I have been diligently working on improving my breathing technique since recording a show all about the basics of nasal parasympathetic breathing and improving C02 tolerance, and this episode should help you get started too, as I walk you through an update of my personal experience with this breathing technique.
In the first show about breathing, I explained the starting point of nasal parasympathetic breathing, which is to breathe as minimally as possible, through your nose only at all times, day and night for the rest of your life (with the exception of when you desperately need more air during intense exercise) and talked about the science that dispels the common flawed notion that we want to breathe in as much oxygen as possible in order for our bodies to take in as much oxygen as possible. The truth is, unless you are in the hospital with a serious disease or condition, we actually all have plenty of oxygen in our bloodstream, and many people aren’t even aware of the fact that having a low CO2 tolerance is an indication that your body is doing a poor job delivering oxygen to the working muscles that need it.
In this episode, you’ll hear about what I have noticed from deliberately becoming more conscious of nose breathing during the day, tips for improving C02 tolerance and oxygenation, why overbreathing leaves our body literally gasping for oxygen, and why overbreathing will not help your athletic performance.
When you make attempts to breathe deeply and inhale oxygen, it elicits a stress response rather than a relaxation response. [01:27]
When exercising, of course, you suck in the air that you need. [03:23]
Our blood already has plenty of oxygen, almost all the time. [08:19]
When you are at high altitude, your oxygen level will go down because the body needs to put more oxygen into the muscles and tissues. [11:15]
The greater the carbon dioxide you can tolerate, the more oxygen will be released to working muscles, organs and tissues. [15:40]
You can breathe deeply and lightly at the same time. [19:16]
It is important to learn to breathe through your nose during sleep. [28:20]
- Brad Kearns.com
- Brad’s Shopping page
- The Oxygen Advantage
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- The Breathing Basics Show
- BOHR Effect
- BOLT score
- “Breathe as minimally as possible through your nose only, at all times, for the rest of your life.” (McKeown)
- “True health and inner peace occurs when breathing is quiet, effortless, soft, through the nose, abdominal, rhythmic and with a gentle pause on the exhale.” (McKeown)
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Hey listeners, this is time for another breather show about breathing. I did a show about breathing the basics of breathing many months ago, and I’ve been diligently working on this. I wanna start my comments with an update on my breathing practice which I’ll remind you was a brand new thing for me. I never thought twice about breathing as a potential way to improve peak performance. I knew about the importance of nasal diaphragmatic breathing to reduce stress levels and daily life, and that breathing through your nose is more efficient and allows access to the energy-rich, lower lobes of the lung when you use the diaphragm and pull nice strong breaths. But I always thought that, uh, taking a deep, deep breath and bringing in as much oxygen as possible was equated with efficient breathing and also de-stressing. And the recent bestselling books.
One is called Breath by James Nester. The other one is called The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown. Uh, both contend with plenty of research supporting this, that when you make attempts to breathe deeply and inhale a bunch of oxygen, it actually elicits the stress response rather than a relaxation response. So I begin my comments with the awesome quote that I think about all the time from Patrick McKeown to simplify this, this whole deal here, this whole breathing practice with the recommendation to breathe as minimally as possible through your nose only at all times for the rest of your life. How about that for an assignment? That especially goes for sleep when we really have to activate that parasympathetic activity through nose breathing and through not over breathing. I had an email comment come back like, wait a second, Brad, what are you talking about?
What about when you’re doing hard exercise? And so remember the quote, breathe as minimally as possible through your nose only at all times for the rest of your life. So when you’re out there pushing yourself hard in a workout and you need to gasp for air, of course, you open your mouth and you suck in as much air as you can in order to recalibrate. So when I’ve finished with my 400 meter race, and I’ve pushed myself to the maximum, of course, my chest is gonna be heaving and I’m sucking in as much oxygen as possible because of the effort that I just made. I have have to now the adjustment that I’ve made is during workouts, during peak performance efforts, I will take as much air as I need to perform. And then I will quickly try to recalibrate back down, down, down, like I’m turning the dial down for the amount of oxygen I’m inhaling until I can recalibrate act to nose breathing only.
