Naturally, after practicing meditation and taking cold showers as 30-Day Challenges I encountered the practice of breathwork –specifically the Wim Hof method. Breathing is a free activity, so I did breathwork every day for 30 days.
I had no idea what to expect with going into this challenge. I mean it’s just breathing. We do it automatically, right?
If it’s not clear yet, I have a very low bar for extracurricular activities that I’ll try for a month during our lockdown life.
|Will I do <insert thing> for 30 days?||Breathwork|
|Is it free?||Yes|
|Can I practice this in my living room?||Yes|
|Can I do this alone or under social distanced conditions?||Yes|
|Does it make me uncomfortable?||Yes|
|Will I learn something new?||(Most likely) yes|
|Does it spark my curiosity?||Yes|
What is Breathwork?
Breathwork is an active meditation, in which you’re consciously controlling your breath. There are different breathing patterns to follow, for my challenge I’m following a derivative of tummo meditation, the Wim Hof method. People come to breathwork to destress, feel euphoria, have alleged spiritual breakthroughs, and even psychedelic drug-like experiences. Supposedly, these experiences have a deeper meaning. When you’re present with yourself and are free from outside distractions things that need your attention will come up. Repressed memories and emotions may also resurface.
My response when hearing people talk about breathwork: “Greetings New Age woo-woo millennial hipster!” However, my ears perked when I learned about the Dutch athlete, Wim Hof aka “the Iceman”, who not only summited Mt. Everest in sandals and shorts but also returned with all his toes and fingers. I got even more curious after watching Matt D’Avella, a minimalist YouTuber with a dry-humored stoic personality, burst out in tears in his 30-day breathwork experiment and when Ngoc Le from my workout group shared her experience with breathwork. She practiced 45-minute and relieved herself of neck pain.
I’m a skeptic, but if intentional breathing could assuage my chronic back and shoulder pain… sign me up for 30 days!
How to Practice Breathwork
Right after brushing my teeth, I’d run to the living room to start my day off with at least three rounds of breathwork. Some mornings a few friends would breathe with me over Zoom. It’s refreshing to have others join me in these eccentric challenges. We all used the free version of the Wim Hof app to both guide and track our practice. The app features Wim dictating the breathing pattern and calling out the time as melodic beats play in the background. Wim’s guided meditation is also available to stream on YouTube.
- Sit in a comfortable place (Do not attempt while driving or in a body of water. You can pass out.)
- Take 30 quick, deep-rhythmic breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
- Then take a deep breath and exhale.
- Hold your breath until you need to breathe (don’t force yourself, listen to your body.)
- Inhale again to recover, hold it for 15 seconds.
- Repeat as many times as you’d like.
I straight up tripped after soloing my first breathwork practice. In the beginning I felt silly huffing and puffing and had trouble relaxing since the practice is very active. Wim Hof’s flow involves 30 breaths, then on the final exhale you hold your breath for as long as possible. Once you feel the need to breath, you inhale for 15 second, and then repeat the process for as many rounds as you like. With each round I felt myself letting go and feel a tingling and numbing sensation around my temples and hands. I surprised myself with being able to hold my breath for over two minutes during this session. I surprised myself even more when I felt relief in my trapezius muscles.
For this form of meditation, I’m usually lying down on my back or sitting up straight. I’m finally in a place where I won’t fall asleep during meditation.
I consistently held my breath for at least two minutes by the second week. Allowing my consciousness to drift into a meditative state came with ease. My mind transitions into a trance-like state within a 2:30-2:45 breath hold.
The rest of my morning routine involves stretching and working out. I’ve noticed that after breathing my body moves more fluidly. There’s significantly less popping and cracking from my joints. I’m observing the correlation between breathing and bodily changes, but without medical supervision I can’t confirm this.
Serendipitously, my musician friend, Priska, recommended Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor for me to read. Nestor is a journalist who examines the history of how we shifted from breathing through our nose to becoming chronic mouth breathers. The TL;DR: mouth breathing is bad for you that it gives your allergies and makes you snore, but everything can be reversed with proper breathing! While writing he simultaneously worked with scientists at Stanford University to research and experiment with how nasal breathing could improve an individual’s health.
According to my Kindle, I have six more hours left in the book and so far it’s been fascinating to be gaining a deeper understanding of what I’m practicing.
