million+ YouTube views and over 130k newsletter subscribers.
About the episode
– Join us for a podcast with Anders Olsson, founder of the Conscious Breathing Method. In this podcast, you will begin to discover the true power of your breath and how to harness it to improve your health and wellbeing! Anders Olsson is an author, speaker and founder of the Conscious Breathing Method.
He has trained more than 1000 Conscious Breathing Instructors and helped tens of thousands of people improve their sleep, asthma, physical fitness, ability to concentrate and reduce their stress, anxiety and pain just by doing something as simple as improving the way they breathe. Anders is the inventor of the Relaxator which is an inexpensive breathing device to help retrain your breathing.
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John: Hi. I’m Dr. John Douillard and welcome to LifeSpa Podcast. Today, we have an amazing guest on one of my absolute favorite topics in the world. It’s about breathing. Anders Olsson wrote a book called Conscious Breathing. I highly recommend you read this book. He’s been studying breathing for probably as long as I’ve been studying breathing and has taken it even way further than I have for sure. We’re going to dive into the details about that but let me tell you a little about him.
He’s a speaker, author, founder of Conscious Breathing, the Conscious Breathing method. He’s trained more than a thousand Conscious Breathing instructors and helped tens of thousands of people with their sleep, asthma, physical fitness, ability to concentrate, reduce their stress, anxiety, pain, just by doing something as simple as improving the way they breathe right? How can you get rid of your pain by breathing? We’re going to find out. Anders is also the inventor of the Relaxator which is an inexpensive breathing device to help retain your breathing.
Anders, welcome. Thank you so much for being here. I’m super excited. You have no idea to have you here and dive into this topic. I know we could talk for hours. I would love for you to maybe just jump in and talk about the Relaxator. Tell us what that is. Tell us how you figured out how to invent it. Show us how it works.
Anders: It’s just a little simple device. You put it in your mouth and it gives you a resistance on the outbreath. That resistance helps you to slow down your breathing. It helps you to breathe more rhythmically. It helps you to breathe diaphragmatically, the low breath and it helps to increase the pressure in the lungs as well as in the throat where a lot of us have a, that’s a bottleneck for many of us. It also helps increase the pressure in the sinuses.
John: The Relaxator is kind of an exhalation or an expiratory muscle training device, correct?
Anders: Yes, that’s true.
John: When that happens your diaphragm is relaxing right?
John: I know this is sort of sort of along the lines of Carl Stough’s work where he was all about helping the body. He’s the one who trained, remember the Olympic athletes in the Mexico City Olympic Games and they had the black gloves and all that. Well those two guys who won the Olympics were the only ones who didn’t use oxygen in those Olympic Games and they also won the gold medal. They were training under this guy Carl Stough who was a trainer for singers. He worked on training them to exhale all the way and more efficiently. Can you dive into the details about how exhalatory muscle training would, what does that do physiologically to the body?
Anders: Well, I think also another important thing that Carl Stough did he helped them to establish a rhythmic breathing. He told them to when they were in the starting blocks ready to run they should start running on the exhale. That helped them to keep a better breathing rhythm. I think that is underrated usually, the breeding rhythm because we have a tendency to hold our breath a lot in today’s society.
For example at night we call it sleep apnea. Daytime we don’t have a real name for it. I call it whatever concentration apnea or text message apnea or whatever. I just wanted to add that but the idea with the Relaxator is that you inhale through the nose. There are devices on the market where you also do inspiratory muscle training. I think the nose is too important. You should inhale through your nose and then exhale through nose to basically make your breath function more efficiently because that’s what it is at the end of the day. We take thousand breaths each hour and we want to do it as efficient as possible.
John: Can you show us how it works?
Anders: Yes, absolutely. You set the resistance between one and five. Then you hold it with your lips. If you hold it with your teeth there is a risk you will be tense in your jaws. Hold it with your lips, inhale through your nose. It slows down your breathing and makes your breathing low. It trains your diaphragm basically.
John: I tried to find it. We looked on Amazon to find it and I couldn’t find it there. Where do you get it? How do you get it?
Anders: You get it from our website ConsciousBreathing.com. It’s not available on Amazon unfortunately.
John: All right, good. Well, I want people to know that. I think it’s really great because I think there’s also inspiratory muscle training that they use in hospitals. Actually there was a recent study that just came out a week or two ago that they’re suggesting that inspiratory muscle training devices and techniques for Covid which obviously makes huge amount of sense because for diaphragm which is the big muscle of inspiration isn’t working well you’re not going to have a great shot of getting through a respiratory congestive condition. They’re now recommending that breathing technique for Covid.
In Ayurveda, my whole thing is Ayurveda, ancient wisdom and modern science. There’s a technique that I teach called protealoma where you pinch your nostrils and then you breathe against partially closed resistance of your nostrils. That forces your diaphragm to get that extra contraction to get that inspiratory muscle training effect. You let it go and you can add a breath hold to that as well.
Anders: Yes, that is really interesting. Actually you can if you want to you can just take this apart and remove the membrane so you can also use it as an inspiratory muscle training if you want to.
John: Oh really? It creates resistance on the inhale as well.
