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Breath Holding

Noah McKenna / Pranayama  / Breath Holding
Noah Mckenna Yoga Teacher Training Janu Sirsasana

Breath Holding

This post I want to discuss holding the breath to produce the lowest breath frequency and why its really really interesting.

If you are new to these articles Ive covered Natural Breathing and Equal Breathing so now lets look at breath holding. Really its best to learn these techniques from an expert. So I wont go into so much practical detail but want to share the information on why it works when its done well.

If you’ve ever tried holding your breath a long time you might already know that it can feel like torture. There is a panic that sets in when the body decides that its had enough. The sympathetic nervous system releases its hormones and aside from the physiological effects it makes us angry, vigilant and irritable. That is a sure sign that you are doing it wrong and it can trigger negativity. It can also be a mild nuisance which gives an energising positive buzz but this is still a sympathetic response.

Getting it right produces a warm calm feeling that can last many hours. Its softens our mood and seems to expand time and space as everything just flows. This security is a sure sign of entering into parasympathetic territory.

Now its definitely safer and easier to induce the parasympathetic state using natural breathing and even breathing. Making the state into a regular trait is the promise of dedicated and evolving practice of breath in pranayama and meditation.

Many people have discovered that breath holding acts as a powerful lever to tip the balance of the autonomic. I also believe that breath holding gives more bang for the buck. You can get a more potent shift in less time but unlike the more gentle methods it has inherent risks.

Its good to know what is wrong to have a clear idea of what getting it right feels like. So lets look at the bad news first. Two ways it can go wrong in practice then, one is dramatic and the other is oppressive. 

If when you hold your breath and feel the struggle you are having what feels like an allergic reaction and getting emotionally overstimulated this is drama. It usually happens more immediately even with a single breath hold. 

Oppression is very different. Practicing many cycles of forced breath holding becomes dulling rather than exciting. We learn to endure in the wrong kind of way, actually its not relaxing. The after effect feels like depression, it might be calm but cannot tolerate well the normal stresses which life will always give. Energy is low and self indulgent.

The secret is knowing how to relax while being present. Specifically we want to relax the diaphragm muscle. But keeping everything else relaxed is imperative for us to even feel our diaphragm.

There are many ways we can get a wrong result by ignoring the diaphragm. We can focus our mind on dialogue like counting or watching a clock.We can also disassociate into visual memory or fantasy. We can tense the body to feel like we are in control.

Eventually though to get the best result its not dependant on how long you can hold your breathe but rather how long you can relax your diaphragm. When the need to breath starts to feel strong is when the effect of keeping a relaxed diaphragm gives the deepest afterglow. But go just a little too far and we shock ourselves.

It works well to do say 10 repetitions of long breath holds and use smooth deep breathing as both a preparation and a recovery for a few minutes to connect the cycles.

The diaphragm is innervated by the Phrenic Nerve which relays sensory and motor information connected to multiple sites in the brain stem. There are sympathetic and parasympathetic mechanisms for initiating the inhalation.

The big secret then is that we learn to avoid the sympathetic inhalation. Instead using the parasympathetic respiratory pathways originating in the Nucleus Ambiguus to inhibit the inhalation. You’ll be able to see or feel the difference as the heart rate slows down instead of speeding up. It also induces the consciously felt change in mood and relationship to the environment and feels great!

In practice this means going consciously into sensing the diaphragm just at the time the body is demanding you breathe in. You will need to feel this to learn how to do it and it will be slightly uncomfortable. Its a wonderful skill to train the autonomic response.

There is a milder version of breath holding which is the classical approach to pranayama called Kumbhaka. Either breath in and hold then exhale or breath in and hold and breath out and hold. There are many stages and levels to increase the time of each phase and place emphasis on individual phases.

The difference is that in classical pranayama the breath is held during each cycle over and over starting with maybe 10 cycles and in an olympic effort maintained for many hours. Gradually the body changes in its ability to stay relaxed during this very slow form of breathing.

Getting classical pranayama wrong happens with a forceful uncompromising approach and produces a depressed mood and oversensitive personality. This potentially bad effect can be avoided with good practice in a mild range or by combining other breathing exercises to normalise the autonomic state.

I believe the depressed and socially disconnected affect to be caused by the Old Vagal system described by Dr Stephen Porges Polyvagal theory. This parasympathetic system does not originate in the Nucleus Ambiguus and so is quite different to the positive Vagal tone produces by diaphragmatic relaxation described above.

I think I should add something here as Im giving away the keys to the medicine cabinet and publishing it. Long Breath holds and advanced pranayama should only really be practiced after a medical examination and with a skilled guide.

Long breath holds are powerful in their effect and can cause changes in human physiology. We humans have a very neat little biological trick called the dive reflex which helps us to be able to swim underwater by changing our metabolism.

One deciding factor in our ability to hold the breath is our tolerance of high CO2. When we use up most of the available Oxygen in our blood Carbon Dioxide levels go up because we are not exhaling it out.

There are chemical receptors which measure the pH of the cerebrospinal fluid to inform the brain centers which control our breathing when CO2 is getting high.

One group of these special cells are found in the brain stem close to the respiratory centres and they have the ability to adapt or to desensitise.

Its possibly these guys which also communicate with the Nucleus Ambiguus I mentioned above that are able to help our autonomic system respond to breath holding by becoming super calm to avoid exhaling.

So to summarise there are two ways to reduce the breath frequency either by holding the breath for a very long time and repeating like free divers training for Carbon Dioxide tolerance. Or to continuously hold the breath during the breathing cycle like Yogi’s who breath at 1 breath per minute or slower for minutes to hours.

When done skilfully we learn to relax the diaphragm and become very tolerant to high Carbon Dioxide and low pH or acidic blood. The training is mediated by the Parasympathetic Nervous System to create a beautiful serene change in attention, emotion and metabolism. Just like meditation but perhaps more powerful.

The dangers are to shock the system into a sympathetic response where the heart rate increases and we go into stress mode or to overly inhibit the whole system by triggering the Old Vagal system.

Next in this series I will talk about the ins and outs of Rapid Breathing to complete the spectrum of breath frequencies. Ill go into a bigger description of Polyvagal theory which Ive been drawing from in the first three pieces.

Noah Mckenna

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