Monday through Friday breathwork continued as scheduled and over the weekend I made the trek down to SoCal for a little respite with some friends (we all had tested negative for Covid-19.) A change of scenery is refreshing and I hit two milestones within my practice:
- I held my breath for over four minutes.
- I had an emotional breakdown.
My good friend, Minji Chang, actress, podcaster, entrepreneur, –a person who could do it all was with me when I had my first transformative experience. We’ve been practicing together over Zoom for weeks now, so lying adjacent on the floor breathing loudly together felt perfectly normal. I went for four rounds during this practice. I held my breath for 4:15 on the last round, then sat up hyperventilating with tears pouring down my face. It’s like I poked a hole into a dam and from that minuscule pinprick, everything unleashed and erupted.
At the risk of sounding woo-woo, during my breath hold I took a visceral trip to an early childhood memory. The visual, physical, and emotional details were alive and colorful. When I got up, I looked over at Minji and asked “Am I okay?” then heavily sobbed into my friend’s arms. My friend was kind enough to hold me while something deeply emotional released within me.
Some would say that I found my shadow self (Carl Jung.) I’ve heard about the shadow self in passing before, but never placed much energy into examining the concept. I decided to follow my curiosity by making an appointment with my cognitive behavioral therapist the following week.
The NorCal wildfires returned and the air quality index (AQI) soared over 170 this week. I wondered if my breathing is being affected by these conditions despite keeping my apartment windows closed and running the air purifier. I noticed that it takes a little more effort for me to push into the two-minute range for holding my breath.
My practice sent me back to that space where I experienced my first emotional release. Again, I crossed the three-minute mark and my world intensified. Like before, I experienced another repressed memory and couldn’t stop crying.
Now I should mention, not every breathwork session takes me to an emotional space. I’ll usually need between four to six rounds and will need to pass the 2:30 marker to teleport into this transformative plane. Normally, I empty myself and enjoy the euphoric stillness.
Jay has heaps of experience with meditation and awareness that beyond me, talking with him gives me more insight and alternative perspectives on my journey. I described what I saw to him and also asked if there was a way to discern if my visions were some cacophony of memories and hallucinations or were they repressed memories? Jay gave my mind something to snack on:
What's the difference between a memory and a visceral message? Why is it necessary to label it if regardless of the label it's something that needs your attention?
Later in Week 4
I met with my therapist over video to help me dissect what was mentally and emotionally happening to me. She brought up some points that I’m still processing.
- Emotions aren’t meant to be solved or fixed.
- Emotional growth is not a linear process. Sometimes the next stage won’t appear for months or years later.
- In my case, a 30-some-year-old version of me is now ready to process the trauma of my seven-year-old self.
- Emotional labor is both invisible and cannot be validated by external forces.
- Psychosomatic symptoms manifest in our bodies when our mind and emotions are stressed.
- These symptoms could range from repressing a memory or getting the butterflies in your stomach feeling when approaching a crush.
When we wrapped, she recommended that I check out The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D to further feed my curiosities. I’ll be getting to that one as soon as I finish Nestor’s breathing book.
Whelp, this challenge went left field. I expected a month’s worth of breathwork to yield results uniquely reflected in physical, but fortuitously it also delved into my emotional and mental health. The last 30 days have been an intense, metaphysical experience. I’ve surprised myself by holding my breath for over four minutes and discovered a new personal rabbit-hole for me to uncover. Akin to my prior meditation practice, starting my mornings with breathwork primes me to be more alert and present for the rest of the day.
|What I Liked||What I Didn’t Like|
|I can hold my breath for over four minutes!||Requires more time compared to regular meditation|
|Loosens up muscles|
|Relaxing||Not as relaxing as my regular medication|
|Supposed health benefits (I need to research more)|
|Free to do!|
|Discovering new things about myself (it’s fun to get to know yourself on a deeper level)||Discovering new things about myself (it can be scary to rock the boat)|
- Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
- Wim Hof Method
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D
- Why Being a “Mouth-Breather” Is Bad For You w/James Nestor | Joe Rogan Podcast
- You Should Be Doing Breathwork for Health and Stress Control | Joe Rogan Podcast
- James Nestor Had a “Transformative” Experience in His Holotropic Breathing Class | Joe Rogan Podcast
- Can Breathing Like Wim Hof Make Us Superhuman? | Discover Magazine
- How The ‘Lost Art’ Of Breathing Can Impact Sleep And Resilience | NPR