The breathwork techniques here will boost your energy levels and improve relaxation, concentration, and sleep. If you suffer from chronic stress, depression, or especially PTSD, this is a great complementary practice to integrate into your healthcare program. Stig Severinsen is a modern-day yogi. He is a Danish free diver who holds a number of world records, including the longest free dive under ice (250 feet), and the longest breath hold underwater: twenty-two minutes. He is an extreme athlete and also has a PhD in biology and medicine. Many people know of him through the Discovery Channel documentary about him called Stig Severinsen: The Man Who Doesn’t Breathe. They also chose him as the “Ultimate Super
Human” on Superhuman Showdown. Stig believes that the breath provides a link between the body and mind by which we can control the stress response. He loves to challenge scientific dogmas, and his passion is testing the limits of human potential. He sees breathwork as an art form. And just as in any art, he says, we need to put in the time and practice to get extraordinary results. For him, the first step is consciousness: “Just stop and meditate on your breath. Focus on your breathing. Listen to the breathing.” Stig sees breathwork as a spiritual discipline. He says that breathwork is a way of training our intuitive side and tuning into our hearts: it awakens our ability to pick up on other people’s energy, and it even leads to the awakening and development of psychic abilities. He says it allows us to expand the mind and “dissolve time.” (That comes in handy when you are underwater for over twenty minutes holding your breath!)
He stresses acknowledging the reality that we are breathing beings and to experience this reality deeply, in detail. “Breathing is this one constant in life,” he says. “Breath coming in and breath going out. We need to explore and experience all the aspects and levels of this amazing process: physiological, emotional, energetic, spiritual.”
“Breathwork is a way to come home to yourself, to challenge yourself. It’s away to apply elite concepts to our ordinary activities, a way to rewire the nervous system and to change the way that the brain thinks.” Stig sees breathwork as a way to “really meet yourself and what you are made of; a way to practice self-love and to embrace your life, and yourself, exactly as you are.” And it is also a way to “redefine who we are and what is possible.” “When you expand your breathing,” he says, “you begin to have bigger thoughts, aspirations, and goals.” And in his experience, when we increase our consciousness of breathing, we awaken an entirely new level of consciousness. He relates breathing to connection and communication between mind and body, conscious and subconscious, and neurons in the brain; he is also passionate about connecting and communicating with nature. He says it’s necessary to wake up our symbiotic relationship with the planet, the trees and animals, the streams and rivers—and he has learned that breathing is a way to do that.
He teaches people to mediate, to open and consciously expand out into the world, out into the cosmos, and then to zoom back in on themselves, their bodies, and to use that spiritual energy to charge their batteries. When so-called miracles or superhuman feats occur, he believes it’s just nature doing its part. Stig teaches people to breathe in consciously through their nose. He says, “This is how we tell our brain that we are breathing.” He adds: “When you breathe in, imagine you are breathing in the beautiful fragrance of your favorite flower.” He also teaches many pranayama techniques, such as ujjayi (also called“Ocean Breath” and “resistance breathing”). This is done by tightening your throat to produce an internal sound. (Pranayama is the Hindu science of breath.)
Another is kapalabhati, in which you draw the belly in forcefully as you exhale, with arms in the air. Bhastrika, also called “Warrior Breath,” builds on
kapalabhati. You raise your arms into the air with the inhale and pull them down forcefully into the lower ribs while shouting “hah” from the belly with each exhale. Stig advises us to practice Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing throughout the day: when you are on the subway, in the car, while checking your email. He recommends 50 percent water work (breath holding underwater) and 50 percent breathwork (breathing exercises). He is quick to remind us to never do underwater work alone; always use a partner.
