Today Mark is talking to Kasper van der Meulen (@kaspersfocus), renowned Dutch educator and scientist. Kasper has worked with Wim Hof and is the author of MindLift: Mental Fitness for the Modern Mind. Kasper overcame his own difficulties with weight and smoking to become a better role model for his students through breathing and fitness. Now he offers his Breathwork Masterclass and is a speaker at The Breathing Festival from the International Center for Breathwork.
- Breath has to do with everything—once we grasp this, then we can be free
- Focusing on WHY you are optimizing your life rather than HOW is more effective
- Using the breath will allow you to unlock your intuition and develop spiritually
Listen to this episode to understand how you can use the breath to optimize your life and lead you to your path of purpose.
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You’ve probably already heard Mark extolling the virtues of the PowerDot to help with recovery. They now have a version 2.0. The PowerDot is an electrical stimulation device that allows you to increase performance, speed up recovery and overall achieve a deeper mind/body connection. Many stim devices can be clumsy and hard to use, but the PowerDot 2.0 achieves simplicity and is very small so you can take it with you when you travel, and it is also integrated with Strava and Apple Health.
Listeners to the podcast, can save by using the code UNBEATABLE20 at checkout for 20% off the regular price of the PowerDot system.
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Hey folks. This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for joining me.
Welcome back. I hope you’re doing well. I’m recording this the first week of January 2021, so happy new year… this probably won’t be released for a few weeks so that may sound like old news, but boy, I tell you what. Getting through 2020 was quite a journey for many of us.
So good job. I know if you’re listening you’ve got an Unbeatable Mind. So you probably sailed through. Although if you’re like me, also, it wasn’t without it’s challenges – requiring us to really, really hunker down into our practices. And go inward and really check in with what’s real and what’s not.
So good job. And we’re going to continue that discussion as per SOP – or standard operating procedure – today with my guest Kasper van der Meulen. It’s going to be an extremely interesting show. So just stay tuned. We’re going to talk about all sorts of things around mental training and breath work and overcoming stress and really going inward to transform your life.
Which as you know, is something I believe is incredibly important for all of us.
Having said all that – and before I bring Kasper on – it really does help us podcasters to have reviews and ratings. And so if you haven’t and you feel inspired – please rate this podcast at iTunes or wherever you listen to it. It just helps other people find it. And Unbeatable Mind podcast is in the top 10.
It’s one of the top ranked podcasts in the health category on iTunes, so I’m pretty humbled by that. We have – I think – over a thousand five-star reviews. So it helps to keep on doing that.
Because that motivates me to keep on doing this, right? It’s not easy, there’s a lot of work involved in podcasting… for those of you who do it – you know.
At any rate, I love it. And I love talking to people like Kasper and having a fun conversation… so Kasper is an author, he’s an adventurer he is committed – like me – to helping people unlock the power of the breath and the mind.
Kasper at one point in his life – and I can’t wait to hear the story in person – was overweight and burned out. And unhappy – wow, imagine that. Like, most of humanity seems to be like that.
And suddenly he turned himself around, and now he’s teaching how to optimize your life. How to really ramp up and biohack – but more importantly go deep into the lifestyle of tapping your full potential as a human being.
This guy has run ultra-marathons in his bare feet… like, what? What’s up with that?
He’s done a ton of stuff and he – like me – has really gone deep on the esoteric side of it… the traditions that really have inspired me like yoga and the breath work of the masters. And also, he worked for Wim Hof… or collaborated with Wim Hof for many years.
So this guy knows his stuff. Kasper, thanks for joining me today. Super-stoked to have you, all the way from holland…
Kasper: Yes. All the way from here. Happy to be on here.
Mark: Yeah, I’m super stoked you made the time. And how are things over there these days? Are you locked down or do you open up? Or what’s the situation?
Kasper: We’re in lockdown. We are locked down. Yes, people are on all kinds of sides of the fence. And I’m just to stay the course.
Mark: Yeah, right. We can’t let ourselves get too drawn into the dramas, right? Because that could be extremely distracting and kind of keeps on amping up the stress meter…
Kasper: That’s for sure.
Mark: Kind of fly the middle path or just stay above it, almost. And recognize there’s always going to be some drama, no matter if it’s a pandemic or some self-induced trauma that we create.
Kasper: That’s very true and I think this is always an important part of doing the inner work. Which is recognizing what is inner and what is outer. What is my external world? And how is my inner world being shaped in relation to the external world?
And it seems that right now people are… on let’s say on a global, generalizing scale… people are more focused on the externals than I’ve ever seen.
Which to me is an incredible opportunity to finally recognize that turning inward and kind of disentangling that… “what is my circle of influence? And how am I kind of effected by the world or how can I have an effect on the world?”
That those things are really now kind of open for researching within ourselves. Finding our own truth.
Mark: For sure. But I honestly think that people have always been externally focused. I mean, that’s generally the human condition, until you learn to look inward. It’s just that they haven’t been externally focused at a cultural and systemic level so much.
They’ve been doing it at more local drama. Their family, their disasters, their business disasters… but because we’re so globally connected now in the past 20 years – and especially with social media – the past five to ten.
And the news cycle is so rapid. And it’s become the VUCA world that everyone can’t ignore anymore. Now they’ve expanded their scope of drama.
Kasper: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And also the scope of drama is so vastly, vastly more like enormous than the part of that that we can actually influence.
