What happens to your body when you take ‘three deep breaths’?

There is a potency to being in a room with 1600 other people and nothing but the sound of breath. That potency is amplified by the type of breathing exercise we are doing together – rounds of full breaths in, short breaths out, followed by breath-holds of up to two minutes – which is giving me a kind of helium-high.

Harnessing the breath does more than that, says Dutch extreme athlete and self-styled alchemist of the breath, Wim Hof, who is leading the session at the inaugural Human Kind event at Sydney’s Luna Park.

Wim Hof: Going to extremes.

Breathing exercises, like this, he promises, allow us to tap into the autonomic nervous system and immune system: “Whenever you feel the flu or… a lack of energy, you do this, and you reset your body.” We can, he promises, “become the commander over our biochemistry.”

It’s empowering, exhilarating stuff, particularly when it was previously believed that the autonomic nervous system and the immune system could not be voluntarily influenced.

No wonder the 64-year-old, who has all the unbridled, unpredictable energy of a puppy, has millions of followers and has spearheaded a global movement where people hyperventilate and sit in ice baths for fun.

Such is his passion that he believes he will change the world for the better. And his many followers would agree. He jokes that snipers working for the pharmaceutical industry will try to assassinate him because, by teaching people a method to reduce inflammation in their bodies and heal themselves, he is a danger to the healthy economy on sick people: “Goodbye Wim Hof,” he chuckles.

It is a shame then that, despite his charisma, contagious energy and the merit there is in his technique, in this session he lost me.

Nothing was ever achieved without hope and enthusiasm (qualities that Hof has in abundance) and I prefer not to rain on anyone’s hope and enthusiasm parade. But, for me, he wrecked the fun when he suggested that his technique, by essentially creating a more alkaline environment in the body, might prevent or cure cancer.

“I eat monsters for breakfast because: depression, cancer, ALS… because I think nature has all the solutions for that,” he said. “That healing power is within us.”

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest breathing techniques or ice baths can cure or prevent cancer. If only it was that simple. Frank Marino, a professor of applied physiology at Charles Sturt University, says: “If that was the case and there was evidence then we are all saved and a Nobel Prize in the offing.”

Tony Blazevich, a professor of biomechanics at Edith Cowan University, adds that alkalinity can result from breathing: “However, blood pH is very tightly regulated, and I’m unaware of any interventions (dietary, breathing, etc.) that have shown longer-term changes in blood acidity levels.”

But, Marino adds there is no doubt controlling one’s breathing will affect our physiology and psychology.

So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. What exactly is happening to us when we breathe slowly and fully? Why is it that before a massage, a yoga class or a stressful situation, we are told to take three deep breaths?

Self-autonomy is key to positive mental health, says Blazevich: “Breathing [techniques] can help to manage stress levels, which is key to minimising the systemic inflammation that can affect our health. So, it’s a useful addition to an overall health strategy.”

He adds that, by breathing more deeply, it may be possible to stretch the chest wall muscles: “Stretching our muscles appears to reduce sympathetic drive and this should reduce stress/anxiety.”

When Anna Tetlow was a dancer with the Royal Ballet, breathing techniques were never mentioned let alone taught. She wishes they had been.

Former dancer and Pilates teacher Anna Tetlow says breath work provides the framework for recovery and performance.

“When I was dancing, it was extreme stress that we were under physically and mentally,” says the 49-year-old Melburnite. Had she known that slow breaths in and out through the nose could shift her from a sympathetic nervous system-dominated stress response to a parasympathetic nervous system-dominated calm she believes it would have helped her to emotionally regulate while under pressure.

“You cannot control cortisol, you cannot control most of those reactions from the brain that are associated with stress, but you can consciously control your breath.”

Tetlow, who is a Pilates teacher, says breathing techniques are now a primary part of her work with pain and rehabilitation clients, as well as with stressed out mums, professionals in high-pressure roles, elite dancers and athletes.

Breathing techniques can help us all perform and function better, she says, by teaching us how to relax certain parts of the body, while switching other parts on; by properly engaging the muscles of respiration and intrinsic core muscles; and by providing a tool to aid recovery.

For people living with chronic breathlessness, breathing techniques can also help, says Kylie Johnston, an Associate Professor in Respiratory Physiotherapy at the University of South Australia. “Strategies such as relaxed controlled breathing… may help break the cycle of breathlessness – threat – panic,” Johnston explains.

So while breathing techniques may not cure cancer – or other diseases – they may help people living with those diseases to relax and cope with pain and distress.

For those of us who are well, they could also improve our stress response, lower cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate variability and may even reduce inflammation. There is also evidence taking deep, slow breaths can help us to focus better, relieve anxiety as well as improve our overall sense of wellbeing. And these exercises can, as Hof suggests, allow us to tap into systems of the body we didn’t realise we could to change the way we feel and, potentially, influence our overall health.

It doesn’t have to be complicated either, says Tetlow.

We can start to train our brains with slow breaths in and out through the nose for just two minutes when we are sitting in the car at the traffic lights, or just before we go into a meeting or have to perform.

Our breath is the first and last thing we do in life. Learning to use it and notice it is powerful, especially given the number of Australians experiencing high levels of stress or distress.

“When you start to recognise ‘my body is feeling stressed’, then be one step ahead by putting this breath in,” Tetlow says. “It’s like a window of opportunity, which if you train yourself in it well enough, then you have a small window where you can have some say in the response your body has. It’s training the brain to be able to connect to the parasympathetic nervous system when you need it.”

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