Such a claim may seem like hot air, but it’s not to be sniffed at: optimising how you breathe offers health benefits – and, experts argue, could even help you to manage your business more effectively
We do it about 12 times every minute without even thinking about it, but it keeps us alive. In fact, if we were to stop doing it for just the amount of time it takes to boil an egg, most of us would suffer some form of brain damage. Breathing supplies our cells with the oxygen they need, helps to regulate our temperature, restores our energy and dictates how well we sleep. What’s more, according to experts, taking a little time to focus on this most important of bodily functions could make you a better leader.
Preoccupied by the relentless demands of running a business, it’s only natural that directors are more mindful of their output than their outbreath. While focusing on making your firm’s assets go as far as possible, you could be failing to put the most valuable resource at your disposal to its best use. Optimal breathing, it has been proved, can help you to concentrate and increase your productivity. Indeed, it can make leaders more creative, better able to cope with the demands of their work – and happier.
Richard Russell is a consultant respiratory physician at Lymington New Forest Hospital. He believes that most of us don’t breathe “naturally” any more.
“As babies, we naturally take deep breaths from our abdomens. As we get older, periods of stress cause our central nervous systems to operate in the sympathetic mode. This means that our natural ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in, which causes us to take shorter, sharper breaths,” explains Russell, who is also an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Oxford. “Over time, we become used to over-breathing and start to hyperventilate permanently, which leads to a poor exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.”
Taking in too little oxygen this way can lead to symptoms including dizziness, headaches, confusion and poor co-ordination. This can eventually cause a condition known as hypoxaemia, where there isn’t enough oxygen in the blood to nourish our tissues and organs properly, resulting in extreme fatigue, insomnia, depression and even panic attacks. Over-breathing can also mean that we exhale too much carbon dioxide, which can put the pH levels of our cells out of balance.
It’s estimated that 80 per cent of people in the western world over-breathe. Directors are particularly prone to it because of their relatively high exposure to work-related stress. Typical signs of permanent hyperventilation include the tendency to breathe through the mouth instead of the nose; the need to inhale deeply before talking; and, most notably, an overdependence on the muscles of the upper chest. The way to correct it, experts claim, is to learn to breathe more slowly and deeply using the diaphragm, thereby rebalancing the autonomic nervous system.
“Many people in highly demanding roles understand the importance of taking time out to exercise and eat well to maintain good physical health, but very few pay attention to how they breathe, which is just as important,” says Alan Dolan, a “breath guru” who teaches a technique known as conscious breathing. “This involves really focusing on infusing the body with oxygen. It’s a safe and effective way of recharging our own, often depleted, systems to work to their healing capacity.”
As a former PR manager in the aerospace industry, Dolan had been suffering from executive stress himself when he discovered conscious breathing while on a sabbatical in 2004. Its mooted benefits include a reduction in stress, an increased ability to learn and a clearer mind. What’s more, you should start looking healthier, as there will be more oxygenated blood getting to your skin.
“Most people use only 25 per cent of their breathing capacity, but virtually every condition can be improved simply by drawing a fuller breath,” says Dolan, who now runs regular “breathing space retreats” and workshops in the UK and at his home on Lanzarote.
Lifestyle factors also affect how well we breathe, of course. A lack of exercise and excessive talking can be detrimental, as can poor air quality (smokers are obviously putting themselves at a huge disadvantage here). A study by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz has found that more than three million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution – a bigger death toll than that of malaria and HIV/Aids combined. If you can exercise regularly, get plenty of fresh air and avoid smoking your muscles should become more efficient at using the oxygen you take in.
So how can you fit conscious breathing into your busy routine? See below for the technique that Dolan advocates, which takes only 10 minutes a day. As you get used to breathing this way, your body will receive the amount of oxygen it needs and you should feel the benefits, to both your health and your performance as a business leader.
Alan Dolan’s daily 10-minute conscious breathing exercise
Lie supine in a warm, quiet place, with your head and upper body propped up at a 45-degree angle, firmly supported by pillows or cushions. Place your hands on your abdomen so that you can feel the breaths you’ll be taking. With your mouth wide open and jaw relaxed, inhale through your mouth deep into your abdomen for a count of two, then immediately exhale for one, like a quick sigh. Don’t pause; breathe in a continuous flow. The goal, Dolan says, is a “connected breath”.
