Former NFL player Brian Peters put the ‘CoLab’ in collaborative at Friday’s session on breath mastery at the GoPro Mountain Games.
The undrafted Ohioan — who earned his stripes first at Northwestern University before brief stints in the Arena, United and Canadian football leagues opened doors with the Minnesota Vikings and Houston Texans — didn’t even use free Celsius as bait to lure spectators onto the Solaris Plaza stage.
His free giveaway was a three-minute, 38-degree ice bath.
“The outdoors and the Mountain Games is truly special because people know how they feel outside,” he said to open his hour-long presentation. Temperature extremes, he explained, are a tool for re-grounding one’s sense of feeling; a means of tuning into the breathing process and all of its physiological, hormonal and psychological implications.
“The ice tub is forced meditation for me,” he continued. “I’m not thinking about my email, to-do-list, what people think of me – I’m worried about controlling myself in this stressful environment. Most people, once they learn how to use their breath, they’ll never forget it.”
Support Local Journalism
The 34-year-old discovered breath work himself while playing for the Texans from 2015-2018.
“And I found it in a really weird way,” he recalled.
He hopped into one of the club’s sensory deprivation float tanks, a newfangled method for restricted environmental stimulation therapy.
“I got in there and freaked out,” he said of the silent, dark chamber. To calm himself, he started holding his breath. He became obsessed with improvement. The Google rabbit trail of deep sea divers’ techniques taught the 6-foot-4-inch linebacker to hold his breath for four minutes. As he progressed, he started to notice other athletes breathing louder and more efficient and viewed their flailing as blood in the water. He now teaches his techniques to military personnel operating at altitude.
“A lot of people come up to altitude and they’re a victim of their physiology of the body trying to catch up to the oxygen that’s spread farther apart,” he said, noting his message is for both elite athletes and everyday individuals — especially active outdoor lovers living in the mountains.
“Your breath is with you every step of the way,” he said.
“Every breath is helping or hurting you, as a human. You can learn tools to get control of yourself — in sports, but also environments like this.”
Peters centered his interactive lecture on the body’s constant toggling between its ‘flight and fight’ or ‘rest and digest’ language.
“When you start to learn what’s happening with each breath, you can calm yourself or you can get jacked up,” he explained.
“Every human wants more control over themselves. Uncertainty and the chaos of life — I think any human that has a relationship with stress would want to handle that better.”
Whether it’s reading a negative email or preparing for competition, Peters believes breath work is “a tool to change states” via down-regulation or up-regulation. He divides the breath into a language — “so you know who’s talking” — and as a remote control – “so you know what to do.” According to the 2013 Grey Cup champion, understanding the first three parts of the language and the control can make sense of the entire breath world, from yoga to meditation, to wim hof and holotropic breathing.
“They’re just playing with your cellular response to breathing,” he said.
Peters then quickly explained how breathing in through the nose and mouth sends different tones to the brain stem. Through the nose is parasympathetic.
“Rest, digest, recover — that’s the tone; it’s a down-regulator,” he said. Breathing through the mouth is the opposite, preferred for fighting and intense exercise. If one is not engaged in such primal activities, the nose is better because, as Peters stated, it isn’t just an air passageway. For the sake of time, he didn’t dive too much into all of the science behind the “28 advantages” nose-breathing provides.
Peters also discussed the importance of deep breathing, pointing out how mouth-breathing process tends to begin at the chest, whereas the diaphragm is automatically activated through nose-breathing.
As this writer engaged in some demo exercises along with those gathered in the Mountain House Gear Town, memories of honing in a relaxed throat and diaphragm-based breath while playing trumpet in a college concert band flooded back. Which is to say, accessing a 10-20% increase in oxygen absorption by utilizing the largest surface area of the lungs, as Peters mentioned, is possible through the mouth, too. But, it requires some centered, intentional focus and control. That was perhaps Peters main thesis.
“If I can control my breath, I can control my decision making,” he said. “Controlling the breath is about controlling your life.”
Then, Peters wrapped in eyesight. He cited a statistic stating 91-95% of Americans’ time is spent inside using a narrow focus. As we look at our cell phones or the stir-fry on the stove, our perception is lasered in on one thing.
“Anyone here get super sad looking at a sunset?” he asked to a crowd perched in front of the picturesque Vail Mountain backdrop, contrasting the aforementioned statistic with the idea of a wide lens.
“Peripheral vision is part of the stacking of your physiology that’s happening when you’re outside looking at these beautiful vistas,” he said, encouraging his audience to acquire methods which will prevent triggering at every turn.
“You can use this whole language at any point of your life: get outside, open up your vision, extend your exhales, breathe in through your nose — you now have tools.”
Meanwhile, back stage, a group of 10 volunteers were waiting to hop in those ice baths.
“If anybody has the courage to hop up in the cold, we’ll get to use these tools in real time,” Peters said. The former pro athlete calls cold-exposure “nature’s coffee.”
“Coffee isn’t an energy driver, it’s an adenosine blocker — it really just keeps you from being tired,” he said. “This actually gives you sustainable alertness and focus and a little bit of energy and dopamine that carries out.”
As pairs got into the tub, each packed with 220 pounds of ice, Peters preached a plan before his daring volunteers slid their ever-important clavicles — important for full blood-vessel constriction — under the nearly frozen water for their allotted time.
“In my world, if you can breathe in an environment, you can own the environment. That’s sports, military, that’s life in general. If I can control my breath, I can control my decision making,” he said before giving a word to frustrated parents of unruly kids everywhere.
“What a lot of people don’t know is when this wind chime of your respiratory rate and your heart rate get out of control, blood flow actually leaves the prefrontal cortext and you become reactive,” he continued.
“Parents and kids, this all applies to you as well. When you start to see your kids get worked up, you can start implementing tools and implementing this language.”
Surprisingly, no one — young or old, male or female — had any visible trouble handling the cold water, until perhaps the final pair. Two young men with a similarly chiseled physique to Peters saddled up to the tubs. Ironically, it was the toughest-looking guy who needed the most hand-holding.
“Trust me, you’re good,” Peters said as he tried to get his pupil’s breath under control with a little ‘I-go, you-go’ synchronized breathing. As he coaxed him into gradually increasing his breathe rate, the young man’s demeanor relaxed.
“Don’t worry about anyone else here,” Peters coached, crouched down next to the tub. It worked.
“The slower you breathe, the safer your brain thinks it is,” he said. “That’s true in all areas of life.”