Deep Breaths to Deep Learning: The Future of Breathing


Breathing is an imperative bodily function and yet it is so much more than that. Internet-fueled wellness culture propounds the benefits of ‘conscious breathing’ for physical and mental health, however, 9 in 10 people globally now breathe polluted air. At this paradoxical convergence of personal prioritisation (self-care culture) and global crisis (air pollution), how will our relationship with breathing itself change?

by Becky Willoughby

Deep Breathing

“Breathe Motherfucker!” goes the rally cry of Dutch extreme athlete, Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman”, for his ability to withstand extreme cold; a feat which he largely attributes to his ‘Wim Hof Breathing Techniques.’

‘Conscious breathing’ (i.e. awareness of your breathing and developing techniques to improve it) was a key wellness trend in 2018 and Wim Hof is just one example of how the act of breathing itself has become currency in the experience economy. In short: deep breaths are big business. And Wim Hof’s particular brand of breathing is an industry, encompassing everything from video courses, books, t-shirts (you are invited to “promote the power of oxygen” by purchasing your very own “Breathe Motherfucker!” t-shirt) and even ‘how to breathe’ holidays with the Hof himself.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with instructing people on how to breathe properly –   the health benefits are scientifically supported and well-documented – but the lack of correlation between encouraging everyone to take deep breaths during a time of rapidly decreasing air quality is so startling in its irony that it deserves a place on a Wim Hof-style t-shirt: “Breathe and you’re f*cked!” An assertion with which the residents of Santa Gertrudes, a small town 175 miles west of Sao Paulo may likely agree with.

The town had the worst outdoor (or ‘ambient’) air pollution of any Brazilian jurisdiction listed in the World Health Organisation’sAmbient Air Pollution Database, with many residents caught in a “catch 22” situation: the pollution arises from the industry on which their livelihoods depend and yet many report it makes them sick:


“When it comes to air, there’s nothing you can do. You cannot stop breathing.”


Placed in the context, then, of Santa Gertrudes, the ability to practice ‘conscious breathing’ is at best something of a luxury and at worst, an insult. Brazil’s Ministry of Health reports that 49,000 Brazilians die from air quality-related illnesses every year.

Extolling the benefits and importance of breathing properly is not a new concept. Prominent Zen Priest, Kodo Sawaki, introduced the importance of breathing into the lives of the masses in the early 20th Century from a perspective that was decidedly more all encompassing: “Our exhalation is that of the entire universe. Our inhalation is that of the entire universe.”

We are what we breathe in and “Breathfulness” is increasingly replacing Mindfulness as the key fitness trend. Where Mindfulness focuses on being present in the moment to help reduce stress and improve memory and concentration, Breathfulness focuses on how we breathe and the impact this has on our physical and emotional wellbeing. In recognition of the ‘how’ we breathe, the ‘what’ we breathe still remains, at best, adjunct, which when considered in the context of  a recent study carried out by MIT  ,that has determined higher levels of pollution is associated with a decrease in a person’s happiness levels (emotional wellbeing), seems to be a baffling omission to not routinely marry the two factors.

The study, led by Siqi Zheng from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate and published in the Nature Human Behaviour Journal, measured daily happiness levels in different cities in China by applying a machine-learning algorithm to analyse geotagged tweets. The algorithm was machine-trained to measure the ‘sentiment’ of each post and calculate the median value for that particular city, on a specific day. The researchers then merged their findings with weather data and found a significant correlation between pollution and unhappiness. In addition, according to Zheng, air pollution also has wider impacts on people’s lives and behaviour, including air pollution avoidance; moving to cleaner cities, spending more time indoors and buying protective equipment such as face masks and air purifiers, for example.


Zheng comments: “People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions.” Irrational decisions, like, say, scaling a glacier in a pair of shorts, like HOF the Ice Man? Perhaps. But considering 68% of the world’s global population will live in cities by 2050 (Source: United Nations) it’s reasonable to assume people will be searching for more down to earth solutions that allow them to go about their daily business safely whilst taking care of their wellbeing; perhaps amending the idea that ‘conscious breathing’ is simply a physical technique to be employed by the person and updating it to include a bespoke combination of personal technique and personal choice over technology and products to improve the quality of the air we breathe in deeply, or otherwise.


Respiration as Inspiration

In recognition of a multi-faceted approach to the future of breathing, Durham University and University of Bristol’s ‘Catch Your Breath’ exhibition(arising from their joint ‘Life of Breath’ research project) explores the idea that breathing is far more than a marker, and facilitator of, health, but a conduit to communication, creativity, and beyond. The exhibition explores our relationship to the act of breathing over time. In part two of our ‘Deep Breaths to Deep Learning: The Future of Breathing’ series, we will explore the emerging trend of “Respiration as Inspiration”(as identified in the ‘Catch Your Breath’ exhibition), from the perspective of transformative technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and their impact on the future of breathing.

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