If you’re interested in health and breathing, you’ve probably heard of Wim Hof, AKA the Iceman. He’s best known as that crazy Dutch guy who has broken all sorts of world records for exposure to cold, such as fastest barefoot half marathon in snow, longest swim under ice, and longest time in direct, full-body contact with ice. His secret is a special breathing method based on a Tibetan Buddhist practice called tummo. In one study, monks practicing tummo were able to raise the temperature of their fingers and toes by as much as 14.9 degrees Fahrenheit!
Dramatic impacts from breathing are also common among anyone who’s done “hypnobirthing” or Lamaze. The Lamaze Technique was developed by French doctor Fernand Lamaze about 70 years ago as a method for giving birth more naturally. It was based on earlier techniques used by women for centuries to manage – or even completely transform – the pain of childbirth with breathing techniques and reframing.
Since he founded the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn has been guiding people to get out of pain using mindfulness techniques, of which intentional focus on the breath is central. Moreover, many of the patients in this clinic are dealing with terminal illness and the majority report experiencing greater peace about their condition through these practices.
There’s an abundance of evidence that simply changing the way we breathe can have a dramatic impact on pain – whether it’s the pain of prolonged exposure to extreme cold, the pain of childbirth, or the pain of cancer. In my online pain management course, Live Pain Free, I teach many breathing techniques for pain relief.
A good place to start is by simply bringing your attention to your breath throughout the day. Breathing can be completely unconscious, which, for most modern humans, means it’s shallow and rapid – a terrible combination for pain and its associated stress. As soon as we notice it, the breath becomes longer and deeper, even without intending it.
If we do bring some intention to it, the breath becomes a magnificent always-available tool for shifting consciousness and altering sensory perception. Take a moment to bring all of your attention to a single breath. See how well you can give the whole of your focus to that breath. I’ll wait.
Isn’t it amazing (and unfortunate) how the mind can wander during the space of one breath?! It’s a tricky but simple practice: pay complete attention to the inhale and exhale. Then keep going. If you notice you’re distracted, bring yourself back to the breath. Spend no time or energy following the trains of thought that arise or pondering they keep showing up. It’s just the nature of the mind. This in itself is enough of a practice to calm your whole system, to expand your awareness, and to alleviate pain.
As an optional second step, try inviting the experience of whatever pain you may be experiencing – physical pain, emotional pain, the pain of worrisome thoughts about the world, etc. – into the space of your breath. Let your pain be here without fighting it. As you inhale, intend that you’re becoming more and more open (you can even try mentally repeating “open… open… open… open…”. As you exhale, intend that you’re releasing any pain, resistance, or stagnation. Be curious about what you find and feel. Refrain from judging or resisting. Just “turn toward” whatever you discover, and keep breathing slow and deep. Allow the inhale to draw breath way down into the base of the belly. Allow the exhale to carry out the air from the deepest pockets of your lungs – and all the little nooks of your being.
Dr. Peter Borten