Mark: Right, it seems incomprehensible and completely out of control. Whereas yeah people thought they could control their family members – they thought they controlled their businesses – even though they were mistaken…
Kasper: Well it’s interesting – if you look at it, evolutionary biologically – we’re social animals, right? So if you live in a small tribe of 150 people then having gossip and being up on the latest news and knowing everything that goes on in your direct surroundings – everything that you then learn has to do directly with you. Including the weather and including which animal’s walking where, and which tracks your brother has seen. Or whether the chief is okay with his wife.
All of that is vital survival information. And we still have that same brain. Except now we don’t have 150 people tribe in like an enclosed area… now we have the entire world. And it’s a big challenge.
Mark: Yeah, and you started to go someplace I think is really important… and I want to just kind of talk about this a bit and then get back into your life… because we’re so globally connected, we have kind of a new wave of individuals – and I include us both in this and everyone’s listening to my podcast and probably your training… and Wim Hof and whatnot… who are starting to think “you know what? We can have a worldwide impact, right? I don’t have to be constrained in my impact to my 150-person tribe, or just my family, or my business that’s just trying to make profit.”
Like, through our actions, through our consciousness, through our evolution of our consciousness – we can have a global impact to move the world into a more positive place, to counteract some of this negative, and fear, and stress that’s going on. And to help heal the environment. Do you see that? Or do you agree with that?
Kasper: Absolutely. 100%. Yeah, this is something that definitely keeps me going.
I’m used to teaching – I mean, I haven’t spent this much time not traveling and teaching – well, especially traveling – in the last five, six years, since I’ve been on this path. I’ve been traveling non-stop and being in front of people.
But, I mean, the last time I spent more than three months not teaching in front of an audience was when I was like 17 so to me it was like “whoa, what to do now.”
And I decided to just go all in on teaching online and sharing as much as I could. And I could reach people and I still get daily messages of people who are have been helped by my work. And I only have this tiny little pocket of audience compared to a lot of people, of course…
And everybody – this is so amazing, when we start to optimize our own life and we start sharing that, interestingly, always the next step that people take as soon as people realize “oh, I can enhance my life. I can optimize my mind. I can live in a better way.”
And the next step they usually take is to want to start sharing that with the world, right? I think people like you and a lot of the people in our field, they’re really the modern heroes. And they all have their own audience, and our audiences overlap. And together we can literally reach people across…
I mean, I had a guy from New Zealand who was like “thank you so much for putting your breathing session online for free. Like, I’ve been listening to it when I go to the supermarket, because I was too anxious to go out of my house.”
And I was like “whoa, New Zealand…”
Mark: That’s awesome…
Kasper: It’s incredible. I’m very optimistic…
Mark: I agree. I have no idea how many countries listen to the podcast – my podcast – involved in what I do. It’s hard to know, right?
But I do know, in our coach certification program we started two years ago – 400 certified coaches, now. 27 countries. That’s pretty extraordinary.
My friend Brian Johnson runs Optimize and he has a similar kind of lifestyle optimization business. And his coach program I think has 46 countries involved. It’s pretty extraordinary.
Especially considering that I don’t know any other language besides English – unfortunate to say, I know you Europeans generally kind of have a grasp on two or three at least… I have a little grasp on Spanish, but that’s not much use here.
But everyone seems to be able to tap into what we’re doing, regardless of where they are in the world, because it seems like English has now become kind of the default. Which is really nice… for me anyways.
At any rate, so enough on that. Let’s talk about you more. I mentioned in the intro that you were not the way you are now, for a while. So tell us about your early your early influences and kind of what you were doing. And what was the inflection point? Like, what got you out of your rut?
Kasper: Well, I was in pretty bad shape for many phases of my life. It was always ups and downs, but I was struggling with anxiety and I was always the chubby kid in the back of the classroom. I couldn’t sit still; I couldn’t really focus.
I had a lot of issues around panic, and worries, and anxiety – and these types of things. But the turning point was really when – I think it was about seven or eight years ago – I was working as a science teacher in a school at the time.
And I was mainly on a mission to improve the education system. I was really very excited to be a teacher; I wasn’t really planning to be a teacher, but it kind of happened – it’s another long story – but kind of ended up in front of the classroom.
I was working with these kids. And I was like “this is very interesting, because they don’t really know how to learn. And nobody’s really teaching them how to learn. Isn’t it fascinating that we have this amazing machine that is our brain, and we don’t really know how to operate it?”
As a teacher I was thinking it’s strange – to me at least – that as a teacher – as an educator of any sort, you’re basically a brain programmer, but we don’t really learn how brains work as teachers. Most teachers have no idea how a brain works.
And being a science teacher I decided to take a more scientific route and be like okay so what is known about how the brain learns? And how we can improve not just the effectiveness of teaching and learning, but also the joy in this?
And then I found that actually increasing the joy and the fun in learning and the creativity actually improves the effectiveness. Now the reason I’m saying this is because I took this approach to the process in the classroom, but I wasn’t really taking it towards my own life. Because I was really taking this seriously, I was overworking myself. I was taking on way too much.
I was on the verge of my first burnout – I was in very bad shape, I was about 80 pounds heavier than I am now, I smoked a lot, I drank…
And it was a time where I just couldn’t even bear to spend one minute alone with my own mind. I would literally be in bed with a tv on and I would try to like almost fall asleep and then at the last-minute switch it off and fall asleep, so I didn’t spend time listening to my own mental chatter, right?
