Exploring Breathwork and Meditation: Andrew Huberman

Breathwork: Cyclic Hyperventilation, Box Breathing & Interoception

In recent years, breathwork has gained significant popularity, thanks in part to the influence of Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman.”

Hof is renowned for his ability to withstand extreme cold and holds numerous world records for his feats. Central to his method is a breathing technique known as cyclic hyperventilation, which involves deep, deliberate breathing with big inhales and exhales.

Studies conducted on Hof and the general population have shown that cyclic hyperventilation triggers the release of adrenaline, causing a shift in the state of the brain and body.

This technique, also referred to as Wim Hof breathing or Tumo breathing, is often considered a standalone practice rather than a component of traditional meditation.

In contrast, most meditation practices involve slowing one’s breathing, either through cyclic breathing (inhale, exhale, repeat) or variations such as double inhales followed by an exhale, or box breathing, where the duration of the inhale, hold, exhale, and hold are equal.

Regardless of the specific pattern, the key is to control and slow down the breathing deliberately.

By focusing on breathing, practitioners are naturally drawn into interoception, as they become more aware of internal sensations such as the movement of the diaphragm or the rising and falling of the chest.

This shift in attention from external events to internal experiences is a fundamental aspect of meditation.

While breathing is essential for survival and is present in any living activity, including sleep, the deliberate control of breathing patterns during meditation can be highly beneficial.

By consciously regulating the depth and cadence of breathing, individuals can effectively shift their brain state and enhance their meditative practice.

Meditation Breathwork, Cyclic vs. Complex Breathwork

According to Huberman, the first step in starting a meditation practice is to ask yourself whether you want to be more relaxed or more alert at the end of the session. This simple question can help guide your breathing techniques throughout the practice.

Huberman explained that if your inhales are longer or more vigorous than your exhales, you will tend to shift your brain and body towards a state of alertness. This is due to the way neural circuits govern respiration physiology and communicate with brain areas that release noradrenaline and norepinephrine.

In contrast, if you emphasize longer duration or more vigorous exhales relative to your inhales, you will tend to relax more and calm your nervous system.

The introduction of more complex breathing practices, such as breath holds or Wim Hof breathing, can shift much of your attention to the breathing practice itself, especially if it’s not cyclic.

Huberman noted that if you are engaging in non-cyclic breathing or deliberately emphasizing inhales or exhales, some portion of your attention will be devoted to ensuring that you follow that breathing practice.

Huberman suggested that breath work itself can be a form of meditation, and meditation can involve breath work. However, the more deliberate and unnatural the pattern of breathing is, the less you will be able to focus on other things.

This can be leveraged depending on your goals. For instance, if you’re feeling stuck in your head, a meditation practice focused on exteroceptive bias and natural cyclic breathing may be beneficial.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling pulled out of yourself and want to ground yourself, a deliberate, nondefault pattern of breathing may help bring your awareness into your body and calm down.

Huberman and his colleague, Dr. David Spiegel, have an active research program focused on these issues and believe that a breath work practice itself can be meditative. However, the more the meditative practice focuses on the breathing itself, the more interoceptively biased it will be.

This can be beneficial for those seeking more interoceptive awareness throughout the day, but may not be ideal for those who are already overly focused on their bodily sensations.

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