So this is particularly relevant when I’m doing, for example, sets of sprinting running technique drills, which are difficult efforts lasting maybe 10, 15 or 20 seconds. And I will initiate these drills, breathing through my nose only, or often holding breath for a portion of an 80 meter sprint. And then trying to breathe a few times through my nose. Now, guess what happens when I’m done with an 80 meter sprint or a difficult 22nd drill? Yes, I have to open my mouth and suck air in, in order to recalibrate. And that’s fine. What I do is take as many big aggressive mouth and nose, of course, inhales. And then I will try to gracefully recalibrate back to closing my mouth and breathing through my nose. And I detail the amazing benefits of nose breathing. One of ’em is that it facilitates nitric oxide production as the air passes through your nasal passage, unlike when you suck in air through your mouth, it also warms filters and humidifies the air.
So it’s much more easily processed in your lungs. I remember a reference to a time when I learned that the hard way. You can look on my Instagram, I’m sprinting up a hill in the desert in Arizona, and it’s a cold morning, and ha whatever portion of the effort as I was working my way up the hill at full speed, full effort. Uh, I started to open my mouth and really suck area. And I was, as I was reaching maximum intensity and something happened where I really burned my lungs and had a traumatic event where I went into a coughing spell for the next 15 or 30 minutes. And it was severe. I mean, I felt like I was going to gag a few times, right. To stop get on my hands and knees and try not to vomit.
Now the desert air in the winter is very dry. The humidity is much lower than I’m accustomed to, and it’s also, uh, pretty cold. So when you mix dry air and cold air and suck large volumes through your mouth, without the filtration system offered by your nose, boy, you can get yourself into a really memorable experience about the benefits of nose breathing. So if we can start out with that objective of just keeping that mouth closed. Mouths are for talking. Noses are for breathing. Let that be our mantra as we go through life and realize and acknowledge that when we get up to high intensity exercise, we’re going to be using the mouth on an as needed basis, but not on a default basis unconsciously. So yes, my workouts are now looking quite different when I’m exercising at a comfortable heart rate, my mouth is closed.
And then when I start getting into it, my mouth is closed for a certain portion of the effort and then it opens up and then it closes back up. And boy, the, the performance benefits are touted and clearly explained in the science that you can get into in the afore mentioned books. I can’t sit here and say that I’m a magnificent, improved athlete because my breathing has improved, but my results as quantified by the breathing tests that I’ll talk about shortly, have, have improved tremendously. So I’m doing something right, and it certainly feels a whole lot better than a couple years ago when I was getting back into performing longer intervals on the track and had new numerous bouts of sort of panic breathing at the end of a longer interval, let’s say 300 meters or 400 meters where I’m running hard, I’m running hard. And then when I crossed the finish line, I had trouble catching my breath. I felt like I was gonna pass out and I was kind of moaning and pulling this air in, in, in a panic mode, like,
Like that. So that doesn’t happen anymore. And so now, like my performance limit is back to, uh, the lactic acid buildup in my legs, or what have you, my ability to generate power. So I think that’s been an improvement, not only due to the breathing practice, but also getting in better shape. But it definitely is been a worthwhile I’m committed to it long term. The science is so compelling, especially as breathing relates to stress management, but also that idea that the nose is doing a wonderful job preparing the air for most efficient use and utilization throughout the body. And then to recap why, which I also talked about in the other show, The Breathing Basics, Let it be known that our blood already has plenty of oxygen, almost all the time, unless we’re in real trouble in the hospital.
And that’s why the nurses walk around with a handy pulse oximeter that they will place on the finger of a patient. And if their oxygen gets too low, then they have to go on oxygen. And all those things that we see with the people who are ill or feeble, but for almost all of us walking around, we are gonna get a blood oxygen saturation score of somewhere between 95 to 99%. Now what’s cool is these things are being widely used. So you can get a pulse oximeter on the internet for 20, 30, 50 bucks. My new Garmin watch that I use for golf yardage has a feature of a pulse Oximeter on there, and you push the button and it reads the sensors through your wrist and it’ll deliver your score. So at the normal breathing rate, unless we’re doing some fun stuff like performing a deliberate breathing exercise, most humans breathe at a rate of around four to six liters of oxygen per minute.
