The market is flooded with books and classes claiming ‘breathwork’ can help with mental health, sleep and even Covid-19. But are experts convinced?
Alan Dolan couldn’t afford market research when he started out as a breathing instructor in 2005. Instead, he took soundings from London taxi drivers. “I’d tell them I taught people to breathe for a living – they’d be in hysterics and say: ‘What a great scam!’” says Dolan. Recently their reaction has changed: “Now they tell me about their sleep apnoea or their wife’s panic attacks, ask me how that relates to breathing and often download my app.”
Dolan, whose company is called Breathguru, teaches people to breathe deeply from their diaphragm, inhaling for longer than exhaling, without pausing between the two. He says this can, among other things, release stress, alleviate depression, tackle sleep issues, ease respiratory conditions, boost energy and the immune system and eject emotional baggage. Until Covid-19, his retreats in Lanzarote were, he says, fully booked. Such is the level of demand that Dolan has taught 24 trainees to lead sessions like his.
Other “breathwork” practitioners report similar surges in interest, YouTube and Instagram Stories are teeming with breathing courses, and publishers clearly agree it’s a wave worth surfing. Books called Breathe Well, The Power of Breathwork, The Breathing Book and Breathing for Warriors have already been publishedthis year. Still to come in 2020 are Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor, Exhale, by Richie Bostock, AKA The Breath Guy, and The Wim Hof Method (see box) by Wim Hof.
All of which is a little puzzling to some. Sure, a bit of deep breathing at the end of a yoga class feels good, and many use simple breathing exercises to help them relax. But most people manage their 23,000 or so breaths per day without pause for thought, never mind instruction. So are advocates right that breathwork has a long list of physical and mental health benefits? Or is it just a load of hot air?
There is good-quality evidence to support the use of breathing exercises for asthma. A randomised controlled trial published in 2018 found that quality of life ratings were higher in UK asthma patients who underwent training in deep, slow, nasal and diaphragm breathing. Guidelines used by doctors in the UK state that breathing exercises can help reduce asthma symptoms.
“The evidence is strongest for interventions that involve properly trained physiotherapists,” says Mike Thomas, professor of primary care at the University of Southampton, who led the asthma study. Thomas’s emphasis on registered therapists relates to the use by some of alternative therapies such as the Buteyko method, a controversial technique which includes taping the mouths of people during sleep to train them to breathe through their noses. Adherents say it can treat sleeping disorders, depression, ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Patrick McKeown, a Galway-based Buteyko practitioner who advocates mouth-taping during sleep, travels widely to speak at conferences. Prior to Covid-19 he was booked up 18 months in advance. “Five years ago, it was sleep,” he says. “Right now, breathing is hot.” McKeown believes a range of conditions including asthma are caused or exacerbated by a modern human mouth-breathing tendency brought on largely by dietary changes. This, he says, causes excessive oxygen intake, low carbon dioxide levels in the blood, and sub-optimal delivery of oxygen around the body.
While Prof Thomas acknowledges that more nose-breathing might help some asthma patients, he says the Buteyko method’s emphasis on increased oxygen intake and low carbon dioxide levels in the blood is simplistic. “People with asthma don’t overbreathe, and we’ve measured CO2 levels in asthmatics before and after retraining and found no relationship whatsoever between severity of asthma and CO2 levels,” he says. “The claim that asthma is caused by hyperventilation and low carbon dioxide are scientifically untenable.”
Many of those who turn to breathing exercises do so to deal with stress or anxiety. The NHS website suggests these can be alleviated through short sessions of deep, belly breathing. Scientists have long been interested in studying the effects of practices like yoga and meditation on stress and anxiety; however, there is less research on breathing exercises.
One study found that anxiety levels dropped in a group of Indian medical students who underwent a six-week course of pranayama breathing exercises, while no change was seen in a control group. The pranayama group also saw increases in their heart rate variability (HRV). When we breathe in, our heart beats momentarily faster to speed the flow of oxygen around the body. When we breathe out, our heart slows down. HRV is the difference between these two rates, and higher HRV is seen as a marker of the body’s resilience and flexibility in response to outside stimuli.
A study published in 2017 found that a group of 20 Beijing-based IT workers had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva after undergoing eight weeks of deep, diaphragm breathing sessions – a change not seen in a control group. Italian researchers who reviewed 15 previous studies found slowing breathing promoted short-term increases in HRV, increased comfort and relaxation, and reduced anxiety.
Scientists don’t know precisely how slow, deep-breathing promotes relaxation. However, many believe its ability to increase HRV is key. HRV is controlled by the autonomous nervous system, which regulates subconscious bodily processes including breathing rate and blood pressure. It is subdivided into the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers “fight or flight” responses such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers “rest and digest” responses.
Parasympathetic responses are controlled by the vagus nerve, a nervous system superhighway that sends signals back and forth between the brain and different parts of the body. The higher a person’s HRV, the greater the strength of their vagal response to stimuli and the quicker their bodies can activate parasympathetic responses to stress.
When psychologist Roderik Gerritsen, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, reviewed physical and mental health benefits associated with contemplative activities, he concluded that their common focus on breathing reduced stress by increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity. “By slowing the breathing down, your heart rate goes down, you stimulate your vagus nerve, and you’re telling your body it doesn’t have to respond to any immediate threats,” says Gerritsen.
Breathing exercises have been proposed to treat symptoms of many other conditions. Researchers at Augusta University in Georgia, US, suggested that insomnia is largely the result of an evolutionary mismatch between the lifestyles of our caveman ancestors and the “toxic, long-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system” of modern life. They suggest slow, deep breathing can stimulate parasympathetic responses that facilitate both initiating sleep and returning to sleep after night-time waking.
Breathing routines are also used to manage pain. A study involving 48 healthy volunteers published in January found that deep breathing reduced pain caused by heat, especially at rates of about six breaths per minute. Other research linked breathing exercises to reduced heart rates and blood pressure in cardiovascular disease patients.
It has also been suggested that simple breathing exercises can help people with Covid-19. In April, for example, a London doctor recorded a video advising patients to take two sets of five deep breaths held for five seconds followed by a big cough, before lying on their fronts breathing deeply for 10 minutes. The clip was widely shared online. Some patients reported that this helped, however the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Respiratory Care said such exercises were unlikely to help those with the dry coughs seen in the majority of Covid-19 sufferers.
There are many animal and short-term laboratory human studies that show breathing slowly and deeply triggers changes in the body linked to healthy outcomes. That, however, is a long way from saying there is solid evidence that breathing exercises can help people change the way they breathe or improve their health in the long term.
Italian physician Luciano Bernardi has shown that breath-control training helped chronic heart failure patients to significantly reduce their breathing rate as well increasing the amount of time they could exercise. “A month after the study the benefits were still present, and we found that most had continued the practice,” says Bernardi. “Like any other training, if you continue to do it you maintain the benefits, and if you stop, after a while, you lose them.”
US researchers found that people with high blood pressure who did daily slow breathing sessions for four weeks exhibited short-term but not long-term reductions in blood pressure. “The problem is that in most human studies any effects of slow, deep breathing seem to be isolated to the lab conditions in which they are measured,” says Don Noble, a physiologist at Emory University, in Atlanta. “Despite some promising results, there haven’t been many well-controlled human studies investigating long-term changes, so the jury is still out.”
Current gaps in the scientific evidence base is readily filled by those with books and classes to sell. Extraordinary claims that breathing techniques can treat serious diseases and improve performance in various ways are based on preliminary findings, small studies and research that shows only associations. The claims on Wim Hof’s website, for example, that his method “is linked to reducing symptoms of” diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease are unsupported by high-quality research. Dolan’s website quotes a US doctor as stating: “Possibly one of the best therapies ever discovered for HIV, other infectious diseases, and most degenerative, or chronic illnesses (including cancer) is oxygen therapy.”