The Landmark London has partnered with alternative practitioner Alan Dolan – founder of Breathing Space – to launch a new service as part of the reopening of the hotel’s spa and health club.
Dolan has created a special package for guests looking to “transform their lives” through improving their breathing techniques.
“Conscious breathing is a powerful and safe way to infuse the body with oxygen and energy and recharge one’s systems to the maximum healing capacity,” Dolan said. “Breathwork can lead you to enjoy optimum health, mental and emotional clarity and experience an ever-deepening relationship with yourself.”
The introduction of the new service is part of the relaunch of The Landmark London’s spa, which has undergone an extensive redevelopment programme.
Treatment rooms, spa reception and changing areas have all been redesigned and reconfigured as part of a strategy to improve the spa’s customer journey.
Specialist consultancy SMC Design was brought in to plan the re-design, which includes the use of materials – such as dark copper and porcelain stone tiles – deemed to have a “synergy with the architecture” of the spa’s historic surroundings.
The Landmark London – a 300-bedroom hotel – is housed in the Hotel Great Central building in Westminster. Dating to 1899, the building was designed by Sir Robert William Edis and was one of the original grand hotels of the late Victorian era.
Tell someone that you’re spending your summer holiday learning how to breathe and you’ll inevitably be greeted by raised eyebrows. But breathwork is one of the strongest wellbeing trends, with devotees – who include Kate Hudson and Naomie Harris – swearing that it eradicates stress, improves digestion, boosts energy levels and helps you process trauma and emotional upheaval.
‘The majority of people only use 25% of their breathing capacity, but virtually every condition can be improved simply by drawing a fuller breath,’ explains Alan Dolan, Europe’s leading breathwork teacher. He runs his sellout Breathing Space workshops at his tranquil retreat in the hills of sunbaked Lanzarote, just a short drive from Famara, the most strikingly beautiful surf beach on the island. Alan has a cult following among celebrities, sportspeople and burnt-out city workers for his practical and refreshingly no-nonsense approach to a tried-and-tested technique.
Between the twice-daily conscious breathing sessions, there are volcanos to hike, delicious vegetarian meals to devour and world-class massages and bodywork sessions on offer from Martin Cairoli. Even if you’ve never been able to sit still long enough to try meditation, and apps like Headspace lurk unused on your iPhone, Alan’s easy-to-master breathing techniques promise to quieten that voice in your mind, relieve tension and leave you grounded and focused. Expect to return to reality with a brand new healthy habit in your armoury.”
‘Retiro’ es una de las palabras de moda en el universo del bienestar contemporáneo. No todos son iguales y cada vez se especializan más. Hemos seleccionado seis que, Retiros retirados además de estar en contacto con la naturaleza, tienen personalidad propia…
BreathGuru: Respirando isla
A Alan Dolan le llaman el “gurú de la respiración”. Él, el Breath Guru, está detrás de unos retiros, los Breathing Space Retreats, que tienen al acto de inhalar y exhalar como centro de la agenda. Estas actividades se basan en la tesis de que una respiración consciente y entrenada puede cambiar la vida. Para llevarlo a cabo, Nolan ha elegido Nazaret, un pueblo de la carismática Lanzarote. Allí, en su propia casa, una villa cómoda y estilosa, tienen lugar sus programas que dirige a personas solas, parejas o grupos. En ellos se realizan sesiones personalizadas y colectivas. Los retiros no tienen duración fija, pero se recomienda un mínimo de 4 o 6 días. Todo está encaminado a eliminar tensiones y a incorporar la respiración consciente en el día a día. Nolan realiza también estas sesiones en Londres de forma continua. Lo interesante de la propuesta es que el arma usada está al alcance de todos: los pulmones. Eso sí, un poco de ayuda extra (si es de un gurú, mejor) y el aire de Lanzarote ayudan.
A lo largo de todo el año.
Desde 1.100€/4 noches.
Incluye sesiones individuales y grupales y comidas vegetarianas. CURIOSIDAD DAPPER: También realiza talleres por Skype.
