Is Holding Your Breath Good for You?
Here’s some arcane knowledge for you. There’s a fundamental secret about breathing that modern humans have lost, and we have forgotten it because it makes us uncomfortable. That secret is simple: Holding your breath improves your physical and spiritual well-being.
Today, most people who pursue enlightenment know at least one mystical breathing technique. Twenty-five years ago, I learned a method called the fourfold breath. Fourfold breathing has a soothing and “evening-out” effect on the mind, and the extra bit of oxygen it brings helps you stay focused during ritual and meditation. Few people suspect, however, that the basic breathing practices suggested by ancient mystics are just the beginning. They are little more than an introduction to the much more challenging discipline of holding the breath. It’s not obvious to us today, but our ancient shaman and yogi ancestors did not develop breathing exercises because they wanted us to breathe. They created them to get us more comfortable with not breathing.
“A perfect man breathes as if he is not breathing.”
— Lao Tzu
Rarely do the yoga books of today present the principle of not breathing as a cornerstone of spiritual discipline. Most New Age “gurus” teach their followers the exact opposite. They urge you to “Relax and breathe deeply!” They believe, apparently, that the more you breathe, the more purified, more “airy,” and more spiritual you become. Little do they know that the ancient directive to “breathe deeply” has been mistranslated. In the original teachings of Patanjali, the primary principle most certainly is not about taking huge gulps of air. Rather, it refers to breathing deep down — that is, deep in the belly. And this act of breathing in the belly does not require deep breaths. Shallow, restrained breathing, believe it or not, was actually a common practice among the ancient yogis. But this principle has been inverted today, and a fundamental key to extraordinary health and well-being has been buried under centuries of ignorance.
The Science of Respiration
In the East, the ancient science of breath is called pranayama. Pranayama literally means “breath restraint.” In other words, holding the breath. This secret of the breath comes as a shock to our modern common sense. It basically turns everything upside-down by showing us, quite dramatically, that carbon dioxide (CO2) is actually good for you. Not only that, but CO2 is fundamental to a mystic’s amazing cognitive and physical powers.
How has it happened that we’ve gotten the ancient teachings backwards? Well, how do you think? For one thing, holding your breath is extremely uncomfortable — more so in today’s world than ever before. Also, when you’re stressed out, sighing feels good. A deep breath helps relax the body (well, at least momentarily). Furthermore, air is invisible to the naked eye, so we naturally associate having more air with clarity of mind and purity of spirit. And of course, breathing brings in oxygen, which is essential to human life.
Breathing in more oxygen is good, right? Well, yes and no.
As any biochemist will tell you, the CO2 you exhale is not just a “waste gas.” It is just as essential to your health as oxygen. Your body not only produces CO2 but also maintains it at a concentration over 180 times greater than that found in Earth’s atmosphere. And it does this for a reason. If that concentration drops just a little lower (a condition known as mild respiratory alkalosis), serious health consequences can result over time — such as asthma, sleep apnea, stroke, heart attack, arterial sclerosis, chronic liver disease, and even cancer.
Excessive breathing reduces the level of carbon dioxide in your cells, and your cells eventually have little or no carbon dioxide molecules left to trade for the available oxygen (O2) molecules. If your cells have nothing to trade, then they can’t do business in the metabolic marketplace. The lower your cellular CO2 gets, the less oxygen you are able to purchase. Your blood may be bright scarlet because of all the oxygen bound to your red blood cells, but you will be unable to absorb that oxygen because your cells have no CO2 left to exchange for it.
This lack of CO2 produces the harrowing experience of hyperventilation. When asthma sufferers get excited, for example, they tend to hyperventilate, and that causes them to exhale too much CO2. A body with less CO2 is less capable of benefiting from oxygen. Therefore, they become more anxious and begin to breathe even more because they “can’t seem to get enough air!” — which, in turn, causes them to lose even more crucial CO2 and then breathe even more. By that point, they begin to develop dizziness and cramps from lack of oxygen in their cells, and they may even pass out. Not only that, but all the various tubes in their bodies constrict — not just their bronchial tubes, but also their intestines and their blood vessels. An ironic situation, to be sure, but not in the least bit funny to those who repeatedly suffer from asthma attacks.