Anders: Yes, it does.
John: The rhythmic breathing is one of your five principles of Conscious Breathing. I want to talk about, if you could go through each of the five for me but before that I want to make everybody aware of the fact that Anders was the guy if you watched last month’s podcast with James Nestor in his book Breath. Anders was with James back, I don’t know how many years ago that was. It must have been a couple years ago right?
Anders: Yes, two years ago.
John: Yes two years ago and they plugged their nose for what was it, two weeks?
Anders: Ten days.
John: Ten days and they walked around with their nose plugged. They breathed through their mouth for ten days. They measured the effects and the negative effects of all of walking around with their mouth open and their nose closed for 10 days. I’d love to hear how that was for you and what the results of that were.
Anders: To start with it was a horrible experience because I’ve been doing nasal breathing for so many years and then suddenly start using my mouth. What affected me the most was the sleep. I at some point I even didn’t want to go to sleep because I knew what a horrible experience it would be. I woke up four or five times every night, needed to go pee or just couldn’t sleep. We filmed ourselves. I was still sleeping very restless, moving my body all the time. I was snoring like three hours per night. Obviously took a toll on my energy daytime.
What I noticed was that because one of the reasons why I become this breathing nerd is because I used to be this type A personality, always the achiever and find it very hard to unlock the turbo and wind down and slow down. When I came across breathing that was by far the most important tool I’ve come across to be able to unlock the turbo and wind down.
What I started feeling after a few days with a blocked nose was the adrenaline kicked in to compensate for the lack of sleep. It was very familiar that feeling that I was stressed out with no need to be stressed out. I remember several times just making lunch and I almost had to check okay, do I have all my fingers? Yes, luckily because I was a chopping cucumber or whatever like my life depended on it.
It was really interesting also that my sugar craving that I used to have a lot before. The breathing has helped me a lot with that. It started to increase so the first few days there were zero sugar craving and then at the end the last four days I think I had eight, between seven and eight from scale from one to ten on sugar cravings. The last four days it was sugar and ice cream, candy and the last two days I think it was pizza and beer. I usually don’t drink a lot. I don’t eat pizza either.
Actually the feeling was that if I would have continued I would probably have had pizza and beer every single night because it was don’t take that away for me. That’s mine. It was really, really interesting to understand what was going on just because we plugged our nose.
John: Well that explains the whole American junk food culture. It’s like when I first wrote word wrote Body, Mind and Sport I talked to a lot of pulmonologists and I would say that upper chest is fight or flight, the lower chest is parasympathetic. They were telling me I was crazy. There’s no science to back that up. I’m going okay, well you just proved it because as soon as you plugged your nose and you had to breathe through your mouth you were doing nothing but emergency, survival eating, stressed out, turbocharged in every way of your life. I mean you experience the rev of a bear chasing you in the woods sort of.
Anders: Right and I also got stupid. I mean several times I was amazed how I could be that stupid. I guess it was about the oxygenation of the brain. Just after a few days, I mean if you go doing this all your life it’s probably tough on your body and your mind.
John: Amazing. Okay so the first principle of Conscious Breathing is breathing through your nose. Obviously you just talked about one of the reasons why it’d be a really good idea to become good at that. Tell us a little bit more about that and what are some of the tips to get people to do it.
Anders: The first tip is always obviously to close your mouth. I mean our mouth is for eating and talking. Our nose is really for breathing. What the nose does, it warms the air, humidifies it. A lot of the particles, some research suggests that we inhale about 100 billion particles in a single day even more if you are in a polluted city. Of course it’s a vast difference how you present the air to the lungs if you take it in by the mouth where it’s colder and drier and full of these particles.
The airways and lungs get irritated with mouth breathing compared to nasal breathing where a lot of these particles get trapped. Then the air is turbinated and warmed and humidified. I mean the nose is really an aerodynamic miracle. It’s quite amazing when you look at it. When you see all the space it takes up in the cranium you must realize that if that thing is only to smell the flowers probably the evolution has gone completely wrong or it is actually that it has some important properties.
What it also does is that it helps, if you inhale through the mouth the air will have a more turbulent airflow. The air will go in all directions so it makes up for higher chest breathing compared to the nose that are is able to drive the air lower down into the lungs. It’s like the nose and the diaphragm work in in tandem. Some sort of communication there I guess.
John: When I writing my book about breathing I was researching it and it turned out that when they first created the internal combustion engine how the piston is like a diaphragm. It sucks the air in. Then they had a piston like a valve but initially the valve was really big. All the air went in and it exploded in only one part of the chamber. The engine would last a couple of weeks before it would blow up. Then they created the valve to swirl the air like the nose like the turbinates do. They swirl the air in a verified stream and it was that that allowed the air to go down and drive through the whole piston chamber. That’s the internal combustion engine we have today which is exactly like this nose which is like the valve that drives the air all the way down into the lower lobes of your lungs.
That’s my next question. In the lower lobes of your lungs is a predominance of alveoli. It’s gravity fed. That’s where all the blood is. That’s where we exchange the CO2. There’s a lot of discussion about the balance between oxygen and CO2, how we are over breathing oxygen and we have of sort of an intolerance to CO2. Can you talk to me about that relationship between CO2 and O2?
