Deep Breaths: Breathing to Optimize Physical and Mental Performance

Michael Woronko
Jul 19, 2019 · 6 min read

Without full awareness of breathing, there can be no development of meditative stability and understanding.

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Not long ago, I had been floating on my back in the middle of a secluded lake when I began to realize something. I’ve realized this before but, coupled with the various accounts I’ve heard recently, a winded picture began to form.

Every time I took a deep inhale, as we do to keep afloat on our backs, my legs would assume their relaxed horizontal position as my toes poked out of the water. Every time I exhaled, my legs — slowly but surely — began to sink.

No big revelation — I know, but stick with me.

I’ve written previously about how various forms of heat therapy promote blood flow and that, by extension, these rare but wonderful eureka moments can come about due to the increased oxygen levels flowing to and through the brain.

I’m clearly not a scientist nor have a deep understanding of physiological or neurological function, but what I lack in technical expertise I begin to make up for in my own experience and an unrelenting self-awareness into my physiological states. Hearing my bones creak and crackle underwater during my first swim of the year, working on my breath as I run the trails that get me to the lake, monitoring my nutrition to get optimize states of physical performance — a long-winded way to say that I try to pick up on things going on inside of me.

And so as I inhaled, exhaled, inhaled and exhaled my way across the lake, I had wondered exactly how any potential increased levels of oxygen had flowed through my bloodstream, and how this could be further explored as a means to optimize either physical or mental performance.

In other words: can breathing, like so many yogis and athletes maintain — really and truly influence the body and mind so drastically? If it could, it’d be interesting to consider the day-to-day applications beyond the usual stress-management and mindfulness

“Everybody is innately capacitated to rule over their autonomic nervous system” — Wim Hof

We have cases like that of Wim Hof, who’s devoted his lifetime to breathing exercises and is thus able to complete certain unimaginable feats — scaling Kilimanjaro in nothing but shorts and sandals or holding the world record for the longest swim under a sheet of ice. Wim attributes it all to his breathing maneuvers and vehemently underscores that we all have this ability — that it’s just a matter of tapping into it.

Upon trying to delve into how breathing can affect the body and mind, I had quickly confirmed my suspicion that the internet is awash in sources and articles that stem from sources like Headspace or Mind Valley — articles by lifestyle organizations looking to push mindfulness or meditative techniques that, while I may subscribe to, I don’t trust as objective enough to deliver a physiologically-based justification.

Even a clinical study completed on subject Wim Hof concerning whether or not an individual can voluntarily activate their immune system had been shrouded in a few concerns posed by skeptical minds. FYI — the researchers leading the study had concluded:

“The present study demonstrates that, through practicing techniques learned in a short-term training program, the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can indeed be voluntarily influenced. Healthy volunteers practicing the learned techniques exhibited profound increases in the release of epinephrine, which in turn led to increased production of anti-inflammatory mediators … This study could have important implications for the treatment of a variety of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases” — Kox et al.

Though, I wanted more validation, and so I had to sift through the coldest and hardest science I could find. Fortunately, some key points were easily extracted.

The Nose Knows

Continuously, new research is shedding some more light on the importance of proper breathing — finding that the rhythm of breathing (notably through the nose) helps to synchronize electrical activity throughout numerous networks of brain regions.

“Nasal respiration entrains limbic oscillations and modulates human cognitive functioning” — Zelano et al.

A study completed by Christina Zelano regarding the modulation of cognitive function via nasal respiration observed a notable change in brain function when comparing inhalation through the nose as opposed to the mouth.

It seemed to indicate that breathing does more than merely supply oxygen through the body — it also has an influence on the activity of cells throughout multiple regions of the brain, going as far as to orchestrate various responses and stimulate certain behaviours.

Synchronization

Another particular study looked at the physiology behind a certain type of yogic breathing exercise referred to as pranayamic breathing, concluding that slow and methodical breathing has the ability to synchronize certain systemic functions of the body and mind.

“Slow pranayamic breathing generates inhibitory signals and hyperpolarizing current within neural and non-neural tissue by mechanically stretching tissues during breath inhalation and retention. It is likely that inhibitory impulses in cooperation with hyperpolarization current initiates the synchronization of neural elements in the central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, and surrounding tissues ultimately causing shifts in the autonomic balance towards parasympathetic dominance.” — Jerath, R. et al.

To explore the trickle-down effect of breathing methods on each individual organ would require a thesis-amount of research and writing but it may suffice to conclude, at this stage and on this point, that certain modes of breathing have certain effects on the nervous system, which in turn control numerous physiological and neurological function.

Is it then such a stretch to make the claim that breathing can pose a significant influence over the body and mind? It may be a reach, but not a long one. To me, it’s clear in the actions of people like Wim Hof, who can stay submerged in an ice bath for long over an hour, or in the various subconscious actions that we all encounter; for instance, the way that we automatically hyperventilate in certain situations or the fact that we yawn to supply more oxygen to the brain.

Slowing Down

Breathing seems to matter more than most of us realize and, fortunately, certain revelations are being rediscovered in the West every day. We know enough to accept the idea that breathing techniques can induce states of calmness or relaxation, and this in itself may be the best indicator yet that we can use breathing methodology to enhance mental or physical performance.

“The purpose of deep breathing is to induce a ‘hypometabolic state,’ where autonomic and mental arousal are minimal. It is a resting, restorative state, a counter anxiety, counter stress response of the body induced by using the breathing that goes with relaxation to trigger a similar muscle response in the body,” — Robert Fried, clinical respiratory psychophysiologist

In other words, deep breathing can slow us down to effectively counteract any limiting or hindering effects that stress can impose on any one (or all) of our systems. This point is not to be overlooked.

Tried and tested methods like the Valsalva maneuver (known to lower blood pressure) and Lamaze techniques (used by pregnant women to increase pain tolerance and aid in relaxation) seem to validate the fact that there’s a certain enigmatic power behind our breath.

Final Breath

So what do we know? We know that our breath can pose an influence on our bodily systems and our neurological function, though details are murky as to the extent. We know that certain responses and behaviours can be stimulated and we know that the body and mind seem to orchestrate these events naturally every day.

We further know that we can put ourselves into a state of relaxation through our breath and, in such a state, the mind may be exposed to a greater degree of clarity or be more immune to stress.

While we may not know the how’s or the why’s, we seem to be uncovering more answers with each new study. And while trends continue to multiply and proliferate, there exist innumerable methods touted by innumerable sources that seek to optimize our mental and physical performance.

Breath of fire, abdominal hollowing, diaphragmatic breathing, pranayamic breathing and it’s five sub-styles.. As the trend expands, more information will cascade from icons and athletes, celebrities and figureheads who will (and already do) influence followers. But, for the time being, it may be worth to take a breath and pay attention to our own physiological and mental function — because that’s what everything seems to come back around to: physical and mental self-awareness.

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