Many people undoubtedly benefit from breathing exercises. However, overblown claims about these powers are frustrating for scientists who believe they do have potential for more widespread use, but that this should be supported by good-quality research and trials. “It is likely there will be uses for breathing techniques in a variety of medical settings,” says Thomas. “However, it’s not a magic bullet. “There are a lot of people peddling snake oil. What one has to do is look at these claims with a sceptical eye, and do proper scientific studies to show whether or not it works. If you are just generally worried about your health, it won’t do you any harm. Just don’t expect it to turn your life around.”
Breathwork is far from new. Yogis, mystics and others have linked disturbed breathing to illnesses and advocated breath control both for health and as part of the path to enlightenment for thousands of years. Breathing-based therapies proliferated in the 60s and 70s. Here are just a few of dozens of different ways to get your oxygen.
Breathing techniques are key to yoga. Breath retentions, alternate nostril breathing, explosive exhales, stretching out the tongue and other techniques are used to calm or invigorate the body, support yoga poses and are considered integral to reaching enlightenment.
Designed to reduce stress, calm anxiety and help people sleep, it involves inhaling through the nose for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds, breathing out through the nose for eight seconds. Yes, there are apps for that.
A psychotherapy method developed in the 1960s that uses rapid deep breathing, music and physical support to supposedly induce altered states of consciousness as a way to release emotional blockages and heal buried traumas. Considered unsafe for those with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and mental health issues.
A controversial alternative therapy that uses exercises and mouth taping to train people to breathe lightly and nasally. There are GPs who say it can help people, but claims by advocates that many health conditions are the result of chronic over-breathing are not supported by sound scientific evidence.
Wim Hof method
Cycles of controlled hyper-ventilation, extended exhalations and breath-holding, combined with exposure to cold and meditation, designed to trigger positive immune system changes. As seen on the Gwyneth Paltrow Goop Lab series on Netflix.
SW1 is fast becoming London’s go-to for all things beauty, health and wellness. But are you a Harrods or an Urban Retreat kinda girl? asks Eva Ramirez
The Royal Borough’s approach is more holistic than overhaul; think subtle tweakments and non-invasive therapies over surgical procedures. Instant results with minimal downtime are key and if they happen to bolster our gut health or realign our chakras too, then all the better. Harrods has expanded its beauty and wellness space by 53 per cent with a new Beauty Hall and revamped Wellness Clinic. Around the corner, Urban Retreat has converted a five-storey building christened ‘The White House’ into a health and beauty emporium. We’ve searched both hotspots to cherry-pick the stand-out treatments, products and therapists that’ll have you hopping straight onto the Piccadilly line.
You’re bound to find something to suit your skin in world’s largest beauty emporium. ‘Magic’ mirrors use AI technology to virtually apply products without going anywhere near bacteria-laden testers. The Wellness Clinic is a holistic medical hybrid, with international doctors, reiki masters and the best aestheticians in the business.
BEST PRODUCTS: Japan’s Clé de Peau Beauté chose Harrods as its exclusive UK launch partner. We love the Radiant Fluid Foundation (£105).
BEST FACIAL: The Super Seed Nutrient facial by plant-based Votary works wonders on sensitive skin. It involves a very light lactic acid peel followed by a rose quartz facial massage.
BEST BODY TREATMENT: 111Cryo’s full-body chamber boosts metabolism, encourages muscle recovery post-exercise and tightens skin, all in just three minutes at -90°C.
BEST WELLNESS RITUAL: The Elixir Clinic offers a cocktail menu of 15 different intravenous vitamin infusions to target specific complaints.
BEST THERAPIST: Dr John Tsagaris’ acupuncture treatment regenerates the skin with microneedles and micro- injections of hyaluronic acid.
ULTIMATE HIGHLIGHT: From 2020 the lower- ground floor turns into an auditorium for talks and masterclasses.
You’d be forgiven for mistaking Urban Retreat on Hans Crescent for a private members’ club. The lower ground floor is home to the Khera-Griggs Cleanse Clinic, where nutrition consultation, bespoke cleanses, diagnostic testing, body contouring, colonic hydrotherapy, infrared saunas, one-on- one yoga, pilates and meditation sessions are all available. Frédéric Fekkai has chosen to open his first global salon here and there’s also a women’s wellness centre led by Harley Street’s finest Dr John Studd.
BEST PRODUCTS: Haute Custom Beauty’s Tailored Beauty Ritual (£660) will switch up your entire regime with a 30- day supply of HCB Elixir Collection, Collagen Tonic and Moisturiser Supreme, all specific to your skin type.
BEST BEAUTY TREAT: SumanBrows is the best in the business. Book in for a bespoke microblading session with SumanBrows and have your utterly transformed and lifted with natural-looking brows.
BEST BODY TREATMENT: Yumiko Inoue’s Manual Lymphatic Body Treatment uses massage, reflexology and cupping techniques to smooth, flatten and debloat in all the right areas.
BEST WELLNESS RITUAL: Conscious connected breathing with Breathguru Alan Dolan will revolutionise the way you think about breath. It will recharge your system, promote healing, shift trapped negative energy and detoxify the body.
BEST THERAPIST: As far as colonics go, this is as glamorous as they get. Naturopathic nutritionist Amanda Griggs uses hydrotherapy as well as Manex Ibar’s Fréquence chakra oils to leave you feeling light, cleansed and clear-headed.
ULTIMATE HIGHLIGHT: Internationally renowned Shaman Durek (Gwyneth Paltrow’s go-to) calls Urban Retreat his base when in the UK. Book a healing session with this spiritual mentor for a mind-body- soul experience like no other.
Standing barefoot outside in the depths of winter may sound uninviting but as Claire Munnings discovers, it can have a profound effect on your wellbeing.
As the nights keep drawing in and the temperature continues to drop, our days are often spent hibernating indoors, cosying up next to a fire and shutting out the chilly winter weather. But, this year, I’m going to suggest you don’t just stay inside.
When you think about it, it’s terrifying how much time we spend indoors. Recent research undertaken by beauty brand Liz Earle found the typical woman enjoys just 25 minutes of fresh air a day, while other studies suggest we spend an average of 22 hours a day within four walls. But, with nature deficit disorder – a feeling of being alienated from the great outdoors – on the up, it’s never been more important to step out your front door.
The benefits of being outside are multiple and time after time, scientific research has proven the positive impact it can have on our physical and emotional health. Whether it’s helping your memory, anxiety levels, sleep patterns or immune system, nature is an important tonic for our busy lives.
And so, to grounding. This practice, also known as earthing, has gained much attention in recent years and has become a buzzword of late. Essentially, it involves standing barefoot on the ground – or touching the natural environment with your hands, or other parts of your body – and proponents believe this allows you to benefit from the earth’s electrical charge and balance the changes in our own body.
It may sound a bit woo-woo for some, but research published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health claims that earthing can help reduce stress, aid sleep, reduce inflammation and more.
With this in mind, I recently took on the challenge of trying it myself for a week. I realise this could have been better timed – standing outside barefoot during the cold autumn months isn’t quite as appealing as doing so in the height of summer, after all – but nevertheless, the advantages of being outdoors remain regardless of the temperature.
To set me on the right path, I spoke to wellbeing expert Alan Dolan, a breathing coach and the founder of Breathguru (breathguru.com), who uses grounding as part of his practice and has worked with well-known names, including actress Naomi Harris and The Barefoot Doctor.
“We, as human beings, are designed to be in a natural environment and we have over the years – especially since the age of reason and science and technology – gradually removed ourselves from this,” he told me. “Now we live very much in synthetic environments and we’re no longer benefiting from a connection with the planet.”
He often sees clients suffering from stress and describes being outside as a time-tested antidote to feelings of anxiety. “Establishing this connection with the earth is a very simple act but it can help reduce a sense of overwhelming and improve sleep too,” he said. “Stress encourages you to live in your head, but grounding reconnects you with the earth and makes you feel connected to your body. I use breathwork to enhance the perception of grounding,” he added. “When we can connect our breath to our body and our body to the earth, we can see many benefits.”