This results in an almost complete oxygen saturation score of 95 to 99 is what you’ll usually find. So in other words, we’re breathing plenty and we’re most likely over breathing rather than dabbling in the exercise of reducing our breathing volume and our breathing rate. But those familiar with yoga meditation, when they ask you to slow down your breathing, it’s a great way to relax and trigger parasympathetic function, as opposed to the over breathing, which is strongly correlated with stress, especially the panic breathing where we’re breathing through mostly through our mouth and taking narrow, shallow panting breaths to kind of hyperventilate, which is that reaction to stress, instead of controlling our ventilation carefully. That’s why it’s so important or so beneficial and helpful to get mindful about your breathing. As you are about to enter into the cold water or do something that’s going to elicit a stress response.
Interestingly, uh, the at blood oxygen saturation level, which is usually 95 to 99 will go down at high altitude. So when I’m in Tahoe and I perform a pulse oximeter or a smart watch test on my blood oxygen, I’ve seen it down 92, 93 and wondering, oh, gee, something is wrong. My blood has less oxygen in it. But actually this is a good reaction to high altitude or changing your altitude, because what’s happening is the, red blood cells. The hemoglobin are less saturated with oxygen because the body needs to dump more of that oxygen into the working muscles and tissues at altitude. Because when you climb upstairs, it’s kind of tough and you get winded really easily. If you’re in a high altitude town and you went up there for ski vacation or summer, you’ll notice right away that basic human activities are more difficult.
So the body’s response, the body’s reaction to that is to lower oxygen saturation and dump more into the muscles and tissues to get a performance advantage or a performance necessity. So now think about that. What if we could call upon on that benefit at any time, such as at sea level and improve the oxygen delivery to tissues and muscles. Yes, of course. We’re gonna get a fantastic performance advantage. Now, just before we delve into that more, I’ll talk about the flip side, which is can we get a performance advantage by breathing really hard and really aggressively to bring more air into our body as we’re running that 400 meters or trying to finish up a CrossFit workout strong or play in pick up basketball, running up and down the court and start to in increase your activity in your lungs to breathe in more oxygen. Here’s a strong assertion by Patrick McKeown and, and others. Over-breathing. That is breathing additional oxygen will not help increase athletic performance quote from McKeown’s book.
It is physiologically impossible to increase the oxygen saturation of the blood in this way, because the blood almost always fully saturated, right? You’re gonna get that reading of 95 to 99%, even when you’re in the midst of, an ambitious workout. Now, if you were getting a blood oxygen reading in the home stretch of the 400 meters, that might be a different story. But generally speaking, we are breathing in plenty of oxygen through our big old mouse and our nose,. And McKeown contends that over breathing, increasing your breathing, would be like pouring more water into a glass that’s already filled to the brim. So, uh, the key to improved performance is not more breathing, but rather more oxygen delivery. So I provided that example of high altitude that you can see in a pulse oximeter reading that your oxygen saturation is going down, meaning the hemoglobin is less bound to oxygen, so it can more freely dump it into the working muscles, organs and tissues.
So we have that kind of backwards, and this is where I got stuck and didn’t pay attention to the emerging breathing concepts until pretty late in the game. Right. I’ve heard about this stuff. I’ve, uh, listen to Brian McKenzie talk about it several years ago, and then slowly tiptoed in that direction. Because I’m thinking this way, Gee, I have enough air almost all the time, right? Even when I’m swimming I’m not really, my performance is not really limited by not getting enough air and swimming is the most difficult sport to obtain enough oxygen. That’s why it’s perfectly acceptable and strategic to open your mouth wide and suck in as much oxygen you can with each breath, but it wasn’t the limiting factor. And of course it, wasn’t the limiting factor when I’m performing, uh, with in land instead of water. Now, getting more oxygen delivery to tissues and organs, that’s where the performance advantage is availed.