Once you know how hyperventilation works, you may begin to see why breathing into a paper bag can actually help asthma sufferers recover from a flare up of bronchial constriction. It helps them capture and breathe back in the precious carbon dioxide they’re losing.
Once we learn how a lack of CO2 causes blood vessels to constrict, it should come as no surprise to us, then, that the opposite is also true. Holding your breath allows CO2 to increase, and CO2 dilates blood vessels throughout the body. As a result, it lowers your blood pressure and induces a profound state of relaxation. And that’s only the beginning. There are numerous other benefits of increased CO2, and some of them are pretty weird.
The Many Benefits of Carbon Dioxide
- Brain cell protection: It is not known exactly how, but carbon dioxide has been shown to protect the brain when oxygen is scarce (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7761212).
- A balm for the nerves: It calms the nervous system, reducing depression, anxiety, and even the symptoms of epilepsy (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1357160/?page=1).
- Anti-inflammatory effects: It reduces inflammation throughout the entire body.
- Bone mineralization: Ancient yogis enjoyed a reputation for having incredibly strong, “unbreakable” bones.
- Decongestant: It relieves nose and sinus congestion. If you are experiencing any amount of congestion right now, try this. Breathe out, emptying the lungs, and then close your throat, holding your breath out. Nod your head vigorously to generate carbon dioxide in your neck and head. Do this while holding the breath out, until you experience the discomfort of air hunger. As the CO2 accumulates, your congestion disappears! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8I9E4W4yEY)
- Improved digestion: CO2 stimulates hydrochloric acid production in the stomach. It also promotes healthy paristalsis in people suffering from slow-moving bowels or constipation. If you suffer from occasional constipation, try this. Instead of straining on the toilet, try holding your breath until you feel intense “air hunger” throughout the body. When you finally breathe, do not gasp for air, but only breathe slightly, allowing yourself a bit less than you need, maintaining slight air hunger. This will be unpleasant, and don’t do it until you pass out! After a minute or two, your rectum will thank you by functioning gloriously.
- Cancer prevention: As mentioned, carbon dioxide helps oxygen to pass into cells. When cells are properly oxygenated, they are more likely to burn energy efficiently. It is a cell’s inability to produce enough energy that can cause it to become precancerous. This is a phenomenon discovered in the 1920s by Otto Warburg. Learning how to restrain and optimize your breathing is just one way of taking advantage of the “Warburg effect.” Other mystical techniques, such as fasting, cab make you virtually immune to cancer when combined with proper breathing.
- Energy! Over time, increased CO2 stimulates the mitochondria in your cells to multiply. The more mitochondria you have, the more energy you have — both physical and mental — increasing your level of performance in everything you do.
- Healthy skin: It helps the skin maintain itself, giving you a soft, buoyant glow, as opposed to the sunken, dry pallor of a stressed-out athsma sufferer.
- Carbon dioxide structures water: Oxygen, CO2, and trace minerals disolve into water, causing it to undergo an amazing transformation when subjected to light or to temperature changes. This is the true magic behind holding the breath. It is the body’s ability to structure water when it has a healthy dose of carbon dioxide to combine with oxygen and electrolytes. The body becomes a living battery filled with an electrical charge!
- The water in your body actually appears in two different chemical forms: ordinary bulk water and structured water. Bulk water has the molecular configuration H2O. Structured water is actually H3O2, and it has a gel-like quality.
- Structured water has some astonishing properties. For one thing, it fluoresces: it absorbs light and emits its own blue or green glow — hence that mystifying color of deep natural springs. Structured water also acts like a liquid crystal, and it conducts electricity like a superconductor. It is negatively charged and provides free-flowing electrons to anyone who drinks it or bathes in it. For more about this, see Gerald Pollack’s book Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life.