Alan’s tips were clear – the best way to enjoy grounding is to simply get outside and walk around on a natural environment with bare feet – whether that’s grass, sand or stones. You can also sit or lie back on the ground and use your hands to touch nature around you – either through holding leaves or grass or by digging in the earth and gardening without gloves. Drink lots of water before you step outside, too. According to Alan, being hydrated affects your ability to conduct current.
The first time I ventured outside – full of anticipation (and a big glass of water) – it was a crisp autumn day. The sun kept disappearing behind the clouds, but when it shone without hindrance it warmed the skin with a distant memory of summer. I slipped off my shoes and walked across my garden, feeling fairly self-conscious. Was I supposed to be thinking certain thoughts, or doing something specific with my feet? But I remembered Alan’s advice – “Get out of your head, and redistribute your energy throughout your body” – and I moved my focus onto what I could feel.
The green, luscious grass had a dewy, damp feel which was accentuated by the spongy moss that had somehow taken root beneath the turf, and this springiness was at contrast with the scattering of crisp, dead leaves that lay atop it. I stepped across their crackly surfaces and felt them break beneath the soles of my feet.
Then I stopped next to an old plum tree. I rested my hand lightly against the scratchy hard bark of the trunk and ran my fingers up and down its cracks, feeling the roughness of its texture. I wriggled my toes in the deliciously tickly grass and just stood still, leaning in to the moment. The wind rustled through the branches, and a lone bird sung a heartfelt tune somewhere behind me. I could feel the breeze on my face and the ground beneath my feet, and there was something in these sensations that seemed to soothe my soul.
I pressed my feet into the earth, and closed my eyes. As I breathed in and out deeply, I imagined roots spreading out from under my feet connecting my inner self with the ground below. The feeling of being grounded was so intense, it took me by surprise.
Putting my shoes on after those few minutes felt like an inconvenience. My toes were forced into the shape of my boots and they felt contained and encumbered, where they’d previously felt free and unrestrained. In the days following, I tried grounding every morning, taking pleasure in the nature around me and feeling the earth in a way I hadn’t seemed to do before. I did it less mindfully too. I hung out some washing on a blustery, bright day without first slipping on my shoes, I held spiky conker shells on the palm of my hand and dug my hands deep into the soil with my daughter as we explored the outside, and I shook out doormats while standing barefoot on our natural stone patio.
Yes, it was a little chilly at times, but I came to embrace the coolness of the ground and the freshness of the air as an energising remedy to the stuffiness of the indoors. I can’t say for sure if my week of grounding improved my sleep, or was the reason for my balanced emotions that week, but I do know that stepping outside in the fresh air was good for me. There’s something magical about connecting to the earth with your bare feet and hands, and it’s a reminder that the simple joy – and healing prowess – of the great outdoors should not be overlooked, even in autumn and winter.
The wellness brigade believe how you breathe affects your mental and physical health. Scientists think it can improve your memory as well, says Harry Wallop
You might think breathing is as natural as, well, breathing. Most of us are able to complete the school run or pop to Pret for a bang bang chicken salad without giving the oxygen we inhale and the carbon dioxide we exhale a second thought.
“But most of us don’t breathe correctly,” says Jill McGowan. “Most people breathe through their mouths; our mouths were designed for speaking and eating, not breathing. We should breathe through our noses.” The former midwife is now a breath coach, which sounds as ludicrous as a walking coach. But don’t sneer. Breathing has become big business. There are now thousands of breathing coaches in the UK, and hundreds of apps that promise to “biohack your breathing”. Meanwhile, upmarket gyms and luxury spas are now marketing “clean breathing” alongside their saltwater pools. Practise “correct” breathing and you will have harder abs, lower levels of anxiety and will sleep better, its proponents claim.
It’s not just the wellness industry that has embraced breathing. Scientific researchers have studied the benefits of particular methods and concluded that, if harnessed fully, nasal breathing can improve not only athletic performance, but, surprisingly, your memory too. According to Artin Arshamian, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, inhaling through the nose stimulates neurons in the olfactory bulb, which is connected to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory hub.
Breathing has the ability to stir controversy too. Last month Scientific American, the US’s oldest magazine, which can boast Einstein as a former contributor, published a long article extolling the benefits of “cardiac coherence”, a technique that attempts to co-ordinate your breath with your heartbeat. “Cardiac coherence’s stabilisation of the heartbeat can dampen anxiety powerfully,” the article claimed.
Cue howls of protest on social media, not refuting the science, but furious that its source hadn’t been properly credited. Cardiac coherence, Twitter users pointed out, was a core part of Pranayama yoga, which has been practised for 2,500 years.
Well, yes and no, say breath coaches. “Coherent breathing equalises the inhale and the exhale and you will notice a drop in blood pressure and a drop in heart rate. That’s been around for ages,” says Alan Dolan, a breath coach who runs breathguru.com. However, one aspect of cardiac coherence makes it very much a 21st century technique. Namely, it uses a “biofeedback device”, a gizmo that can monitor your breath along with your heartbeat, and flash up your performance on a screen.
Most breathing workshops do not use a machine. “I’ve never used appliances like that,” Dolan says, “because when I do my breath work it’s so obvious.” He does, however, have an app called the Breath Guru, which for £3.99 guides people through a daily ten-minute breathing exercise, which you could argue is a form of very basic “biohacking” — although it doesn’t monitor your heart rate.
Dolan admits breath work is a form of meditation. “This is a physical mantra. You are focused on repeating that breathing pattern. I often say breath work is meditation for people who can’t meditate; for those people who say they can’t clear their mind.”
He says that 70 per cent of his clients come to him with anxiety related problems, depression or insomnia, and breath work is the ideal cure. “The vagus nerve is incredible. It is a cranial nerve which goes right into the stomach. Which is why so many people talk about the stomach being the second brain, because there are so many nerve endings there, and that’s why when we are anxious we get butterflies in our stomach.” By breathing more “consciously” you can learn to control the vagus nerve and reduce stress, he says.
To find out more, I attended a connected breathing class held by Rebecca Dennis. She used to work in advertising, but set up a practice called Breathing Tree a decade ago. “I used to have clinical depression. I was on medication [fluoxetine] for 15 years and every time I tried to come off it, I couldn’t function. I tried to take my life ten years ago and then two months after trying to take my life, I came to a breath workshop. Within a few months I came off my medication and I haven’t taken it for ten years.”
Before I attend she warns me that I should not drink coffee because I don’t want to be “buzzing” and that her workshops can be “very physical, people can get very hot, they can get very cold. Sometimes people are laughing hysterically, sometimes people get very light-headed. It is emotional, it can be spiritual — and has to be held in a safe space.”
The safe space is in a large yoga studio in Marylebone, west London. And there are about forty participants. I am one of only two men. I lie on my yoga mat as Dennis and her team run through various exercises.
After monitoring my breathing, she points out that I am breathing incorrectly. “You are moving your shoulders. Your shoulders are not breathing muscles.” To control the vagus nerve, I need to learn to breathe from the diaphragm. “That’s your breathing muscle.” She adds: “Research shows that the average teenager and adult is only using a third of their respiratory system.”
It is true that the average person, when at rest, fills their lungs — which may have a total capacity of six litres — with only about half a litre of air. But they are not falling down dead in the streets, I suggest. “But they could be coping a lot better,” Dennis says. Her breath exercises partly involve trying to recreate the full breath of a baby (“the perfect breath guru”) and she regularly prods your diaphragm to ensure you are engaging it.
It was certainly very relaxing lying mostly on my back for more than an hour, breathing in and out, and Dolan is right that it is perfect for those who struggle with traditional meditation. Whenever I am told to imagine a happy place I start to wonder what I am going to eat for supper. Trying to breathe in for a certain number of seconds, then hold it, then exhale for a certain amount of seconds, then hold it takes a surprising amount of concentration. And I do feel pleasantly light-headed by the end as a result of my blood pressure dropping.
But since the primary purpose is to connect with your emotions, I am not sure connected breathing is for me. I don’t have anxiety, I already sleep well, I tell Dennis. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some sort of emotional baggage,” she insists.
