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
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...