Ireland’s Patrick McKeown is perhaps the world’s foremost authority on breathwork, and his 2015 book The Oxygen Advantage is perhaps the most important book yet written on how to adopt “simple, scientifically proven breathing techniques” to (as the book’s subtitle states) help maximize fitness and heighten athletic performance; improve sleep, focus, and concentration; eliminate asthma symptoms; and maintain weight loss.
Sound too good to be true? Read on.
McKeown preaches breathwork with the zeal of the converted. After years of breathwork coaching, the self-effacing and hard-working McKeown, whose interviews, books, and exercises can be found all over the Internet, draws on thousands of successful patient/client case studies – from elite athletes to ordinary humans – to support his book’s central claim: regular strategic breathwork is the number 1 way to optimize human health and performance. (Full Disclosure – Peak Flow co-founders Lindsey Trubia and Dr. Rob Williams both trained under McKeown’s tutelage, for which we are deeply grateful, and McKeown now serves on our Peak Flow advisory board).
Knowledgeable and personable, McKeown walks the walk, and his own personal story speak volumes about his fierce commitment to breathwork as a human health and fitness optimizing technology. (Note: we use the word “technology” quite intentionally, from the Greek root tekne, which means “art or skill.” Breathwork, strategically integrated into one’s daily experience, is both art and skill.) Like many of us, McKeown developed unhealthy breathing habits at an early age, and by the time he graduated from college and went to work in the corporate sector, his health was deeply compromised. He recounts his own journey to greater health through breathwork in our Peak Flow podcast (link). In addition to his global breath coaching work, McKeown is also a prolific speaker and writer – over the past decade, he has produced more than a dozen books, manuals, and pamphlets extolling breathwork’s benefits. That said, The Oxygen Advantage remains his opus, deftly integrating history, science, professional case studies, and personal anecdotes to make a profound “hands on” case for the potential power of breathwork as a transformative force in Human life.
The Oxygen Advantage is worth a close read, given its comprehensive content. Part I explores “The Secret Of Breath;” Part II unveils “The Secret of Fitness;” Part III uncovers “The Secret of Health;” and Part IV lays out “Your Oxygen Advantage Program.” To whet your appetite, here are ten revelations to consider as you consider cracking open McKeown’s book and beginning (or continuing!) your own journey towards better breathing:
1. The Oxygen Paradox: Begin by demystifying a central misconception about breathing – deep breaths, McKeown asserts, are the WRONG way to go about optimizing oxygen deployment to our brains and bodies.
2. Shut Your Mouth; The Nose Knows: Instead of breathing through your mouth (Nestor’s Breath book claims 90% of Humans mistakenly do so), shift your breathing to your nose to take advantage of nasal breathing’s myriad benefits.
3. Breathe Light to Breathe Right: Breathing light, slow, and deep (taking nasal diaphragmatic breaths) is the key protocol forming the foundation of breathwork as a health and wellness optimization strategy. Begin, McKeown explains, with taping your mouth when you sleep at night, to retrain your body to breathe through your nose instead of your mouth. Within a week, McKeown suggests, you’ll achieve better sleep and better overall health by adopting this simple but powerful protocol.
4. Sapiens’ Secrets: McKeown takes us on a quick historical trip, pointing out that Humans have known for millennia that nasal breathing is the key to surviving and thriving on our beautiful planet. Indigenous peoples and religious traditions the world over have long emphasized breathing light, from the nose to the diaphragm, an ancient evolutionary practice we post-modern Humans have forgotten in our fast-paced and stress-heavy world.
5. Gaining The Edge, Naturally: For fitness lovers, the Oxygen Advantage protocols combine light, slow, and deep/diaphragmatic (LSD) breathing with a series of breath hold protocols (OA) to increase red blood cell count, improve blood oxygen carrying capacity, goose up VO2 max, and extend endurance across a wide range of athletic endeavors.
