When we post about breathwork, the most common response is: “I’m a pro, I breathe every day.” Yes, breathing is what keeps us alive. But most of us aren’t doing it right.
Babies breathe deep breaths with their stomachs. As we get older and tenser, our habitual way of breathing tends to be shallow. If you don’t try altering your breathing and put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach, which moves the most?
‘Proper’ breathing uses the diaphragm. It feels more effortful at first, hence why it’s breath ‘work’. By breathing deeply enough to expand your diaphragm and stomach, it pulls down the lungs. This creates negative air pressure, filling them up further. Increasing the amount of oxygen in the brain relaxes you. It lowers your heart rate and blood pressure as you don’t need to breathe as rapidly.
Combining proper breathing with immersion in the ice is important for a safe and enjoyable dip into the cold. Your automatic response is to breathe shallowly and rapidly into your chest. We need to override this response because the cold is a stressor, but the good kind - like exercise.
If your focus is on your breathing, you can control your reaction. You’re telling your mind ‘Hey, this is fine, you can relax now,’ and spend longer in the cold to reap the benefits. This also works with any other situation our caveman brain might freak out about that isn’t a real danger. Like an unexpected calendar invite for a ‘catch-up’ without any more information.
Here are five ways to use breathwork both in and out of the cold:
- The double breath:
When you think you’ve taken a full breath in, do one more sharp inhale before a slow breath out. This relaxes the central nervous system and is perfect to do right before you get in the cold. If your lungs are already full when you get in, your body can’t ‘gasp’ for air – the start of a panic response. Use a slow, out-breath as you immerse yourself, then continue with deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
- Pranayama breathing:
This is yogic ‘nostril breathing’. We practised this at the Brass Monkey breathwork pop-up with Louise Mortimer, a breathwork facilitator. You take it in turns holding one nostril at a time. Start by breathing a full breath out of one nostril, back in again that same nostril, hold it shut and breathe out then in again with the other. This balances out the brain hemispheres, centring your mind by focusing on the breath.
- Box breathing:
One of the more well-known and easily implemented techniques. Breathe in for a count of four, hold it for four, out for four, hold it for four, and repeat. You can extend by a second each time to really get those deep breaths going and slow down your heart rate.
- Wim Hof Method:
A classic is the Wim Hof Method. You force the breath in as deep as you can and allow the out-breath to happen. In ‘The Wim Hof Method’ you perform this 30-40 times then hold your breath at the bottom. Then when you need a big breath in, hold it at the top, repeating this four times. This can take about 20 minutes to do the full four rounds, but my lord, it feels great. You’re flooding your brain with so much oxygen that, according to the book, natural opioids, and painkillers are released. You can hold your breath for an extraordinary while afterwards and get an energy boost! When combined with the cold, this produces powerful effects on resilience. We recommend using the Wim Hof app to get started.
- Oxygen Advantage:
Our personal favourite is the Oxygen Advantage method. This method differs from Wim Hof breathing, because it predominantly focuses on improving health and sports performance. You use your ‘BOLT’ (blood oxygen level threshold) score to measure your aerobic fitness. Take a regular breath in and out, hold your nose and time how long until you have the desire to breathe. For athletes, this is about 20 seconds. To be reductionistic, you take a breath hold every couple of out breaths to improve your lung capacity.
A few top tips:
- Don’t practise breath holds whilst you’re in the cold, keep the deep belly breaths going.
- Take a double breath at any time to relax your CNS.
- Don’t worry if you get distracted or miss a breath, there’s no ‘perfect’ way to do it, except to try! That’s why it’s called building a practice.
- Don’t expect a miracle after trying once, the effects compound over time.
- Practise when you feel good, not just when you’re stressed. Think of it like weaving a mental parachute for when you need it. You’re building a productive stress response.
The Brass Monkey Mobile App will launch very soon. Stay tuned and follow us @brassmonkeyice to get the latest on guided dips and breathwork sessions!