And because I didn’t understand that my breathing rate or the oxygen intake was directly correlated with how much oxygen is getting delivered, I was kind of at standstill where I just assumed I breathe in just fine. And so I’m gonna work on other aspects of peak performance looking for performance advantage. But then, and this is not some radical new idea, but this is actually a basic biochemistry, the Bohr effect, and the B O H R effect is what contends or, or demonstrates that the greater carbon dioxide you can tolerate the greater carbon dioxide build up in the bloodstream that you can tolerate, the more oxygen will be released to working muscles, organs, and tissues. And so what happens with carbon dioxide buildup that’s when you are breathing less, rather than breathing more. So getting good and getting comfortable with breathing less oxygen in, will give you this wonderful performance advantage and not sacrifice anything, because we are almost all the time fully saturated with oxygen.
The Bohr effect basically states that carbon dioxide is the key variable that allows the release of oxygen from red blood cells to be metabolized by the body because, and this is in bold highlight it loosens the bond between hemoglobin and oxygen. This is what it facilitates delivery. So, improving our carbon dioxide tolerance is a key peak performance variable. And how do we do that by breathing less frequently. Over breathing is associated with bringing in more oxygen than you need, because you’re almost always full and then exhaling too much carbon dioxide, rather than allowing it to build up in the bloodstream to trigger the bore effect and dump the oxygen away into working muscles, tissues, and organs. Okay. So, by practicing this at all times, going back to the McKeown quote of reducing your breathing at all times, you are going to have a much less stressful experience through life because minimal breathing and increased carbon dioxide tolerance is associated with a activity and controlling that panic response that often comes when we get things get outta hand and we start panting.
Okay. And then of course the athletic performance benefits of delivering more more oxygen are, are profound. But I’m gonna say that we need to trust science on this rather than have this amazing revelation where, where all of a sudden capable of superhuman feeds because our carbon dioxide tolerance improved, it’s not quite there, but I think the nuances are really important such as if you are able to reduce the stress impact of your workout with optimal breathing, then you’re gonna recover faster, and it’s not gonna be such a destructive effect. There’s not gonna so much free radical production and all those things that come when you push your body hard and you are not delivering sufficient oxygen to the working muscles, tissues and organs. So, by breathing lightly at all times, you are now in training for your athletic goals, as well as your stress management goals by simply closing your mouth and allowing the nose to do the work.
And then secondly, and this is the part where I also had to have a breakthrough in my understanding, forgetting about this idea of breathing super deep and high volume breaths. And we talk about breathing deeply to efficiently use the diaphragm, but you can breathe deeply and lightly rather than deeply and let’s say aggressively. So this goes for your meditation exercise, your yoga class and your comfortably paced workouts, where you can just go along with your mouth closed and do what you gotta do, breathe as needed, but forget about this idea of getting stronger and more powerful lungs to suck in more oxygen. It’s simply not aligned with the science of athletic performance and human physiology. Okay. So to track your progress, and I’m so happy to update that my BOLT score, this stands for body oxygen level test.
It’s a way of determining your carbon dioxide tolerance. It has gone from pathetic in the very much needs to improve category when I first started up to the superior. And so 20 seconds is kind of the threshold to show competency with carbon dioxide tolerance, and 40 seconds is regarded as outstanding by McKeown and others. And so when I first started and did my first BOLT test, I could barely make it to 20 seconds. And in the book, The Oxygen Advantage, McKeown talks about how he’s come across many athletes who perform very poorly with the BOLT score, despite being at a high fitness level. And this is possibly because we’re very practiced at over breathing when we’re doing our workouts and opening our mouth and sucking in as much air as possible. So with devoted practice over perhaps a year or more time, and it’s not anything that’s disturbing my life, I’m not as dedicating you know, many minutes every single day to do this.
I just do it, casually and randomly, whenever I feel like it, when I’m sitting down relaxing in the evening or any other time, I just grab my phone and time myself. But the way to perform the BOLT test is to breathe regularly for several cycles and then exhale gently, but exhale all the air out and then pinch your nose and then sit there comfortably, wait until you have a significant urge to breathe. So it’s not a challenge to see who might pass out because they’re so badass at holding their breath, but it’s actually holding your exhaled breath in a comfortable way. And then pretty soon there’s gonna be some tension building up. So it’s not about willpower or increased or pain tolerance. It is just noticing when some significant tension builds up that you really want to take a breath. And a lot of times what will happen is you’ll get sort of a reflex, like a swallow will happen in your throat.