Breathwork and PTSD
One of the reasons I love Stig so much is that he is sincerely devoted to helping people with PTSD. When he has the time, he donates his services to veterans and others. He has been known to reserve a block of beautiful hotel rooms; to pay for food, lodging, and even transportation—out of his own pocket—to help people with serious PTSD and train them for free. His approach is unique. He calls it “underwater meditation,” and of course it involves the practice of breath holding. He says: “Breath holding underwater means you can’t cheat. You can’t fake it!” He sees it as a way to challenge yourself, and in the process, come home to yourself. He encourages people to look at their trauma in a different way, as a challenge to be the best that you can be. He is honest and direct, and he coaches his clients to be the same. “You have to take responsibility for yourself, for your thoughts and feelings, and stop paying the medical system to keep you sick!” He says the first step out of the trauma and the drama is to change your focus. “The more you think about it, the more you experience it. Change the way you look at it. If you change your story, you will change your future. Tell yourself you are happy. Decide to be better, starting right now. No need to focus on trauma: focus on breathing.”
Breathwork teaches us to recognize and take advantage of opportunities when they arise. It allows us to focus on and take advantage of internal positive resources and natural abilities that we all have. He starts by telling his students to, “Put everything into each breath: consciousness, passion, enthusiasm, focus, determination, love, and the pain . . . And be willing to go beyond.” Based on my own experience and what I’ve learned from Stig, I’ve summarized how the practice of breathwork and breath holding can help with PTSD: when you hold your breath or hyperventilate for a long time, you give yourself an opportunity to bring up and deal with some very strong emotions and urges: fear, anxiety, doubt, and negative and limiting thoughts. By relaxing into these emotions and getting comfortable with them, you are working through your stress and dissolving your anxiety. By bringing up these feelings and natural reactions and working through them voluntarily, you find that you can handle them when they come up in everyday life.
You may not be suffering from PTSD, but the ability to “relax on demand” and to overcome or eliminate stress and anxiety, to conquer fear and negativity, is good for everyone. The self-control and self-confidence that breath mastery brings helps full-time parents and cab drivers, athletes and therapists, surgeons and advertising executives, police and schoolteachers. It helps disabled people, children, and anyone who is ill.
One of the core techniques that Stig recommends and encourages everyone to practice is the simple one-to-two ratio. That means the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. If you inhale for a count of two, exhale for a count of four. If you inhale for a count of four, exhale for a count of eight. Pick an easy count for the inhale, and then breathe out for twice as long. It’s very simple. Focus, and adjust the count as you go, maybe faster or longer. Just make sure that the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. Practice it now and do it for a few minutes throughout your day.
The Art of Breath Holding
Breath holding is an advanced practice to be sure, even though most of us as kids had breath-holding contests and were probably tempted to see how long we could stay underwater. The therapeutic value of breath holding is extraordinary in many ways. When you hold your breath for
an extended length of time, you find yourself dealing with very powerful feelings and sensations, reactions and urges—biological, chemical, emotional, psychological. In the practice of exploring these reactions, learning to relax into them, or to tolerate them, real breakthroughs and permanent healing can occur very quickly. The internal forces that take over despite our conscious will or intention can be humbling, and they
can be valuable in terms of overcoming things we mistakenly believe are out of our control. One tiny piece of advice in breath holding is to hold your breath as long as you can, at least to the point where your diaphragm begins to flutter or spasm, and then hold it for just a moment or two more. Research shows that your brain gets flooded with about 300 percent more blood for about thirty minutes after a long breath hold. It seems to be your brain’s way of compensating or balancing out after the emergency—the lack of oxygen—that you created with the breath holding. There are many ways to hold your breath. For example, you can hold your breath in or you can hold your breath out. You can hold your breath after pulling in a full inhale, or you can hold your breath after a blowing out a complete exhale. And you can also hold your breath at some midpoint, a neutral point in the breathing cycle. You can hold your breath by closing your mouth and pinching your nose, by locking your throat, by using your chest or abdominal muscles, or by controlling your diaphragm. You can hold the breath using a single muscle or a muscle group, or you can spread the workload over all the muscles in the system. You can even learn to hold your breath without using any muscular effort at all. The breath holding we are talking about here is not for free diving. That is a form of underwater diving that relies on a diver’s ability to hold his or her breath until resurfacing rather than relying on breathing apparatus such as scuba gear. If you are interested in free diving, I suggest you train with a pro like Stig Severinsen.