6. Bringing the Mountain To You: Key to building endurance via breathwork is increasing the body’s red blood cell count using regular breath holding exercises – a protocol we breathwork wonks call Intermittent Hypoxic Hypercapnic Training (IHHT). Imagine adding breath holds while walking, trekking, biking, running, or playing any team sport, gradually increasing your Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT) measurement, a useful indicator of overall endurance.
7. Finding The Zone: Like Peak Flow, Patrick draws on psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi’s decades of work on “flow,” exploring how breathwork can move any Human into “the zone” – heightening attention and focus and bringing us into a more calm and alert state.
8. Weight Loss Via Breathwork: Believe it or not, strategic breathwork suppresses the appetite and optimizes weight loss over time. No joke!
9. Breathwork and Our Hearts: Science is revealing what Patrick has been preaching for years now – our breathing and our heart health are intimately interconnected, courtesy of our nervous system, the remote control to wellness. Breathing light, slow, and deep, and incorporating breath holds into your fitness regimen, helps increase heart rate variability (HRV), and science now has the tools to measure this relationship.
10. Long Term Health and Longevity: Strategic breathwork is fundamental to living longer and healthier. Natch!
Thanks to breathwork pioneer Patrick McKeown for sharing his years of wisdom with the world. For any Human interested in how to apply strategic breathing to optimize health and fitness, The Oxygen Advantage is a must for your library. Read it closely, and flow, on!
PART 2: Review of The Breathing Cure
Breathwork pioneer Patrick McKeown’s new book The Breathing Cure is a tour de force, one of the most important breathing books yet written. The book’s subtitle – “Exercises To Develop New Breathing Habits For A Longer, Happier, and Healthier Life” – doesn’t begin to do justice to The Breathing Cure (although McKeown does provide 75 pages worth of breathing protocols for health, sport, and purpose). Topics covered include asthma, COVID, diabetes, epilepsy, exercise, high blood pressure, insomnia, panic disorder, sleep apnea, snoring, and, on happier notes, mindset, commitment, intimacy, sex, resilience, fitness, and mindfulness.
“I was surprised to learn what a large percentage of us are living with hidden breathing dysfunctions that wreak havoc on our health, sleep, and performance,” writes surfing legend Laird Hamilton in The Breathing Cure’s introduction. “If breathing and breath are the essence of life, and it is meant to be intuitive, then how do we find our way back to the basics?” The Breathing Cure shows us the way. For any Human interested in a deep dive into the hows and whys of breathing, this is a “must read” book.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ve provided ten takeaways below to provide useful starting points for conversation and exploration. In doing so, we’re building on our previous post reviewing Patrick McKeown’s Oxygen Advantage.
Ten Breathing Takeaways from The Breathing Cure
1. LSD Breathing: Light (Biochemical), Slow (Cadence/Tempo) and Deep (Biomechanics) breathing – the three basic ingredients of the Human breath.
2. Breathing: The Nose Knows: Nasal breathing offers at least 30 benefits that mouth breathing does not – including slowing, cleaning, warming, and humidifying incoming air; maintaining enhanced lung capacity and residual volume (air left in our lungs after exhaling); and generating Nitric Oxide (NO), the potent anti-viral/anti-bacterial “magic molecule” responsible for opening up (“vasodilating”) our respiratory and circulatory systems. McKeown addresses a common question – “shouldn’t we breathe IN through the nose, and OUT through the mouth?” – with an emphatic “no,” noting that exhaling through the mouth results in both heat and water loss. The nose knows!
3. Breathing and the Heart-Breath-Brain (HBB) connection: Our vagus nerve (the tenth cranial nerve or CN X) runs from our necks down into our bodies, wrapping all of our major organs with nerve networks and providing “two-way flows of data,” McKeown observes, “the building blocks for feedback loops in which information from the brain impacts the physical systems of the body and vice versa.” Optimal breathing provides myriad benefits, including stimulating our vagus nerve and nervous system; strengthening our diaphragm (our body’s most important breathing muscle); balancing our autonomic nervous system (ANS -aiming for a homeostatic balance that calibrates our sympathetic “fight, flight, or fright” system with our parasympathetic “rest and digest” system); reducing stress, inflammation, and illness; building our baroreflex – homeostatic function tied to our blood pressure; strengthening our immune system; and increasing our heart rate variability (HRV), the measurement of our heart’s ability to quickly adapt to our ever-changing environment. With a nod to Wim Hof, McKeown also celebrates cold water immersion as an HBB hormetic tool, especially when combined with strategic breathwork.
