The Dangers Of Breathwork (How To Avoid Losing Your Life Over A Breath-Hold)

So you have been told or heard that breathwork can help you deal with stress, improve your general well-being or calm your mind. Or maybe you are just out there looking to learn breathwork as a way to improve your meditation practice.

Like most people, you start by searching on Google, Youtube, and other social media. You come across countless breathwork instructors or facilitators like they are called, with most of them offering breathwork classes through recordings.

These breathwork facilitators often look in great shape physically (mostly because they cross-fit and not entirely thanks to breathwork), but their knowledge of breathing and breath-holding exercises is often backed by just a few hours of practice and training they got learning breathwork through videos in an online teacher’s training course of a trending breathwork method.

As for the breathwork methods they teach, they often completely ignore the safety part when it comes to doing breathing and breath-holding exercises, using archaic and dangerous techniques like hyperventilation to impress their practitioners.

We Do Not Breathe In The Same Air.

The breath cannot be quantified. Everybody breathes at different rhythms and every breath a person takes is different. Factors like how well you have slept, what food you have eaten, and how active or stressed you are, are going to affect your breathing rhythm.

Today most breathwork classes are either conducted in groups where everybody is following the lead of an instructor or through prerecorded breathwork lessons where the length of the breath is kept uniform.

The problem with video and audio recordings is that they are not going to take into consideration your breathing rhythm and personal abilities. You will end up following the breathing pace (set by the instructor) which itself is influenced by the instructor’s breathing conditions of the moment.

A couple of seconds is what separates a clean breath-hold from one ending with a blackout. And if you are not aware of your limits and does not build a breathwork practice that respects them, holding your breath after doing hyperventilation, especially in water is like playing Russian Roulette.

Know Your Instructor.

It takes thousands of hours of practice to truly comprehend the intricacies of the breath on a personal level, and thousands of hours of teaching to different persons to understand how unique the breath is.

But do a quick search on Google for the term “breathwork teacher training” and you will see by yourself that it takes an average of 50 hours, which can be completed in just a couple of days to become a certified breathwork teacher. Some breathwork methods even take pride in delivering the fastest breathwork teacher training certification on the market.

Would you consult a pulmonologist (a doctor who specializes in lung conditions) who has had only 50 hours of training, and who is prescribing the same treatment to ten different persons suffering from ten different respiratory issues?

Probably not.

The Illusionist’s Trick.

In the world of magic, there is this famous feat where a magician is trapped with handcuffs and chains in a glass cube filled with water and spends an extraordinary amount of minutes fighting to break free. The actual trick starts from behind the scene where the magician breathes pure oxygen that will help him double or triple his breath-holding time easily (a similar trick was used by the cast of Avatar 2), dramatic music and beautiful assistants are then added as sensory distractions to create the perfect illusion and impress the non-initiated audience.

The modern breathwork facilitator is not that different from the magician. Instead of using pure oxygen, breathwork facilitators use hyperventilation in their breathwork classes as a trick to extend people’s breath-holds by a few minutes, soothing music is used to dull their senses and a community is built around their breathwork method to create a sense of belonging, and influence people’s ability to think critically.

The Dangers Of Hyperventilation.

Hyperventilation is a technique that reduces the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a person’s body at rest, which will delay the urge to breathe (normally caused by the increase of CO2) when a person is holding his/her breath.

The urge to breathe has an important role to play in breathing and breath-holding. Not only it signals the increase of CO2 in someone’s body by triggering diaphragmic contractions, it also acts as a safeguard to prevent someone from holding his/her breath for too long at the risk of reaching a low level of SpO2 (fraction of oxygen-saturated hemoglobin relative to total hemoglobin in the blood) and suffering from a black-out.

Using hyperventilation to extend breath-holds is like driving a car with a broken fuel gauge. Nothing is going to warn you when you are about to run out of gas.

Today hyperventilation is freely taught in many breathwork classes and methods, under pseudo beliefs that it brings all kind of benefits. Beginners who often impress themselves by easily doing 2–3 minutes breath-holds when hyperventilating in their first breathwork class, end up thinking that the breathwork facilitator and the method he/she teaches must be legit, never questioning the validity of their claims.

Besides all these, breathwork facilitators are often seen in their videos teaching hyperventilation near or around a body of water, giving the false impression that it is a safe technique to do. As a result, more than a dozen of people have died drowning from shallow water blackouts after using hyperventilation to extend their breath-holds in water.

Freediving as a Safer Alternative.

Freediving emphasizes conscious breath-holding, training individuals to progressively extend their breath-holds over a longer period. Instead of using cheap tricks like hyperventilation, freedivers train to optimize their breath-holding capabilities through relaxation and mental techniques, that prioritize safety and awareness.

Compared to a certified breathwork facilitator, an aspiring freediving instructor have to go through more rigorous training to be certified to teach breath-holding techniques. In most freediving organizations, freedivers have to demonstrate clean breath-holds of over 3 minutes without the use of hyperventilation, proper blackout rescue techniques among other skills, and be CPR trained to be eligible to enroll in a freediving instructor course.

None of these are required to enroll in a breathwork teacher training course. Anybody without no past experience with breath-holding can just pay a few hundred bucks to enroll in a breathwork teacher training course, and start teaching breathwork classes a couple of days later.

Freediving has also a longer history with both pranayama (yogic breathing exercises which many breathwork methods claim their actual teachings originate from) and a more developed scientific understanding of breath holding than most modern breathwork methods. Jacques Mayol, the legendary freediver portrayed in the movie “The Big Blue” was among the first Westerners who went to India to study pranayama in the 1960s, and brought it outside of India to integrate it into freediving, at a time when most breathwork methods, let alone the term breathwork itself did not even exist.

While freediving in its early years has experienced its toll of death associated with the use of hyperventilation, today hyperventilation is not taught in freediving courses and most freedivers have moved away from using it because of the dangers associated with it.

Your Life Is Not Worth A Breath-Hold.

Today even though breathwork has garnered interest for its potential mental and physical benefits, the dangers associated with some breathwork methods that teach hyperventilation, and the inexperience of their breathwork facilitators cannot be ignored.

If you are serious about learning breathwork, it is important to make some research on the actual breathwork methods themselves and the background of their breathwork facilitators before taking a class.

While following recordings from someone you do not even know personally might seem like the most accessible way for you to learn breathwork, it is not the safest and might even cost you your life.

Other practices like freediving offer a safer alternative, more conscious and personal approach to breathing and breath-holding exercises. Learning breathwork from a properly trained freediving instructor will ensure that you receive proper guidance and safety training, minimizing the risks associated with breath-holding techniques, and allowing you to tap into your inner potential without compromising your life.

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