And what was really an important point for me is that I realized that these kids, they were looking up to me. And I was getting a lot of popularity as a teacher at the time, because I really cared about their experience in my classroom. And I wanted them to have fun. And I was doing all sorts of cool experiments with them.
And I wanted to really find ways to improve the education system at large, but I realized I have to start in my own classroom. And a switch really happened when I realized that I was in a process of using scientific concepts, and data, and studies to create little experiments with my students.
So for example, I would realize “oh, they have a harder time listening sitting still when they have to listen for more than 20 minutes and they’re sitting still. They can’t focus and you get these behavioral problems.”
“so what if I just set a timer and I started working with something very similar to like the pomodoro technique – for example and then after 15 minutes a timer would ring, and we’d all have to get up and walk around the classroom and get the blood flowing. And then they would sit down, and their focus was back.
So I started to get this perspective of “wait. We need to incorporate the body. We need to understand physiology, and from physiology we can create little experiments and interventions that improve our mental state.”
And that was kind of the thing that I was in and I started to realize that I had no idea how to apply that to my own mind. And these kids were looking up to me, and I started to realize that actually my first responsibility should be to get my own health in check. To get my own mind in check.
And from there to start being a role model also in terms of how I appear in front of the classroom. How I keep my own mind right. How I do my own lifestyle. So that was really a turning point to make it a step bigger than myself.
Mark: I love that, because we have that kind of a wake-up call with a lot of the leaders that we coach. That if you want to have any long-term effectiveness and expand your capacity as a leader, you’ve got to lead yourself first.
Mark: Because eventually either you burn out, or people will start to see that you lack the overall integrity – you’re saying one thing and you’re doing another thing. So you got to work on yourself, while you work on your students or with your students.
Kasper: Yeah, absolutely.
Mark: That’s a sea change for a lot of people, because you go from that externally focused, “I’m in this to do this for other people.” And a lot of people even in in service and philanthropy, they’re all doing it for other people. And then their own life is messed up, you know what I mean?
It’s me and we. We got to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others.
Kasper: Exactly and the more you have – in terms of energy and passion – the more you can actually give. And a lot of people sacrifice their own energy. And then they can’t give anymore.
Mark: That’s fascinating. So you first started to experiment with the kids, and then you started to turn the lens back on yourself. So, what did you do? Like what were the some of the strategies you used to turn your own mind around.
Kasper: Well one of the first things – when I was really in a rut, and I was really depressed, and I couldn’t bear being around my own thoughts for a second – was I started getting into meditation and I actually learned it first through self-hypnosis. I went to a hypnotherapist, and I learned all these mental techniques to kind of dissect within my own mind what are these thoughts, and to get a little bit of distance…
And these mind-focused techniques were really helpful to me. But the biggest shift really came when I started to understand my physiology more. And to really look at the state of mind from a physiological perspective.
And one experiment, for example that I ran with my students, was one where I was teaching, and I saw a lot of kids had test anxiety and they had all these issues. So I saw for example a lot of kids with anxiety and with stress. And I was like “well, I know these problems.” And I could recognize them in them, because they were literally hyperventilating in front of my classroom.
And I was like, “wait I’ve been struggling with these issues my whole life. I know how they work. I studied to be a biology teacher – I teach science, I know how catecholamines work… but I’ve never learned to apply physiology and biological understanding to lifestyle interventions.”
I was like “why didn’t I ever do that?” So, for example, one experiment I ran with my students as I realized “they’re in the sympathetic nervous system. They’re stressed, they’ve got adrenaline, cortisol pumping.”
And I read this study that said that mammals – humans – when we see baby mammals, we have a release of a chemical called oxytocin. And it calms us down and it down regulates us out of the sympathetic nervous system. So I was like “wait, that’s interesting.”
So I started, for example, if these kids would have to make a physics test for example they’d come in and have this projector screen in the classroom, and I would have this uh compilation on YouTube of cute kittens and cute puppies playing on the screen.
Mark: (laughing) I thought you were going to say you brought some kittens in.
Kasper: (laughing) I wish, I wish. That would be amazing.
But the first assignment would literally be “stare at these kittens until you relax.”
And they would go “ah, oh. These cute…” and I could see that their Vagus nerve stimulating basically activating. And they would calm down.
And later on I found a study that said “hey, if you slow down your breath you will stimulate the Vagus nerve and calm yourself out of these stressful states.”
So these are some of the ways that I started looking at it. And I had done a bunch of diets before. I had a bunch of different meditation techniques… I tried to get into working out and losing weight, but the whole time it was still me really forcing myself into those things instead of really understanding how they work.
So as soon as I started understanding how they worked, and I realized that my body was chronically stuck in a sympathetic nervous system mode – in a fight/flight state – then I could start to more specifically pinpoint things that would move me out of that state and bring me back.
And funnily enough it had to do with basically overloading my sympathetic system with intense challenges. Like, for example, I started running. I wanted to run barefoot – I set myself a challenge to run a barefoot marathon on an empty stomach.
And I was like “all right, so that means I need to retrain my feet. I need to start working with fasting – with intermittent fasting – and I did a lot of cold training also. Ice baths and cold showers.
And I started to really look at my nervous system as almost like a graph. Every day I would look at the graph of my nervous system and be like “when did I move up? When did I move down? What moved me there? What could move me back?”
