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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.