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.’”
“…I feel in control of myself, my future. Everything in my life has slowed right down and I can not only manage it all again, but do so with ease. I am lighter. It all seems so much simpler; I can almost taste the positivity coursing through my system.”