Breath work for healing is not a new concept. Breathing exercises have arisen all over the world and are aimed at a variety of goals, including mindfulness, stress reduction or even getting the most out of an exercise routine. Take the Yoga breath, “Breath of Fire,” for example, which is said to help energize, and is thus great for the morning.
Perhaps, then, a commitment to any breathing exercise would have had a profound effect on me, had I encountered it at the right moment in time. However, of all the breathing exercises I’ve practiced throughout my life, Wim Hof breath is the first I’ve found an easy devotion to.
The breath itself is like a shortcut to bliss, a great pleasure in and of itself. However, the long term benefits are what keep me coming back. My mood and immune system have significantly improved. Perhaps most importantly, this breathing (which actually includes a lot of breath holding) has helped me to maintain a meditation practice.
Wim Hof’s breathing method is like a tarmac for taking off into the sky of meditation. It prepares the mind, so to speak, effectively creating a space inside, through which the body is buzzing and the mind is mellowed. In this state is quite natural to shut one’s eyes and just feel the body, from the inside, letting thoughts drift through without attachment.
I’ll share my story, and why this particular style of breathing has had such a profound effect on me, helping me work through my depression, but first let me offer a little background to the method.
What is Wim Hof Method?
The Wim Hof Method is a method developed by a person named (unsurprisingly) Wim Hof. After years of studying meditation and yoga, as well as self-experimenting, Hof came up with a 3 fold path that works to supercharge the immune system, enhance body strength, reduce stress, and consciously regulate your own body temperature.
The method itself includes a combination of commitment, cold exposure and a very specific breathing exercise. The breathing includes rapid but deep circular breathing (often described as controlled hyperventilation) followed by long periods of effortlessly holding your breath (effortless because you’ve just flooded the body with oxygen through the breathing style).
According to Wim Hof, this style of breathing actually saturates the body with so much oxygen, that the immune system shuts down. This sounds sort of scary, right? But think of it like a computer: When your computer starts getting super slow and ineffective, often you just need to shut it down. Upon reboot, it works much more quickly and effectively.
Your immune system is the same way. By doing this 20 minute exercise each day, you effectively re-start your immune function. And while this breath work has had a profound effect on people who are suffering from illness and disease, it can also lead to a deep sense of empowerment and help to enhance your overall mood.
For me personally, it has proved most remarkable in its ability to supercharge my meditation practice.
My Personal Journey
When I stumbled upon the Wim Hof breathing, I was in a tough place emotionally. I was struggling with depression, and wanting to do something kind for myself, but not sure what.
I had heard about Wim Hof, but was frankly not very interested, since it seemed like a sort of “macho man” fad—attractive mainly to those seeking ego boosts by being the strongest and fastest (along with bragging rights about how long they could sit shirtless in the snow).
But when I came across a flyer advertising a Wim Hof breathing workshop, it had a different feel for me. It focused on intentional breathing, not “super-hero” stuff (like being able to hang from a cliff with one arm for 5 hours and not break a sweat), so I decided to give it a go.
And holy cow, am I glad I did. The first time I did the breath was nothing short of divine.
I’ve had the experience, when practicing meditation on a very regular basis (like, hours per day), where after a while following my breath, it will come more and more slowly and intermittently, until it nearly ceases all together. The breath is so subtle, that quiet descends, and I am able to hear my heart beat and tune in to my body in a way that is deeply nourishing. It is as though I’m in an alternate universe where everything is slooowwed doowwnn.
The remarkable thing about Wim Hof Breath, and the reason I was immediately taken with it, is that I arrived at this place of deep peace and internal quiet almost immediately. The total halt of breathing is actually built into this exercise and every time I hold my breath following the deep, circular breaths, it is as though my body dissolves into space as I expand into total bliss.
After doing Wim Hof style breathing for several months now, I feel stronger, healthier, more positive, less stressed and more energetic.
I think of the breathing as both a short cut to peace in moments of stress (why should we have to work so hard to relax anyway!?) and also as a transition tool to help me move into meditation. In fact, I use the breath as a ritual to help me stay committed to my meditation practice, as it provides me with a peaceful inner state that in turn makes for an easier time sitting.
While the Wim Hof breathing is not a magic bullet that dissolves all pain, (I do not float away on a euphoric cloud to heaven every single time I practice it), I can honestly say it has helped me to develop healthy habits and maintain a healthy mind and a healthy emotional state.
How To Do the Breath
The Wim Hof breathing exercise involves 4 rounds of rapid circle breathing with “holds” between each round.
I’ll give the specifics, but first:
A word of Caution: NEVER do the breathing near and certainly not IN water. The rapid breathing (recognizable by some as suspiciously similar to the “fainting game” played by children) creates light headedness
Because of the light-headedness, it is also recommended you do the breath only in a sitting position or lying down. Additionally, as with all breathing exercises and meditations, it is much more effective on an empty stomach.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Inhale completely, but quickly (nose or mouth, doesn’t matter), filling first the stomach, and then the chest
- Without pausing exhale about 75% (Using whichever air passage you did NOT use for the inhale. So if you breathe in your nose, breathe out your mouth and vice versa).
- Inhale again, fully, as above.
- Exhale again, only 75%.
- Repeat 30-40 times, or until you feel tingly and recognize the “oxygen saturation” feeling (which comes with practice).
- Exhale completely and “hold” breath
- Upon feeling the chest reflex to breathe, take a deep inhale (you’ll be surprised by how long you can go before you need to take another breath).
- Hold the inhale for 15 second.
- Exhale, and begin again.
- Do this whole exercise for 4 rounds.
- Take a Vipassana (or, in other words, rest in the amazing, blissful, deeply relaxing state induced by the breathing).
Naturally, the rapid circular breathing can take some getting used to, and I recommend watching some videos to get it right. Or better yet, take a class!