Anders: That is so important. We usually consider CO2 as just a simple waste product. Get rid of it as soon as possible. Oxygen is the key and the more we take in the better but my analogy for that would be if I drive my car. I drive 50 miles per hour and it consumes say half a gallon. I’m not that familiar with gallon. If I then decide to double that or triple that. I gave it one gallon or one and a half gallon would my car be better off then? No, it wouldn’t right? It’s just as bad for the car to get too little fuel as it is to get too much.
We may think that a more oxygen is better because then we will oxygenate our muscles and our brain but that’s not the case. It’s all about balance. When we over breathe which many people tend to do and especially when we use our mouth but also it’s possible through our nose. Then we take in more oxygen and even though oxygen is, I mean if we stop breathing we die. We all know that. That’s because we need oxygen. We can’t survive without it but just as it is a blessing it is also a curse.
It’s the balance. I mean if we think about it we only store about one and a half liter of oxygen in our body if we weight about 70 kilos. If we look at other things, we store proteins and water and glucose and fat, we have enormous reserves in our body but oxygen that’s the reason why we only survive a few minutes without breathing because our oxygen reserves are so small.
The only reason I can think of for that being is that oxygen is toxic. We can’t have too much. We talk about the mitochondria in our cells. That’s our energy plants. That’s where we want the oxygen. That’s where oxygen is used to convert the fat and the glucose to energy in an efficient way. We also call these mitochondria the combustion chambers like there is a fire in those.
If we have a normal fire burning and we put oxygen on that fire it will totally just explode because oxygen is such a reactive gas or if we take a bite in an apple and put it down for a few minutes it will start to turn brown. That’s because it starts to oxidize. Even though we need oxygen in order to create energy efficiently too much of it is absolutely not good because then we will create more free oxygen radicals which is the highway to inflammations. When we over breathe we take in too much oxygen which is bad in itself but we also exhale too much carbon dioxide.
If we combine over breathing with inactivity because when we are active the metabolism increases. In the metabolism when oxygen and glucose and fat are converted to energy also carbon dioxide is formed. Whenever we move our body, when we are active we increase the production of carbon dioxide. If we are inactive and if we are over breathing well then it’s a double negative thing that we lower the CO2 pressure in our body.
CO2 has many, many important properties. One is that it relaxes the smooth muscles. We have three types of muscles. We have the heart muscle. We have the skeletal muscles that we can control with our willpower. Then we have the smooth muscles. They are everywhere in our body. For example in our airways, in our blood vessels, in our intestines, in our stomach, uterus and when we have low levels of CO2 they will start to contract. They will tense up. Probably that is the reason why I needed to go pee several times per night when I had my nose blocked because my bladder will then contract. It will fill up faster.
John: Everything when you have high oxygen creates a vasoconstriction. Blood flow to the brain is compromised. Blood flow to your tissue is compromised but also carbon dioxide is also considered a sedative molecule while oxygen is the more stimulant molecule. When you have way too much oxygen and less CO2 you’re going to be anxious and sort of like in Ayurveda we do breath holds, kumbhaka or breath retention. The breath retention on the exhalation was going to allow you to build CO2 up levels and become tolerant to them.
That was used for people who were anxious and worried and they needed more CO2 to calm them down. Then they would do breath holds on the inhalation which would actually give them more oxygen and it was used to stimulate folks who are actually like melancholians, maybe depressed to stimulate them. They knew thousands of years ago the difference between the two.
We have a culture now who just like you said we’re inactive. We sit around a lot. Even if you exercise it’s like for an hour a day but it’s not like, you’re not exercising or moving around all the time like we traditionally did. If we are breathing through our mouth and like you said being active which I think is a great, I didn’t realize that was the one of the main drivers of increasing CO2 and keeping that balance was moving which really explains a lot why, another major reason why it’s so important to exercise but it’s also calms you down. It’s not just fight or flight. It’s that the actual chemistry of CO2 is to chill you out.
Anders: True, absolutely. That’s our natural tranquilizer I would say. If you have a panic attack and come to a hospital. Usually you will get a bag to breathe in and out through. The reason why that works is because we inhale 0.04 percent CO2. We exhale 4%. We exhale 100 times more. We are basically CO2 factories. When we exhale that CO2 into a bag and then we rebreathe the air we just exhale that means we will fill up the CO2.
The panic attack is a stressed out brain where the CO2 levels are low and the blood vessels are constricted. There is less blood to the brain, less oxygen. When you breathe through the bag you will increase the carbon dioxide pressure, blood vessel will open up and you will oxidate your brain. You will start to slow down. That basically says it all.
John: Absolutely and then and then that brings up the elephant in the room question. Everybody’s walking around with a mask these days. Everybody wants to know is it actually good for us to rebreathe some of the CO2? What’s your take on that?