And that’s showing that the seconds are counting down and you’re sure gonna need to pull in a breath pretty soon. So you don’t wanna to game the test by pushing yourself and pushing past the point where you have just that mild discomfort in order to take a breath. How do you know that you’ll perform this test appropriately? Is that initial breath that you require will not be this big, crazy breath like we’re familiar with when we have a breath holding contest. So I’m gonna be exhaling all my air pinching, my nose closed. And then at a certain time on the watch, I will regain breathing and, and it sounds something like,
And then that’s one sound I made one breath cycle, and then the rest of it’s back to really gentle nasal breathings. So you should be able to get back to gentle nasal breathing after a single elevated nasal breathing at the end of your BOLT test. And so again, I could barely make it to 20 seconds and now I can routinely hit 40 seconds. I might be pushing that a little bit when I’m looking at the stopwatch and has 36, and I wanna get up to 40 to get in the outstanding category, but, I’m not, uh, gaming the system because my initial breath is okay. And sometimes I’ll screw up and I’ll go too long and I’ll need a big breath or I’ll need two breaths. And I’ll be like, all right, well, you know, the stopwatch said 40, but I’m really thinking that that BOLT score was probably a 35.
So that’s the BOLT test. You can also do the CO2 exhalation test. And this is one where you can go for it and do the best you can and challenge yourself, without having that nuance of wondering if you perform the test appropriately. And so the carbon dioxide exhale test is where you take a maximum inhalation. So you spend a few breath cycles, really doing some deep breathing, expanding your diaphragm, and inhaling all the way to have the lungs fully expanded. And then with a full chest of air, you exhale really slowly and try to preserve or extend that exhale for as long as possible. And so what it’s gonna sound like, I make kind of a whistling sound out my nose, with this gentle exhale. So air’s coming out all times. You’re not allowed to pause your exhale. So it’s a full inhale and then a sustained exhale. So let me make a little sound effect for you, so where I’m fully inhaling. Okay. So you heard that exhale going, going, there’s a noise coming out of my nose and that will continue, continue. And as you get toward the end of your, uh, tolerance what’s gonna happen is it’s gonna be hard to hang on to the sustained exhale. You’re gonna want to either reach for a big in hail, or you’re gonna stop. And that’ll be the end of your test. So when I get near the end, it more sounds like,
Right, I’m still on the exhale pattern, but I’m getting at the end of my rope. And so I’m, Mmm. And then I’m done
Back to a big inhale and back to normal breathing, and then looking at the stopwatch and those have a whole another category of needs to improve satisfactory and outstanding. I believe over 60 seconds of a sustained exhale is in the outstanding category. Maybe it, and minute 20 is in the outstanding category. So how do you improve your carbon dioxide tolerance and your as represented by improved test scores? One is to perform the tests on a regular basis. So again, I, haven’t trained hard for this objective, but over time I’ve noticed just a gradual gentle improvement in my score. And of course the absence of the panic breathing at my hard track workouts is a wonderful benefit as well.
And you can also do an assortment of advanced exercises. There’s these are detailed in the books where, you know, you’re out on a workout and you’re going to exhale and then keep jogging for a number of stride counts. Like, see if you can make it to 10 strides, 20 strides and continue to progress during your workouts. Now, this can be fun if you’re super motivated, but I don’t want you to yourself too hard and kind of get sick of this or get annoyed by the by the strategy. Uh, my friend Dave Kobine, loves his morning, runs on the beach, former podcast guest, devoted podcast listener. And he was, you know, dabbling with the nose breathing. And he says, you know what, when I’m out there enjoying my jog on the beach, I don’t wanna be bothered with some peak performance tactic.
It’s kind of annoying. And I know a lot of people are annoyed, especially at first, when you close your mouth and start breathing through your nose, there’s a lot of snot flying around in the air and it gets to be a hassle. But what it does do is it’ll keep you honest on your pace, especially if you’re trying to maintain an aerobic pace with your math heart rate of 180 minus your age, because typically it’s correlated nose breathing or your, the limit of your ability to breathe entirely through your nose as you exercise is strongly correlated with your maximum aerobic function heart rate. Now, interestingly for me, my increased competency with breathing, allows me to continue to nasal breathe beyond my MAF heart rate. And that’s never happened before. And I’ve been doing this for, uh, over 20 years where I’ve tried nasal breathing, especially if I didn’t bring my heart rate monitor along.
