The Respiratory Revolution Part I—The Amazing Feats of Super Breathers
by Catherine Morris | October 29, 2020, updated about 1 month ago
How ancient mystics and modern-day adventurers are plugging into the power of breath.
This article is the first in a three-part series we’re calling ‘The Respiratory Revolution’ which examines the power and potential of better breathing. We’ll share stories of superhuman feats, tips for better breathing at home, and insight from the experts. To read Part II click here.
Most people aren't breathing correctly.
Sure, taking in air oxygenates the body and keeps you alive—that’s automatic—but doing it properly can lower stress, make you smarter, protect against disease, and improve your performance at the gym. That’s why we’re taking time to do a series on breath work, because we want to help and inspire you to unlock your best self through the simple act of breathing.
In this first article in our series of three, we’re talking about people who have done some wild things by mastering their breath.
Learning to breathe correctly doesn't just safeguard your health. In some instances, it can give you superpowers. Okay. That's a slight exaggeration, but breath is a powerful force, and harnessing that power can yield remarkable results.
The Tibetan Temperature Technique
Eastern mystics were rumoured to use breath as a spiritual or healing practice but also, to actually change their own body temperature. There was very little documentation or scientific proof to satisfy Western medicine, that is, until the 1970s and 80s when Dr Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, saw firsthand what Tibetan monks could do.
Benson visited the Himalayas where he saw monks practising a meditation known as g-Tummo. This technique is how the monks trained their bodies to produce enough heat to dry soaking wet towels placed around their shoulders in the cold monastery. When Benson measured the phenomenon, he discovered the monks could raise the temperature of their fingers and toes by as much as 17 degrees.
Excited and baffled, Benson's team of intrigued researchers went on to examine other forms of meditative breath work, and found that some monks could deliberately lower their metabolism by 64 per cent...apparently just with their breath work. Others would comfortably spend the night sleeping outdoors, unaffected by the frigid mountain air.
Eastern monks have spent generations cultivating breathing techniques, and hours of dedicated study practising it, but before you book your ticket to Tibet and head for the nearest monastery, there are some modern-day disciples of g-Tummo who are seeing their own amazing results.
The Wim Hof Method
Wim Hof is perhaps the most well-known example. The Dutch extreme athlete pioneered the Wim Hof Method which, similar to g-Tummo, aims to teach people to overcome extreme temperatures and improve their health using a combination of meditation, breath work, and cold exposure. Hof is his own best advertisement for this method. Known as 'The Iceman', he's smashed 26 Guinness World records for feats including—climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, immersing himself in ice for more than 112 minutes, and swimming under ice for 66 meters.
Hof claims he does all this primarily by manipulating his breath. Obviously this caught the attention of the scientific community who began putting the Wim Hof method to the test and proved its effectiveness—Hof's breathing techniques allow him to voluntarily influence his sympathetic nervous system and immune systems.
In theory, anyone could be the next Iceman. Hof says the technique is very accessible, and everyone can follow in his footsteps...even if they lead up one of the world's highest mountains.
Don’t Hold Your Breath, or Maybe Do?
How long can you hold your breath? Most people manage somewhere between 30 seconds to two minutes before their lungs start yelling for air. Others can go far, far beyond that.
The current record holder for the longest held breath is Aleix Segura who managed 24 minutes and 3 seconds in 2016. Segura is a professional free-diver—a sport where athletes dive deep on a single breath of air, descending as far as 300ft down without scuba gear. Free-divers acquire their enviable skills through strong swimming, but also years of dedicated training to relax, lower their heart rate, and expand their lung capacity.
In 2008, illusionist David Blaine held his breath for 17 minutes and 4 seconds underwater during one of his live TV performances. After the event, he held a TED Talk where he called retraining his breath for the performance “the most amazing journey of my life”, and credited free-divers as a major inspiration.
Blaine used breathing techniques again in his latest stunt, Ascension, during which he floated 24,900 ft into the Arizona sky clutching 52 helium balloons. He relied on supplemental oxygen from around 20,000 ft but would never have made it that far up without months of breath work in low oxygen environments.
How Do You Become a Super Breather
Climbing Everest, diving to the deeps, or floating into the atmosphere might not be on your to-do list but better breathing will benefit pretty much everything you do, like climbing stairs.
In the next article in this series, we look at easy tips and tricks for better breathing. Learn how changing up your respiratory routine can decrease stress, improve wellbeing, and boost your performance in all areas of your life.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.