Anders: I mean I think the mask could be detrimental for a lot of people because they don’t know how to breathe in the first place. We open up our mouth when we have too much CO2 in our body. We’re not used to tolerate that much CO2. With the mask we will rebreathe some of the CO2 and we’re not used to it so we open up our mouth. There is a risk that the mask would lead to poor breathing but if we know the importance of nasal breathing then actually putting on the mask could be a perfect tool to improve your breathing, improve your tolerance for carbon dioxide. It could really take us in both directions I think.
John: It’s a great point because I think a lot of people are like ripping off their masks because they’re huffing and puffing and they can’t stand it because it seems to make them make them feel like they’re suffocating which is actually how you build CO2 tolerance. Talk a little bit about the Bohr Effect and how important it is to have CO2 tolerance to literally bring the oxygen from your blood into your tissues.
Anders: Can I just touch on what you just said the, we feel like we are suffocating? I mean if we consider carbon dioxide to be just a waste gas and then we probably would realize that our breath is our most important function. Without breath we have nothing. We have no life. The function that controls breathing is not oxygen. It is carbon dioxide. If you start to hyperventilate for a few seconds you will lower the CO2 in your body and that will then enable you to hold your breath longer because it is the increase of carbon dioxide in your body that stimulates the brain stem that will then stimulate the in-breath and on the following outbreath you will exhale the CO2.
It is the increase of carbon dioxide in our body that stimulates breathing not oxygen. If breathing is our most important function and it’s controlled by CO2 probably CO2 is a little bit more than a waste product. That’s why for example if I’m out running when I then increase my metabolism so I increase the production of CO2 I will then breathe faster because my brain center in the brain stem will be stimulated more often.
The Bohr Effect is actually if we think about it, if I move this muscle. This muscle will consume more oxygen than my other arm that’s at rest. It’s not a coincidence then that this muscle that I’m moving will receive more oxygen. One of the reasons is because of what is called the Bohr Effect and that has to do with pH. We have a higher pH in the lungs where the haemoglobin then have, most of the proteins in our body we can see them as a computer. They are either on or off.
These proteins, the hemoglobin in the lungs, they have one, we can say that they are on. They will then absorb, they will attract oxygen. Then in the blood we have slightly lower pH but the hemoglobin will still have high affinity for oxygen. Then when the blood reaches the cell we have an even lower pH. That lower pH is the signal for the hemoglobin to change shape to go from on to off and thereby releasing the oxygen.
In the mitochondria where we produce the energy we also produce carbon dioxide and we also produce heat. Both heat and carbon dioxide they lower pH signalling to the hemoglobin to offload the oxygen. This working muscle obviously produces more heat and more carbon dioxide than my muscle that is at rest. That means then that more CO2 and more heat leaves the muscle reaching the blood. The haemoglobin will then offload the oxygen and the oxygen will go the opposite way so that my muscle can continue to work. It’s an ingenious mechanism of course like our whole body is.
John: Great invention. That increase of CO2 as it goes as the pH becomes less and less from the lungs to the blood to the tissues the CO2 level is building up and converting into carbonic acid which is an acid which lowers the pH. Is that the main driver to lower the pH?
Anders: Yes, carbonic acid and then to actually to bicarbonate or baking soda. That’s an intermediate, the carbonic acid. We have CO2 and water and then we have carbonic acid and then it goes further to baking soda and h-plus.
John: But wouldn’t the baking soda raise the pH? Isn’t that more alkaline?
Anders: That’s an interesting question but what happens in our body. When you have the baking soda you also get an h-plus which is a proton. The more h-plus you have the lower the pH but when we talk about baking soda if we buy it in the store yes, we would consider it an alkaline.
John: I see so it’s a series of chain reactions that continue to take place that lower the pH.
Anders: Yes, true. In fact the carbon dioxide production and the bicarbonate or baking soda buffer is a major component in our body in order to have the correct pH in different parts of the body. We have one pH in the skin about five and a half. We have about one and a half to three in our stomach. In our small intestine we have a pH of about seven to nine because there is where we absorb the food. The pH is really important. It’s not only hemoglobin that works differently depending on which pH it’s exposed to. It’s most protein in our body. They are designed to operate at a certain pH level.
If we over breathe and if we are inactive, if we lower our CO2 pressure we will also reduce our bicarbonate buffer meaning that it would be harder for our body to maintain the correct pH in different parts of the body which will then affect all functions basically.
John: Breathing, in terms of your CO2 – O2 balance that has a direct impact on your pH right?
Anders: Yes, with every breath we affect pH.
John: If you build up CO2 tolerance and tell us about the importance of first what CO2 tolerance is and how do we build it up. What are some exercises people can use at home to try to build their CO2 tolerance?
Anders: It’s like with anything. Like my favorite analogy is like going to the gym. If you never been there, you never exercise, you probably won’t do hundred push-ups. If you do probably you will never set your foot there again. The key is to take it step by step slowly not approached as I did. I figured out that I should have the world’s best breathing in the shortest period of time which is absolutely stupid but that’s where I come from and performance and all of that.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have that but it doesn’t really go hand in hand because more than anything if we want to improve our breathing it’s relaxation we’re after. The relaxation is the key here I think when we embark on this journey improving our breathing and improving our CO2 tolerance. For example when you use this you slow down your breathing but if you adjust the resistance too high so that you slow down your breathing too much similar then to doing too many push-ups at the gym.
