To become a healthier, more active individual, you know you need to work on your strength, cardiovascular fitness, recovery work, and nutrition goals. But have you ever considered working on your breathing?
Breathing is part of the autonomic nervous system — meaning, you don't need to think about it in order for it to work. Therefore, when it comes to managing (and improving) your fitness level, breathwork rarely finds its way into your routine.
However, science shows that a regular breathwork practice can have serious benefits on your physical, physiological, and mental health. By bringing a conscious effort into something you typically do unconsciously, you can reduce your stress levels, sleep more soundly, improve your concentration, and even reduce your blood pressure levels.
How does one start a regular breathing practice? Which methods are most efficient? After trying a number of various types of breathwork, I find the Wim Hof Method (WHM) to be most effective. Below, I’ll share my Wim Hof Method review. I walk you through various types of breathwork techniques, and why I make it a regular part of my wellness routine.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice.
What Is Breathwork, Exactly?
Breathwork is a term used to describe conscious breathing.
"OK … well what is conscious breathing?" you ask? In order to understand breathing techniques, do these three simple steps:
- Take one huge inhale of air — as much as your lungs can hold.
- Let go of the air, taking three short exhales in a row.
- Hold your breath for five seconds.
As you went through these three steps, you were still breathing (a typically unconscious effort) but you were thinking about it (putting a conscious effort behind it). These three, seemingly unnatural breaths came with a heightened level of self-awareness, one you wouldn't otherwise bring to your breathing.
Breathwork sessions typically last anywhere from 1-20 minutes, and revolve around various breathing patterns. This type of purposeful breathing isn't anything new. The connection between the mind (states of consciousness) and body (your breath) was used as a healing modality in ancient civilizations. However, in Western cultures modern breathwork didn't emerge until the 1960s.
Today, breathwork is used around the world to heal respiratory, cardiovascular, and autonomic nervous systems. The health benefits of breathwork include lower cortisol levels, increased blood flow, improved respiratory function, and a decreased risk of chronic diseases.
What Are Different Types of Breathwork?
Breathwork can be used as a self-healing technique, and has become a popular tool amongst yoga communities, meditation practices, and holistic healthcare practitioners.
There are a number of different approaches to breathwork, each with different goals and benefits. If this is your first time trying a regular breathing practice, you might be interested in the following methods:
- Holotropic breathwork: Holotropic breathwork was developed in the 1970s by Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof. The practice involves a pattern of controlled and quick breath repetitions, and is used as a replacement to psychotherapy.
- Rebirthing breathwork: Rebirthing was developed by Leonard Orr as a way to connect an individual to their subconscious mind. Rebirthing teaches that relaxation is the ultimate self-healer, one that can prevent disease and overcome past traumas.
- Circular breathing: Circular breathing is a technique where you breathe in from the abdomen and through your nose, then out through your mouth. Circular breathing has been used as a mindfulness tool by Buddhist monks for centuries (referred to as Anapanasati).
- Pranayama breathing: Pranayama is used to describe yogic breathing, a tool used to relieve stress and improve your overall well-being. This involves breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, either within a yoga flow or in a meditative state.
My Favorite Breathing Method: The Wim Hof Method Reviewed
To work on my own breathing technique, I choose to follow the Wim Hof Method. The Wim Hof Method is different from other types of breathwork in that it combines controlled, deep breathing (note: really deep) with cold exposure.
That, and Wim Hof is simply a total badass.
Who Is Wim Hof (The Iceman)?
The Wim Hof Method was developed by (you guessed it) Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman. Wim Hof uses a three-pronged system of breathwork, cold exposure, and mind-body connection in order to accomplish incredible feats — particularly being able to withstand the extreme cold.
To date, Wim Hof has claimed 26 world records, including landing in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest ice bath (1 hour, 52 minutes, 42 seconds). He also ran a half marathon barefoot in the snow and swam underneath polar ice in the Arctic Circle. But that wasn't the last of his stunts. He attempted to climb Mount Everest wearing only shorts, and when a foot injury forced him to stop, he attempted Mount Kilimanjaro instead — which he successfully summited in two days.
So, how does he do it?
What Is the Wim Hof Method (WHM)?
Wim Hof believes his superhuman feats are the direct result of his daily breathing practice.
The goal of the Wim Hof Method is to dedicate yourself to a consistent practice focused on cold exposure and breathwork. In doing so, you can witness a number of benefits, including improved energy levels, reduced stress, heightened mental clarity, an improved immune system, and better sleep hygiene.
The Wim Hof Method encompasses three pillars:
- Cold therapy: Cold therapy helps reduce inflammation, burn fat, and boost your immune system. While Wim Hof has been known to sit outside in extremely cold temperatures, you can do cold therapy at home through cold showers or ice baths.
- Breathwork: Controlled breathwork helps improve mood and concentration while reducing stress. If you're a beginner to breathwork, I highly recommend downloading one of Wim Hof's apps or watching a YouTube video (like this) to guide you.
- Commitment: Like most things in life, performing the Wim Hof Method will take some adjustment. Some individuals experience light-headedness, tingling or nausea at the beginning. Therefore, it's important to listen to your body and challenge yourself, while not pushing past the point of pain or discomfort.
Does the Wim Hof Method Work?
I know, I know. The Wim Hof Method sounds a little … far-fetched, to say the least. And if you doubt the success of his method, you wouldn't be the first.