The Buteyko method, in contrast, promises to be less psychological and more physiological. It is named after a Ukrainian doctor of the 1950s and is eye-catchingly counterintuitive because it involves repeated, shallow, nasal breathing. “You have to breathe less to get more air,” explains Jill McGowan, who says the method — which focuses on nasal breathing — cured her acute asthma. “When I first heard this, I thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense. You are always told to take deep breaths.’ ”
Buteyko posits that most people are hyperventilating without realising, triggering something called the Bohr effect. “With the Bohr effect, molecules of haemoglobin, a protein in your blood cells which carries oxygen, stick together like glue,” explains McGowan. This means that, although you are taking great lungfuls of air, the oxygen is not actually making it into your brain cells or muscle tissues. Breathing less, ironically, is a more efficient way of raising oxygen levels in your body, the method claims.
No large peer-reviewed clinical study has proved the Buteyko method to be a better way of getting oxygen into the cells and tissue of the body, nor that it is a cure for asthma, but McGowan and other nurses are convinced that it works.
Yet even if the experts can’t agree on the benefits of shallow breathing, they can agree on the benefits of nasal breathing, not least because nasal hairs act as a natural filter for various pollutants. Second, breathing through the nose warms and moisturises the air, which helps to increase blood flow. Third, breathing out through the nose produces nitric oxide, a molecule that is crucial to good health. The nitric oxid combines with the body’s carbon dioxide to act as a smooth-muscle relaxant. “If you have high blood pressure you take drugs to relax your smooth muscles; if you breathe in and out through your nose you produce CO2 and nitric oxide, which brings the blood pressure down,” McGowan says.
Mouth-breathing does not release nearly as much nitric oxide. This also means that — although it is instinctive to breathe through the mouth during heavy exertion — your recovery times are not nearly as fast. Sanya Richards-Ross, who won gold at the London 2012 Olympics in the 400m, and is a proponent of Buteyko, hardly opens her mouth as she does a full circuit of the track.
If you haven’t got the discipline of an Olympian, resort to a bit of tape, McGowan suggests. “Any time I run now, I run with my mouth taped,” she says. “I even tape it at the gym because there is always the urge to breathe through your mouth.”
This sounds truly bizarre, but mouth-taping is becoming increasingly common and is being promoted by many as a way to improve sleep and stop snoring — by forcing you to breathe through your nose. You can buy mouth tape on the internet.
I try it, running around my local park. I get very odd looks. It is also incredibly difficult. I gave up after about five minutes, after I thought I was going to choke. One thing is certain: it makes you think about your breathing. And even if you aren’t keen on releasing any emotional baggage, spending ten minutes in the middle of the day focusing on your breathing and lowering your blood pressure is probably no bad thing.
To ease digestion
Try “ha breath” for digestion and joyful energy by Rebecca Dennis, the author of And Breathe
• Stand with your feet placed shoulder-width apart and knees bent.
• Place your hands on your lower abdomen and inhale through the mouth expanding the diaphragm.
• Exhale quickly through the mouth making the sound “ha”
• Repeat rapidly for two minutes.
The sleeping aid
Can’t sleep? To help you to relax, try this 4-7-8 exercise by Rebecca Dennis, the author of And Breathe.
• Exhale completely through your mouth, making a “whoosh” sound.
• Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
• Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound, to a count of eight. This is one breath.
• Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
The running tip
Improve your nasal breathing so that you can eventually tape up your mouth while running or sleeping. Exercise by Patrick McKeown, the author of The Oxygen Advantage.
• Inhale and exhale through your nose, then pinch your nose and hold your breath.
• Walk as many steps as you can, building up a medium to strong air shortage.
• Resume nose breathing and calm yourself as quickly as possible. (If you’re not able to recover within two to three breaths, you’ve held your breath for too long.)
• Wait one to two minutes, then do another breath hold.
• Repeat for six breath holds.
Beverley D’Silva visits Breath Guru Alan Dolan for a Conscious Connected Breath session
Conscious breathing is a powerful and safe way to infuse the body with oxygen and energy. It can have profound therapeutic benefits to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and integrate negativity. It can initiate openings to higher levels of consciousness, allowing us to tap into our resources and live our lives joyfully and in abundance.
Breath-work is having a big moment, I’m sure you’ll have noticed. It used to be the preserve of wellbeing sites and health mags but now all mainstream medias have got the breathing bug. With its origins in the ancient east, it is the latest holistic healing practice to be widely adopted in the west, with appreciation of its profound therapeutic effects. It’s probably the most important holistic breakthrough since we all ‘got’ yoga, meditation and acupuncture.
Yoginis and Yogis are well-versed in pranayama, and controlling the breath, the source of our prana, or vital life force. The new breath-work, however, is not tagged on at the end of a yoga session – it is a practice in its own right. There are many breath practices and exercises now in vogue – holotropic, Butyeko, rib-cage breathing. The one I am interested in is conscious connected breathing – that is, abdominal breathing done in a circular fashion with no pauses. Open, healthy breathing, just as babies breathe.
I love the sound of that, so I look up breath coaches, and one who is outstanding is Alan Dolan, aka Breathguru. With more than 15 years’ experience, he’s one of the most experienced breath coaches in Britain. He first trained with Judith Kravitz, co-creator of Transformational Breath and now simply calls his work conscious breathing. Starry clients he’s breathed include actress Naomie Harris and presenter Lisa Butcher, and with top healers Barefoot Doctor and Jody Shield pitching up at his door, you know something good’s afoot, so I’m super-excited to bag a session with him.
Just a hop, skip and a jump from the noisy Caledonian Road in north London, and I’m in a tranquil private mews, being greeted by Alan at his practice, Breathing Space. He has a kind smile and zen-like warmth that immediately puts you at ease.
A sentence from his website – ‘Breath work is the most powerful physical, emotional and psychological healing tool,’ – is in my mind as I follow him to his practice room. I also read there that studies of breath-work have shown it can boost the immune system, help with anxiety and depression, develop self-awareness, reduce chronic back pain and lower blood pressure. The bit I really like is it can help you access ‘divergent thinking’, which is so important to creativity. I could use some.
Alan used to be in PR in the aerospace industry. Like the best healers, he has endured his own suffering – chronic depression that dogged him, which he’s talked publicly about. Breath work pulled him out of the doldrums into a new, holistic life. Having helped himself, his mission is to help others feel better by breathing better.
His practice room is light-filled with a couch covered in downy fabric. We go through any physical issues (a niggly cough); state of mind (low-level anxiety – I live in on-full-alert London, after all); and medications. He asks me if I have an intention for the session – what would I like to achieve as a result of it. I would like endless energy and to write a bestselling novel – not much to ask!
Alan tells me to lie down (this is where loose clothing is a good idea), and close my eyes. He gives me a moment ‘to land in the space’. Then he says he is going to observe my breath in a resting pattern. Any hint of an examination normally makes my pulse race like a mouse on a Tube track, but it doesn’t feel like that. My breath is strong in the belly, he says – which is good. Around 80% of people don’t breathe much in the abdomen but are chest breathers (which can contribute to them feeling ‘spacey’ or dizzy). Breathing below the naval means I’m using my diaphragm fully. However, my breath could be stronger in the upper chest area.
He asks me to begin breathing in and out, through the mouth not the nose, as this technique brings in more oxygen, and to take a longer inhale and a shorter exhale – ‘like a quick silent sigh’. No pause between the in and out breath, a continuously connected flowing breath. This connected breathing turns on the body’s self-healing, he says. He models the pattern – about 4 beats inhaling to 1 beat exhaling. And it’s important that the exhale is relaxed, like a soft but silent sigh.
Music is played, a tribal rhythm with a heavy drumbeat. My breathing gradually syncs to its rhythm. Alan coaches me to keep my breathing connected – ‘no pauses’ – and to keep my mouth. He props me more upright on pillows, to help bring more breath into the upper chest.