At the gym you will have sore muscles. With this you may notice afterwards that you will start to sigh or yawn. Those are all big breaths or that you have a need to talk a lot or because when we talk we have a tendency to breathe more. That’s then a sign of that you have done it too hard. You have to adjust the breathing center slowly to tolerate more and more CO2.
John: What about like free divers who do these breathe up techniques? They do long, slow inhale and slow exhale. Then they do obviously a breath hold so they can go all the way down with no oxygen. They go down really deep but some of the training that they do during that period of time is when they actually do their breath hold and it is usually a breath hold on a full inhalation. You’ll get the same thing on an exhalation breath hold as well.
Your abdominal muscles start cramping and tightening up and all these things begin to happen. Are we building CO2 tolerance when that happens because you’re obviously even though your oximeter reading when you’re doing that breath hold says 98%, 95% and people are still going through like major contractions in their belly. They clearly have enough oxygen. What’s making that breath hold so uncomfortable?
A lot of free divers will say once they get through those contractions they’ve got another two or three minutes of breath holding in them that this contraction was sort of like I don’t know they call it the mammalian dive reflex where the body’s just learning how to be a fish again if we all came from the ocean but there’s a mammalian reflex that we hold our breath like dolphins do for a very long period of time. I’m curious to know is that a way to build CO2 tolerance or is that something that you’re familiar with?
Anders: I tried free diving myself. I trained a number of free divers actually. I didn’t think that I would be able to teach them anything but actually they found it very beneficial. I think an analogy for that could be exercise. We talked about before inactivity leads to maybe lower levels of CO2 while when you’re active that leads to higher levels of CO2.
Also when we are active, when we exercise we can do it in different ways. A lot of people they exercise in a way where they actually impair their breathing. They create poor breathing because I mean I’ve been nasal breathing and jogging for more than 10 years now. I rarely see a person that doesn’t look like this. They’re like swallowing as much as they can. Of course if you do something often enough you will establish new habits.
I think a lot of people when I go to the gym and I hear the people at the gym they are huffing and puffing and ah and ugh. They have their mouth open and they breathe fast and they breathe shallow. Even in the dressing room taking their socks off or whatever they agh, go like that telling me that okay yes, they did it at a gym and now they’re doing it outside of the gym as well.
Even though it’s probably possible for the free divers because they have their goal. They want to hold their breath for many, many minutes. I’m not so certain that it will lead to optimum breathing outside of that training regime. What I teach I tend to think is the boring thing. It doesn’t reach any headlines because I’m not teaching you should do different exercises where you alter your state and you feel aesthetic or whatever. It’s more like the thousand breaths you take each hour try to take them in in line with these simple principles. Close your mouth, breathe low and slow and rhythmically and over time you will build up CO2 tolerance.
John: It’s very much a Vedic concept where they say that even the hairs in the nose shouldn’t move when we breathe. Really long, really slow and in that long slow breath that gives the alveoli time to exchange oxygen in and waste out. It takes time for all that to happen where if we’re just like you said over, we’re just blasting out major levels of CO2 and bringing in way more oxygen than we need. We end up tipping the scale which triggers a whole bunch of vasoconstrictive circulatory brain fog issues that even cause anxiety actually.
Anders: I’m not saying it’s wrong. I mean there are tons of evidence showing that you get benefits from breathing forcefully but I’m not so certain if you put the long-term perspective. Everyone can relate to the fact that there will be a change if they do it short term but I’m not so certain about the long-term effect. The way I look at it is that oxygen is the more male energy and our society is kind of male dominant while carbon dioxide is the more female energy.
It’s actually carbon dioxide that is inviting the oxygen. It’s carbon dioxide that stimulates the brain stem telling us to inhale. Then it’s carbon dioxide that’s widening the airways telling the oxygen to come along down into the lungs. Then it’s carbon dioxide that’s widening the blood vessels telling the oxygen to follow lung out in the body. Then it’s carbon dioxide basically that kicks the oxygen from the blood by opening up the hemoglobin.
John: I love that so then then that begs the question. What’s your take on the Wim Hof method?
Anders: I mean I had a course yesterday and one of the homework was to do the Wim Hof exercise. I want them to experience, to make up their own mind what suits me. I mean if you look at the YouTube videos from Wim Hof, he had millions of views and tons of comments saying it has changed their life. I have full respect for that but long term I think in general our world, our society doesn’t need more adrenaline necessarily. We need more ability to calm down, to be able to slow down.
A way I would evaluate a matter would be has it three years, five years, ten years from now increase my ability to if someone is mad at me can I react differently? Will I be able to stay calm? Will I end up in less conflicts? Will I be perceived as a nicer person? Will I feel more harmony or do I need to fill myself up with another rush many times per day or whatever?
One interesting study they did, a bunch of medical students, they were hyperventilating for 20 minutes. They measured the carbon dioxide levels and they measured the adrenaline. They did it twice. First instance they were just breathing normal air. The carbon dioxide levels decreased by 50% and the adrenaline increased by 360%.
