Breathing comes naturally to you, but are you any good at it?

Posted by Al Boyle
On July 9, 2023

“Don’t forget to breathe. Very important.”

Mr. Miyagi, to Daniel-San during training

The Karate Kid (1984)


When you stop to think about it, breathing is so underrated.

Your survival depends on it.

So, why do you pay so little attention to it? I came up with two reasons.

One, you’ve been doing it since before you can remember. I’m talking about the early days, when life was simple and you were floating around in that zero gravity wonderland we call the womb.

You were even submerged in the dark, and it didn’t phase you in the least. Today, a bit of liquid goes down the wrong hatch in broad daylight, and you’re panic-gasping for the next minute.

Two, you take breathing for granted. And why wouldn’t you when your body makes it so easy? It switches on the auto-pilot before we register our first conscious thought.

You don’t need to think about it, so you don’t. Until it gets hard…

  • An upper respiratory bug
  • A strenuous workout
  • The errant sip or gulp when drinking or swimming
  • A stressful situation

How many times have people encouraged you to take a deep breath to help calm you in a stressful situation? And if something as basic as breathing can bring health benefits, why are we waiting until we’re in mayday mode to work on it? The irony, it burns…

As Mr. Miiyagi also said in The Karate Kid, “Best defense… No be there.”

Breathing is more than just a background app: It’s a path to a free health and performance upgrade.

Exhibit A, elite athletes.

They know their competition is fierce. Fractions of a second, endurance, strength, and speed determine whether they’re a champion or a runner up. And with mind-boggling, life-changing contracts and endorsement deals at stake, they’re after every advantage they can seize.

What to do, what to do?

I’ll tell you one thing they do:

They train to optimize what’s known as their VO2 max, which measures how much oxygen their bodies absorb and use when they work out. V is for volume, O is for oxygen, and max (not Max) is for maximum.

The better your heart pushes blood to your muscles, and the better your muscles extract oxygen from your blood, the more energy you produce. More energy can improve performance and fatten a bank account with the healthiest, sexiest fat.

Now, who’s up for healthy and sexy? Woo, woo!! Can’t help you with the bank account, though. Still working on mine. And if you’re reading this and thinking, Can I really change how I breathe after all these years?

You sure can. You’d just be building a new habit. I’m speaking from experience. I was a mouth breather. 😱

For several reasons, I never questioned my breathing technique.

Any of these sound familiar?

  • It wasn’t a thing then.
  • I did well in sports when I was younger and in martial arts starting in my prime. If it ain’t broke…
  • They weren’t teaching enough of this in my formative years to pique my interest and open my eyes.

Only years (cough, decades) later when I started researching and working smarter on cardio, endurance, and proper breathing, did I notice the difference and start feeling a bit like a superhero. Then I wanted to be as “all in” as possible. Because, benefits.

Breathing can be far more than just a bodily function: It can help you relax, regulate energy, and contribute to your overall well-being. Do it wrong, and it can become a silent saboteur, forcing your body to work harder to function. Put excessive stress on a body part, and it’ll be more prone to malfunction.

Give yourself the gift of five minutes

Practicing any of these techniques for just five minutes – and in some cases – less, daily can make a difference.

Five minutes.

You’ve got five minutes. And you can do it anywhere:

  • In bed (though not during, um…)
  • At your desk (you’re quiet quitting, anyway)
  • Watching television (give your partner a heads up)
  • On the toilet (No pictures, please)
  • In labor (Note to self: It was funny when you thought of it, but edit this out before you publish)

Let’s talk technique…

Box breathing

Box breathing, also known as square breathing, is a powerful stress reduction technique the Navy SEALs use to manage stress.

You’ll need:

  • A large, sturdy cardboard box
  • Some duct tape
  • A trusted friend to tape you inside
  • A utility knife in case you choose the wrong friend

Okay, for real now…

Think of a cube: Four sides, equal length. Each side represents a count.

So you:

  1. Inhale deeply through your nose for a four count
  2. Hold it for a four count
  3. Exhale through your mouth for a four count (sensing a pattern, here)
  4. Hold it for another four count

Physiological or cyclic sigh

This isn’t your run of the mill sigh. You’re going to amplify the sigh so it isn’t for nigh.

To perform a physiological or cyclic sigh:

  1. Take a deep breath through your nose. Channel your inner blowfish.
  2. Force an extra breath. Yes, seriously. This reinflates your lungs’ collapsed air sacs and increases their surface area. How’s that for targeted maintenance? If your face twists into a Rocky Balboa-inspired snarl, join the club.
  3. Hold it for a second. Because you can. Look at you, putting in the work!
  4. Exhale from your mouth, long and slow. Not like you a full balloon slipped from your grip. Savor that air cigar.

Cyclic hyperventilation

No, the good kind.

This involves taking anywhere from 10 to 25 breaths, inhaling through the nose and either actively or passive exhaling through the mouth in rapid succession. Many practitioners do it in conjunction with cold exposure based on Wim Hof’s teachings.

Sure gets the adrenaline flowing.

In the Stanford study, the scientists had the participants empty their lungs and hold it for 15-30 seconds, committing a total of five minutes to this drill.

While it has positive effects, it’s critical to avoid this method in or near water: It reduces carbon monoxide in your bloodstream, which can cause blackouts.

Blacking out anywhere can be dangerous or even deadly. Being in or near water can make hyperventilation lead to a final destination.

Breathing benefits bonanza

Breathing > meditation > nothing

Stanford researchers performed a study where they compared breathwork practices to meditation to see which had the greatest impact on mood, stress reduction, and sleep.

Controlled breathing for five minutes a day led to a greater reduction in stress than a five-minute daily meditation routine. Both are good, one is better.

So, level up your lifestyle.

Conduct your own case study.

Breathe deeply and daily.

And let me know how it goes.

Smart people talking science

VO2 Max: How To Measure and Improve It

Huberman Lab Podcast: How to Breathe Correctly for Optimal Health, Mood, Learning, & Performance

Huberman Lab Podcast: How to Assess & Improve All Aspects of Your Fitness

Reduce Anxiety & Stress with the Physiological Sigh | Huberman Lab Quantal Clip

Stanford Neuroscientist: This 5-Second Breathing Technique Is the Fastest Way to Reduce anxiety and Stress

How To De-Stress In 5 Minutes Or Less, According To A Navy SEAL



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