While I’m focusing on that, he begins to use ‘body mapping’ points – pressing with his hand or fingertips on points, on my torso, near the ribs, behind the calves, around the shoulders. I learn later body-mapping points correspond to emotional issues – like meridian points relate to physical issues. A point can be about moving forward in life, for example, or expressing love, or letting go of anger. The pressure is mostly gentle though sometimes, as with a point between the ribs, it’s so firm as to feel tender. If a point is tender it is in most need of being worked on. He coaches me with phrases such as ‘It’s good to breathe’ and ‘it’s safe to let go’.
I feel a gentle throbbing in my temples, and across my cheeks, like a mild anaesthetic at the dentist. It goes away after a few minutes. Apparently this sensation is called tetany and is common, especially in new conscious breathers.
I’m almost nodding off when Alan gets me to make a sound – ‘Say Ahhhhh…..’ He jokes ‘Pick another note and make like Pavarotti’. He also gets me pounding my fists on the bed and stamping my feet while toning.
Certain phrases are spoken, though I only vaguely remember them, to do with receiving any gifts or insights that might be helpful to me – afterwards he explains these were invocations, to help me generally. It all definitely shifts my feelings from drowsy to energised. It’s like flying or skating through a wonderful dreamscape while being totally alert.
After what seemed like no time (in fact it was around 40 minutes), he tells me to let my breathing return to its normal pace. I have a few minutes’ recovery time. To close the session, he plays the beautiful Devi Prayer; Hymn to the Divine Mother Akasha, a plaintive song that makes me want to cry – and I feel releasing tears slide down my face.
There is the dinging of a bell and I sit up, fully awake. We have a post-breathing pep talk. My breathing pattern is good overall, he says, my main issue is with my exhale. He thinks it is connected to me not wanting to let go and lose control. I can relate to that. He mentions my ‘lunar point’ – the female or yang equivalent of the ‘solar point’ or yin solar plexus, which he feels is connected with the mother, who he sees in my energy field. Well, my beloved mum and I were close, so that wouldn’t surprise me. He thinks when I was around five I decided I didn’t feel safe with the adults, ‘so you started to do things your own way.’ He’s so right about that, too, but how could he know? He says he recognised this in me because it was his experience, too. I want to go forward in life but hold back, an issue of trust. ‘It’s time you saw things through….’ Could this be the unfinished novel sitting on my desk…? This is almost like psychic intuition with some reading of body language. You know what? I find it more insightful and helpful than years of psychotherapy.
I leave my breath session feeling totally rejuvenated – light, energised and clear-headed. I feel as if I’ve been breathing fresh air on a Swiss mountaintop instead of north-London grog. I have exciting new ideas whizzing around – did divergent thinking kick in? Take note, creatives! I feel so happy to have found breath work, my new favourite holistic therapy. I’m very grateful to have met Alan Dolan, who is a fantastic breath coach. I am a conscious breathing convert. I will add that into my next set of invocations.
Fill your lungs and empty your mind – deep-breathing techniques will help you keep a clear head
Nobody wants to be told they’re not doing the essentials correctly, but I think it’s time we talked about the fact you’re not breathing right. Well, OK, you’re alive so you’ve got the bare essentials down. But how about the ways you can breathe to make the more extreme moments more bearable?
The way you breathe when exerting yourself or when things get stressful can have a huge impact on how you deal with these particularly difficult states: ask anyone who’s ever been bad at breathing during a workout. Actually, you don’t even need to ask them, because we spoke to the experts in breathing about how exactly you can change the way you face a crunch time via inhalation and exhalation.
Alan Dolan, BreathGuru
“Our brand of Conscious Connected Breathing aims to open up the full capacity of the lungs (on average we use about 25 per cent) in order to release excess emotional baggage, increase oxygen to starved tissue and recharge energy levels.
“Not only is our breathing technique an effective and healthy way to protect ourselves from the ravages of stress and anxiety, it also provides an immediate remedy for dealing with symptoms as they occur.
“The beauty of our technique is that you can do it yourself at home:
1. Lie on your back on the floor in a quiet spot where you wont be disturbed. Place a pillow under your head and shoulders.
2. Begin to breathe through your mouth. Your mouth should be open wide enough so that you can get your index and middle finger in between your upper and lower teeth.
3. Breathe deeply into your abdomen, just below your navel. Imagine you are inflating a balloon in your stomach with each inhale.
4. Without pausing, release your breath in a short, soft sigh, like fogging a mirror.
5. Again, without pausing, take a deep inhale through your mouth and continue the steps.
6. The key is to keep the breath flowing so that each inhale and exhale is connected, continuously moving.”
As spiritual wellbeing becomes a new measure of health, travellers are searching for a getaway that offers something beyond unlimited spa treatments and bargain shopping, writes Emma Vidgen.
The girls’ trip has come a long way since the all-inclusive booze cruise. As the pace of modern life reaches dizzying new speeds, so too does the need for something meaningful. Healing modalities once dismissed as ‘new age’ are increasingly topping holiday wish lists.
“Most of the people I work with are stereotypical professionals who are living very fast lives and are very often parents,” says Alan Dolan, aka the Breath Guru. “What they have in common is that they’re overloaded and have so many responsibilities.”
Today’s spiritual getaways are all about stepping off the hamster wheel and reconnecting with yourself. Here, we round up five now-age trends coming to a holiday near you…
WHAT IS IT? “Breathwork is a self-healing modality designed to be done by you, for you,” says Dolan. Using a series of connected breathing exercises and techniques, the practice puts participants into a meditative state where the body can rest and repair.
HOW IT WORKS “Breathwork activates the body’s auto-pilot recalibration system,” says Dolan. “The cells begin to work better and more efficiently, and that means you also work more efficiently.” Dolan has helped people with ailments ranging from depression and anxiety to sleep disorders, chronic fatigue and severe pain. “Indigenous tribes have been experimenting with sound, rhythm, movement and breath since the dawn of time. To me, breathwork is very, very ancient. We’re really just rediscovering it.”
WHERE TO TRY IT Dolan runs workshops throughout the year from his property in Lanzarote, Spain. Four-night retreats start from approximately $2000 per person.
How can you turn something you do every day into a seasonal mood booster? Writer Karen Swayne discovers a natural high that’s under your very nose
I know, I know .. going to a retreat to learn how to breathe sounds like the ultimate in woo-woo indulgence. We do it instinctively from birth and, having made it this far, we must be doing something right.
But, says Alan Dolan, aka the Breath Guru, we can all learn how to do it much, much better, and by doing so, reduce tension, gain sharper focus, enhance wellbeing and give ourselves a spiritual detox to boot. With a full-on combination of work, family, a gruelling commute and with Christmas fast approaching, free energy on tap sounds super-appealing, so I book myself into the Lanzarote villa where Alan runs his connected breathing retreats.
‘Jean shorts, grey T-shirt – look for the hippy :),’ reads his text message when I land at the airport where we’re due to meet.
Slightly dishevelled, but instantly engaging and interested, Alan is a well-travelled soul who’s lived in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, before settling in the Canaries. He has called Lanzarote his home for the past 15 years, drawn by the year-round sunshine. As we drive through the dramatic black lava landscape, he explains why he’s on a mission to help the stressed out slow down, find some space and trust in the healing power of their own body. It’s clearly going well – among his fans is actor Naomie Harris, and we’re travelling in a smart and very unhippyish Range Rover.
Why breathing? ‘Most people only use a fraction of their lung capacity,’ he says, ‘Conscious, or connected breathwork allows us to access much more than that, and infuse the body with oxygen and energy. All it takes is a little bit of practice. Basically, it’s meditation for people who can’t meditate: a way of pressing pause on our 24/7 lives.’
I’m all for that, but surprisingly nervous – what if I’m no good at it? Still, I’m happy to find that the villa is a zen-like delight: cool, minimal, stylish rooms surround a pool, Buddhas gaze benignly down from walls, and the mountain views are spectacular. With no alcohol, caffeine or meat on offer, I’m looking forward to a physical detox, as well as body reset in time for the festive season.