It’s a great way to regulate the pace of your workout. But I’ve noticed over many years, uh, that strong correlation between, if you need to open your mouth, guess what? For me, that means I’m exceeding 130 heartbeats a minute. And, um, so that’s a great way to calibrate your aerobic workouts nicely, but it does take some experience. If you find difficulty with opening up those passage ways appropriately, you can use the nasal strips. Those are really good for evening, because again, the evening is the single most important time to emphasize nasal breathing because you wanna get that nice exchange of nitric oxide in the evening warm filter and humidify the air that goes into your lungs. And this will facilitate parasympathetic activity when you need it most when you’re sleeping. And so if you have a problem breathing through your nose during sleep, this is strongly correlated with poor sleep habits, sleep apnea.
That’s why they’re testing people in the sleep labs and, and prescribing them with the CPAP machine, because it facilitates nasal breathing at night. So you want to get that handled no matter what. And I find the nasal strips really helpful and apply them. Most evenings. I try to do it on an as needed basis, as I don’t wanna be kind of dependent on it. But it really doesn’t ensure that my mouth is, uh, not used for the duration of the evening. And sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night or at some point, long after I’ve gone to bed, realize that one of my nostrils has become plugged, and I’ll try to turn over and activate the other nostril sleeping on my side, or just throw the nasal strip on. I think they’re especially important when you’re traveling and in a new environment, cuz a lot of times we require an adjustment period to get used to the, the dry desert air or the altitude air or the hotel room air or something changes.
And I, I don’t quite know what it is as far are as the allergens in the environment, you know, how it takes a while to get used to a new environment. And so, trying out those breathing strips and then if you do have trouble during aerobic exercise, breathing through your nose because of excess, um, uh, fluid buildup or, or one nostril stuffy or something, apply the nasal strip and do the comfortable workout, Bryan McKenzie cautions us against using those things when you’re doing the higher intensity exercise. Because as you open up your nasal passageway, you have a tendency or a potential to kind of burn the sinus out, uh, by pulling in too much air, more air than you’re normally capable of without those nostrils. So open, but I’ll tell you, I do finish my 400 meter sprint or whatever I’m doing something really difficult and I will reach up and physically expand the width of my nostrils in order to more quickly recalibrate back to nasals only breathing.
So I’d say that would probably be a better strategy than going to your CrossFit workout, your track workout or something that’s gonna bring in maximum intensity with a strip on there, opening up the passage ways if you’re not used to it yet. Okay. let’s end with a nice quote from Patrick McKeown quote, True health and inner peace occurs when breathing is quiet, effortless, soft, through the nose, abdominal, rhythmic and with a gentle pause on the exhale, especially at night, unless you breathe calmly through your nose at night, you have no idea what it feels like to have a great night’s sleep. This is where the practice of mouth taping has become so popular. I had Mike Mutzel on an early show and he was talking about his enthusiasm for mouth taping at night. And that’s just applying a special strip of tape.
You know, it’s not gonna be like a random strip of electrical tape, but actually 3m a special tape that’s recommended, uh, for comfortable positioning over the mouth. So it serves as an automatic reminder trigger to continue to nose breathe. I haven’t actually tried that because I think generally, the nasal strip does the trick for me. It’s a little scary to imagine going to bed with your mouth taped shut. I might wanna open it to insert a cough drop if I’m, if I’m inclined, but Mike Mutzel, unwitingly, had a great sound bite during our show when he, uh, was talking about the benefits of mouth to taping. And he said, yes, we even regularly tape our seven year old’s mouth shut and I laughed and took him a couple beats and then he laughed too. But anyway, that’s something you can try as you get more advance into this, but we wanna make sure it’s fun, comfortable, and you’re enthusiastic about, uh, continuing to dabble further in your breathing practices, but I’m really happy to report some, some good results and great enjoyment out of the experience and definitely convinced that this is the way to go is to breathe minimally through your nose only at all times for the rest of your life.
So thanks for listening to a breather show about breathing.
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