Practice – the first couple of years + present
For the last couple of years the breathing practice I have kept returning to has changed fairly little. I haven’t experimented a lot, so this is just what I have gravitated towards so far.
Basically, what I do is Breath of Fire followed by a breath-hold on an inhale – this I repeat three times. Before and after I breath deeply or meditate.
The Breath of Fire is called kapalabhati in Sanskrit, and consists of rhythmical contractions of the abdominal muscles to push air out of the lungs. After every push, the muscles relax and air is pulled passively back into the lungs. The frequency is somewhere between one breath pr. half or full second. It is a form of hyperventilation and the effect of the multiple powerful exhales is that the carbondioxide (CO2) levels in the blood decrease rapidly. Since CO2 is a waste- or bi-product of the constant work of our cells, cleansing might be an appropriate word.
The resource I have most of my knowledge of the breath from is Stig Åvall Severinsens book Træk Vejret (Breath(!)) – if you haven’t heard of him, the gist of him is world-records in under-ice swimming and breath-holds. His book claims definitely that breath holding is not dangerous – even if you faint. Why? Because the autonomous nervous system (ANS) controlling the breath does not “accept” breath holding and simply faints you if you go too far. Doesn’t it damage your brain, though?
Here we come back to CO2. In breath-holding two physiological thresholds determine how far you can go.
The first threshold is the pain and discomfort arising from rising CO2-levels in the blood. CO2 is a poison in our blood at high dosages, as with everything. We constantly exhale CO2 to get rid of it, but during a breath-hold it builds up. But it’s not dangerous, unless it’s chronic – if your unconscious breathing patterns don’t clean out the CO2 efficiently enough the blood will continually be too acidic (diet is important here too!) and symptoms can include headaches. So if we take deep breaths after a breath-hold the balance is quickly restored. The response of the ANS to CO2-buildup is to activate the breathing musculature, as you’ll notice when you start running, thereby creating a lot of CO2 by burning more oxygen (O2). But this response can be changed through conditioning, that is, breath-holding. We can increase our pain-tolerance to CO2 buildup. Or, like me, you can hyperventilate before a breath-hold to decrease the CO2 levels drastically, and thereby gain more time before hitting the threshold.
SAFETY NOTE: Never hold your breath under water without a partner. Elite Danish soldiers trained to move in water are told never to prepare for a breath-hold with anything more than three normal deep breaths.
The second threshold is the pain and discomfort arising from falling O2-levels in the blood. This is where things get more serious. If you don’t practice breath-holding, then chances are low that you ever get near an O2-deficit. To mention running again, you start panting because the body is trying to get rid of CO2 – not because you’re out of O2 (in most cases). Once you are able to break through the pain of CO2-buildup you will start facing the pain of O2-deficit. The O2 limit is “real” – without oxygen, our cells die, and the brain is stressed when levels fall too low. I don’t know where the good stress/bad stress limit is – but the bottom line is that your body will be more and more desperate to breath.
It all sounds horrible, right? But in my experience, the way that desperation feels changes with practice.
My longest breath-hold ever is 04:30. I started with completely filled lungs, but during the breath-hold, the pressure in my chest decrease gradually, and when I eventually exhaled, not a lot of air came out. It was like had consumed most of the air. Mentally, the experience was unique. As opposed to my “normal” breath-holds, which become increasingly uncomfortable mentally and in my whole body, my record-hold did go down that painful tunnel, but suddenly everything opened up and I felt in complete control. I felt totally peaceful and quite, watching in my mind the contractions of my diaphragm with detachment for the last 30 seconds. No pain.
I will leave it to you to develop your own opinion about how far it’s worth going in this stuff. I myself don’t want to break records, except my own. And even my own records aren’t very tempting. These days I have set a specific time for the three holds in my practice, respectively 01:30, 02:00 and 02:30. It’s about meditation. Detachment. Overcoming oneself.
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