4. Breathing and Functional Movement: Functional breathing is directly tied to functional movement. Beyond simplistic celebrations of the “core” as a set of muscles to be regularly tightened, optimal breathing contributes to core and respiratory stability and balance by hormetically optimizing a variety of muscles and anatomical systems responsible for moving us through our day. “Strength starts with breath,” writes McKeown, quoting Original Strength co-founder Tim Anderson at chapter’s end. “Proper breathing literally strengthens the body from the center out.”
5. Breathing and Pain: McKeown devotes an entire chapter of The Breathing Cure to exploring the impact of suboptimal breathing on the body. “Pain is a sign of dysfunction,” he explains, and “over time, poor breathing patterns create faulty movement patterns that lead to pain and injury in our muscles, tendons, and joints.” Back, neck, and temporomandibular joint pain can all be traced to poor breathing, while optimal breathwork enhances our potential for proprioception, a beautiful biological concept describing our awareness of how we breathe and move through time and space.
6. Breathing and Sleep: McKeown observes that proper “sleep hygiene” begins and ends with breathing. For millions of Humans, including McKeown himself, applying a strip of mouth tape during sleep to encourage nasal breathing at night is the first and most important step to optimizing our breathing, and thus, our overall health and wellness. Mouth breathing, meanwhile, is directly tied to a host of ailments, including insomnia, sleep apnea, and general fatigue. We spend 1/3 of our lives at rest – so nasal breathing during sleep is critical.
7. Breathing and Babies: In his beautiful book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, author James Nestor shares the story of the indigenous Great Plains Mandan people, who carefully monitored their infants’ breathing habits to ensure nose breathing from an early age. We post-modern Humans, McKeown observes in his chapter entitled “Developing Healthy Airways In Children,” must do the same, coaching our little ones in healthy breathing habits. He even provides a “motivations” list. Listen up, kids! Nasal breathing makes you a) more intelligent, b) more fit, c) a better sleeper, and d) best yet – you’ll avoid crooked teeth and bad breath (good news to anxious tweenagers everywhere.)
8. Breathing and Blood Pressure: The baroreflex, mentioned in #3 above, helps explain the direct neurophysiological links between breathing and blood pressure. “The primary role of the heart is to distribute the oxygen brought into the lungs during inhalation, and to bring carbon dioxide back to the lungs where the excess can be breathed out,” explains McKeown. “The good news is that it is actually fairly straightforward to ensure that your heart stays healthy, simply be eating a sensible diet, maintaining a moderate exercise regime, and learning to breathe correctly.”
9. Breathing and Sex: Oh yes, optimal breathing helps support optimal sex. “Healthy breathing provides the energy for sex,” explains McKeown, “In the same way that it supports overall health, improves sleep, and reduces strength and anxiety, the breath can directly and indirectly affect sexual function and sexual pleasure.” As the ancients have long known, “orgasmic breath” enhances emotional and physical intimacy, and The Breathing Cure offers exercises for how to do so. (No spoiler alerts here – get the book!)
10. Breathing and Women: In one of the book’s most useful chapters, McKeown explores how women breathe differently than men, including sections on breathing as it relates to menstruation, fibromyalgia, infertility, pregnancy, menopause, and hormonal imbalance. We at Peak Flow offer special breathwork programs to support women in various life stages – feel free to be in touch if we can help in any way.
At a crucial moment for our Human species, The Breathing Cure is a vital resource, and we at Peak Flow are honored to work directly with Patrick McKeown via our Peak Flow Advisory Board and our training programs.
Go forth and breathe, Team Human – join the breathwork revolution. Together, we are finding the Cure!