Then they did the test again to see what was the stress because they felt more stress. Was it the increase in adrenaline or was it the decrease in carbon dioxide? This time they inhaled 5% carbon dioxide meaning that the carbon dioxide levels were more or less unchanged. There wasn’t really any difference? Guess what? The adrenaline despite them huffing and puffing like this which is the hallmark for stress and for adrenaline, the adrenaline levels were also unchanged telling us that it’s the low levels of CO2 more than anything that induces stress and that gives us the adrenaline rush.
If we engage in exercises where we lower the CO2 we will get a rush. Afterwards we will feel relaxed but I’m not so certain that that is the most efficient way if we want to feel the harmonious state to go the road via adrenaline and exerting ourselves and then feeling afterwards the relaxation. Maybe it is more efficient to go the road via relaxation to achieve relaxation.
John: That’s a very familiar concept when we stress and recover and stress and recover and kill ourselves with mouth breathing. We’re limited by how much stress we can handle in life but if you breathe through your nose like our studies show we had significantly less parasympathetic and significantly more parasympathetic during vigorous nose breathing exercise compared to mouth breathing.
Instead of going for the goal very quickly, we actually slowly build the body’s ability to get there. When you do the Wim Hof method and when you do breath holds in Ayurveda as well and there are also many breathing techniques in Ayurveda like Bhastrika which is like a definitely and Kapalbhati, they all trigger a fight-or-flight reaction followed by a major surge in sympathetic reactivity.
I wonder if that’s a little bit in play. Then when you put an oximeter reading on your finger and you do a breath hold like with the Wim Hof technique you’re still going to see during your breath hold period a dramatic decrease in your oxygen saturation in your blood. If your number goes from 98 to the high low 90s, to the 80s into the 70s or even into the 60s all that oxygen got dumped into your tissues correct?
John: That means that you are in a way building a level, are you is my question. Are you actually building a level of CO2 tolerance even though a minute ago you just hyperventilated your brain’s oxygen away 30, 40 major big hyperventilating breathes followed by a breath hold and then the CO2 builds up. Is that what’s happening there or is there something else going on?
Anders: Probably something like that you are doing because you are stressing the body. The body goes okay, I’m going to deal with this and it finds a way. Like I had this friend. He’s been doing Wim Hof for several years. He said when I do the forceful breathing and then I hold my breath afterwards I can do 80 push-ups. He’s over 55. He’s never been able to do that many push-ups before. That’s a lot. There is something that’s going on there in the body of course obviously but the question then is what happens long term and if it is beneficial also long term.
The way he put it which I kind of like he said when I do Wim Hof I’m able to deal with stress. When I do your stuff the stress doesn’t occur. I’m not saying right or wrong here. I have the full respect for all the different modalities that are out there. I just found my way and I teach it to whomever want to listen. I’m not saying that there is right or wrong.
John: I think that’s exactly the path that I’m on. I breathe probably an hour a day every day and I’ve been doing nose breathing since the late 80s, exercise and taped my mouth every night, all that stuff that I do but I’m also fascinated by you know the thousands of years of wisdom of pranayama breathing techniques. They have so many and they’re so complicated and they’re so different. Some of them are all about the way that you have that you talk about long, slow breath where you can barely hear or feel, very gentle and kind and then there’s ones that are more aggressive.
At the end of the day there’s a meditation that comes. The whole point of the breathing is to set yourself up for rhythmic long, slow breathing during the meditation so the therapy of the breathing doesn’t just stop when you stop the breathing it continues through the meditation even. There’s so much to learn and to understand and to delve into.
That brings up my next question and something I know that you’re really passionate about as well, is the ability for breathing to change old, emotional behavioral patterns. In Ayurveda, they say that the impressions, the stresses impacts our heart something called sadhaka pitta. That impression of stress or hurt or trauma is carried to the brain through an aspect of vata or air like the nervous system. That’s written into the brain, into the kapha, the white matter of the brain inscribed into this place called tarpaka which means to record.
These impressions are recorded into the waxy white matter of the brain which means it’s pliable, it’s moldable. It’s responsive to neuroplasticity. I’ve written a lot of articles in the last couple years on all the science behind many of the different ayurvedic breathing techniques Bhastrika, Kapalbhati, Ujjayi, chanting, Bhramari, where you hum, all these different breathing techniques.
The one common denominator that I saw Anders, was they all boosted and like you said some increased parasympathetic right away, some increased sympathetic right away but the end of the day they all increased and changed neuroplasticity. They were all seemingly designed to make us conscious which is another reason why I actually fell in love with your book was because of the name. The name Conscious Breathing because in Ayurveda it’s well understood that we are not conscious. 95% of the things we think and say and do as adults come from impressions from the first six years of life.
We walk around unconscious. How do you become conscious? It’s breathing. When I saw that book, I have a hunch that he wrote this book because he’s all about what I’m all about which is how do we and I’ve been seeing patients since 1984. 1987, I went full-time Ayurveda. Ayurveda is all about becoming conscious so I was very much locked into how to help guide people through this crazy mind of ours that drives stress into our physiology and takes us out however you’re genetically wired to do so.
