Breathing is one of the most fundamental things we do.
Despite — or maybe because of — its critical importance, we don’t have to put any conscious thought into it. As part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which also controls things like heart rate and blood pressure, breathing is a mostly passive process. As a result, most of us spend very little time thinking about our breathing.
However, just because it happens by itself, doesn’t mean we are breathing in an optimal way. Nor does it mean that we cannot consciously control the process to achieve some desired result if we set our mind to it.
“We assume, at our peril, that breathing is a passive action, just something we do. […] But breathing is not binary.”
— James Nestor
In fact, many of our ancestors were much more aware of their breath than we are today.
As James Nestor points out in his excellent book Breath, the ancient Indus Valley civilization is not known to have worshipped any gods or practiced any religion — no religious depictions have ever been found. But what has been found are depictions of people breathing consciously. And the Indus Valley people are no exception in their worship-like focus on breathing.
Almost all ancient civilizations — from Asia to Europe, Africa, and the Americas — had a concept of “life force,” what Indians called prana, chi in Chinese, or ki in Japanese. And this life force was almost synonymous with breath.
Even though much of this ancient wisdom has been largely forgotten by the average population today, there are still many active practitioners of conscious breathing.
By controlling their breathing, many advanced yogis can do seemingly impossible things like control their body temperature, blood flow, and even control, or stop, their heart itself. The effects are scientifically well documented even though the mechanisms are not fully understood yet.
While I’m nowhere close to the experience or control of such outliers, I was also not a complete stranger to conscious breathing myself.
Tummo, or Inner Fire, is a breathing technique developed and practiced by Tibetan monks, and it has recently been “modernized” and popularized by the Dutchman Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman for his many feats and records relating to cold exposure.
Like a growing number of people, I experimented with the Wim Hof Method, which to oversimplify a bit, is essentially controlled hyperventilation (combined with cold exposure).
Around 2015 I practiced daily for several months, and have since been doing it on and off, or whenever I felt like it. It’s got an increasing body of research backing its efficacy, and I generally perceived a boost in energy and focus after practicing.
But the Wim Hof Method is far from the only breathing technique that has gotten a modern overhaul and gained support from the scientific community.
To address my growing stress and anxiety in 2020, I decided to give a technique known as Resonance Frequency Breathing a go.