Don’t Hold Your Breath | Emily Hightower

Notes From the Field of

Human Performance & Stress Resilience

Issue #6


I grew up hearing stories about my dad as a kid holding his breath when he didn’t get what he wanted. My grandparents didn’t bite. One time he passed out and hit his head on a radiator and that ended the strategy.

As a breath nerd I kinda respect the will power this took. Resisting the urge to breathe to the point of passing out takes resolve. Voluntary breath holding is a radically human skill. No other species can yoke the respiratory system on demand. People who do this are, like my dad, after something. If that something is tied to a sound practice, you can do more than suffer for a cause. You can elevate consciousness and create incredible adaptations to stress of any kind.

Unconsciously, we hold our breath when we’re scared or sometimes during intense focus. Think: bump in the night, or balancing on a slackline. This involuntary pause helps us focus. Our physiology catches up and restarts natural breathing without a thought.

Unwillingly? No one likes to think about that. Air is immediately essential for life. If we’re stuck underwater, in a space without breathable air, or our airway is blocked we have no choice but to hold our breath. Panic sets in. The diaphragm starts spasming to make us take a breath but we can’t. If we’re not set free we’ll pass out and pass away. Why would anyone play with this intentionally?

Breath is so vital to life that intentionally pausing it makes us pay attention. We can use this focus to help with pain management, stress resilience, and to create meditative states of presence. Humans have been exploring this skill for thousands of years.

Voluntary breath holding has many names and practices including Retention or “Kumbhaka” in Pranayama Yoga, Apnea, and Hypoxic training. Yogis train to create subtle pause control at the bottom, the top, or along the path of inhale or exhale for different effects. More extreme overbreathing is used to create physiological imbalances and then apnea is used to recalibrate. We can harness breath retention during the stress of walking, cold plunging, or more rigorous exercise to create specific adaptations, focus and connection. All of these forms of breath control are woven into our programs at SH//FT*

In our programs we teach that how you breathe when you train is how you’ll perform. Just observe Budamir Šobat, a 56 year old free diver in Sisak, Croatia who held his breath for 24 min 37.36 for the current World Record. If you watch the end he comes up from the water calmly. That’s because he trained calmly. The end of his World Record felt the same physiologically as the end of every training he’s done since he first passed the 2 minute mark. Like any Master, his radical adaptation shows the other distinct human skill of being able to own a PRACTICE. This is the opposite of pushing that edge to the point of panic and passing out to make a point.

So “don’t hold your breath” to me means you’re not going to get what you want by trying to manipulate breathing as a tantrum or for an imaginary gold star. But you can learn to retain breathing to meet the edges of your chemistry and nervous system with skills to enhance mind body connection and fitness at the cellular level. However you apply this incredible human skill, we encourage you to have a WHY, and then start a PRACTICE that serves YOU. We are here to help.


Emily Hightower

Budamir Calm Emerging 24min Breath Hold

Emily Hightower

Emily Hightower is a Resilience Coach and Founder of Intrinsic. She is a trauma-informed breath coach, somatic yoga instructor, and a holistic health coach. Her Skill of Stress Online Course offers the core skills she uses to train people to trust their physiology and shift their problems into opportunities.


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