Alan works with small groups of three or four people at a time, and joining me are Jim, a retired teacher from
Fife who is here to get space to reflect, and Liz, a clinical psychologist from London who had a one-off session with Alan in the UK and wanted a deeper experience. We will soon know the intimate details of each other’s lives; it turns out that this breathing thing can be rather exposing.
Pinned to the kitchen wall is the day’s schedule, which doesn’t look too gruelling:
8.15am: ginger and apple shots and smoothie
11.30am: one-to-one breathe session with Alan
4.00pm: group breathe session
8.00pm: hot tub
9.00pm: self practice
It’s something of a surprise to find myself staggering around just a few hours later like a spaced-out zombie, desperate to lay my head down and sleep.
First up is the massage (more of a full body workout), which is designed to open up the body to prepare it for the breathwork later. In the strong, skilful hands of Martin, the air is pushed out of my lungs, while the combination of shiatsu, reiki, deep tissue and craniosacral work leaves me shattered. But, before I have time to draw breath, it’s straight to the therapy room for my first one-to-one session.
Cross-legged on cushions, Alan explains that our regular breathing is so shallow that we only use around 25% of our lung capacity. Breathing through my mouth will allow me to draw in more air down to the lower lungs and flood my red blood cells with oxygen. Most importantly, I must stay ‘connected’, with no pauses between inhaling and exhaling.
I soon get the hang of it and almost immediately feel the physical effects. It starts with a tingling in my hands and arms. Alan has primed me to expect a sensation like pins and needles or Champagne bubbles flowing through my veins, but this is way more intense. They are throbbing, as if my body is expanding Incredible Hulk-style, as the blood rushes around. At times, the pressure is so great that it’s as if someone is pressing down on my body.
It’s unnerving, but as Alan murmurs positive affirmations, such as ‘I am good enough’, and gently applies acupressure to stress points, mainly my hips and collarbones, the hour flies by. Afterwards, I feel charged with energy, like one of the women in Naomi Alderman’s futuristic novel The Power who can take down men by pointing a finger at them and zapping them with electricity.
Tottering to my room, I catch sight of myself in the mirror; pupils dilated, I look dazed and confused – in a way I haven’t been since I used to go clubbing (decades ago). Can I really do four days of this? I crash out and go straight to sleep. Later that day, I attend the group session, which is slightly less intense. There’s a different energy in the room, but the physical sensations remain.
The following morning, I wake after a fitful sleep with a pounding headache, which continues on and off over the course of my stay. As the days drift by, I find I’m unable to focus on anything; I can’t concentrate on a book or look at a screen. Jim, Liz and I spend our time talking about our experiences or simply sleeping. A beach walk feels like a major expedition – the thought of Christmas shopping is simply unimaginable. But, in our final one-to one session, Alan says, ‘Let’s see if we can get you to Nirvana…’.
With each breathing session, I’ve gone deeper into my body and, by now, the feeling is comfortingly familiar. While I wouldn’t call it blissful, it feels more natural and when the session ends, I surprise myself by finding tears flowing down my cheeks. The strange thing is that I don’t feel sad or emotional, in fact, I feel strangely calm, but every sensation is heightened – touch, sound and vision – it feels quite psychedelic, with the brightness turned up to max. ‘There you go, you made it,’ says Alan. ‘Just wow!’, I scrawl later in my journal.
Back home, and doing daily 10-minute sessions every morning, my exhaustion is a distant memory. I feel charged with energy and ready to handle anything the festive season (and Southern Railway) can throw at me. Connected breathing is one of the best antidotes to stress and anxiety, and at this busy time of year, I’m using it to find calm in the chaos.
Now get breathing
The beauty of the conscious breathing technique is that it can be done anywhere you can find a bit of privacy. Start with a five-minute session at the beginning or end of the day and increase up to 10-15 minutes.
1. Lie on your back on the floor in a safe, secure environment where you won’t be disturbed. Place a pillow under your head and shoulders.
2. Begin to use your mouth to breathe – make sure it’s open wide enough by checking you can get your index finger between your upper and lower teeth.
3. Breathe deeply into your abdomen, aiming for just below your navel. Imagine you are inflating a balloon in your stomach with each inhale.
4. Without pausing, take a short breath out – a gentle puff, as if fogging a mirror. The emphasis is on the inhale, the exhale is a short, soft sigh.
5. Your breath needs to flow, so imagine it is like a swing, continuously moving.
6. Once you have finished, close your mouth, and breathe through your nose. Notice any emotions and physical feelings and allow them to just be.
It is no small coincidence that the wellness industry is thriving at a time when stress has reached epidemic levels, the NHS is in crisis, health insurance is inadequate and millennials are insatiably hungry for tech-based solutions to age-old problems. Longer working weeks, fewer hours of rest and a fixation with smartphones has created an appetite for fitness and mind-body therapies currently worth $542 billion*.
From yoga and mindfulness to gong baths and breathing techniques, practices that were once the butt of bad jokes have been given a thoroughly modern overhaul (and some much-needed scientific validation) for a generation of anxiety-ridden insomniacs. Here we detail three apps from 2018’s most forward-thinking wellness leaders.
Breathing techniques have been used for millennia to engage the parasympathetic system (responsible for the body’s unconscious actions), lower stress hormones and calm overactive minds. The brand of “conscious breathing” employed by breath guru Mr Alan Dolan aims to open up the full capacity of the lungs (workaholics and urbanites tend to use just 25%) in order to release excess emotional baggage, increase oxygen to starved tissue and recharge energy levels.
The technique was a game changer for Mr Dolan himself. A former PR manager in the aerospace industry, he achieved his financial goals only to remain deeply unsatisfied. The shift he experienced from breath work encouraged him to formalise a method that has tangible effects on his clients’ daily lives: smokers can be reformed, the anxious can find ease and the vast majority experience some level of emotional release.
Mr Dolan’s popularity means private sessions aren’t always immediately available, a conundrum that led him to create an app that features a series of easy-to-follow instructional videos for each day of the week.
Use your lungs to improve your mind — and get high. Susan d’Arcy takes a class with the Breath Guru
We can, literally, do it in our sleep, but, according to Alan Dolan, we’ve been doing it all wrong.
Dolan — 55, from Manchester — is the Breath Guru, and his mission is to get people breathing better. So much better, in fact, that their memory will be improved, stress levels lowered and even depression lifted. There are City boys who’ve trained with Dolan who say he’s helped them sharpen their focus. There are pop and rock stars who report that his breathing technique gives them a bigger buzz than drugs. The actress Naomie Harris is a past student.
Dolan is an advocate of “conscious connected breathing” and, earlier this month, I flew to his retreat on Lanzarote to see if he could put some puff in my pipes.
Varieties of so-called “transformational breathing” have been big among Hollywood sorts for a while. I tried it in LA last year and loved it, but my instructor told me that it was too dangerous to practise at home on my own. Dolan, on the other hand, promises he can teach me all I need to know in a long weekend, setting me up for a lifetime of happy, connected inhaling and exhaling.
His retreat is an unpretentious three-bedroom villa in the well-to-do hillside village of Nazaret. When he first appears, I can’t help thinking he looks like Noel Edmonds gone native: same beard, same cheeky grin, but wearing a Captain America T-shirt, low-slung shorts and a footballer’s hairband to tame his flowing locks. He is unnervingly cheerful, but I like him. When I tell him I’m not interested in a spiritual awakening, thank you, just getting a better brain, he understands.
Fifteen years ago, he was bashing out press releases about military aircraft for BAE Systems, driving a Porsche Boxster and deeply depressed. He resigned, retrained as a breath coach, regained his mojo and moved to Lanzarote. Now, 14 years on, he wants to share the secret of his happiness.
His white-walled Breath Room is only fractionally longer and wider than the two king-size mattresses on the floor. There is Buddha artwork on the walls, incense fills the air and Robbie Williams sings Feel through the speakers. I’m on edge, and not just because of Robbie’s high notes. I’m sitting with my knees raised, arms protectively hugging my shins. Dolan is sprawled across some scatter cushions, limbs so loose they could have been deboned.