So a lot of things that people would consider extreme – like taking ice baths, like doing longer fasts… I tried a lot of different diets, and different meditation techniques and out of all of that I found that the common thread within all of that was basically the breath.
Whatever you do… whatever change is happening in your external environment; your internal environment needs to adapt to that. This is what resilience really is.
And my issues were really a lack of resilience, a lack of adaptability to external circumstances. And the first thing that needs to adapt – and this is what I always say – is the breath. The breath is the first responder of the nervous system.
So as soon as input comes into the system from the outside and you need to either increase or decrease metabolism, you need to either become more active or more calm, you need to be more alert – all of these things they start with a change at a cellular level – so a metabolic change.
And that metabolic change is provided by the breath. So this is really kind of like my path of trying all these different things and then realizing that there are core principles at the source of all of these changes, and all of these lifestyle things. And if we can understand those then we can be free in our choices.
Mark: Yeah, I agree with that. That’s really interesting.
Although I wouldn’t think the breath has much to do with running barefoot. It does have to do with the cold bath, right?
Kasper: Well, in the end, breath has to do with just about anything. I mean, the bare feet was more to add an extra layer of challenge. And also to be more immersed in the experience.
Mark: Right, yeah. I can see that. When I walk on the beach, we walk barefoot. I walk barefoot quite a bit, but I live in San Diego, so it’s a little bit easier for me to do that. It’s beautiful.
Mark: So you went through this huge phase of experimentation. Now, can we get into kind of what you distilled or kind of settled on as some best practices? For things like – and I’m going to draw from my own languaging here – because as you alluded to, breath can create all sorts of both physiological and psychological state changes. As well as long-term breath practices can lead to stage changes, in terms of who you think you are. Like, developmentally conscious awareness shifts.
So what are some of let’s start out with like Mark one motto what I learned in the navy seals around concentration – learning to really control our attention and stay concentrated on our mission until we’re like done. Period. Home. Safe.
That is a technique or a skill that I learned ad nauseam first through my Zen training and then basically in the navy seals.
What is your best practices around that? Because that’s something you already alluded to – you had to get good with kids on, right?
Kasper: Yeah, so focus and staying on track is very much about limiting all the other options. So to have a very, very clear place where you want to put your attention. Attention is a mental state, a mental function – or I should say focus, like focusing your attention is a mental function – it’s very expensive. It costs a lot of energy in the prefrontal lobe.
So we need something to allow us to stay with that. And as soon as something else comes in that might be more interesting, or more dangerous, or more you know… it distracts you. Then it takes a lot of energy to stay with this one thing.
So the mind has this tendency to move ahead or to move back or to move to all of these different places, so we need to have something that anchors us in the here and now, in the present. And of course all the esoteric practices are focused on being in the present.
Now, very practically, I have found that consciously lengthening an exhale is the most powerful way to maintain focus. So to really just have the inhale in any way you want, because the inhale is more of a sympathetic function. And then lengthening the exhale for maybe 10 seconds maybe 20 seconds depending on the situation that you’re in.
So as – and this is the same thing for like running that marathon or taking on challenges – as soon as I would lose the control or the consciousness of what my exhale was doing, I would generally lose focus and I would get sidetracked. So I think that being able to consciously… and there’s a lot of research to this, and the yogis have described this at length of course also…
Controlling your exhale. That’s really where the window of opportunity really lies. To keep your concentration, your attention with whatever it is that you need to do.
Mark: I love that. That synchronizes 100% with some of our teaching around breath control being the first and kind of master practice right. That leads your mind and your body… you lead your body toward de-stressing and toward ultimate balance – homeostatic balance. But it leads your mind toward that kind of focused but also calm state.
Because you can be focused and agitated, and you’ll have less energy over the long haul. But if you can be focused and calm, then you just keep on regenerating your energy.
And this is how running an ultramarathon becomes somewhat easy, once you kind of get this, right? Because it’s one foot in front of the other, inhale, slow exhale – and you’re just regenerating while you’re going, right? Because you’re maintaining that stress response – parasympathetic…
Mark: I love that. And now we I like the mother’s breath – that nice slow exhale is a beautiful breath to bleed off stress. And I’ve never thought of it as a way to maintain concentration, but I could definitely see that working really well.
We use the breath-hold practice of box breathing. Where you are concentrating on the whole pattern – all four patterns – inhale, hold, exhale and hold. And that seems to work really well for us as well.
That’s amazing. So you talked about presence, right? And the propensity to skip to the future or skip to the past. And I honestly don’t think many people in the world are truly present the way we would understand – like the Taoist or the yogis would talk about presence. How do you maintain presence? And how do you teach that?
Kasper: I think presence is a constant practice. It is really recognizing when you’re out of it as often as possible and then kindly, lovingly bringing yourself back to it. In the modern world there’s so many things that move us out of it. And especially now… like we talked about in the beginning, of people being so concerned with all the external opinions and influences and changes… and all of this stuff.
It’s so easy to not be present with yourself at all. And for me presence is very much about building a practice of which I know that is going to allow me to be more present. And the funny thing is – well at least to me – “allowing” is a really important word there. Because I’ve tried for years and years to…
Because I understood the concept. I was like “yes, I’m anxious and I’m worried. And I’m depressed. And that is me not living in the present moment.”
