LIFE ETC And Breathe...

Scram­bling to keep up as the year snow­balls into its chaotic end? This sim­ple health up­grade – that you can do in your sleep – could im­prove ev­ery­thing from your en­ergy lev­els to your sex life, as long as you do it right

Women's Health (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - BY CHAR­LOTTE HAIGH

Get a lung­ful of this well­ness up­grade

Breath­ing, much like the act of ma­noeu­vring one leg in front of the other and nav­i­gat­ing traf­fic cir­cles on your drive home, is easy un­til you ac­tu­ally think about it. Be­come aware of your lungs ex­pand­ing and con­tract­ing in­side your chest and you’ll won­der how you’ve man­aged to do it on au­topi­lot for your whole life. So, try not to go blue in the face as we tell you that res­pi­ra­tion is big news. Breath­ing spa­ces and work­shops are crop­ping up in Lon­don, New York and LA and it’s set to be­come a ma­jor well­ness trend. It makes sense. Any­one who’s ever been told to “take a deep breath” will know the calm-thef*ck-down power of a few lung­fuls. Re­becca Den­nis, trans­for­ma­tional breath­ing coach, cites the link be­tween the ner­vous sys­tem and in­hale/ex­hale on re­peat. “The sym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem is the one re­spon­si­ble for your fight-or-flight re­sponse,” she ex­plains. “When ac­ti­vated, it raises your heart rate and blood pres­sure, di­vert­ing blood to the brain and skele­tal mus­cles and flood­ing the body with adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol. But breath­ing fully from the di­aphragm stim­u­lates the parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem, which slows your heart rate, low­ers blood pres­sure and di­verts blood sup­ply to­wards the di­ges­tive and re­pro­duc­tive sys­tems. It means that breath­ing in the right way can in­ter­rupt the cy­cle of adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol, which con­trib­utes to chron­i­cally high stress lev­els and acts as a pre­cur­sor to panic at­tacks and anx­i­ety.” That’s the the­ory, at least. As for le­git sci­ence, there’s cur­rently very lit­tle. Dr James Ey­er­man, a psy­chi­a­trist, is one of the few who has re­searched breath­work. “I pub­lished a se­ries of re­ports on 11 000 psy­chi­atric pa­tients with a range of con­di­tions who had been of­fered breath­work as a sup­ple­men­tary treat­ment,” he ex­plains. “There were no ad­verse ef­fects from breath­work, but it wasn’t pos­si­ble to carry out a sys­tem­atic fol­low-up. That said, the pa­tients all re­ported it to be their most pos­i­tive ther­apy ex­pe­ri­ence at the hospi­tal.” A re­cent study from Bei­jing Nor­mal Univer­sity in China found that di­aphrag­matic breath­ing can lower cor­ti­sol lev­els and even im­prove at­ten­tion span. As with much al­ter­na­tive medicine, more stud­ies are needed, but the re­sults add to a grow­ing body of anec­do­tal ev­i­dence.

Let it flow

Med­i­ta­tion stu­dios and apps abound, but do you re­ally need a breath­ing work­shop any more than you need school­ing in how to blink? “The trou­ble is that most peo­ple are stuck in a hy­per-vig­i­lant state be­cause of the stresses of modern life, which isn’t the way we were de­signed to live,” says Alan Dolan, who runs breath­work work­shops, count­ing A-lis­ters such as Naomie Har­ris among his clients. “It means that you’re in a low-level ver­sion of the fight-or-flight re­sponse most of the time.” Ah yes, that “must re­ply to that What­sApp, oh God, there’s an early-morn­ing email from my boss and what’s the chance of my break­fast smoothie ex­plod­ing in my bag” state of mind. “When you’re in that headspace, ev­ery­thing in the body con­stricts, in­clud­ing the process of breath­ing.” “The ma­jor­ity of adults only use a third of their res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem,” con­firms Den­nis. “As a baby, you breathe ef­fec­tively, but as you grow older, you be­gin to breathe less deeply, only in­hal­ing into the chest or ab­domen or sub­con­sciously hold­ing your breath for a few sec­onds here and there rather than let­ting it flow. Learn­ing how to breathe the way you did as a baby, deeply from your di­aphragm with­out pause, has end­less health ben­e­fits be­cause the breath is so in­trin­si­cally linked to both mind and body.” So, as anec­do­tal as the ev­i­dence might be, learn­ing to breathe as na­ture ac­tu­ally in­tended cer­tainly won’t do you any harm and prac­ti­tion­ers claim that the ben­e­fits can be life-chang­ing. “Your breath re­ally can help con­nect your body to any­thing that needs deal­ing with,” says Dolan. “For the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple that will mean stress­re­lated is­sues – de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and sleep prob­lems. We live in a mind-led so­ci­ety, but fo­cus­ing on your breath­ing lets your body take the reins for a change. You fol­low your breath­ing, re­lease the ten­sion that’s stored and get in touch with what’s re­ally go­ing on in your body.” In this sense, it would seem breath­ing is a do-any­where, no-kit-nec­es­sary in­tu­itive form of self-ther­apy.

