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.
“…While this ‘connective breath’ is billed as a form of self-healing, the best way to master the technique is at an introductory workshop. They take place regularly across the UK, with trained ‘facilitators’ on hand to whisper affirmations in your ear and gently apply pressure to areas such as your shoulders to help release what are termed ‘blockages’.
A one-to-one session with breath coaches can make for a more powerful practice, but to experience TB in true style, head to one of Dolan’s retreats in Lanzarote. They take place in a stylish villa with views of the island’s volcanic landscape. Guests who have raved about their stay include Bond star Naomie Harris and England international rugby ace Paul Sampson, who credits TB with helping him combat exercise-induced asthma…”
“Conscious breathing is one of the most liberating therapies I’ve ever had – and I’ve had a few… If you have an issue to sort out, or just an underlying feeling that something in your life just ain’t quite right, you can book a private retreat in the village of Oasis de Nazaret with Alan Dolan, the man who brought conscious breathing to the UK… During a conscious breathing session, you’re asked to breathe in and out through an open mouth (‘to access 100% of your respiratory system’), while the therapist does a spot of acupressure and encourages you to release any blocked physical, emotional or psychological trauma by making sounds or moving your limbs. The idea is you move through an emotion that comes up, rather than getting stuck in it. It feels odd at first, but because the combination occupies you on both a physical and mental level, you can’t just switch off or rationalise your feelings. It was so powerful for me that, during one session, I re-lived the birth of my now five-year old daughter in a compelling, all-consuming, tear-filled experience.”
“It sounds crazy. How can breathing be a trend? Well, no doubt people said that about guided meditation when it first arrived on the wellness scene. Besides, this isn’t about unconscious breathing in and out. It’s more about how techniques such as alternate nostril breathing (pranayama) and detoxifying transformational breathing can be used to regulate stress, improve immunity and increase wellbeing.”
“…‘Breath is literally life,’ says BreathGuru app founder Alan Dolan. “When you breathe better, you live better.’ Which makes the fact that most of us only use 20% of our lung capacity a priority issue.
‘Degenerative diseases, cardiac problems and cancer are linked to oxidative stress and cellular free-radical damage, and breath is a key factor in prevention,’ says Dolan. 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. Research shows that breathwork also relieves stress and depression.
‘Breath is as unique as a fingerprint, but 80% of us are shallow, upper-chest breathers,’ warns Dolan. To test, place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest, close your eyes and inhale deeply through the mouth. Whichever hand moves most shows whether your breath is upper (chest) or lower (belly) – good breath is a balance of both…”
“Breath therapy, which Dolan says has been referred to as ‘turbo psychotherapy’, is designed to infuse the body with increased oxygen and refuel the cells. The method, which Dolan compares to “taking your breath to the gym” allows greater access to the respiratory system and is designed to induce tangible positive effects on the physical, mental-emotional and spiritual levels of our being as well as inducing a higher state of consciousness.”
“Think you already know how to breathe? Think again. Join the growing group of people ditching yoga and heading to breathing retreats all over the world… Alan Dolan is the breath guru based in Lanzarote – he’ll teach you how to do it properly by controlling your breath and increasing your oxygen intake. So take a deep breath, relax and head to a retreat near you.”
“Remove yourself from the demands of everyday life by heading to ‘Breath Guru’ Alan Dolan. Run from his private villa in Nazaret, retreats consist of one-on-one ‘breath sessions’ each day, plus optional yoga, massage and personal training. The format can be as flexible and informal as you want, so you can spend the rest of your time enjoying the shady terraces and hot tub with a view.
Insider tip: Head to nearby Famara beach for surfing and kiteboarding.”
“…Alan Dolan, otherwise known as the ‘Breath Guru’, agrees. ‘You can survive without food and water for days. The world-record holder in free diving can hold his breath for something like nine minutes, but mere mortals can manage only a couple of minutes,’ he says from his swanky Lanzarote pad, where he runs Breathing Space retreats. ‘We’ve got these amazing lungs, but we’re not accessing them.’”