Discover the power of oxygen at a transformational breathing retreat
Lanzarote airport. Sugar-hyped children. Suntans. A smattering of leopard print. One lone female on a plastic seat, weeping. Reader, she was me, after an intensive breathing retreat.
Rewind a week. I’d decided to try out transformational breathing, a practice with a growing number of acolytes who believe that good health and spiritual peace can be claimed with appropriate breathing. I’d looked at the Breathguru.com website and hesitated. (The most striking image was a photo of a man looking zen in white trousers under the strapline “You are the guru, your breath is the key”.) However, alongside this was the persuasive statistic that most of us use only 25 per cent of our lung capacity, missing out on a dazzling array of health benefits. The idea of some winter sun in the Canary Islands clinched the deal.
Alan Dolan, the 38-year-old facilitator behind Breath Guru, meets me at the airport. In the flesh he looks much less New Agey, just rather friendly, and is dressed in a pair of battered shorts. Before we start the breathing he takes me on a tour of the island. Some 125km off the north coast of Africa, Lanzarote is the most easterly of the Canary Islands – and the landscape is a strange one, thrust up 15 million years ago as a product of the Canary hot spot, an outpouring of molten rock spat up after the break-up of the African and American continental plates.
In the south, lava from eruptions some 300 years ago have left the land streaked black, rising up to sooty mounts. Further north it is less stark, with lichens and the odd plant colouring the dark earth. While it is alien, it is not forbidding, but airy and expansive. The coastline is stunning: we pause on cliffs dropping into a deep blue sea; the shoreline unfurls, wild and untouched below. There are shades of Morocco in the swaying palms, and the beaches are evocative of the more spartan Greek islands.
Most of those who arrive on package holidays are corralled in three resorts on the southern coast. Elsewhere, the real attraction is activity: Club La Santa is a giant sports complex which attracts athletes and amateurs from all over the world. We pass cyclists and runners, and hang-gliders and paragliders are bright against the dark hills. The 9km-long black-sand beach at Famara has a seductive surf break when the wind is offshore, and when it blows onshore is perfect for kite-surfing. A plethora of triathlons is held here each year, including the world’s second largest Ironman gathering.
At last, we reach the small town where Alan has his house. It is called Nazaret. “I do get the odd Jesus Christ joke,” he smiles. His villa is spacious, with excellent views. It’s the kind of place to which you’d be proud to retire, if the life of an expatriate appealed.
So what is transformational breath? “The reason I love it so much is that it is different things for different people. Essentially, it uses oxygen to boost the energy in your body, and through that to clear the bad stuff. A lot of what I see breathing do I would have thought miraculous.” His enthusiasm spills on. “Sometimes our body is in the red zone; I like to cut that off at the pass, clear the canvas so you can paint what you wish to paint. One client referred to a retreat as a recalibration of her entire being.”
On the corporeal plane, increased oxygen intake apparently boosts sporting performance and the immune system, and can play a part in fighting disorders such as hypertension and insomnia.
The secret to a transformational breath is a wide-open mouth, air drawn deep into the belly, then gently released. Unlike many yogic breath patterns the exhale is shorter than the inhale. Also there is no pause between in and out: the goal is a “connected breath”.
To begin with, it’s tough to keep the flow. As I get used to the technique it becomes difficult to occupy my concentration, but easy enough to float off on the rhythm. As I breathe, Alan applies gentle acupressure to points on my body relating to the Chinese meridian lines. To my surprise, his touch triggers powerful reactions; he lightly knocks his fingertips beneath my clavicle and my whole body strings out with not-quite-painful but extreme sensation. At one moment, I have sudden, brief pains in the joints of my fingers. Another, there is an odd fizzing across my forehead; then an itch in my skin as though I’ve suddenly become allergic to my clothes.
The hour vanishes, leaving me extraordinarily light and relaxed. My eyes feel wider, whiter, my lungs somehow larger, somehow cleaner on the inside. That night I sleep instantly, deeply – rare for me – and have crazy, vivid dreams.