He tells me babies breathe from their bellies, which keeps them connected to their root chakra and their inner selves. As the appeal of Peppa Pig fades, so does our breathing technique, and we start to use only the upper chest. This is not good. He tells me that connected breathing will access my entire respiratory system, oxygenating cells more efficiently, thereby improving my general health, clearing out my emotional baggage and tuning me in to God and the universe. He stops and smiles: “Yeah, I know you think that’s piffle.”
He instructs me to lie back, inhale through my open mouth down into my belly and exhale gently, also through my mouth, as if I’m fogging a mirror. Crucially, I must then inhale again immediately, creating a continuous loop — ie, connecting my breath. I’ve flown 1,700 miles to be told to breathe in after breathing out?
This is not like relaxation exercises or yogic breathing. Almost instantly, my mouth is bone-dry. I panic, cough and protest that I need to swallow. Dolan gently insists that I don’t. I keep pausing. I correct that, but then exhale too forcefully. Finally, I get the hang of it, mostly.
Thirty minutes later, Dolan says I can breathe through my nose again. Suddenly, I know what those hard-partying rockers are on about. My body is flooded with a wonderful energy. The sensation lasts for about 10 blissful minutes before being replaced by a sense of clarity and concentration, which remains for the rest of the day.
“You just hyperventilated,” my husband sneers when I phone him after my first session. According to Dolan, hyperventilation is about exhaling more than you inhale, decreasing levels of carbon dioxide and leading to faintness. The average person uses just 30% of their lung capacity when they breathe, he says. His strategy is about utilising the spare 70%. Either way, I’m counting the hours until my next session.
By my fourth session with Dolan, I can breathe through my mouth without swallowing for 30 minutes, no problem. This doesn’t affect my subsequent levels of euphoria and lucidity, but it makes getting there more pleasant. My fellow students are similarly seduced. One is a fiftysomething property developer who realised he had to address his stress levels as he struggled into an ambulance with a suspected heart attack. He reports feelings of elation, vibrations through his body, and a few tears. By day three, he looks 10 years younger. The other is a twentysomething actress on her second visit in six months.
In between my two daily workshops, I laze by the pool or in the hot tub, looking at the distant volcanoes, go for excellent massages and eat the retreat’s cracking vegetarian meals.
As I prepare to leave, I feel refreshed, focused and free from the computer ache that usually plagues my neck and shoulders. I am aghast, however, to discover that there is no breathing session on departure day. “I don’t want you in an altered state at the airport,” Dolan explains. I beg for one more session. Duty-free never seemed so serene. Back home, I’m now on 20,000 deep breaths a day and officially addicted.
When asked what he does first thing in the morning, Marcel Duchamp reportedly replied, “Breathe.” In addition to being one of the patron saints of the Madness issue, Duchamp was right on trend: Breathing classes, workshops, therapies, and retreats are on the rise, and there’s lots of money being made. Kelly Conaboy inhaled.
Do you breathe? I mean: Do you breathe?
Your hippie friend says holotropic breathing is the new ayahuasca. Your Goop-y friend does breath exercises in the salt room at their spa. Your super-scheduled friend has a breathing app on her phone. And your friend who owns the self-improvement aisle at the bookstore has been going to breathing therapy for months.
Like it did with yoga in the ’90s, Western culture has opened its mind to breathing, née pranayama, as a tool to wield against anxiety, stress, and physical ailments, as well as a way to trip the fuck out. The practice of mindful breathing has traveled through time from the world’s oldest living religion, Hinduism, to the world’s newest religion, Wellness, and counts Gwyneth Paltrow, Karlie Kloss, Oprah, Emma Watson, and the New York Knicks among its practitioners. It is often dubbed as a quick way to relieve stress and, indeed, “the new yoga!”
The association with capital-W Wellness is unfortunate. Though the Wellness movement’s goals may be pure (and that’s giving it the benefit of the doubt), the path it takes to secular enlightenment is often through a field of toxin-filled money landmines and junk science, which can give one a sense of knee-jerk, often correctly cynical, disapproval. Because the concept of Wellness stretches so broadly—natural makeup is Wellness, and so is cultivating a sense of inner peace, and so is salad—it has an association with luxury that can sometimes feel discordant (like, uh, luxury meditation).
And when the luxury peddled at the Church of Wellness is breathing, the absurdity is hard to ignore. Breathing is one of life’s simplest pleasures and can be done anywhere, anytime, at little-to-no cost—go ahead, try it now. But those who are looking for something a little more high-end can get their kicks with a four-day breathing retreat in a beautiful poolside villa in Lanzarote (one of the Canary Islands), or private $550 breathing classes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; there was even, of course, a dedicated breathing room and breathwork sessions offered at the New York City Goop summit.
Is paying someone to show you how to breathe ridiculous or a surprisingly reasonable way to grow healthier? I live in New York City, a Western Wellness capital rivaled only by L.A. And like everyone else with access to Twitter, I’d love to feel more balanced, calm, and free from sickness and symptoms. And so, with credit card in hand, I set out to learn firsthand: Is breathwork bullshit?
My first foray into capitalistic respiration cost less than a green juice. For $3.99, I obtained a breathing app from the man who runs that Lanzarote retreat I mentioned earlier, “BreathGuru” Alan Dolan. The eponymous program comprises two guided breathing sessions and a few videos featuring the guru himself. I’d rather never watch a video, but the guided breathing sessions are nice. It’s pleasant to lie down and breathe for either 10 or 30 minutes, which are the two options. Nothing much is demanded of you, and breathing is a clinically proven stress reliever (you can read about this March 2017 Stanford University study on breathing’s positive effects on emotion, if you’d like). The app is more expensive than the typical cost of breathing, but you also get to hear New Age music and a man breathing with you—maybe you like that.
The BreathGuru’s claims don’t stop at stress relief, however. “Degenerative diseases, cardiac problems, and cancer are linked to oxidative stress and cellular free-radical damage, and breath is a key factor in prevention,” Dolan said in a Net-A-Porter article on the power of breathing. “When the breath is out of kilter, your body’s fight-or-flight mode is heightened. But get the breath right and cells are flooded with oxygen, so the body begins to recalibrate and release toxins.”
It always strikes me as particularly insidious when cancer is brought up in the promotional material of Wellness salespeople. But I am trying to breathe and remain relaxed, so I spoke to Geoffrey Chupp, M.D., a pulmonary medicine professor at Yale University and director at the Yale Center for Asthma and Airways Disease, about whether or not all this stuff was bullshit.
“There’s a desire to say that if you breathe right, you’re going to have less cancer, but it’s a more complex relationship,” he said. “What’s pretty clear is that having healthy lungs contributes to having a healthy body. And having healthy lungs means that you have to use them, and you have to use them properly, and you have to take care of them. I think the link is that breathing exercises, the fads and the traditional ones, are ways of keeping your lungs healthy.”
So the purported health payoffs aren’t just a marketing ploy? “There’s probably pretty good data out there supporting the benefits of [breathing exercises] for a lot of diseases,” he said, “including psychiatric diseases and anxiety, cancer, heart attacks, and most important in my field is asthma.”
Dr. Chupp told me about a study, published in the Journal of Asthma in 2011, on the benefits of yoga and breathing exercises on asthma; it was inconclusive, but showed in some cases that patients had better asthma control if they exercised. The connection between your breathing and your brain is well known in both sickness and in health, he explained—breathing has a chemical effect on your blood, and a chemical and hormonal effect on your brain. When you’re anxious, you breathe quickly; when you breathe deeply, you can decrease anxiety.
“The normal response to exercise is to bronchodilate,” meaning to increase airflow to the lungs, “so I think a lot of these [breathing exercises] are basically facilitating that and ensuring that your airways are being ventilated,” he said. In deep (vs. shallow) breathing, you fill your lungs to their full capacity, so you’re trading a larger amount of carbon dioxide for oxygen with which to oxygenate the blood. This is proven to ease anxiety, and sounds good to me.