Breathe in, breathe out

Quite like the act it­self, the breath­ing “in­dus­try” is noth­ing new. Holotropic breath­work – beloved by hip­pies in the 1970s and en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance – is con­sid­ered one of the ear­li­est forms, though it isn’t ad­vised that you go it alone. “It was de­vised by psy­chi­a­trist Stanislav Grof, who had orig­i­nally re­searched the ef­fects of LSD on the mind,” ex­plains holotropic breath­work prac­ti­tioner Jamie Mills. “When the drug was made il­le­gal, Dr Grof in­ves­ti­gated other ways to ac­cess that outof-this-world state of be­ing and found that deep breath­ing at an ac­cel­er­ated pace – which es­sen­tially de­prives the brain of oxy­gen – could elicit mem­o­ries and sen­sa­tions as­so­ci­ated with any deep trauma you may have ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing birth. He be­lieved that by ad­dress­ing this trauma, it was pos­si­ble to treat con­di­tions like anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion in later life.” Ey­er­man pub­lished a pa­per the­o­ris­ing that holotropic breath­work may have a stim­u­la­tory ef­fect on the va­gus nerve, which trav­els down the trunk of the body from the brain, re­leas­ing those highas-a-kite hor­mones sero­tonin and dopamine. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the method is con­tro­ver­sial, with many ar­gu­ing that lim­it­ing the body’s oxy­gen in­take is never a good thing. In­deed, prac­ti­tion­ers ad­vo­cate that holotropic work be done with a sec­ond per­son present, a pro sit­ter, to watch and keep you safe. Con­scious breath­ing is an al­to­gether more modern, main­stream off­shoot. It in­volves (shocker) be­ing more aware of your ev­ery­day breath­ing. But wait – isn’t this what you’ve been do­ing dur­ing med­i­ta­tion and yoga for yonks? “Con­scious breath­ing helps you get in touch with your emo­tions and re­lease them,” ex­plains Dolan. “At­tempt­ing to get to the root cause of the prob­lem.” Drill down into the var­i­ous types of con­scious breath­ing and the plot thick­ens. Trans­for­ma­tional breath­ing taps into the idea that bet­ter breath­ing can im­prove your phys­i­cal health too. Among the ben­e­fits touted by its ad­vo­cates are an in­crease in en­ergy lev­els, a stronger im­mune sys­tem, bet­ter di­ges­tion and re­lieved mus­cle ten­sion. “The tech­nique teaches you to breathe in a con­stant flow­ing pat­tern and opens your res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem to its full ca­pac­ity,” ex­plains Den­nis. “While any­one can learn – re­gard­less of their fit­ness level – it’s best to have a few ses­sions to learn how to do it prop­erly (search for stu­dios of­fer­ing con­scious breath­work and check out BreathWorkAfrica.co. za). Then you can use it for just five or 10 min­utes a day, like a med­i­ta­tion prac­tice.” As a ba­sic guide, you in­hale with a wideopen mouth deep into your belly, with­out any pause be­fore the ex­hale, so your breath­ing is con­stant and con­nected – and the ex­ha­la­tion is shorter than the in­hala­tion, un­like in yoga and med­i­ta­tion. “Clients tell me that learn­ing to breathe prop­erly has had a dra­matic ef­fect on the way they feel about them­selves and their lives gen­er­ally,” adds Den­nis. “So much of it is about let­ting go of the emo­tions you har­bour with­out re­al­is­ing it. That can trans­late to a more in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with your part­ner; get­ting more, bet­ter-qual­ity sleep and hav­ing more en­ergy.” You don’t have to be aware of your breath­ing all the time nor do you need to go along to a ded­i­cated breath­work ses­sion ev­ery week. Den­nis sug­gests carv­ing out a slice of your day to ded­i­cate 10 min­utes to it, like you would a morn­ing med­i­ta­tion ses­sion. Oxy­gen at the ready...

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