Transformational breathing has its roots in the 1960s work of Stanislav Grof and Timothy Leary, who used holotropic breathwork (and, it has to be said, LSD) in a quest to expand consciousness. It embraces the idea of prana, of breath as life force, the source of all energy.
Alan is happy to discuss the experience in terms of the way oxygen has been proved to be attracted to the body’s cells through electromagnetic charge – and hence speak of Einstein and biomechanics. Or in terms of Aldous Huxley’s “the aliveness of everything”. His bookshelves juxtapose spiritual guides by Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle with writing by the poet Rumi and psychologist Steven Pinker, as well as texts on nutrition and biology.
After each succeeding session, instead of feeling energised, I feel shell-shocked. I had hoped to test the waves at Famara. Or perhaps to look at some of the buildings designed by Lanzarote’s favourite son, the artist and architect César Manrique. (He’s the activist behind Lanzarote’s fierce planning legislation which guards against high-rise development. Houses here on the island are traditional one-storey white cubes edged with green paintwork; advertising hoardings are banned.) Instead, I lie poleaxed on a lounger, enjoying Alan’s special green juices, made with kale and ginger, listening to the wind in the palm leaves and absorbing the sun.
“The most common issues I’ve seen over the last year have been anxiety and stress,” Alan tells me over a dinner of elegantly spiced vegetarian curry: the meals are made by Rebecca, a former client who, after one retreat, sold her house in the UK to set up a restaurant on the island.
There seem to be few ailments that he has not helped. Off the top of his head he mentions a Falklands veteran who, after 20 years of post-traumatic stress, regained composure in four sessions; a lawyer and functioning alcoholic who ditched the booze and took her first holiday in 30 years; a shy woman with low self-esteem who finally started to dance salsa. Others include the bereaved, smokers wanting to quit, and professional sportsmen eager to boost their performance.
Alan, who came to transformational breathing eight years ago after careers in teaching and management, suggests that 10 minutes a day is sufficient to improve health radically.
I find it hard rationally to accept the spiritual side, preferring to err on the established values of oxygen and of any disciplined regime. Yet, as I return to the airport, I find myself loath to board the plane. Lanzarote has been a revelation. When Alan warned me I might find peculiar emotions rising, I certainly didn’t expect this sudden outburst of tears.
Oddly, when they subside, I feel marvellously calm. Serene. Perhaps I had finally arrived at that blank canvas.
Fitness and wellbeing breaks for Mother’s Day bonding
Mother’s Day is approaching very fast, but the scramble for a perfect gift need not be stressful.
While chocolates and flowers are pretty much foolproof, why not try something different, and more experiential this year?
Here, we’ve pulled together some wellness retreats and fitness bootcamps that provide the ideal bonding opportunity for you and your mother – while strengthening body and mind, too.
Canary Islands: Breathing Space Retreat
For mums and daughters in need of a break from the everyday stress of urban life, this breathing retreat might be the perfect answer. “Breathing guru” Alan Dolan teaches the art of meditative breathing at a private villa in Oasis de Nazarat. The only planned activities are two daily breath sessions, and the rest of the retreat is totally up to the guests. Options include personal training, massages and even volcano climbing, but each visitor’s experience is totally unique.
How is 2017 feeling so far? Are you looking ahead to a year full of possibilities, or struggling through the triple whammy of hangover, post-Christmas exhaustion and winter blues? If you’re not welcoming the new year with a spring in your step, perhaps one of your resolutions should be to make time for R&R by booking a health or fitness holiday.
Stepping away from your everyday life to relax and feel restored is no longer seen as an indulgence. Rather, it has become a necessary safety valve in our fast-paced world. Handing yourself over to be tended to by a range of experts can be an absolute pleasure. So go, either travelling solo or with a friend or family member. On all the wellbeing breaks listed here, you can be as sociable or as solitary as you like.
February: Breathing Space Retreat, Lanzarote, Canary Islands.
February sees these Spanish islands at their greenest, with reliable winter sunshine and early wildflowers – so it’s a perfect time to escape the grim British winter and book a retreat with the “breath guru” Alan Dolan. He’ll teach you the art of “conscious breathing”, which helps you access the full potential of your lungs to reduce the effects of anxiety and stress; it’s one of the most powerful therapies I’ve experienced.
