Breath-work & freediving; Have you got it all wrong?

Breath work is the “Yoga” for the 2020’s, now more than ever we’re seeing  our news feeds littered with ads for “Shamanic journeys”,  “kundalini awakenings”, “re-birthing” or “sacred breath work” etc and just about every conscious café has a plethora of breath work options plastered on their noticeboard.

Of course Breath work is not new, Pranayama has been around for centuries and ancient Buddhist teachings have long taught the importance of the breath and our connection to it.

In the 80’s Sven Graf introduced holotropic breathing as a way of accessing the Psychedelic realms previously only available by ingesting some sort of medicine such as LSD or mushrooms and our kundalini friends have been breathing their way to higher levels of consciousness since Sir John Woodroffe started talking about this in the early 20th century.

Lately Wim Hoff rocketed Breath work into the limelight with his quite frankly incredible feats of endurance, resistance to cold and mental strength,  further showing what is capable when we pay attention to what we are doing with this mostly unconscious body function.

What is undeniable is that breath work is a thing now; people are turning on tuning in and using breath as a tool for personal growth and spiritual development.

So to explain, my background is in Vipassana meditation and freediving. My experience of working with the breath has generally centered on observation of the natural flow of the breath as it comes in as it comes out, just remaining aware. If my mind would wander I come back again to the breath … repeat for 10 hrs a day for 3 days and you start to get the idea.  An incredibly powerful tool for staying present, calming and focusing the mind but can be excruciatingly boring in the beginning.

In freediving I would dive deeper into the science behind the breath, what is happening in your body, your blood chemistry and how to use the breath to affect your parasympathetic nervous system or rest and digest mechanism.

This is an incredible powerful way to access deep states of relaxation as freedivers, not only before diving but also very applicable to everyday life.  We are taught that hyperventilation (breathing more than the body needs) is the last thing we should be doing, as a result, other than some diaphragm exercises I have generally shied away from this form of breathing.


Most of my understanding of the positive effects of breathing has centred on the observation of normal relaxed breaths or even slightly under breathing which has been proven to have some quite amazing health benefits.

Hearing all of this buzz around “breath work” has definitely piqued my interest though and living in Bali puts me in the ideal place to experience some of what is going on in the breath work wellness space.

I would, however, like to share something with you all:


The Myth…

“I inhale strong full breaths through my mouth and deep into my belly, I feel my arms tingling as my body fills with extra oxygen”

Unfortunately I have heard the above time and time again from yoga teachers and sadly even breath work coaches, it’s not true and, as I’m about to point out, not knowing this can be fatal.

So here’s what’s really going on.  

Tingles in your body, feeling euphoric/lightheaded are not signs of having more oxygen!  Whilst it might feel nice they are actually caused by over breathing (hyperventilation) and clearing the body of its much needed levels of Carbon dioxide /CO2.

Despite oxygen taking the leading role in our conversation around breathing, it’s actually very easy for the body to maintain normal levels of O2 saturation by just breathing naturally.

In our freediving courses we test students O2 when they are at rest and in a healthy person it will always be between 96 -99% …this with normal tidal  (regular) breathing.

When we breathe deeply or more than the body needs (hyperventilate), we don’t add more oxygen as we are already at 99%, what we can do though is flush CO2 out of our bodies.  This is not good as CO2 plays a vital role in our bodies’ ability to access the oxygen that we have.

Low levels of CO2 causes blood vessels in the brain to constrict preventing oxygen rich blood from flowing there, hence the lightheadedness often associated with breath work.

It increases our heart rate so we use more oxygen and it also increases the bond between the hemoglobin and oxygen in our blood so we can’t release the oxygen to our tissues  - all really bad news if you’re trying to stay conscious during a breath hold.

What hyperventilation will do is delay your urge to breathe, but not your ability to stay conscious for longer, essentially tricking you into holding your breath longer than is safe to do so.

Unfortunately there have been many deaths caused by this misconception.

This can be down to lack of education but also tragically when a person has applied skills used in a breath work session and tried to hold their breath at home in a pool or when snorkeling /freediving.

Never do this! Hyperventilation is probably the biggest cause of Black outs in freediving which if not supported by a trained team is almost certainly going to result in the death of the person involved.

There are many wonderful benefits to be gathered from working with the breath but please please educate yourselves about the science behind what you’re doing and if you want to learn about breath holding and the wonderful journey it can take you on then learn from a qualified freediving professional.

Ok hopefully the message is clear, separate the two practices and benefit from the wonderful physical and mental health benefits they both have to offer.


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