On more than one occasion, scientists put the Wim Hof Method to the test. In 2012, the Radboud University of Nijmegen performed a study on the Wim Hof Method. The experiment divided participants into two groups: a control group and a trained group. The latter went through 10 days of training, learning the breathing techniques, cold exposure, and meditation involved with the Wim Hof Method.
The result? Those who practiced the Wim Hof Method for 10 days were able to physically alter their heart rate and blood sugar levels. In other words, their minds were able to physically control aspects of the human body that — until now — scientists thought we had no control over.
These findings were consistent with future research. For example, another scientific study showed that participants were able to reduce their inflammatory responses by practicing Wim Hof breathing and cold exposure.
How Do You Follow the Wim Hof Method?
Again, the Wim Hof Method encompasses three pillars: controlled breathing, cold exposure, and commitment. The underlying idea is simple: Expose yourself to a little inconvenience every day (like cold exposure or deep breathwork). Your body will adapt every day and it will become slightly less inconvenient. If we cannot cope with a little inconvenience, how should we ever be able to handle real adversity? Below, I explain step-by-step instructions on how to approach each pillar.
Pillar One: Breathwork
The first pillar of the Wim Hof Method focuses on breathing exercises. To tackle your breathwork, follow these steps:
- Get comfortable: I recommend laying on your back, with your back pressed into the floor and your head on a pillow. You should always be in a safe space (like your living room or bedroom), not in a swimming pool, a moving vehicle, or another place where you could be in danger.
- Breathe: Breathe in through your nose, out through the mouth. Feel the breath come into your body in three places — in your stomach, then in your chest, and finally in your head — then let the breath go out through your mouth.
- Repeat the breath: Repeat the focused breathing (in step #2) 30-40 times. Be careful not to fully empty the lungs after each rep. After your last breath, finally and completely empty your lungs and hold your breath as long as you can.
- Hold breath again: After you can't hold your breath anymore, take an inhale. Now, hold your breath again for 10-15 seconds.
- Repeat: Repeat the entire process for 2-3 rounds.
- Slowly introduce cold exposure: Once you master steps 1-5, take your breathwork to a cold environment (described in further detail below).
Pillar Two: Introducing Cold Therapy
Ready to introduce cold therapy? Follow these step-by-step instructions to work on your breathing technique within a cold environment:
- Take a warm shower: Bathe as you normally would in a regular, warm shower.
- Turn the water to cold: Step out of the shower and adjust the temperature to cold. Begin your controlled breathing, taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Slowly introduce the cold temperature: Now, slowly introduce your body to the cold water. Begin by simply placing your hands in for 10 seconds, then your feet. Slowly move toward your arms and legs, exposing each limb for 10-15 seconds before finally submerging your torso.
- Keep breathing: Keep focusing on your breathing, never forcing anything. (While it may take considerable practice, one day you might even enjoy it — and yes, I'm speaking from experience.)
Pillar Three: Commitment
The final pillar is by far the most important: commitment, or the power of the mind. If you ever heard the phrase "mind over matter," you know how your brain can overcome mental, emotional, and physical challenges.
The third pillar has no concrete step-by-step instructions, but it's by far the most important. Just as with any new habit (like starting a fitness program), you must be diligent with your practice. Carve out time in your morning to work on your breathing technique. It will wake up your brain (due to increased blood flow), making you feel more alert and ready to attack the day. Then, after your workout, introduce cold exposure as a way to start your recovery work.
Wim Hof Method Beginner Tips
Deliberately manipulating your breathing can be uncomfortable — particularly within your first week of practice. To help make your breathwork more manageable (and eventually, part of your daily life), follow these beginner tips:
- Perform the breathwork with an empty stomach: There are very few side effects of the Wim Hof Method, but nausea is one of them. Do your practice before your first meal of the day to be most comfortable.
- Feel where the breath comes from: Wim Hof insists you can inhale from three places — your stomach, chest, and head. Try to focus on filling your body with air from these distinct locations.
- Follow an online course: To begin your practice, there are a number of tools and resources available to you — both for free and for a subscription. I recommend downloading the Wim Hof Method app (available on Google Play and the App Store) for a reasonable price.
Note: The "Power of Breathing" is the first class in the Wim Hof Method free mini video course. The video is roughly 10 minutes long and explains the philosophy behind the breathwork and how to approach the practice. I highly recommend following this course for an introduction to the practice.
Incorporate the Wim Hof Method to Improve Your Overall Wellness
To increase your overall wellness, you must complete strength and cardio workouts, be diligent in your recovery work, and follow a proper nutrition plan (i.e., follow the four pillars of 4 Legs Fitness). And there's one technique that can make all of the above easier to tackle: breathwork.
Breathwork is a mindfulness and self-care tool that has serious physical and mental health benefits. A focused breathing practice can help lower blood pressure, improve blood sugar levels, decrease cortisol levels, and deepen your concentration.
Breathwork has been used as a self-healing tool since ancient times, and a number of approaches exist. However, my chosen practice is the Wim Hof Method, which combines breathwork and cold exposure to control your heart rate, blood pressure, and self-control. In doing so, you are better prepared to tackle any grueling workout (or hey, maybe hike up Mount Kilimanjaro).
Want to get started in a regular breathing practice? Join the premium membership of the Build Bullet-Proof Health program, and we can meet 1:1 to discuss your breathwork technique.
For health and fitness updates and discounts, subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of this page.