Courses are based at a private villa in Oasis de Nazaret, a peaceful area 10 minutes from the beach at Famara. Each day includes one individual and one group breathing session (with a maximum of four others), poolside relaxation, star-gazing from the hot tub, holistic treatments and vegetarian meals. Island tours can also be arranged.
We all know the wellness industry is booming, that’s nothing new. It’s a really exciting time to be part of such a fast paced industry and the trends for 2017 are looking pretty damn hot!
Of late we’ve seen a real shift in wellness ‘feeling good is the new looking good’. We’re all waking up to the fact that this is an inside out job. What do we mean? Well, If you want to look good you gotta do a little digging and clearing out on the inside to make the outside glow. For real.
It’s now totally the norm to head to Shoreditch House for a meditation session followed by brunch, or to finish your Sunday with a delicious sound healing session. With the world speeding up, content set to double in 2017, life isn’t showing any signs of slowing down and certainly not in cities! Self care is no longer really a luxury in this modern time. We all need a little summin’ summin’ to help us slow down, get present and relax.
To those of you who are workshop newbies, think self development slash self love with a sprinkling of spirituality on top. And before you freak, It’s really not as ‘woo woo’ as you imagine and even if it is a little, rest assured you’re bucking the trend and joining the wellbeing pioneers who are not only leading the way with this work, they have fun in the process too – imagine that!
Finally as a side note, New York and LA are usually at least a couple of years ahead in wellbeing trends, having already embraced the inside/out journey and turning it into ‘the thing’ to do with your mates – we couldn’t agree more. Welcome to the next frontier in wellbeing – A mind body and soul workout! Are you ready to dive in?
We’ve put together our top 5 favourite workshops for you all to try, there’s a little something in there for everyone. Disclaimer alert – all these workshops are entry level so if you’re thinking ‘I’ve never meditated before’ don’t let that stop you. Chances are most people won’t have. Enjoy!
The Breath Guru – Alan Dolan
This is warrior work – You can literally shift how you feel one breath at a time. Conscious breathing is a powerful and safe way to infuse the body with oxygen and energy, recharging our own (often depleted) systems to work to their healing capacity.
Humans have been aware of the healing power of their breath for millennia. Through the centuries we’ve developed a vast array of breathing practices, all designed to bring about physical and emotional wellbeing and connect with our deeper selves. in today’s society, we often neglect our bodies’ built-in capabilities. The fact is, most of us live in ‘standby mode’ most of the time. The most powerful mechanism is literally right beneath our noses waiting to be explored, yet we rarely give it more than a passing thought until now!
There’s no way to prepare for what will happen over the following four days. It’s 10am, and we’ve just arrived – 10 women from different places, with different stories and careers and varying outlooks and opinions – and are sipping chia and berry smoothies in the beautiful flagstone-floored kitchen of 42 Acres in Somerset.
There is welcoming small talk and bear hugs from the Finding Self Retreat leader, Tony Riddle, a ‘natural lifestyle coach’, brimming with energy. Anticipation is keen. All we do know is that we are here to find some things, and let go of others.
I’ve been hanging on to guilty shadows for years: returning to work weeks after having my first child (financial necessity, perhaps, but small salve for the emotional knots it created); post-natal depression that swallowed me up into a sleepless, lost void. Years have passed, but the guilt remains, and surfaces too often.
Sometimes, I find myself parenting on autopilot – repeating things that didn’t make sense to me as a child, and make no more sense to my own children. Reining in my kids, over and over again, when I actually long for them to run free.
Doors open to an incredible room – flanked on one side by views of the greenest garden and a grand oak tree – and filled with cushions, blankets, mats. Alan Dolan, a world-renowned ‘transformational breath expert’, guides us through the principles of breath work – something I’ve never tried before – and soon we are lying down, eyes closed, puffing and panting in regular rhythm. This is not your classic ‘deep breath in, slow breath out’ practice: Dolan encourages a longer inhale and a short puff out – as though trying to extinguish a candle, gently.
It feels unnatural and I struggle. But we keep going. He repositions people, checking that our mouths are wide open enough, and very lightly feeling our bodies for places where we might be holding most resistance. A woman beside me cries out – a primal wail that takes me back to the birthing room – then sobs uncontrollably, and Dolan helps her breathe through it.
