Breath hold training is a big part of breath mastery. But it’s not just for breathworkers, it’s for modern yogis and extreme athletes, it’s for meditators and martial artists, for special forces, high performers, and first responders, and it’s for healers, helpers, coaches, and kids.
In fact, it’s a good practice for almost anyone with a belly button! Breath hold training helps ordinary people to cope with extraordinary changes, and to navigate everyday emotional issues, physical problems, psychological challenges, and of course, global pandemics!
This kind of breathwork can help people manage or overcome everything from pain and tension to fear and anger… from anxiety and phobias to chronic fatigue and ennui… from asthma to sports injuries, from PTSD and addictions to depression, as well as outrageous success!
The practice of breath holding is extremely empowering and very liberating. It can even be totally enlightening—especially when combined with meditative awareness. It can help you to normalize or optimize your O2 and CO2 levels, to improve your blood and brain chemistry.
You can use breath holding to increase your resilience and your endurance, to strengthen your cardiovascular health, and your immune systems. It supports you in remaining clear, calm, energized and focused, in the most stressful situations and in the most difficult moments.
When I was a little boy, I organized the breath holding competitions and hyperventilation contests in the schoolyard. I was fascinated by the powerful feelings and the unusual states that we could produce by playing with our breath.
When walking to school, I would sometimes pretend that the air was full of smoke or poison, so I had to hold my breath or die. Or I’d imagine I was a spy, and if I got caught breathing, I would be killed. I would pretend that a certain tree or doorway or a signpost up ahead was my only haven, and I would hold my breath at any cost, until I reached safety!
When I found myself in the military working as a medical deep-sea diver and underwater rescue specialist, those childhood contests and competitions turned out to be very practical training, and those games turned into powerful protocols for managing physical, emotional, and psychological states.
The practice helped me to survive and even thrive under pressure, in high stakes, life and death situations. At the time, our training philosophy was ‘all or nothing’ ‘now or never’ and ‘no pain no gain’. And we practiced ‘mind over matter’ which meant “If you don’t mind, it don’t matter!”
We called each other “wimps,” or “pussies,” or “chicken shits,” if we slacked off or hesitated, or if it didn’t look like we were enjoying the pain! Crazy for sure, but there is something very exciting—and addictive—about diving into darkness and danger. And I was hooked!
I was very fortunate to be on some amazing teams and to work with such amazing individuals, because you don’t know you’ve gone too far, until you’ve gone too far! And when I finally went too far, I was fortunate to be rescued and revived. (Karma, for all the lifesaving I had done!)
But it wasn’t until after I left the military, that I learned gentleness is next to holiness. Now, when I teach breath holding, it’s on dry land. And we start by making the pause after the exhale a comfort zone. The game is to welcome all the feelings that come up—not fight them off.
While writing this, I want to practice. And so, I breathe in, I breathe out, and then I pause. I soften all my muscles and loosen all my joints. I close my eyes and relax into the pause. I observe and enjoy the feelings and sensations that are arising in me.
My entire inner world lights up. I feel my spine and skull, I feel the soles of my feet and the top of my head. I feel my tongue and my heartbeat. I feel blood coursing through me. I feel the air on my skin. And I am aware of every cell in my body.
I feel the urge to breathe getting stronger as the CO2 builds up in my system. My throat and my diaphragm want to contract. At this point, I could take a deep breath and end the exercise. But instead, I practice meeting these feelings with simple awareness and more relaxation.
When I need to breathe, instead of taking in a big full satisfying breath, I do some “subtle energy breathing,” to force my system to recover more slowly than I would like. Then I set my breath free to do what it wants, as I focus on the simple pleasure of being alive.
If you would like to practice, here are some tips and reminders:
Make breath holding a meditation. Start with a normal inhale and a normal exhale. Then pause after the exhale and wait to inhale again. (You can pinch your nose and mouth shut if you want, so as not to cheat!)
Wait until the urge to breathe—the feeling of air hunger—gets very strong. Then take in the tiniest sip of air. Nowhere near enough to satisfy the urge—but just enough to allow you to wait a little bit longer before inhaling. It’s good practice at relaxing into intensity!
The point is to get to where you feel is the edge of your comfort zone, and then just hover there, and simply be with the discomfort. Focus on relaxing. Don’t fight or force. Observe whatever arises in you with detachment. Calm your mind. It’s not happening TO YOU, it’s just happening!)
Remember that gentle gradual training works much better than stubborn brute force. And I can assure you that if you practice this for a few minutes, a few times a day, for a few days, you will notice a growing sense of comfort in your body, and overall ease in life.
You’ll be more relaxed and less nervous, and you’ll be more able to consciously respond rather than negatively react when life challenges you—or when you challenge life!
Good luck in your practice, and many blessings on your path!
(Guchu Ram Singh)