And then there’s this present moment on the other side that apparently, I have to get to. And then I would use this anxious, worried mind to push myself towards the present. Which is this game that costs so much energy. And you can play it your whole life, it doesn’t work.
So instead of making it happen, I learned to focus more on allowing it to happen, letting it happen.
And letting it happen really is first of all about circumstances. So the question is which circumstances do you build into your life, and how do they either allow you or disallow you to be present?
So for example very, very basic things… very simple things that are difficult on a day-to-day is for example not looking at my screens and my social media or anything for the first two hours of the day and the last two hours of the day. To know that I start and end the day with my own mind, on my terms.
This is such an important thing especially if you – like me, like us – work in social media. Because that’s where you reach your audience. And there’s always another question and there’s always something else to do.
So really having a way to start the day where you know this is going to allow my attention to be there with me.
Another one is to understand the physiological state that allows for presence of being. If you are more at rest – so if you’re metabolically more close to a homeostatic rest – which basically means that you’re comfortable, you’re at a place where your body knows it is safe. There’s this internal perception of safety.
Then it’s much more easy to be present. So presence can actually be pointed at as a nervous system state. When your parasympathetic chain is active, it is far easier to be present and as soon as a hint of danger or unsafety comes in you start to look in the corners of your eyes and seek for a way out… or see what is the next threat.
And this is a physiological state. And in my teachings, this is a very important key thing that yes, we have top-down regulation – which means we can take our mind, and we can will our body into a different state.
However, the body is usually more powerful, because the larger part of our autopilot is made out of the body. So if we can bring the body into a state of calmness, of safety, then we can bring our mind to presence. And this is why box breathing – like you just said – is such an amazing example. The people who developed this, they clearly understood that in those cases that these operatives would need to calm their mind.
We can give them all kinds of things to think about. We can give them affirmations. We can give them stuff to say to themselves.
Or we can calm their breath, which gives an immediate perception of safety in the body. The switch from being out of control of breath, to in control of breath is a switch to being completely out of control – which is unsafe too feeling much more safe.
Now as soon as there’s this internal perception of safety, it is much more easy to be like “okay, what’s going on here? Where does my attention really need to go?” To observe yourself in a certain moment.
So breath again is a very important one. Getting the right amount of sleep, getting the right amount of movement… these are really physical things. The right kind of food. These types of things. Very, very physiological based interventions that allow you to be there.
But it’s only if you can really decide to take control over the circumstances. And again you can’t take control over the circumstances of the world. You can’t control the political situation, this virus situation… what you can control is your direct environment, and whether or not you’re going to look at your screen at all of this external information.
Mark: Right. One of the things that’s coming up with me now – which, I think, is again simple, but not easy, but it’s profound, if people can get this – is that most people when they begin to think about “oh, I’ve got to get my control of my life.” They will think about things like exercise, and nutrition, and sleep and all the biohacking.
And as you’re aware that there is some efficacy in that. But if you could flip it, right? And think about regulating your breath, beginning to practice breath control. And to begin to eradicate the negative patterns through mindfulness that are causing you or preventing you from feeling worthy or feeling good enough about going to the gym and not putting that extra cookie in your mouth and staying up to watch that extra movie because – like you said – you just can’t stand being with yourself.
You actually start from the inside out, then you’ll have much more effective time… you’ll be led automatically to change those exteriors. And so then they work together.
And it’s a much quicker process. It’s an acceleration…
Mark: Because it’s more integrated.
Kasper: And it comes from within. And I really like that you said that, because this is really also about the “why” of these things. If you are living in a life where for example you have a corporate job that is really like sucking your soul – I’m not saying all corporate jobs are like this, but I meet a lot of people…
Mark: (laughing) I’ve been there, for sure.
Kasper: Yeah, exactly. And I work with so many like elite professionals and CEOs and people climbing the ladder and they’re asking me to help them hack their energy levels, and their focus, and improve their sleep. And they’re like “I’m anxious,” and all these things.
And I go like, “well, I could take you through this whole program of getting the optimal nutrition, and the optimal breathing practice, and the optimal movement… all this stuff.
But the question is why are you doing it? What are you optimizing your life for? If you are only doing it to be able to perform within – for example – a corporate system that is toxic to you and it makes you unhappy… or you work for a corporation that does something that doesn’t add anything of value to the way that you want to see the world for example. And you don’t really believe in what you’re doing.
Then all of that optimization is only going to make you incrementally better – well it’s going to make you better for sure – but it’s going to make you better at something that makes you miserable. So you’re going to end up in the same spot later on.
Mark: I love that. We call that horizontal development. Where you get better at the skills you already have, but it doesn’t change who you are.
Kasper: Exactly, yeah.
Mark: So that’s okay, but what we want is vertical development where you are, you’re asking better questions and you’re getting better answers. So your “why” shifts and it becomes a much more inclusive “why.” And when people have those paradigm shifts those – transcend and include moments – often times they’re like “well, I’m not even sure why I’m in this job.” It’s like that song – “this is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful car or home.” Like, what am I doing here? Why am I doing this?
So we want to shift and change ourselves, while we become more effective at also doing the things that we need to do.
Mark: That’s powerful. So that’s kind of alluding to or kind of pointing me toward… one of my favorite topics is using breath to really unlock intuition and to develop spiritually. Because when we’re talking about your “why” we’re talking about like Krishna and arjuna’s conversation on the battlefield. Like “why are we doing this?” You have arjuna questioning his life.