Then another, on the other side of the room, howling, then panting and steadying, as her breath returns to normal. I feel unsettled and uncomfortable.
When Dolan comes to my side, I am tight and nervous. He softly, intuitively feels along my clavicles, ribcage, abdomen – and I am surprised when he touches a spot that makes me gasp. I feel embarrassed and try to hold it in, but it’s no use; and, instead, he guides me in breathing through it. It is uncomfortable but, as I learn during my stay, discomfort and resistance are telling us something, and we need to get better at listening.
I spend 30 minutes struggling with the process – feeling light-headed, as though the breath pattern is too shallow, which makes me feel anxious. And then, unexpectedly, everything loosens up: my neck relaxes, my jaw stops feeling taut and tense, and I just breathe. And lose time. Twenty minutes later, I become conscious of feeling light and happy – and rested. Remarkable.
We wander across to the communal dining room for our first plant-based lunch, made by resident chef Mark Mabon. The fare is vibrant and full of vital goodness: butternut hummus, sprouted crackers, sweet potato wedges, beetroot soup, buckwheat tabbouleh and seaweed rolls. It’s clean and nutrient-rich grub, without being ascetic.
Towards the end of our stay, we get scrambled eggs at breakfast because our bodies crave warmth and protein as the healing work gets more intense, and many of us go into hibernation mode.
The ties that bind
Next, we meet Nicola Dunn, a ‘family constellations practitioner’. I am, again, unfamiliar with her practice. The belief is that, as children, we remain deeply bonded to our families, and it is difficult to break free of ancestral patterns as we grow – out of filial, inherent loyalty, but also for fear of being disowned by the ‘tribe’.
Family constellation work seeks to highlight these patterns that restrict and harm us, and to allow us to be released from them; to feel empowered to walk our own path, without being owned by, or owing anything to, shadows of the past.
To say my cynicism was heightened would be an understatement – and to explain the mechanics of how one’s story unfolds seems reductive. It is what it is – neither rational nor easy to understand, but powerful. This work is the most bruising part of our time at 42 Acres. The deep-rooted trauma, pain, sadness and regret that fills the room with each story is profoundly moving.
Stories so different from my own strike a chord of human connection, and we weep for our sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmothers. How patterns of pain are repeated generation after generation – alcoholism, mental instability, adultery, abandonment – became clear for all to see. But we are not our mothers or fathers, we carry no legacy.
We end our first day shaky and drained – but protective of those who have opened up about their pasts in a room full of strangers. A quiet dinner, as people process the day… then we are ushered back into the same room, transformed with candlelight and blankets, to lie down for a sound bath and energy healing, with Carly Grace and her crystal singing bowls.
I feel completely enveloped by Grace’s mesmeric voice and those beautiful frequencies.
The new day begins at 7am with Riddle, the Finding Self Retreat mastermind, taking us through a series of simple movements – which, nevertheless, challenge our bodies to the limit. On hard wooden floors, kneeling, stretching, spreading toes, taking the body’s weight on our knuckles (ouch!) – movements our primitive ancestors would have performed as part of a normal day.
Then, outside to the wet grass, barefoot, which draws groans and complaints, until Riddle, who is skilled at putting first-world problems into perspective, helps us see the wonder of it all: green grass, blue skies, morning dew, and a chance to roll, jump, run, hop and play.
At one point, we are pressed forehead to forehead, looking into the eyes of the person opposite! It feels uncomfortable, confrontational, unnatural… and then, totally peaceful.
During the next transformational breath-work session with Dolan, my asthma and hayfever reach fever pitch. I panic. I don’t have an inhaler with me as I’ve not needed one for 20 years. He assures me that this is my body resisting; that the minute you touch a spot that’s holding on to something painful or negative, your body has a reaction that makes you want to flee. Breathe through it, is his mantra.
I keep going and the heightened histamine responses quieten down. More breath work comes over the next three days, and we get a chance to move past the past, via Dunn’s constellationwork.
