TAKE A DEEP BREATH… Siân Ranscombe on seeking inspiration through respiration
Whether for soothing stress or improving athletic performance, breathwork could be at the heart of a healthier life
Breathing: it should be the most natural thing in the world. We do it without thinking, some 20,000 times a day. And from their very first gasp, babies respire as nature intended, ribs expanding, torso rising and falling. Yet it seems that this instinctive ability decreases as we age, and high-pressure jobs, emotional trauma, bad posture and restrictive clothing (yes, really) all take their toll.
Practitioners of a therapy known as breathwork believe that such poor breathing techniques adopted over time are responsible for increasing stress and anxiety, lowering energy levels and even affecting cardiovascular health. The good news, they say, is that we can reverse these effects simply by relearning how to breathe properly. Now, many companies are offering breathing classes to stressed-out employees in need of workplace calm.
‘The way we inhale and exhale is intimately linked to every system and function in the body,’ explains Richie Bostock, the founder of Xhale Breathwork. ‘When you understand how to use it properly, you can shift your quality of life in many areas.’
Stuart Sandeman, a former City worker and the founder of Breathpod, explains that the brain’s stressresponse system can be ‘hacked’ simply by changing the breathing pattern. ‘In a stressful situation, the heart rate increases, causing shorter, faster intakes,’ he says. ‘When we exhale for longer than we inhale, it activates the vagus nerve and slows the heart rate. In this calmer state, we are able to respond better to those situations.’ There is a clear link between the breath and our emotions, he says. ‘One thing humans do differently to other mammals is to hold our breath when we’re angry, or if we’ve had some upsetting news and need to hold the tears in.’
I join Sandeman for a one-to-one session of what he terms ‘conscious connected breathing’, a deeper form of therapy that he teaches to everyone from athletes seeking enhanced performance
to people coping with respiratory ailments. I start by lying on the floor and breathing in and out with my mouth open. Besides making me very thirsty, I notice that my ribcage shudders on the exhale – a sign of a tight diaphragm, which according to Sandeman indicates that I am a perfectionist who likes to be in control.
There follows an embarrassing session of ‘toning and movement’ – in which I must thrash my arms and legs wildly while shouting for as long as I can in a single breath. ‘These techniques create a high vibration in the body,’ says Sandeman. ‘We have different vibrations for different emotions, including stress, anger and fear. These feelings are denser than natural peace and joy, so when we create an internal vibration using our breath, it allows us to breathe into the spaces that have been closed down over time.’
Apparently, the work can cause participants to weep or laugh uncontrollably, or to uncover buried traumas; the classes are said to help with issues including panic attacks, sleeplessness, anxiety and pain. I was hoping to have an emotional epiphany of my own, but the only apparent change is that the ribcage shudder has gone, and that I look, and feel, a little drunk. Still, I sleep soundly that night for the first time in weeks and am now very conscious of how I am breathing every time I go for a run. Having just signed up for the London Marathon in April, I have a feeling I may be back for another lesson in the art of taking a deep breath.