I learned during my SEAL training just how powerful mastery of the breath could be. I am confident that this one strategy led to my big success there and later as a special ops and business leader. It is now the first thing I teach to aspiring Navy SEAL candidates at SEALFIT.
Breathing is a unique system in the human body; unlike, for example, digestion, breathing has both an involuntary control mechanism as well as voluntary, similar to a 747 in that it can shift between being piloted and being left on autopilot. If you are a military special operator, or have a background with martial arts or yoga, it’s likely that you inherently understand the strategy of mastering the breath. If not, you will find the most immediate practical benefits in your life from this strategy. When I learned as a martial artist to control my breathing during intense fighting bouts, it proved invaluable later during the chaos of combat. And when you begin the three breathing practices below, you will note an immediate impact in the form of lower stress; a heightened, alert focus; and a calmer mind.
1. Breath Control Training
This breath control pattern is super simple and has the effect of calming you down and slowing your heart rate. This breathing technique uses a long, slow exhalation that triggers the parasympathetic, rest, and digest systems into action. It counteracts your fight-or-flight system and will calm you down after just a few cycles. It is also a nice drill to begin to learn to control the duration of your inhale and exhale. It helps to practice this before you start to add holds such as with the Box Breathing drill.
The process is simply to exhale twice as long as you inhale. For instance, as you inhale through the nose using the full belly breath to a count of 3, you exhale out to a count of 6.
Over time, as your skill increases, you can take it to a 4:8 or 5:10 and so on. To yield some dramatic improvements with the 1:2 Breath, try a 30-day challenge of practicing it for 10 minutes each day. This is a great breathing pattern to use when in a stressful situation to gain control over your body and mind.
2. Box Breathing
This breathing tactic will add a retention of the breath after inhale and exhale. This is my favorite breathing practice due to the powerful effect it has after only a short time of practicing. I gave it the name Box Breathing when I started doing it back in 2002 because of the four-sided pattern of the practice. It is something you can do anywhere and anytime you are not performing a highly complex task. I practice it in my morning ritual, before a workout, while standing in line, stuck in traffic, and whenever else I can. Along with training more powerful breathing musculature, it slows down your breathing rate and deepens your concentration skills. When you perform Box Breathing, even for 5 minutes, you are left with a deeply calm body and an alert, focused state of mind.
To begin the practice, expel all of the air from your chest. With empty lungs, retain this state for a 4-count hold. Then perform your inhalation, through the nose, to a count of 4. With the lungs full, hold for a count of 4. When you hold the breath, do not clamp down and create back pressure. Rather, maintain an expansive, open feeling even though you are not inhaling. When ready, release the hold and allow the exhale to flow out smoothly through your nose to a count of 4. This is one circuit of the Box Breathing practice.
I recommend you do it for a minimum of 5 minutes and no more than 20 minutes. I have found that the best approach is to do a single, dedicated practice of 10 to 20 minutes a day, then do a few 1- or 2-minute “spot drills” as opportunities present themselves during the day. Box Breathing with this 4-4-4-4 ratio has a neutral energetic effect: It’s not going to charge you up or put you into a sleepy relaxed state. But it will, as mentioned, make you very alert and grounded, ready for action. As your breathing threshold improves, you can increase the duration of the ratio, such as 5-5-5-5 and so on.
3. Threshold Training
Would you like to increase the threshold of your lung capacity? Your breathing threshold is the duration of a complete breathing cycle, including any holds. It is determined by a few factors, such as the power of your breathing musculature, your lung capacity (volume of air they can hold), and the efficiency of gas transfer dictated by the strength of your heart’s cardiac output (heart rate and stroke volume). If you have a threshold of 4 seconds, then you are breathing 15 breaths per minute. Up to 20 cycles per minute is common, but don’t read that as healthy. After years of practice, I now average 4 to 6 breaths per minute when not paying attention and have a threshold of 55 seconds for a single breath, meaning I don’t get winded or agitated with a 55-second breath count over a minimum of 12 cycles.
The yoga masters believed that the human life span was determined by the number of breaths taken. According to them, slowing your breathing down would lengthen your life span. I don’t know about you, but I am in—at 4 breaths per minute versus 16, I should live 4 times as long! At any rate, my experience is that slowing your breathing rate down is very healthy and I think you will find this to be true for yourself as well.
Let’s begin threshold training with a ratio of 1:2:2:1. So a 3-second inhale, 6-second hold, 6-second exhale, and a 3-second hold is, in total, an 18-count breath threshold, assuming you can repeat this cycle comfortably a minimum of 12 times in a row. This would be just shy of three breaths per minute, which is a good target to work toward. For those who need to really extend their threshold, such as SEAL trainees, you will want to work toward a 60-second threshold (that's one long, slow breath per minute). One warning: Never practice breath-hold training in the water alone. I know it sounds obvious, but some special ops trainees have foolishly tried this and are not alive to read this as a result.