That’s spirituality to me. It’s like, getting clear about why we’re on this planet. What our karmic energy is. What our dharma or what our calling is. Nothing to do with… I mean spiritual energy can be enhanced and maybe enlightened through reading scripture, and going to church, and all these things. But it’s really ultimately internally being able to answer those questions with clarity.
Breath and Spirituality
Mark: And so how do we use the breath to open up our intuition and to develop spiritually, from your perspective?
Kasper: Oh that’s such a good question. Yeah, I love this topic because it’s so fascinating.
First of all, not being connected to purpose – not being connected to spirit – is in a way a function of the mind. So as we are born – and I see this in my own daughter – we were born into this world as a Buddha and we’re enlightened, and we’re present, and we don’t even need a purpose yet, because life is just living.
Kasper: At some point we develop layers. And these are layers of protection. Which are completely functional for a very large part of our life.
And these layers are usually behavioral layers that are very much in the mind. So, we have an experience… we interpret that experience from that interpretation… we draw a conclusion about who we are and who we need to be in the world – for example, it starts very simple right? It’s like, you’re a kid, and you throw something, and it falls and then it breaks. And it makes you sad and then you go like “oh, I shouldn’t do that.”
Or you throw something, and it falls, and it breaks, and your dad gets upset, and you’re like “oh, apparently I can make dad upset. I shouldn’t do that.”
Or you throw it, and it falls, and dad gets upset and you go like “hey, I can control dad’s emotions. That’s interesting,” right? So whatever way you have experiences, and you interpret them.
And based on that you decide how to interact with the world. So if you’re very young and for example you learn that your parents are fighting, and if you’re super happy and jolly and perfect then your parents are a bit more balanced. And you feel like “oh, so who I am in this world is I need to be that person that sacrifices themselves for the harmony of other people.” You become a pleaser.
Other people learn to get into the fight or always have to win in order to show that they are alive or that they are worthy. So basically, we condition ourselves – we build conditioning – that gives us a sense of safety.
But that fundamentally moves us away from our truest, deepest, inner truth and inner feeling. So we get this disconnect through conditioning. And this disconnect is from that feeling of purpose and spirituality.
Now this has, of course, been written about in all the ancient scriptures and modern psychology – all of these things. But how does this interact with breath work?
Well, our mind tries to control – our conscious mind, our cognitive thinking – tries to control as many variables as possible in order to keep the old survival systems in check. When we do intense breath work – so this means for example super ventilative practices, where you do very intense breathing and the Wim Hof method has different protocols for that – there’s holotropic breathing, transformational, rebirth…
There’s so many amazing methods for this. We start to increase our breathing pace, which means that we offload a lot of CO2. When we offload CO2, we get vasoconstriction in the extremities, but also in our brain…
What also happens, as soon as you start to speed up the breath, the body and the brain they kind of assume that there is a reason to go into fight and flight, right? So if you have to whatever run a bit run away for a threat, you go into fight and flight. And you start to breathe heavy.
But it also works the other way around. You start to breathe heavy; your body goes into this heightened state. So what we’re now having is a cocktail of effects, where we have basically vasoconstriction – we have less oxygen going to the prefrontal lobe – which is our thinker. Which means that our thinking brain – our logical thinking brain – has to kind of calm down a little bit. Because it’s the most expensive function.
So our mind becomes more quiet, and because we have triggered the sympathetic nervous system our autonomic nervous system needs to become active. And we’re for example working with the fear system, which is part of our limbic system, which is our emotional brain.
So consider that we have this cognitive thinking brain – our rational mind, costs a lot of energy and it almost sits on top of this emotional brain. And it tries to suppress it. So our inhibitions live in our conscious mind.
So with our conscious mind we try to control life, “I’m this person, and I identify with this. And I need to do this in order to be good enough.”
And then we do breath work and suddenly that function of your brain starts to come down a few notches. And then the other things that are also living inside of you, that you usually don’t allow yourself to feel, that you don’t allow yourself to experience – like, for example, heavy emotions, sadness, grief, anger or even memories of very intense moments that happened in your childhood life, that you associate with this safety – those things are suddenly more capable of coming to the surface.
But also releasing. If you do this in a safe setting and you’re being facilitated. And you feel safe to finally allow those emotions to flow, then you can get that conscious mind out of the way – not fully out of the way, of course – but I’m kind of like trying to say it as simple as possible…
And those emotions can flow. And when these emotions flow, we are getting back in touch with our heart, right? Our emotional heart. We’re having moments of healing. We have a moment of transcendence, to give that a practical definition – we transcend. So we lift up from our normal day-to-day thinking, because we enter a different state of consciousness through this process.
And in that state, we can release the emotions that we’ve been pushing down, and then finally we can actually start to listen to our intuitive self without being afraid of listening to our heart. And suddenly have to feel sad, or have to feel grief, or have these memories come up. Because you can actually release them and deload them from your system.
And if we do that more often, we can start to trust more and more that if we check in with ourselves, we center ourselves, we check in with our heart, we check in with our emotional selves… we really tune into what we feel and then we can ask “wait, is this thought that I’m having, is that really the most important thing to me? Or is this core heart and gut feeling that I’m having, is that what’s most important to me?” And I think that really leads us to becoming more intuitive and more spiritually aligned.