The question is talk to me about your understanding about how these breathing techniques can change our mind. Help us drop some of these unwanted emotional patterns of behaviour that don’t serve us any longer.
Anders: Just as oxygen is both a curse and a blessing I think our mind is as well a curse and a blessing. Sometimes we just want to get out of our mind. The way I describe if someone asks me what has Conscious Breathing done for you. I tell them the main thing is that it has opened up the door, a possibility to react differently to incoming stimuli.
I’m no longer a slave under the learned behavior when I was a child which I thought that was me, that was my personality. I realized that I don’t need to react with stress or with fear or with anxiety or whatever comes up on these given stimulant. That is quite amazing to be able to realize that. Realizing at some point oh that situation or that person or this thing usually made me stressed out and now it doesn’t bother me at all.
The way I describe it is we have this important nerve the, vagus nerve that is the name Vagus comes from Latin I think, the wandering nerve. It’s a cranial nerve. It’s connected with all the organs except the adrenals where we produce the stress hormones. 80% of the information goes from the body to the brain. For the brain to make a wise decision it needs information from the vagus nerve. Not only the ears and eyes and the brain itself but also from the vagus nerve. When we engage in this low and slow and rhythmic breathing we then go from sympathetic to parasympathetic.
The information then from the vagus nerve is reached the brain more. It’s like a switch. Could be one way to explain it that I think we are born in a way in fight flight. We need that to survive. That has ensured our survival during evolution not so much to admire the sunset or writing a poem but rather to kill an animal to get food to eat.
When we are in sympathetic that takes over and then the information from the vagus nerve probably isn’t read that much from the brain. When we engage in the low and slow breathing which you measure the vagus activity also with HRV, heart rate variability. When you have a nice heart rate variability when the heart knows when to be active and knows when to relax that is a sign of a good activity in the vagus nerve. It is like connecting the mind brain with the heart brain and the gut brain with not only this nerve obviously but with the breath.
It helps us to take the elevator down from our mind and into our body and become more conscious, more aware. Become more in line with our intuition and our wisdom. We’re not only our mind. That’s the main thing I found. That’s like the hidden agenda if anything. If I help someone that has asthma that person by improving their breathing somehow they will also embark on an inner journey whether they want it or not.
John: As you were talking I just sort of realized that maybe there’s a correlation between increased CO2 levels which of course allow the oxygen to be delivered to the cells into the mitochondria to make more energy. That also increases parasympathetic activation which is the vagal response. In a sympathetic response, the bond between the oxygen and the hemoglobin gets tighter with more oxygen.
When you were talking about the emotional side of things I was thinking maybe when you’re in a fight-or-flight state maybe the lock on old storage of molecules of emotion that we hold on to for dear life as memories of survival when you’re in a fight or flight state, they hold on for dear life and they’re really tight. We don’t have access to them. We just go and get up a tree, save our life from the bear but when you actually breathe and create more CO2, more parasympathetic not only does the hemoglobin release the oxygen but maybe also that gives the nervous system the feeling of safety to actually release some of these old molecules’ emotion.
You actually have more self-awareness, levels of awareness of what’s true, what’s not true, what’s real, what’s non-real. Are those old patterns of behavior when I go home for the holidays and I start acting like a four-year-old again with my parents and my family? Why do I do that? But if you actually were in a not reactive mode and your breathing can set you up with a physiology to feel open and be more parasympathetic. Like you said CO2, parasympathetic, they’re more feminine. They’re more compassionate. They’re more understanding. They allow us to feel and become more self-aware.
When we become more aware we can see more clearly what action steps that we can take in our life. That’s sort of an ayurvedic concept. We must first establish the self-awareness but that’s like the meditation. That’s not where the job is completed when you take action. That’s what we don’t do in our culture. We just yoga, breathe, meditate. We go back and lie, cheat and steal. Not that everybody does that but ayurvedic prescription was to take action.
I’m wondering if what you’re talking about with Conscious Breathing is setting up a facility where like you said with asthma there’s a hold on for dear life in there somewhere and how do we get to it. We create a platform of peace and calm, of vulnerability with the delicate petals of our protective flower safe enough to open so we can see more clearly why we created that emotional pattern and then take action to free ourselves from that. That make any sense?
Anders: Absolutely. Also I think two aspects I would like to share is that a recent, in my view why we engaged in this shallow, fast breathing is probably that before in evolution when we experienced something that was dangerous that was followed by physical activity. Today, we can get an email and get stressed out but we’re sitting still in front of our computer.
What we do instead of running for our life with our physical body we move up the breath higher up in our chest because a lot of the fear and anxiety and stuff they are situated in the gut area. We know that. Butterflies in our stomach or oh I’m afraid to do this and we need to go to the toilet. So probably a reason why we have this shallow breathing is because we want to avoid this anxiety, these fearful feelings.
When you start to engage in diaphragmatic breathing there is a risk that you will get in touch with these fears that they will come to the surface and you will kind of oh no, I don’t want to do this or I don’t want to do nasal breathing while jogging because that get me in touch with all this stuff I stuffed in for years. That is one aspect.