- Structured water appears to be the secret ingredient that makes life possible on our planet, and its electrical or battery-like quality also appears to be the basis for the legendary bio-electric energy (kundalini) that yogis, saints, and magicians tap into.
How Have Humans Lost Touch with Optimal Breathing?
If carbon dioxide is so good for us, then we should increase the CO2 level in our bodies right now. Sounds simple enough, right? Try it. Breathe all the air out of your lungs, and then close your throat. Keep holding the breath out and allow your sense of air hunger to build. If you’re like most people, you won’t last long, and you will quickly decide that breath-holding is not really a discipline you’re willing to pursue. The feeling of suffocation just isn’t worth it!
Why is it so hard for us modern humans to get our CO2 levels high enough to experience a state of super-health? Has something damaged us so that we can no longer restore our metabolism to the level of resilience that nature intended? Did we once enjoy a healthy metabolism in which spiritual knowledge was effortless and chronic health conditions were unheard of? Yes, it appears so.
We live in modern times, and we are exposed to the modern lifestyle — the most dangerous aspects of which are the fake foods we eat and the inordinate amount of stress we experience while sitting still.
The standard American diet is an ugly dragon in and of itself, and it deserves an entire textbook to address the horrors it inflicts on our physical bodies and spiritual well-being. But that subject is for another time. Let’s just address the problem of sitting still.
Today we are suffering from an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. More than ever, thanks to office work, Internet addiction, video games, and the over-the-top thrills of Game of Thrones, we experience our body’s natural stress response in ways that are not good for us. As we are over-stimulated, adrenaline and cortisol flood the system and the blood vessels constrict, the heart rate rises, the armpits sweat, and of course, our breathing rate increases. Notice how often people sigh in an office environment. Or when you are watching the news, watch your breathing.
The bodies we have today are pretty similar to the ones we had over 10 thousand years ago when saber-toothed tigers and cave bears hunted us for food, often putting us into a stress-response mode. But we had an advantage back then. When a cave bear showed up to chase us out of its winter lair, we had the good sense to run. Today, when we have a deadline “breathing down our necks,” we don’t run from it as though it were a predator. We force ourselves to sit still and type away at a computer while experiencing the increased breathing rate of our fight-or-flight response. When you’re running from a saber-toothed tiger, the advantage is that your body is generating carbon dioxide from all that muscle movement. When you are typing away at the computer, very little carbon dioxide is generated. And your stressed-out breathing continues nonetheless, driving down the amount of CO2 in your cells. Not good.
This unfortunate loss of CO2 can also happen when you’re purely just having fun. Riding on a roller coaster is thrilling, and it most certainly stimulates your breathing and heart rate. But are you really moving your body enough to generate sufficient CO2? Enough to make up for the amount you’re breathing out? Watching a horror movie is spooky fun, but be mindful of your breathing while you’re sitting still in a darkened theater, enjoying that caveman-like stress response to imaginary predators on the silver screen. Not only are you sitting still in fight-or-flight mode, but you’re also ingesting excitatory substances like sugar and caffeine, which increase your breathing rate even more!
I’m sometimes astonished that doctor’s offices play CNN in their lobbies. A continuous stream of victims; villains; overly dramatized threats; and slow-motion, blow-by-blow security-camera clips parade before the eyes of people who are already sick. These people are probably waiting for the doctor because they already have a chronic condition brought on by a deranged pattern of breathing. And there they sit, breathing out CO2 in exasperation as they watch the President’s finger hover over the big red button. Their doctors seem oblivious to how incredibly easy it is to stimulate a person’s stress response. We need to be more mindful of how over-stimulated we have become as a society. Since video displays now loom over us in almost every public setting, it is no wonder that chronic health problems are worse today than they have ever been.
