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Learning to Breathe

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On April 17, 2013, Stig Åvall Severinsen perched on the edge of a hole through a frozen lake in Greenland. His bare legs dangled into the dark, frigid water. He wore only swimming trunks.

A moment later, he slipped into the water. After 250 feet of a body-numbing breaststroke under the three-foot-deep ice, he emerged from another hole, setting the Guinness World Record for the longest swim under ice while holding the breath (with no fins or diving suit).

Here’s the thing: He’d already set a Guinness World Record the day before in the same lake, swimming twice as far while wearing a wetsuit and fins—but still no oxygen tank.

In addition to those epic breath-holding-under-ice records, Severinsen has set multiple world records in freediving. His high-stakes adventures have included a visit to a shark tank in Denmark, where he held his breath for more than 20 minutes.

Life after world records

It’s a good thing Severinsen has mastered the art of holding his breath; today, his breakneck schedule rarely lets him take one. He globe-trots nearly constantly, teaching Navy SEALs, Olympic athletes, those diagnosed with PTSD, and everyday stressed-out people how to breathe.

Severinsen believes in the power of proper breathing. He’s experienced the benefits personally and shares this passion through his “Breatheology method.” He offers online courses, a book (Breatheology: The Art of Conscious Breathing), YouTube videos, and in-person training.

“In the modern world, most people have a chronic oxygen deficit,” Severinsen says. “The challenge is that they only breathe to 70 percent of their capacity. This means 30 percent of their potential energy, creativity, intuition, and working hours go into the garbage bin.”

How do you breathe?

Breathing may be the most natural thing in the world, but few people breathe naturally. A natural breath is slow and controlled. It stimulates the diaphragm. Children and animals tend to be the best at it. As adults, many of us breathe shallowly, drawing each inhale into the upper chest or forming bad habits like mouth breathing.

“I’m not reinventing the wheel,” Severinsen says. “I’m taking the best techniques from yoga and peak performance. From this, I teach the entire breathing process: breathing and breath holding. They are the yin and yang of the process. You can’t understand breathing if you don’t understand breath holding.”

Becoming a breathing expert

It’s hard to believe someone who has voluntarily held his breath for 22 minutes ever fought to breathe, but Severinsen says he struggled with asthma as a child. He recalls sneezing, wheezing, and the terrifying feeling of not being able to get enough air. This experience, combined with a youth that revolved around competitive swimming and freediving excursions during family vacations to the Mediterranean, set Danish-born Severinsen on his current path.

While his practical experiences began in the swimming pool and ocean, Severinsen has the education—a degree in biology and PhD in medicine—to back up his Breatheology method. He’s also studied with yoga masters.

“[Breathing] is what brings us back to the present moment,” he says. “We give that to people using simple tools. We translate our purpose into their language.”

For some people, that means using the vocabulary of yoga, which includes chakras (energy centers) and pranayama (breath control techniques). For others, that means explaining the science using anatomy and physiology terminology. Severinsen speaks both languages fluently.

The biology of breathing

When it comes to the science, his techniques focus on the vagus nerve. The lungs connect to the heart and brain through this giant, meandering nerve, and it’s activated by controlled breathing. Slow breaths simultaneously slow the pulse, lower blood pressure, and bring about feelings of relaxation. Meanwhile, breath control translates into efficient breathing that ensures maximum blood oxygenation, supplying the organs with the O₂ they need for peak performance.

For his more adventurous students, Severinsen takes the breath-control basics and turns things up a notch. He uses extreme underwater training to push the lungs, as well as exercises to increase the diaphragm’s flexibility. Some of these techniques are available through Breatheology’s online platform, but the most hardcore training is reserved for elite athletes, special ops forces, and those most dedicated to becoming superhuman.

Breaking bad habits

What differentiates someone who’s known for his impressive breath-holding feats from the average living, breathing human? A couple of things. Severinsen sought out the best teachers to learn the best techniques. He also spent years training himself to overcome common tendencies that become established at a very young age.

“One of the biggest challenges we encounter is how to become aware of the bad habits we create,” Severinsen says, explaining that not breathing efficiently can be corrected through awareness—just like opting not to have that extra beer. “We need to educate people. They have an active choice to look at their breathing and take note.”

He recommends doing something every day that focuses on breathing. Anyone can sign up to take the Breatheology breath-hold challenge or follow along with a number of free programs on breatheology.com.  Focusing on breathing could also mean setting a timer to remind yourself to simply notice each inhale and exhale for a few moments throughout the day.

“On average, we breathe nearly 30,000 times per day,” Severinsen says. “The goal is not to let these breaths fly away.”

The stress-immunity connection—and how breathing can help

Most Americans are chronically stressed, which can have serious repercussions on our health.

The issue starts with the body’s sympathetic nervous system. Built to prepare the body for a “fight-or-flight” response to a stressor, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for a revved-up heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and dilated pupils. Prolonged periods of stress can have more dire consequences, like increased risk of heart attack, insomnia, and fertility issues. Plus, chronically stressed people have a higher incidence of infectious diseases. Bottom line: Stressed people often become sick people.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to tame the stress response. Mindful breathing, for example, can induce instant relaxation. Experts also recommend regular exercise, meditation, and visualization exercises to help combat stress.

2 breathing exercises to try right now

1. Breathe naturally

According to Severinsen, there are four simple steps to taking a deep, natural breath:

  1. Inhale through the nose. (“The nose is for breathing; the mouth is for eating,” Severinsen says.)
  2. Pause.
  3. Exhale slowly through the nose; relax the jaw and smile.
  4. Pause before connecting to the next inhale.

2. Hold your breath like a dolphin

This technique and others are explored in depth in the free Breatheology Discovery Master Class.

  1. Start by inhaling slowly.
  2. Hold your breath for 5 to 10 seconds.
  3. Exhale.

Begin to increase how long you hold your breath over time. With practice, you’ll be able to hold your breath for 30 seconds or up to one minute, maybe longer. Keep in mind that while breath holding on land is relatively safe, you should never practice breath holding underwater without someone else there (in case you black out).

Karli Petrovic is a writer, editor, and yoga instructor living in Portland, Oregon. She lives with her husband, Randy, and two pups, Frodo and Ollie. Find her on Instagram: @kpflows.

A version of this article was published in the November/December 2019 issue of alive USA with the title “Learning to Breathe.”

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