Last night, world-famous magician and endurance artist David Blaine taught me how to hold my breath.
For four months, David held the Guinness world record for oxygen-assisted static apnea (holding your breath after breathing pure oxygen): 17 minutes and 4.4 seconds. His record was then surpassed by Tom Sietas on September 19, 2008. David’s record for doing what I’ll describe is between 7 and 8 minutes.
I was born premature and, unlike David, I couldn’t then remember the last time I held my breath for more than one minute. It has always been my physiological Achilles heel.
What were the results of his training?
My first baseline test: 40 seconds.
15 minutes later: 3 minutes and 33 seconds (!!!).
Out of roughly 12 TEDMED attendees he also taught, all but one beat Harry Houdini’s lifelong record of 3 minutes and 30 seconds. One woman held her breath for more than 5 minutes. Here is a photograph of the session. I’m sitting in the vest, four people to the right of Roni Zeiger, MD, Google Health product manager.
Here’s how we did it…
The David Blaine Method
DISCLAIMER: THIS IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. DO NOT ATTEMPT IN WATER OR WITHOUT PROPER SUPERVISION.
First and foremost, this is not a joke. David himself has almost died on several occasions. See 2:15 forward for a warning:
Moving onward to the method, which we did seated.
These notes were taken on a scrap of paper while performing the exercises. Much of it was written after I lost almost all sensation in my hands following the purging exercises, and after colors began to morph. After 3:20–I really, really wanted to beat Houdini’s record–I was shaking. Needless to say, this means these cliff notes are a bit shaky and may not be 100% accurate.
FYI, the above side-effects are common.
Deep breathing: “Deep breathing” involves taking a big breath in through the mouth, holding for one second, and then exhaling for 10 seconds through your mouth through your almost-closed mouth with tongue pressed against your lower teeth. It should be a hissing exhalation and make a “tsssssss…” sound. All breathing and exercises are performed though the mouth.
Purging: “Purging” involves a strong exhalation as if you were trying to blow a toy sailboat across a pool, followed by a big but faster inhalation. David’s cheeks were puffed out as he demonstrated the exhalation (imagine the big bad wolf blowing the pigs’ homes down). Be careful not to heave or rock back and forth, which wastes oxygen. Keep as still as possible.
Semi-purging: Breathing between the above two. More forceful than deep breathing but less forceful than full purging. Used for recovering after each time trial.
1:30 deep breathing
1:15 purging (if you feel like you’re going to pass out, do it less intensely)
Hold breath for target 1:30, no more
Take 3 semi-purge breaths
1:30 deep breathing
Hold breath for target 2:30, no more
Take 3 semi-purge breaths
2:00 deep breathing
Hold breath for as long as possible
Take 3-10 hard semi-purge breaths until your recover
David’s record using the above method: 7:47. His heart rate dropped below 20 beats per minute
He had us move our right index finger slightly every 30 seconds or so while holding our breath to indicate we were alright. More motion would waste O2.
He also suggested, and this was incredibly useful, going from A to Z in your head during time trials, visualizing a friend for each letter whose name starts with that letter. Use celebrities or historical figures when needed. This serves to distract you from the fact that you’re holding your breath.
If you continually check your time, it seems you hold your breath for less time. It is the opposite of the above. Too much focus on the time creates tension. All of the test subjects, myself included, had a harder time holding their breath when David announced the time every 5 seconds vs. 30 seconds. If I do this a second time, I will have someone else watch the time for me.
Do not let any air out whatsoever after taking your big inhalations for the time trials. This is important protective training for water-based breath holding. Why? If you pass out in the water (not good), you want the uncontrolled release of bubbles to indicate to those supervising that you’ve passed out.
It is easier to hold your breath if you haven’t eaten for 4-6 hours. It is also easier to hold your breath if you have less body mass to support. David will purposefully lose 30+ pounds during serious training to improve his lung-to-body volume ratio.
I’ve finally met someone who screws with their body as much as I screw with mine. There are some incredible possibilities.
Would you like to see more on this blog with David Blaine? If so, follow him here on Twitter to let us know. He has a hell of lot to teach, and I’d enjoy more body hacking and mischief.