I work through my story – a new mother, shellshocked, lost, exhausted, doubting and distant. I see my little girls for all that they are – wonder, magic, wildness – and realise that they embody all that I’ve ever hoped for; they just need space and trust to thrive.
Transformed by freedom
The profound depth and energy of the Finding Self process – both emotional and psychological – shows on all our faces. We are deeply tired. We have little conversation left to make. We walk past one another with kind eyes, but need the emptiness of our private rooms to process all that has happened.
In the end, we learn more about each other than we know about our workmates, friends, even family… and, most powerfully, we learn about how far removed we have become from our natural, primitive ancestors.
To see Riddle move – roll, crawl, climb, jump – is to see a body that has left behind sloping chairs and squishy sofas in favour of the ground; a body that thrives on natural food – strong, lean, dynamic; and a mind that is passionately clear about how we should be living our lives, and encouraging our children to live theirs.
I’ve invested in barefoot shoes for myself and our children (vivobarefoot.com), and am no longer precious about them padding around parks, gardens, forests barefoot. I have been reintroduced to the purpose of play for play’s sake; as a means to natural movement, to free up that sedentary spine. But the latter would not have been possible without the lifting and clearing of the old debris – the stuff that weighs us all down, and fools us into thinking that we can’t, or shouldn’t, or mustn’t.
Somehow, over the course of the next few weeks, I transform. It is slow going, but the dedication you give to the retreat stays with you. There is no other way now that these freer instincts feel so natural. The day after the retreat, flung straight back into work, I wake with the darkest circles under my eyes that I’ve ever had.
Once the working day is done, I sleep and sleep and sleep, and meditate, and place crystals around my home, and read books, and feel as though my eyes are wide open for the first time since childhood. I see my children in a different light. I want to learn and grow and heal. I want to be a better mother and ensure my children live free of my own mistakes and misgivings.
I stop blowdrying my hair. I donate half of my clothes. I clear out my cupboards. We collect wood from the forest and make bonfires and sing in the garden. We map the stars. We marvel at the moon. We retreat back to a place where the good things live… and vow never to lose sight of them again.
Controlled breathing techniques are a promising antidote to everything from anxiety to PTSD; here’s how to incorporate them into your life.
At a moment when the pressure to live the perfect, productive, and Instagram-beautiful lifestyle is causing more anxiety than ever, there seems to exist at least the promise of an antidote: mindfulness. Lena Dunham practices it; Karlie Kloss swears by it; Oprah leads 21-day challenges teaching meditation techniques including breathing. Sleepless professionals facing burnout are embracing this ancient weapon against stress and depression as fervently as The Beatles and Mia Farrow spread the word of the healing magic of Transcendental Meditation in the late 1960s—maybe the last time that the world felt as topsy-turvy.
And yet, until recently, the essential element that can help us achieve Zen has played a supporting role in the way meditation is taught and practiced. “Breathing is the bridge between yoga and meditation—yoga that strengthens our body and meditation, which strengthens our mind,” meditation teacher and life coach Rajshree Patel said recently at the light-filled New York outpost of the spiritual organization The Art of Living. Patel has for 30 years been teaching Sudarshan Kriya, a series of breathing techniques that’s among the many ancient and new methods being embraced at yoga studios and meditation centers as exercise in their own right. “Twenty years ago, doing yoga sounded like sleeping on a bed of nails, and five or so years ago, meditation was still obscure,” Patel continued. “Now, focusing on breathing is finally starting to seem less foreign. It’s an essential tool and in fact the quickest, simplest way to enhance our health.” And a new generation of classes, apps, and even wearable tech devices are putting the practice front and center, making it easier to incorporate than ever.
In scientific terms, a controlled breathing practice cuts into stress hormones, dances with our nervous system, and regulates the oxygen, CO2, and pH levels in our blood. It has therapy potential against depression, anxiety, and PTSD. In sidewalk terms, breathing lets us get a grip. “A very interesting fact about the breath is how closely it is linked with our emotions. This is actually revolutionary,” psychologist and research scientist Emma Seppälä told a TEDx audience earlier this year, quoting research from the psychologist Pierre Philippot, who determined that specific breaths correspond with specific emotions—summoning anger induces a short and shallow breath, while slowing down the breath can directly reduce anxiety.