What exactly happens to your body when you continuously get stressed out and over-breathe while sitting still? It’s pretty insidious. Your body gets used to it. And not in a good way. The more you over-breathe, the less tolerant you become to CO2. Your brain stem adjusts its tolerance over time. That’s why older people tend to breathe heavily and have chronic health problems. Aging is not necessarily about wearing out. It’s more about the various balancing points in your metabolism becoming deranged. And your tolerance level to CO2 is one of those balancing points that gets reprogrammed by bad breathing habits as time passes.
This is an important point because it tells you that you have control over your own carbon dioxide tolerance.
The level of carbon dioxide in your blood is regulated by the respiratory center in your brain stem. Interestingly enough, it is not the need for oxygen that makes you feel the need to breathe. That sensation is actually produced by the buildup of carbon dioxide. When you hold your breath, CO2 gradually builds up on your blood, and when it builds to your tolerance level, your respiratory center gives you the urge to breathe. Hold your breath long enough and you will begin to experience contractions. Your abdomen will convulse involuntarily, trying to get you to breathe out the CO2 that has reached painfully obvious levels. Everyone’s tolerance to CO2 varies. People who have a low tolerance breathe a lot, and they tend to suffer from chronic health conditions. If you have a low tolerance, you will tend to breathe out too much CO2 because your brain stem complains too soon and compels you to breathe it out before it can reach an optimum, healthy level in your cells.
People who have a high tolerance to CO2 tend to be very healthy. Why?Because they barely breathe at all!
Their bodies allows CO2 to build and build, and they therefore experience all the lovely benefits: enhanced cell respiration, relaxation, boundless energy, clarity of consciousness, courage, and a continuously active higher brain function that is free of the ignorance brought on by an incessant fight-or-flight response. This is why athletes tend to have very low heart rates and breathing rates. It is also why people with heart disease and late-stage cancer have the highest breathing rates.
Curiously, the breathing rate of the average person has steadily increased as humans have progressed through the industrial age. In 1929, the average person breathed 4.9 liters of air per minute. In 1950, he or she breathed 6.9 liters. In the 1980s, 7.8 liters. And today, the average person breathes 12 liters of air per minute (http://www.normalbreathing.com/)! Average heart rates have likewise risen over time. This is an example of why mystical techniques exist in the first place. To undo the damage done by civilization’s unnatural breathing, unnatural food sources, and unnatural relationship to the Earth.
“So long as the air stays in the body, it is called life. Death consists in the passing out of the air. It is, therefore, necessary to restrain the breath.”
— Hatha Yoga Pradipika
You CAN Reprogram Your Brain Stem
Depending on your ability to tolerate CO2, you can become a super-healthy athlete, or even a mystic master with strange powers. Or you can become a bed-ridden invalid. Both ends of the spectrum are possible for you — extraordinary health and abysmal decrepitude — because your tolerance to CO2 is adjustable. That’s actually good news because it means that you do have some control over it. You can reduce your brain stem’s sensitivity to CO2 and thereby increase your usual level of cellular carbon dioxide to supercharge your overall health.
How does one do that? The answer is already obvious. Hold your breath. Practice pranayama or some other breathing technique such as the Buteyko breathing method. Breath work is a challenging discipline, but there are progressive methodologies that make it easier.
In my next article, I’ll discuss the fourfold breath exercise I mentioned above, and I’ll reveal ways of progressing deeper and deeper into the fourfold breath as a discipline so that you can gradually increase your body’s tolerance to CO2. I’ll also reveal a couple of other breathing methods that have recently appeared in the fitness world.
It is possible for you to experience the extraordinary energy, health, and spiritual powers that the ancient yogis are famous for. However, holding the breath is only one of the cornerstones of the spiritual work that can get you there. Stay tuned to this publication for more…
Getting in on Forbidden Realms
Article #1 ~ Is Holding Your Breath Good for You?
Article #2 ~ Breath Techniques that Restore Primal Health
Article #3 ~ Fasting to Restore Primal Health
Article #4 ~ The Secret Fire of the Ancients
Article #5 ~ The Healing Power of Darkness
Article #6 ~ The Secret of the Grail
Article #7 ~ The Philosopher’s Stone