Heartened by the cosign from a medical professional, I decided to take the next monetary step toward breath perfection: I visited MNDFL—an extremely good-looking meditation studio chain with three NYC locations—for its $25 BREATH class. “Feeling stressed or anxious?” MNDFL’s website asks. Yes! I’m so glad you asked. “This is a good class for you. Learn to focus on your breathing in order to become more present. Work with the breath in a way that allows you to be more calm and not get too lost in your own head.”
MNDFL’s space—wooden, bright white, light-flooded—is dotted with large, leafy green plants. It faces a floor-to-ceiling window that frames a large outdoor moss version of the MNDFL logo. It’s a calm, beautiful, perfectly branded breathing space, and I’d booked my spot online, which was very convenient. I sat cross-legged on a cushion early in the morning surrounded mostly by beautiful women in casual business attire. We breathed in a fairly nonstructured way, and listened to a very soothing woman talk to us about our breath and our thoughts. Periodically, she would give us tips: Focus on your breath; give a bit of attention to nagging thoughts and then let them go. It was essentially a meditation class, and it was extremely fine.
Here’s the thing about mentally therapeutic techniques, such as breathwork: Shilling them without knowing much about the mind of the client can be tricky. I spoke with Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at New York Medical College and part of the husband-wife team behind Breath Body Mind (an evidence-based breathwork initiative that aims to “integrate the best of conventional and natural treatments”), about what she sees as the potential missteps of mass-distributed holistic mental care.
Mostly, she said, the issue stems from not understanding or explaining potential side effects. “We see very famous people recommending their brand of a breathing practice, and that’s going to be fine for 95% of people,” she said. “But we know some people will have a bad reaction. Anyone can take an idea and put a little twist on it and make it sound like their own special thing, but if they don’t really understand how that affects the system, physically and psychologically, then their little twist may add something that’s not good for people.”
But the mass-distributed breathwork is growing, and with it research, evidence, and acceptance. “Most recently, the National Veterans Association made the decision that veteran treatment facilities should offer mind-body practices,” Dr. Gerbarg said. “They’re open to it, and they’re now officially offering it in a way that incentivizes VA facilities to find people to teach these kinds of programs.”
One solution—a pricey one, of course—is one-on-one breath sessions. These are offered in places ranging from yoga studios to well-appointed lofts to your very own apartment, usually with a Skype option available for out-of-town breathing. The one I tried, a $180, 60-minute session called Rebirthing, was a surprisingly wonderful experience. It didn’t start out that way; the night before, I had to fill out a very insane 38-question form, which asked what time I was born, what my most negative thoughts about relationships are, and what I was like as a child. At the start of the session, the breathworker and I went over my answers together, which was slightly uncomfortable.
But afterward, the very kind breathworker just watched me breathe while I lay under a blanket on a little massage table—big deep breath in, big deep breath out, big deep breath in, big deep breath out—for an hour. She told me my hands and face and legs might get numb and rigid during the breathing, and, wow, they did. It was very odd. But I did not suffer a breakdown, which I was nervous about. I also did not invent a memory of being involved in a Satanic sex cult, which I was also nervous about. After, I felt briefly energized and slightly happier, and she told me I was a very good breather, which I include not as a brag, but as a fact.
Of all the Wellness-centered breathwork offerings out there, holotropic breathing is one of the most, well, out-there. The technique was engineered in the ’70s by Stanislav Grof, M.D., and his wife, Christina, psychotherapists researching the effects of LSD. The practice, meant to mirror LSD’s effects, is done by inhaling and exhaling quickly—essentially mildly hyperventilating—while lying on your back, typically for about three hours, and usually to a soundtrack of meditative music. The trippy experience is practiced in the name of accessing otherwise inaccessible parts of the psyche, letting go of past trauma, and decreasing anxiety.
I asked Dr. Chupp what happens in your body when you do this, mostly because I was afraid I might die while trying it. “What you’re probably doing is getting rid of carbon dioxide, so you’re changing the acid-base balance in your body,” he said. According to Google just now, the acid-base balance is based on the levels of carbon dioxide (an acid) and bicarbonate (a base) in the blood. “That would need to be studied pretty scientifically, at almost a molecular level, to understand what the effects are,” he added.
“For people who are looking to have some sort of very intense experience, this can provide it,” Dr. Gerbarg explained. “People who are very psychologically healthy and well put together can tolerate it fine.” But holotropic and even rebirth breathwork can be upsetting—even destabilizing—for those who aren’t as psychologically sound. “It’s creating an altered mental state. So people used to do this as a way to have trips and other psychological experiences,” she said. She specified that she wasn’t criticizing the techniques, because they can do a lot of good, “but I do believe that some of those practices are not safe for the general public in the way that we use them.”
She advised practicing these techniques—if one must—one-on-one with an experienced breathworker, rather than in a large group.
But I’d already signed up for my group holotropic session, so I blew off the suggestion (sorry, Patricia!) and found myself in a group of Rag & Bone–looking people in a second-floor loft space in Lower Manhattan. The class took place at Woom, and luckily, it was not a nightmarishly bad experience in the ways I feared most (Satanic sex cult recovered memory). The holotropic breathwork was part of a Friday night five-part sound meditation session ($40) and lasted not for the standard three hours, but for 20 minutes. The room was full of very beautiful people in loose clothing who were hanging all over one another before the session began, which made me realize this was perhaps a thing people did before they had sex. (I was alone.)
For the session, everyone lay on blankets on the ground (extremely uncomfortable because the five-part session lasted two and a half hours, but I’m not complaining—I would never complain) and put blindfolds on that said “LOOK INSIDE” on the inside part. During the breathing practice, the instructor moved around the space banging a gong faster and faster, to the tempo of our breaths. The sound of everyone hyperventilating together was, I must admit, to my ear (and I say this without judgment): extremely not pleasing. About 30 men and women all going [inhale] [HUUUUUHHHHH], [inhale] [HUUUUUHHHHH], [inhale] [HUUUUUHHHHH] for 20 minutes is simply not something I am naturally inclined to enjoy, and that’s fine. The breathing was at a much faster pace than the breathing during rebirthing, and while I got a bit of the same numbness, I got none of the pleasant feelings and also chest pain.
But I am only speaking for myself. In the final part of the session, we were invited to share our experiences: One man said he could feel “toxin after toxin” leaving his body, and one woman said she felt herself going back to the womb. (Remarkably, she did not add, “Like you will be going back to the Woom, every week, for more meditation,” so I don’t believe she was an advertising plant.) I am happy for them, and I genuinely hope they did not feel my light negativity.
I don’t see breathing’s rise in popularity as a bad thing, though that is admittedly an odd sentence to have to write. “I think it’s gaining popularity because it makes people feel better,” Dr. Chupp told me. “There doesn’t have to be data for things to become popular. It just has to make people feel good.” He added that he believes if more studies were done, “and they probably should be,” they’d attest to breathing’s power.
Basically, breathing is good for you, and people deserve to practice absolutely anything within the realm of decency that helps them feel even the slightest bit better. But it’s important to take a moment to pause and consider what you’re buying, why you’re buying it, if you should be buying it, and from whom you’re buying it. Slow down; be mindful of your mindful breathing. Take a deep breath. Exhale. [HUUUUUHHHHH].
Mindfulness in nature, wild fitness, all-day yoga, this is our round-up of Spanish retreats to experience this season. Namasté.
Conscious breathing in Lanzarote – Breath Guru’s retreat is located in a rural location in the most easterly part of the Canary Islands. This luxury sanctuary is a villa that only accommodates 4 guests at a time to ensure maximum relaxation (and learning). Daily 1-1 breath sessions with Alan Dolan – the owner and guru – takes place in the complete privacy of a therapy room and can be coupled with massage, personal training, or even volcano climbing. The rest of the day is spent sunbathing on the local beach – Famara – and enjoying freshly made vegetarian meals.