Mark: I agree. Well said. I love that description. And with our training, we do something called a breath empowerment which is similar to what we were talking about. And it’s about 45 minutes long and three sets.
And the experiences that you’re talking about always happen. It’s like magic… the breath just does not fail to deliver every single time.
Mark: And everyone… like, I’ve run these many times, but I’d love to have my tai chi master – Will Potter – is just magical at running them. Just something about the energy that he brings…
And so everyone thinks “oh Will, you’re amazing.”
And will’s like “I didn’t do anything.”
Mark: It’s the breath and so we tend to see people first having physiological reactions – twitching and all sorts of weird stuff happening… and then they have the emotional kind of response – the tearing up and you know.
And then they start to have the intuitive and spiritual. And so this can happen in one setting like kind of in that order, right? Because my sense is a lot of people have to kind of get through the physical layer – like a koshas thing from the yoga tradition – go through that physical/mental layer to get into that emotional layer. Then once you kind of get through that stuckness, then you have access to that intuitive and spiritual messaging.
Or it can happen kind of in that general progression over time, right? So if you start a practice like this first, you’re going to experience it physically and you’re feel different and then you’re going to start opening up all the emotions. And then starting to recognize your emotional life and the patterns, and the trauma, and the shadow…
And then once you start to deal with that, then you start the experience.
And so it follows a similar path to like a meditative process, if you stick with it. Like my experience with Zen, I stuck with it for four years before I went into the seals. And I went through a very similar process. First, it was experienced physically then emotionally and then intuitively and spiritually.
I’m just kind of like piling on top of what you said. I don’t know if I have a question here. But a question that’s always come up with me with regards to this work is a lot of people say after these breath work sessions “gosh, do you have a tape? Because I want to do this every day.”
And my warning is always “don’t do this every day. It’s too intense, right? So you’re not really ready for it.”
This is kind of like maybe the kundalini world has driven a few westerners crazy because kundalini is super intense breathing. And if your mind isn’t ready for it, you’re moving too much energy, right?
Do you agree? I don’t think these practices are meant to be done every day. Once a week, you probably get away with. Once every other week, even. Or maybe, maybe if you’re a healthy individual and you’ve been training physically, and you got strong egoic structures – let’s say it that way – if you’ve got strong egoic structures it’s much safer. If you have attachment disorder and serious childhood trauma that you’ve masked over, then this breath work – this intense breath work – can be extremely dangerous for some people.
Kasper: Yeah, it should only be done under good guidance. And every now and then.
I train a lot of breath coaches – a lot of people that have been breath coaches for a very long time and they want to they want to work from a deeper level of mastery – that’s really where my main field is.
And I always have to remind them “stop chasing the high.”
Mark: Yeah, don’t chase the highs.
Kasper: I think people have this one moment of like “wow!”
Mark: Yeah, they have a breakthrough, peak experience and they want to have that every time.
Kasper: And then they want to have that every day. But the question is how do you take that moment and how do you integrate that in your daily life? Because people feel that same way after having a near-death experience, for example.
Mark: (laughing) but you wouldn’t want that every day.
Kasper: Because we’re basically creating a physiological near-death through this breathing practice. Now I’ve been really nerding out on exactly what happens in the nervous system with these different breathing patterns. And I’ve been able to get people to that state quicker and quicker – and understanding how to get them there.
But even then. Even if it’s a 20-minute practice – still, it’s something that’s very intense and people really want to skip to that feeling that they have afterwards. Where they’re like “now everything makes sense.”
But you can’t always live there. It’s kind of like that thing of like before enlightenment chop wood, carry water…
Mark: Take out the trash…
Kasper: Exactly. So a very important principle for me is minimum effective dose. So you have this breathing practice. You have this tremendous awareness.
Then you need to come into meditation and preferably in a guided setting, with somebody who can integrate and help you find, locate literally, that feeling of elation, that feeling of safety of transcendence… find that somewhere in yourself, in your body.
And then create anchors in order to get to that feeling without having to do the extreme breath work to get there. And even just with a few breaths you can start to anchor yourself into that state and remind yourself of that moment, without having to necessarily do the entire practice every single time.
Because the whole idea is to take less and less work, less and less effort, less and less breathing to get to that same spot. So the first time you needed 45 minutes and a whole lifetime of trauma processing to get there. But what if you could get there within two breaths a year from now?
Mark: Right. And eventually we want to let go of all the practices and just live in that state. And that’s ultimately what the traditions teach, is that eventually you want to like let go of the crutch of having to do this practice, and then that practice, and this practice, and that practice…
As westerners, we think the practice is the thing. But ultimately just a pointing mechanism.
Kasper: That’s such an important thing. I’m happy you said that. Because when I started out on this path, I needed so much practice to even get through the day without being depressed or without eating junk food all day. Or like without smoking cigarettes.
So literally like every second of the day, I had some kind of thing… some kind of anchor something like a breathing practice, and a workout, and a mental training, and an affirmation – a whole house full of affirmations.
Mark: (laughing) I totally know what you’re talking about. You described my life for many years.
Kasper: Exactly. And it’s an important phase. I mean, I’m not condescending to it at all…
Mark: Right, you got to go through that. Very few people can go from zero to hero…
Kasper: Right. But there has to be a point where then it becomes your autopilot, and it becomes more automatic. And now people ask me like “hey, how many hours do you practice breath and meditation per day?”
