Hanli Prinsloo can hold her breath for six minutes! It’s not a superpower she was born with, but rather a skill she’s developed during her long career as a freediver – that’s someone who spends time below the ocean’s surface without scuba gear or any other breathing apparatus. And it’s how Hanli’s Insta feed came to be filled with beautiful shots of up-close playdates with dolphins, seals, turtles and even whales.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve lived my whole life with asthma. I know what it feels like to almost die because you can’t breathe so my associations with not breathing aren’t exactly positive. But, it turns out, practising breath hold exercises actually comes with a world of benefits.
It makes you better at everything
There’s a lot of training that goes into learning to hold your breath. For starters, you need to practise slow, deep breathing. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which prompts your body to conserve energy so you need less oxygen. It also causes you to relax deeply, slowing your heart rate and sending you into a state of calm (stress for what?).
All those deep breaths make your blood more oxygenated, which helps every cell in your body function more effectively – including those in your brain. So you can expect to be sharper, more alert and have more energy. Plus, more oxygen reaching your muscles means you’ll be better at exercise.
“It’s like putting a really big engine in a really small car,” says Hanli. “The more oxygen we have in our system, the better we become at the sports we do, it increases our VO2 max, it increases everything in the body, including thinking and working.”
Breathe better in just one session
I caught up with Hanli in Los Angeles ahead of World Oceans Day and the adidas global Run For The Oceans event. We were sitting on a beach on Catalina Island, an idyllic getaway about an hour by boat from the mainland. It was a sunny day, warm but not too hot, and ocean ripples lapped gently at the shore, where we sat, cross-legged on the sand. As locations go, it doesn’t get much lovelier.
But when Hanli told us to hold our breath, I panicked before I’d reached a minute. Then she took us through a breathing exercise and, an hour later, I held my breath for over two minutes! Want to give it a try? Follow Hanli’s step-by-step plan.
1. Make sure you’re not in the water.
Seriously. If you’re not used to breathing deeply, you could feel dizzy or faint the first few times. And fainting mixed with water usually doesn’t end well. Instead, find a comfy spot on the floor with enough space to lie down.
2. Learn to breathe deeply.
Most of us spend much of the day walking around with our tummies sucked in because, you know, muffin top. But in order to breathe effectively, you need your belly to expand to make room for your diaphragm, says Hanli. So if you’re keeping your tummy sucked in, you’re only breathing with your upper chest, creating tension in your neck and shoulders and feelings of anxiety.
Try this: Sit up straight, chest open, shoulders relaxed. Relax your tummy completely. Breathe out, then take a deep breath in. Don’t lift your shoulders; instead, let your belly expand to make way for the air. Put your hand on your belly to feel it expanding and shrinking with each in and out breath. Do 10 breaths like this.
3. Warm up your muscles.
Those would be the muscles you use for breathing – your diaphragm and intercostal muscles (when last did you think about them?). Take a deep belly breath. Holding your breath, raise your hands above your head, place the back of one hand against the palm of the other, shoulders away from ears, elbows straight. Press your chest forward and pull your elbows back. Hold for a few counts, then breathe out and relax.
Take another deep breath and hold it and this time, gently lean over to the left, then the right. Return to centre and breathe out. These exercises make your intercostal muscles more supple, creating more space for your lungs to expand and ultimately increasing your lung capacity, explains Hanli.
4. Practise three-step breathing.
Imagine your chest consists of three spaces: Your belly, your chest and your shoulders. First, fill your belly with air. Breathe in so that just your belly expands. When it can’t expand any further, breathe into your chest cavity and feel your ribs expanding outwards. When they can’t expand anymore, breathe the last little bit into your shoulders – imagine air flooding in behind your collar bones.
Once you’re full of air, consciously relax your shoulders – they’ve probably tensed up. Exhale and breathe normally.
5. Slow your breath down.
You’re going to need to lie down for this next part. Lie on your back as though you’re in Savasana in yoga class: Body relaxed, legs straight with feet flopped out to the sides, hands by your sides, palms up, eyes closed. Breathe in for a count of eight seconds and out for a count of 10 seconds. It doesn’t matter whether you breathe through your nose or mouth, but make sure you’re breathing into your belly so only your belly rises and your chest stays still. Repeat this pattern for two to three minutes.
It’s called a breathe up. It slows your heart rate and oxygenates your blood, prepping you for the breath hold to come. Too hard? Breathe in for six seconds and out for eight seconds.
6. Hold it.
Close your eyes. Do a three-step breath and hold it. As soon as you feel like you need to breathe, exhale and breathe normally. Repeat step five again (your breathe up). Then, take another three-step breath and hold. This time, when you feel like you need to breathe, be aware of the trigger, but hold your breath for a few seconds longer.
Repeat step five again, take a final three-step breath and hold it again. This time, when you feel the trigger to breathe, make a conscious decision to hold your breath for longer. Tell your body that you’re safe, calm and relaxed. Relax your muscles. Relax your forehead. If you hold it long enough, you’ll feel your diaphragm start to constrict. This is an early warning system that your body needs oxygen, but you still have time to, for example, come up from a dive, says Hanli.
“We use that as a mental exercise,” she says. Don’t try and go beyond this point unless you’re under the supervision of a trained professional and, we’ll say it again, never try this exercise in the water.
You can use a timer to see how long you held each breath. Over time, you should notice your times increasing as your body gets better at breathing.