Breathing is our most basic function — but most of us are doing it wrong.
Our fast-moving culture means we’re more disconnected from our bodies than ever. I’ve had moments when I was staring at a computer screen and suddenly realized I hadn’t taken a breath in way too long; I was so distracted I wasn’t breathing.
If you have trouble sleeping, struggle to focus, or have high blood pressure, among other ailments, poor breathing habits might be to blame.
Changing the way you breathe is one of the fastest ways to reprogram your nervous system. Different types of breathing can shift your mental state, level up your energy production, reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, and more.
Because breathing is automatic, you don’t have to give it your conscious attention. As a result, a lot of people overlook the power of proper breathing.
So how do we hack our own breath to access its transformative benefits?
I started doing breathwork several years ago, and I only wish I’d started sooner. Breathwork unlocks new levels of energy, performance, sleep gains and emotional wellness. It’s the greatest self optimization tool we have access to as we are breathing throughout every moment of our lives.
I pair it with my coffee in the morning as a power-up for the day, and use slower sessions post a long work day to move into the rest and digest side of the nervous system. It also helps me show up as a better human. I’m less stressed, my mind is clear, and when I do have a rough moment, just a few minutes of intentional breathing sets me right again.
I know breathwork has become a bit of a buzzword recently, so today I want to explore exactly what it is and why it’s so important for you.
What Is Breathwork?
In its simplest form, breathwork is something we each practice every day, with every breath, 25,000 times per day. As a practice, Breathwork includes a wide range of breathing techniques to upgrade your mental, physical, and emotional health.
If you’ve ever paused to take a few deep breaths in a moment of acute stress, you already know your nervous system responds to the way you breathe.
Breathwork gives you conscious control over your nervous system. It allows you to switch between sympathetic (focused, physically active) and parasympathetic (calm, relaxed) states at will. You have the ability to regulate your focus, stress, anxiety, and more, all through a few short changes to the way you breathe.
In as little as two minutes, breathwork can shift your physiological state –allowing you to alter your nervous system state “up” or “down.” You can create changes in your heart rate, circulation, immune system, digestion, oxygen absorption, emotional state, and energy levels – all with your own breath.
Breathwork is a particularly effective biohack because you feel the physical effects instantlyt. You can change your physiology at a moment’s notice, which allows you to adapt to the challenges of your day in real time.
7 Ways Breathwork Upgrades Your Mind and Body
Breathwork is one of the easiest + most readily available ways to hack our nervous system — For my daily practice, I use the Othership Breathing app, which breaks breathwork styles into three categories of benefits:
- “Up” like a cup of coffee
- “Down” to relax or sleep
- “All Around” to help you work through emotions and find a sense of centeredness.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these different styles and what they can do for you.
1. Focus + Morning Routine
Breathing with a faster pace and shorter exhales activates your sympathetic nervous system. It increases norepinephrine release in your brain, which enhances your focus and vigilance.
I practice this style of breathwork in the morning to feel more alert, energized, and focused. This is an integral part of my morning routine and it helps clear my mind before i jump into work.
2. Pain Management
If you’re familiar with my work, chances are you know of “The Iceman” Wim Hof (he’s been on The Human Upgrade, my podcast). He’s famous for his technique of quick, forceful breaths followed by long breath holds.
Taking faster breaths means you get rid of more carbon dioxide (CO2) than normal. CO2 is an acidic molecule, so by getting rid of more (which also happens in hyperventilation), the blood becomes less acidic and more alkaline. Deep breathing also releases endorphins, and this combined with the higher alkaline level can reduce pain — which is why the Wim Hof method is so useful for cold tolerance. It’s also good for more general pain or injuries.
3. Expanding Consciousness
Holotropic breathwork combines rapid breathing with sensory music to alter your state of consciousness.
I talked to the creator of this technique, Dr. Stanislav Grof, on the podcast about how holotropic breathing can help you reach non-ordinary states of consciousness, and how it can help you resolve trauma from your past. Dr. Grov explains that holotropic breathwork slows oxygen delivery to your brain, which sends distress signals to your limbic system. As a result, this style of breathing changes your self perception and sense of time, inducing a psychedelic state.
If you want to calm your anxiety, you can use breathwork techniques that turn on your parasympathetic nervous system (sometimes called your “rest and digest” system. It’s relaxing, calming—the opposite of “fight or flight”).
A slower breathing pace and a longer exhale trigger a relaxation response that can override the “fight or flight” reaction of your sympathetic nervous system. Long, slow exhales and breathing at the same rhythm as your heart rate can also increase your heart rate variability (HRV). Doing “down” style breathwork daily has increased my HRV by close to 25%.
One of my favorite forms of breathwork is one you may have done in a yoga class. It’s called alternate nostril breathing—you block one nostril, inhale, then release and block the other nostril, inhale and exhale, and repeat.
Breathing through the right nostril activates the sympathetic nervous system, and breathing through the left nostril activates the parasympathetic. Breathing through them alternately helps balance everything out, and if you really want to go in one direction or the other, you can breathe only through one nostril. For instance, to cool down when you’re angry, you’d breathe through your left nostril. This style is also great for unblocking a stuffy nose.
Breathwork for sleep also focuses on slower breathing with an even more exaggerated exhale. Slow exhales increase your vagal tone, increasing your control over your nervous system, and shift your brain into a low-frequency delta brainwave state, which is essential for deep restorative sleep.
6. Fitness & Performance
Focusing on a longer exhale, breath holds and creating air hunger builds more CO2 in the body and eventually increases our CO2 tolerance. Like I mentioned above, CO2 mobilizes oxygen in the body, so increasing tolerance not only increases longevity, it also helps maximize performance before, during, and after intense activity. I’ve even tried mouth tape while sleeping to reduce mouth breathing and slow the breathing rate drastically increasing CO2 even more.
7. Emotional Regulation
Slow, deep breathing, paired with holding your breath at steady intervals, can help you regulate your emotional state. It’s especially helpful if you’re feeling stronger emotions like stress, anger, sadness, and you want to return to a centered baseline.
My go-to is box breathing: inhale, hold, exhale, and hold, each for 5 seconds. The more you practice, the more you can increase the time you spend on each section.
This kind of breathing decreases your cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate, which helps you settle into a relaxed, stable emotional state. From there, you can sort through and feel your emotions from a place of calm.
How to Start a Breathwork Practice
Breathwork is a powerful biohack that you can use anywhere, anytime. It’s a superpower tool that you always have at your disposal. For me, it’s a non-negotiable daily practice. I
I use the Othership Breathing App to integrate breathwork into my daily life. It has over 500 guided sessions that you can use based on what you need: : stress reduction, boosted mood, sleep improvement, performance enhancement, and emotional regulation.
Othership takes the thinking out of breathwork—I just choose the state I want to be in and follow along with the app. You can also come up with your own routines, or try the ones in this article.
Whatever you choose, give breathwork a try and see how you feel. It’s a simple, effective way to gain more control over your biology.