Understanding Breath Holding – Techniques, Tips and Safety
Article by Lucas Rockwood
Kate Winslet held her breath for over seven minutes while filming the sequel to Avatar, and her co-star, Sigourney Weaver, held hers for an impressive six-and-a-half minutes. These performers are well into the second half of their lives, and neither are athletes or divers. So how did they do it?
They had free diving coach on set, and it’s likely that he worked with both actors for weeks or even months prior to filming with scaled breath holds to increase CO2 tolerance and hypoxia (low oxygen) tolerance. Their coach probably trained them in relaxation and pre-dive meditation techniques to slow their heart and breathing, too. Most people respond to this type of breath hold training very well, and it’s common for novice breathing students to attain three, four, or even five-minute holds in a short period of time, but no way would they hit seven minutes.
To achieve their impressive dive durations, these actors most likely combined classic breath hold techniques with high oxygen content compressed air, known as Nitrox. Normal ambient air contains 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. Nitrox mixes often contain 50 to 100 percent more oxygen, making each breath more potent and allowing for longer holds.
The movie stars are using their impressive dive times to gain media attention for their film, which is understandable. But they are failing to reveal how it was achieved; and more importantly, the risks involved when their fans attempt similar feats at home. For the sake of education and safety when it comes to breathing, let’s take a deeper look at how breath holding works.
This guide is for educational purposes only. Never practice breath holds in water without a coach or a trainer present. Don’t practice breath holding alone in your bathtub, or put your head in a bucket of water, and never practice breath holds alone in a pool. Shallow water blackouts are a life-threatening risk.
How Breath Holds Works
Ambient air is about 21 percent oxygen, 78 percent nitrogen, and the remaining air is made up of very small amounts of gases such as CO2 and argon. A natural breath contains just 200-300 ml of air, and nearly three quarters of the available oxygen is exhaled back out, meaning there is more oxygen per breath than you need. Without impacting blood oxygen at all, most people can hold their breath for 1-2 minutes.
If you have plenty of oxygen in your lungs and blood after just one minute, why is breath holding so difficult and uncomfortable? Counterintuitively, the urge to breathe doesn’t come from a lack of oxygen, it comes from a build-up of carbon dioxide. This means that you can feel the urge to breathe long before you really need to breathe. Novice breathwork students will have a very low CO2 tolerance, meaning you’ll feel the urge to breathe after just 20 or 30 seconds. With practice, you can quickly learn to tolerate these elevated CO2 levels and extend your holds.
As we learned, during short holds, your blood oxygen levels don’t change much at all as your lungs can continue to extract O2 from the held breath. At the same time, during the hold, your CO2 levels rise quickly because you’re not exhaling. During the inhale, your CO2 levels are less than one percent. As you hold, your levels can increase by five to 10-fold quickly and this signals your brain to breathe.
Breath Holding Techniques
#1. Increase your CO2 tolerance
This is achieved through repeat exposure. Just as you can gain a tolerance to caffeine or alcohol, you can increase your CO2 tolerance and the urge to breathe will lessen dramatically.
#2. Improve hypoxia tolerance
For most people, their blood oxygen begins to drop only during extended holds of two minutes or more. This can make you feel dizzy, cause you to see stars, or even faint. Surprisingly, you can also increase your tolerance to lower blood oxygen, and while this is not necessarily smart or safe, you can learn to stay alert and fully functioning despite a significant drop in blood oxygen.
#3. Master the mammalian dive reflex
Every mammal on the planet reacts to water the same way: their heart rate and breathing rate slows. Their body focuses its resources on vital organs, and metabolic rate slows. Humans are no exception, and this is why every world record breath hold is achieved in water, often with the diver floating passively on their belly with their face submerged. When your body senses wetness on your face, cheeks, and sides of the neck, it focuses circulation around your core for survival. The strongest reflex will be triggered in water, but it’s possible to trigger this to a lesser degree by splashing water on your face and neck, and by using the yoga chin lock technique, jalandhara bandha, during breathing sessions.
#4. Use relaxation techniques
Meditation, pranayama, mindfulness, guided relaxation, and reduced body movements will all enable longer breath holds as they conserve energy and reduce the volume of CO2 build-up in the blood and lungs. Less CO2 means less breath hunger.
#5. Trick your body
Since CO2 triggers breath hunger, some people off-gas through hyperventilation prior to holds. This is risky but effective as you expel CO2 pre-emptively in preparation for the build-up that will come during a hold. On a simple level, what this looks like is controlled hyperventilation followed by a hold. Please be aware that controlled hyperventilation prior to holds is one of the leading causes of shallow water blackouts and drownings by breathing students.
The second trick is called packing, where you hyperinflate your lungs. By packing in more volume of air, you pack in more oxygen too. With experience, you can find more space in your thoracic cavity to pack three times or more than a normal breath.
A third, and increasingly popular, option is to use pure oxygen or nitrox mixes. With this technique, students pack an inhale of concentrated oxygen air. More breath volume with higher oxygen content allows for some of the longest holds imaginable.
Fans inspired by these actors’ breath holds are submerging in bathtubs and testing their own skills—please don’t do this! It’s extremely dangerous to practice in water alone, and deaths are not uncommon. If you’re interested in breath holding, start by practicing in bed and lying down. If water training is for you, free diving with a proper instructor is very safe and very cautious – so go seek out help.
Want to Learn More?
- 21-Day Yoga Breathing Challenge (on-demand)
- YOGABODY YouTube Channel (free to subscribe)
- Lucas’ podcast