Seppälä, author of the book The Happiness Track and the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has looked into the effects of Sudarshan Kriya and other yogic breathing techniques on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. According to the research, Sudarshan Kriya’s engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system can rebalance brain chemistry. “If you deepen your breath, if you slow your breath, and in particular if you lengthen your exhales, your heart rate decreases, your blood pressure decreases, and you’re tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system,” Seppälä explained. This is “the opposite of ‘fight or flight’—the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system.”
And while simply following the old slogan “just breathe” may not quite cut it, taking the time to learn and adopt targeted techniques can yield lifelong benefits. “The fact that we can use the breath to impact the state of our minds means that we have a tool at all times, no matter what we’re facing, to calm down,” Seppälä assured her TED audience. “We just need to tap into it.” Here, a few ways to do just that.
Breathguru, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, retreat
A scenic island setting is home to retreats and workshops on detoxing and fitness-enhancing techniques, led by “breath guru” Alan Dolan himself.
If Britain has a hippy heartland, it is Somerset, whose rolling hills, Georgian market towns and, erm, ley lines have been attracting free spirits since the Sixties. There’s Glastonbury, with white magic shops and raw food cafes stretching the festival vibe into a year-long phenomenon. And arty Burton, home to the astonishingly gorgeous new Hauser & Wirth gallery. Although Cornwall and Devon draw the tourist hoards, Somerset has become something of an insider’s secret for a different, quieter breed of traveller, seeking artistic inspiration, a health reboot or an emotional recharge. As a hub for yoga teachers, mindfulness gurus, raw food chefs, therapists and artists, Somerset has become the capital of the British wellness travel industry, and now a brand new boutique retreat centre in Somerset is about to up the game of the retreat business in Britain.
A beautifully converted former dairy farm near the arty enclave of Burton, 42 Acres is the brainchild of 33-year-old entrepreneur Lara Tabatznik, who spotted a gap in the market for a stylish retreat centre offering a dedicated programme of strictly curated retreats. Arriving at 42 Acres feels more like stepping into an impeccably styled boutique hotel like The Pig or Limewood, with a striking living room populated by vintage leather sofas, luxurious rugs and Kartell lighting. Bedrooms are similarly rustic-chic, with decadent cashmere throws over geometric-print bedclothes and hessian rugs.
It’s Alan Dolan’s breathwork workshop that has enticed me to 42 Acres, though; I’ve read rave testimonials by actors such as Naomie Harris, sportspeople like Paul Sampson, and mindfulness gurus like Jody Shield. Within wellness circles, ‘conscious breathing’ is garnering serious buzz, presented as a virtually idiot-proof mindfulness technique with the potential to banish anxiety, restore clarity and process deep-seated issues. I love yoga but have always been too restless for most meditation techniques. Yet under Dolan’s expert tutelage, I master this yawningly open-mouthed belly-breathing technique and finally “get” mindfulness; I emerge from each session feeling stress-free, with flashes of insight. Dolan normally runs sell-out courses at his own retreat centre in Lanzarote, so this is a rare (more affordable) opportunity in the UK.
While there’s no arguing with the quality of the decor and the menu – raw vegan deliciousness prepared by chef Mark Mabon – these extras aren’t the main draw of 42 Acres. It’s the quality and consistency of the retreats; all experts are personally vetted to ensure a hokum-free programme spanning yoga, cookery courses, bushcraft, mindfulness and personal development that will please the most wary of wellness-industry philistines. Relaxing just got a lot less stressful…
Each of these 2016 fitness retreats has a USP that’ll get you glowing inside and out this summer.
Where? Lanzarote (there are also sessions and workshops in London, Cambridge and Dublin).
Best for? Spiritual types – you’ll meet ‘breath guru’ Alan Dolan, who has a villa in the hillside village of Oasis de Nazaret, and learn how to breathe properly to boost health and wellbeing.
What’s involved? Two breath classes a day, plus a one-on-one session in which you learn new breathing patterns to reduce stress and increase energy.
What’s to eat? Health-conscious Dolan favours organic and local produce.
Fact Breath guru fans include Naomie Harris.