It might seem absurd that the latest wellness offering just, um, helps you breathe better. But stay with me, there’s so much more to breathwork than some New Age guru directing your inhales and exhales. It’s a complex practice with profound mental, emotional and spiritual benefits ranging from curbing anxiety and stress, to life-changing epiphanies.
I’ve heard that a session can cause hallucinations of being back in the womb, physical collapse and uncontrollable fits of weeping. So it’s with mild trepidation I arrive at private members club and co-working space The Ministry in London. The workshop area feels like the chill room of a club, mellow lighting of blues and purples overhead and soulful beats thrumming from speakers. A lithe, fringed Gwyneth Paltrow doppelganger flits between yoga mats dousing the air with a smoking clump of sage.
How is your breathing right now?
Once the thirty-odd attendees are settled on the fanned rows of mats, the class begins with the question: How is your breathing right now? “Shallow”, “restricted”, “isolated at the top of my chest” and “fast and uneven” are among the responses called back. It’s strange to tune into something so fundamental to daily life, only to realise how unnatural and labored it suddenly feels.
This awkward, irregular breathing is due to an overactive fight or flight response, says Stuart Sandeman, our teacher this evening and founder of Breathpod – a business offering corporate, group and one-to-one breathing and coaching programmes. “The trouble is that daily stresses mean we’re habitually programmed to remain in this mode, even when no tiger has entered the room to threaten our existence,” he explains.
Breathwork can break this pattern and decrease anxiety, aid emotional healing and enhance personal growth. Key to the practice is flooding the body with oxygen by breathing in very deeply and then releasing air from the lungs in effortless short puffs over a lengthy period.
“We’re shifting the alchemy of carbon dioxide and oxygen, creating a kind of electricity in the body. Think of it as super-ventilating, not hyperventilating,” Sandeman says. “We’re getting all frequencies in the body to vibe at their highest level.” The lower ones will synchronise or ‘auto-tune’ with higher ones in a process called entrainment, he explains.
How to breathe better?
There are three steps to achieve this. First, breathing needs to be done through a wide-open mouth. Next, the air needs to travel deep into the belly, before being expelled quickly but without trying. And lastly, one breath should link with the next in a circular motion – think didgeridoo-playing levels of control.
We begin breathing with gusto. A playlist of incredible music bolsters our efforts. Assistants roam the room, propping open mouths struggling to stay wide with oral devices or conducting acupressure belly pokes to guide breaths in and out.
Our intense rolling breathing is interrupted every now and then with a brief interlude of “toning and movement”. Basically thrashing our limbs about vigorously while yelling at the top of our lungs in a high-voltage om chant of sorts. It’s a vital part of the practice that energises the heart space and ensures we don’t get an attack of “chicken claws” – an actual term referring to a cramping and gnarling of the hands and feet from excessive oxygen in the bloodstream.
We end with a much deserved period of grounding stillness. The girl on my right is whimpering softly to herself, while the one on my left giddily tells me she feels euphoric and connected to everyone in the room.
An epic meditation session
While I can’t say I returned to a pre-birth state or solved the riddle of existence, the experience was strangely exhilarating. My limbs feeling awash with a tingling energy. It’s as if I have just done an epic meditation session, but with the added afterglow of an endorphin-pumping physical workout. I’m definitely more present, calm and at ease.
Research shows that holotropic breathing – a similar technique involving guided breathing to reach beneficial altered states of consciousness – reduces stress and anxiety, boosts self esteem, treats depression and aids spiritual exploration.
“By connecting with the breath, we connect with out own innate inner healing wisdom, thus allowing whatever is needed for our healing to appear in a session,” Sonja Busch, co-founder of the European Association for Holotropic Breathwork, tells me. “Experiences can be easy or difficult. However, if well supported and integrated, people report more joy, energy and stability in life, as well as improved health and relationships.”
Breathwork is not a new form of therapy, with breathing techniques used for healing throughout history. However Sandeman wants to make it more accessible to today’s average “John from HSBC in Moorgate, who might’ve done the odd yoga class because his girlfriend dragged him along”, he says. And given the intense stress of frenetic city living, this “John” could certainly use his help. We all could.
Words: Kate Johnson