And I go like “well, barely anything.” If I wake up and I can do a two-minute like meditative self-check-in, and I can see where my breath is, and I can feel my heart rate variability, and I can feel connected to my purpose… I’m not going to spend any time on my meditation cushion. I’m going to do my work.
Because I’m on my sacred path of purpose in life. So every second I can spend on that…
Mark: I love that. We could go on like this for hours especially now that we’re kind of heading into the really cool stuff, but we’ve already been going for about 45 minutes. I do want to talk about your – you mentioned to me you put – well, let me back up both of us participated in our friend mutual friend Dan Brulé’s breathing festival, right?
And that was neat. I really enjoyed doing that. It’s such an important subject and it’s super… I don’t even know if they’re charging for this thing – I think it’s free, isn’t it? Or are they charging just a small sum…?
Kasper: They’re charging, but it’s not much. It’s barely anything compared to…
Mark: Right, it’s like a hundred bucks or something.
And you get some amazing breathing instruction from like 20 or 30 of the world’s most phenomenal breath teachers – including you Kasper. I’m in there, Dan’s in there… I don’t know if Wim Hof ended up doing it – but tons of others.
This is how you and I met. And I wanted to point that out to listeners that it’s basically doled out to you where you can kind of like listen to it asynchronously. You don’t have to like sign up and take a weekend out of your life or anything like that. So I think it was great the way they put it together.
The link to it will be on the show notes in the podcast, but if you don’t end up seeing that and you have a good memory it’s theicfb – I think international conference for breathing? Is that what that stands for?
Kasper: Breathing festival, yeah. The international conference for breathing festival… something like that… .com.
But then Kasper you are have created a new breathing certification for coaches… I’m actually really interested in that personally. Tell us about that and where we can learn more about that.
Kasper: Yeah, so it’s called breathwork master class. And I it started out as just a five-day master class, where I was like “I can just teach everything I know in five days, and that’ll be it.”
And then I realized, I need more education because there’s so much going on. So yeah, I’ve got three levels – the first one is called breathwork biohacker it’s an online course so especially now in COVID times everybody’s more interested in breathing and really understanding what it’s about. And it’s a super extensive online masterclass.
And then I have some events where we do some pretty cutting-edge stuff. We actually go and we dissect actual lungs from animals – we look into the tissue; we use microscopes and scalpels… and we dissect hearts. And we really get into the tissues.
Really tried to bring together the most innovative teaching practices that I could find. We work with micro-dosing psilocybin for example in combination with breath work, and we use nootropic supplements and we’re really…
Mark: You don’t do that online, do you? That part. (laughing)
Kasper: (laughing) no we don’t do that online. We do that here in the Netherlands where everything is very legal. And we have these events that are… so we do all this really cool stuff on a professional level, but also a really deep personal breakthrough is where I teach people how too.
So it’s really principle based which means that in my way of working the same core principles that are fairly simple to understand can allow you to coach a top-level CEO to have less anxiety. It can allow you to coach a Olympic athlete to perform better. On the field it can allow you to give some help somebody have this transcended emotional breakthrough. It’s all based on the same principles.
So we don’t focus on any specific method or technique, but really at the core of how this works and how can we help people a step beyond. So this is my biggest project now… very excited about it. And it’s launching this month… we’ve been doing it for a while, but we’ve now really put it into the proper shape and form that it needs to be.
Kasper: So if anybody wants to check that out, you can check out breathworkmasterclass.com. Or if you want to check out some of my… I have some free online breathing sessions also that people can just follow.
And actually find me on Instagram is the easiest at kaspersfocus and then a link in my bio you can find all kinds of cool free resources to get started on.
Mark: Nice. Well, I appreciate that. So breathworkmasterclass.com. I’m going to check that out myself. This sounds fun, I would love to come over and play with some of your dissection and looking inside a heart. I remember, we did a dissected cadaver as part of my… it wasn’t part of the SEAL curriculum, but one of our instructors was fascinated. And was slated to go to med school. And so he ended up arranging for us to go to the core.
It was fascinating. It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.
Kasper: It is not.
Mark: Kasper, thanks so much for your time, and for doing this valuable work. Like it’s really important that everybody listening get control of your breath and begin to turn inward and to be the change you want to see in the world. And then to let that just let that naturally ripple out into everyone you touch.
And geez… one person at a time, right? We’ll really start to slow down the rattle and hum of this world. Make it less VUCA.
So I appreciate what you’re doing, and if you’re ever over in the united states – I’m in San Diego – let’s arrange a get together and do some breathing together.
Kasper: I’ll be back there soon. Absolutely. Thank you for your time and for your awesome work.
Mark: Yeah, thank you very much. Hooyah.
All right folks. That’s fascinating, hunh? So Kasper van der Meulen. Go check out his Instagram – please say your Instagram again?
Mark: @Kaspersfocus. The breathworkmasterclass.com. That’ll be launched by the time – I think – by the time this podcast is live.
Kasper: For sure, yes.
Mark: Awesome. It’s important stuff. What a fun conversation. Thanks very much again.
Kasper: Thank you.
Mark: All right folks. That’s it, that’s a wrap for today. So take a few deep breaths – inhale five count, exhale ten – let that be your concentration practice. And let’s give that 30 days, let’s give it a try and let’s prove Kasper correct that that in itself can be a path to mastery.
And until next time stay focused and be unbeatable.
This is Mark Divine.