It could come to the surface but another aspect is that it seems that if you start to improve your breathing and start to breathe lower those things will be taken care of without coming to the surface. You may experience after some time oh that used to scare me or this or that. You realize it doesn’t. That is one interesting aspect.
Another interesting aspect is that the amygdala that is considered one of the fear centers in the brain. The amygdala is triggered when we have higher levels of CO2. The way the body interpret that is that oh, we don’t have enough oxygen. We need to breathe so the alarm signal goes off. I mean if we do that too fast, if we increase CO2 too fast.
The way I look at it is that when incoming stimuli comes in and I’m in a more sympathetic state, I’m more stressed. Okay, what should I do with this? The body goes okay, I code it red. This is a red code. Whenever this stimuli comes along I need to engage in parasympathetic. When I’m in parasympathetic I can code it green. What we do then I think when we slow down our breathing and accustom the amygdala to tolerate more CO2 it’s like we first of all we code more of the incoming stimuli as green.
Well, there’s no worry here but also we are able to go and look in in the red box and see oh, I see that is code red as well. Why don’t I put it here in the green box instead and recode it. Over time that will have quite a profound effect I think.
John: I think you’re right. One of the ayurvedic concepts is we don’t have to drag ourselves through the emotional mud. We don’t have to relive it and I think that’s exactly what you just said. By actually just creating this physiology it’s almost a natural process for your body to look in the red box and go that’s a stupid fear, that’s a stupid fear.
There was a bear in the cave when I was three years old but I don’t live anywhere near that cave anymore. That’s a stupid fear. The body naturally goes in by actually building this physiology of acceptance, this physiology of parasympathetic dominance if you will. That becomes linked to longevity and health. Then that also gives you the resiliency to handle those stressful situations in ways that I’m thinking now about like the ice baths like Wim Hof’s ice baths. I do think that there’s something to that right the hormesis of we become so comfortable in our little bubble but then you go dive yourself in an ice bath or something and all of a sudden can your body and he’s obviously the proof.
He has trained many people and I do it as well. I used to do ice baths when I lived in India partly because that was all there was. There was no hot water. There was these cold showers but it was also a monk thing. I lived in an ashram for a while when I was studying Ayurveda. There was a hospital there. I was studying there. We all did cold showers as part of our rite of passage in a way.
Anders: I do that as well on my courses. One of the homework is to take cold showers. From a breathing perspective I made a video the other week showing three stages. You go in in the shower normally like that. You tense up and you breathe forcefully you are fighting the water but then if you move on to the next step you are able to withstand the water. You are slightly less tense and your breathing is a little more controlled but the third step where you want to be is where you embrace the water, where it’s still totally cold but you are more relaxed and you’re breathing whether it’s an effect of your ability to embrace the water or if it’s actually the driving force. To me that is a great breathing exercise.
John: You took the cold water out of the red box and recoded it to the green box. Exactly what you just said right?
John: Absolutely beautiful. Let’s see. Well, there’s so much more to talk to you about. I think if you have any last-minute words to kind of share with us and tips that we could use to help become conscious breathers that would be great. I’m fascinated. In his book he goes into so many ways to deal with your sleep apnea, the benefits for your heart, cardiovascular system, circulatory system, aches, pains, fatigue, weight loss.
I mean the list of benefits that he writes about are quite phenomenal so I highly recommend you get the book, read it, follow through on it. Follow Anders on his website. Get the Relaxator because that’s such a cool little device. I’m going to get one as well and we’ll go from there.
Anders, last words. What are the last tips you can give us to become perfect humans?
Anders: I think we talked about sympathetic and parasympathetic. Most of us I think have a tendency to be too much in sympathetic. We want to learn how to get to parasympathetic. If I’m exaggerating now the inhale that’s sympathetic activity while the exhale we sigh in relief. That is parasympathetic activity. If you close your mouth and the best way to achieve this low and slow and rhythmic breathing is by in my view to prolong your exhalation slightly. Not too much because then you will build up too much CO2 more than you can tolerate but slightly prolong your exhalation.
The greatest exercise that I think is to for example go for a walk and count your steps. You close your mouth. You breathe only through your nose. You could also bike or you could jog. Then you try to take slightly more steps on the exhale. Very simple. It could give you this meditative state actually.
John: One last point on that. When you are extending the exhale you said you can do it too much. How do you know you’ve built up too much CO2 because you can’t go back into rhythm anymore? Is that the key?
Anders: No, you will feel that you are suffocating or drowning. Some people love that to try to push themselves which is absolutely fine. I’ve done it many, many times but I just noticed as well that is the most common mistake that we try to rush the tolerance for carbon dioxide. You can’t really rush it. You need to go the way via relaxation not the way necessarily via performance. You can but I don’t think it’s the most efficient way.
John: Cool. All right, everyone. The book is Conscious Breathing. Anders, I hope this is the beginning of a long relationship with us. I hope to have you back. It’s been great. Keep developing all the things you’re developing, keep me posted so we can stay in touch and get you back on our podcast.
Anders: Thank you. Great being in your show.
John: You bet. Good to have you.
Anders: Thank you.
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