by Martin Petrus

Whether your aim is improved health, mental calm or achieving transcendence, breathing techniques can help you get there

You never know when you’re going to meet someone who will change the course of your life. For me, it happened about five years ago when, without knowing what I was getting myself into, I signed up to a course in the Netherlands run by Wim Hof – the legendary master of cold exposure.

Hof is an extraordinary teacher, best known for his world records and other endurance feats, such as previously holding the title for completing the longest-ever ice bath, running a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic Circle and climbing most of Mount Everest dressed in shorts. One of the most important elements of his method for making people fall in love with low temperatures is what he calls ‘conscious breathing’. By controlling the breath, he turns the experience of being in freezing water, which would normally be a fight for survival, into something profoundly meditative.

Back when I met Hof, my life was a constant struggle – I was always getting ill, feeling depressed and generally unhappy. I was looking for ways to improve my immune system and increase my energy levels. I didn’t know then that the answer to many of my questions would be this obvious: just breathe.

Breathing is one of the most important factors for your health

Respiration influences many of the processes in our body that have a direct impact on our physical and mental health. Each day, we take around 20,000 breaths, so over the years it adds up. With every inhalation, our heart rate speeds up and with every exhalation, it slows down. The nervous system is especially sensitive to changes in breathing rate. Through our breath, we can change our state from stress to relaxation, or from feeling dull to being energised. Longer term, through being more attentive to the way we breathe, we can benefit our health and longevity. In short, we can change our breathing on demand, which can be a hack to accessing the rest of our physiology.

I was so inspired and transformed by what I learned from Hof and others that I felt I had no choice but to pass it on to others and, today, I work as a breathwork coach. What is breathwork? It can be described as ‘breath consciousness’ and ‘conscious breathing’. Every time we notice our breath or change our breathing pattern to achieve a specific outcome, we are practising breathwork.

Breathwork has ancient roots

Today, breathwork is the new yoga. It can be found everywhere from therapy sessions to gym classes, but, while it’s currently in vogue, it’s far from new. It’s hard to pinpoint the first moment when humans decided to use breathing intentionally, but you can find early indications of conscious breathing in Hindu scriptures dating back hundreds of years, for instance in the Bhagavadgita, composed sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE:

Still others, who are inclined to the process of breath restraint to remain in trance, practise by offering the movement of the outgoing breath into the incoming, and the incoming breath into the outgoing, and thus at last remain in trance, stopping all breathing. Others, curtailing the eating process, offer the outgoing breath into itself as a sacrifice.

The Tibetan teachings of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche that form the basis of the Bon tradition, which considers the breath to be important, are even older, dating back 18,000 years. Breathing techniques have also been used in yoga for more than 2,000 years. In fact, breathwork has been present in nearly all traditions and cultures: in mythology, philosophy, various rituals, rites of passage, healing methods, spiritual and religious practices, martial arts and meditation.

For many people, the breath is something much more than just the purely physical movement of air. It is often described as the energy, life force, cosmic essence, the vital principle that permeates reality on all levels including inanimate objects. It is the spirit or the soul. Different cultures refer to the same phenomenon but by different names, such as: prana, qi, ki, lung, ruach, spiritus, mana, rouh and pneuma.

In yoga, the breath is considered not only the path of spiritual development, but also as a simple way of staying in good health. In the yogic breathing pranayama, the practices are well described, each with its own purpose – including energising, cleansing or relaxing. For a long time, most mainstream medical practitioners had no interest in breathwork, but that began to change in the 1950s. For instance, following his research into the ways that breathing rate impacts health, Konstantin Buteyko, a Ukrainian-born doctor, created a technique for dealing with breathing disorders such as asthma, general breathlessness and rhinitis, and also as a treatment for hypertension. His method was used in hospitals across Russia. Now the ‘Buteyko method’, although it’s considered a form of alternative medicine, is used across the globe to treat breathing-pattern disorders. Overall, I believe our modern understanding of the nervous system and scientific studies are confirming that the yogic breathing practices have their intended effect. We’re rediscovering what the yogis knew a long time ago.

Keywords; breathing, health, well-being

About the author; Martin Petrus is a breathwork and meditation teacher. His main interests are in integrative breathwork, classic yogic practices of India and Tibetan Buddhist meditation, with a secondary focus on science-based methods from the fields of freediving and altitude training. He lives in London.