BREATHE NOW: HOW TO HOLD YOUR BREATH
Hold it. How do you do that? What muscles do you use? What do you feel when you hold your breath? Where do you feel it? How long can you hold your breath? I suggest that you practice breath holding in conjunction with relaxation. Relax everything you can as much as you can while you are holding your breath. Don’t use any unnecessary effort or muscular activity. If you are serious about exploring breath holding, I suggest that you organize your practice. Don’t approach it in a haphazard or casual way. Plan to practice for several weeks while sitting at rest, and keep a
journal to track your progress. There are three important keys to this practice:
- Practice holding your breath out, that is, after your exhale. Take in a normal breath, let it out, then don’t breathe in. Hold your breath at that point. Use a watch or a clock and start your practice by taking these three readings:
Note when you feel the first clear yet subtle urge to breathe. Mark that time. We call it a “comfortable pause.”
Note when you feel a strong yet manageable urge to breathe. Mark the time. We call it a “controlled pause.”
Hold your breath until the urge to breathe is practically uncontrollable. Mark that time. We call it a “maximum pause.”
When you practice, you will be working with the first reading: the comfortable pause after the exhale. That is the pause you want to extend: breath holding after the exhale. In other words, you are postponing the inhale.
- When you have finished the pause, you should be able to simply resume normal breathing. If you have to take a recovery breath, it means you have gone beyond the comfortable pause. If you have to take in a deep inhale to catch your breath, it means you are not working with that first reading. Practice more awareness. Tune in to your subtle feelings and sensations. Approach the practice more gently. Practice breath holding with some free breathing time between each attempt. Practice for ten or twenty minutes, two or three times a day.3. Lengthen your comfortable pause by just two or three seconds every two or three days. The idea is to very gradually train yourself and your system to comfortably tolerate higher levels of CO2. That means you are relaxing into the feelings of air hunger, gradually learning to tolerate them. Forcing yourself to temporarily override or fight the urge to breathe will bring very few long-term benefits. Now and then, check the time of your maximum pause. You will find that it has automatically increased significantly. And if you test yourself after taking in a deep inhale, which is what most people do, you may be amazed at your newfound natural ability!
Some breathwork exercises or techniques call for holding the breath in after the inhale. When practicing breath holding at that point, try not to lock up your throat and create back pressure: use an “open hold” or a floating pause. That means keep your throat open and relaxed. If a tiny bit of air escapes, then pull it back in. Give yourself the sense that you are hovering there. That is an open hold, a floating pause. The same practice can be applied to breath holding at the empty point, after a full exhale. Keep your throat open, and if a tiny bit of air comes in, then immediately send it back out; if a small bit of air leaks in, blow it back out. In this way you are practicing an open hold.
- Another practice is to continue to breathe in mentally once you have reached the physical limit of the inhale. It is similar to the open hold technique, but instead of allowing a bit of air to escape and then pulling it back in, you continue to lean in the direction of inhaling more. Give yourself the sense that you are continuing to inhale even though no more air is coming in.
You can practice the same thing after the exhale. Once you have emptied yourself completely, remain open and continue the intention to exhale. Even though no more air is coming out, you have the sense of continuing to exhale. From the outside, or on the surface, it looks and seems as if you are holding your breath, and in a way you are, but the inhale or exhale is actually continuing on the inside, on the level of intention and energy. Breath holding can also be combined with other things such as meditation, visualization, energy work, various postures, movements, or physical exercises.
In this section I’ve described breath holding as an exercise in awareness, relaxation, and breath control. If you are interested in exploring it more deeply—for extreme sports, for example—I recommend studying with someone like Stig Severinsen who teaches advanced hypoxic training.