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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.
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How can you turn something you do every day into a seasonal mood booster? Writer Karen Swayne discovers a natural high that’s under your very nose
I know, I know .. going to a retreat to learn how to breathe sounds like the ultimate in woo-woo indulgence. We do it instinctively from birth and, having made it this far, we must be doing something right.
But, says Alan Dolan, aka the Breath Guru, we can all learn how to do it much, much better, and by doing so, reduce tension, gain sharper focus, enhance wellbeing and give ourselves a spiritual detox to boot. With a full-on combination of work, family, a gruelling commute and with Christmas fast approaching, free energy on tap sounds super-appealing, so I book myself into the Lanzarote villa where Alan runs his connected breathing retreats.
‘Jean shorts, grey T-shirt – look for the hippy :),’ reads his text message when I land at the airport where we’re due to meet.
Slightly dishevelled, but instantly engaging and interested, Alan is a well-travelled soul who’s lived in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, before settling in the Canaries. He has called Lanzarote his home for the past 15 years, drawn by the year-round sunshine. As we drive through the dramatic black lava landscape, he explains why he’s on a mission to help the stressed out slow down, find some space and trust in the healing power of their own body. It’s clearly going well – among his fans is actor Naomie Harris, and we’re travelling in a smart and very unhippyish Range Rover.
Why breathing? ‘Most people only use a fraction of their lung capacity,’ he says, ‘Conscious, or connected breathwork allows us to access much more than that, and infuse the body with oxygen and energy. All it takes is a little bit of practice. Basically, it’s meditation for people who can’t meditate: a way of pressing pause on our 24/7 lives.’
I’m all for that, but surprisingly nervous – what if I’m no good at it? Still, I’m happy to find that the villa is a zen-like delight: cool, minimal, stylish rooms surround a pool, Buddhas gaze benignly down from walls, and the mountain views are spectacular. With no alcohol, caffeine or meat on offer, I’m looking forward to a physical detox, as well as body reset in time for the festive season.
Alan works with small groups of three or four people at a time, and joining me are Jim, a retired teacher from
Fife who is here to get space to reflect, and Liz, a clinical psychologist from London who had a one-off session with Alan in the UK and wanted a deeper experience. We will soon know the intimate details of each other’s lives; it turns out that this breathing thing can be rather exposing.
Pinned to the kitchen wall is the day’s schedule, which doesn’t look too gruelling:
8.15am: ginger and apple shots and smoothie
11.30am: one-to-one breathe session with Alan
4.00pm: group breathe session
8.00pm: hot tub
9.00pm: self practice
It’s something of a surprise to find myself staggering around just a few hours later like a spaced-out zombie, desperate to lay my head down and sleep.
First up is the massage (more of a full body workout), which is designed to open up the body to prepare it for the breathwork later. In the strong, skilful hands of Martin, the air is pushed out of my lungs, while the combination of shiatsu, reiki, deep tissue and craniosacral work leaves me shattered. But, before I have time to draw breath, it’s straight to the therapy room for my first one-to-one session.
Cross-legged on cushions, Alan explains that our regular breathing is so shallow that we only use around 25% of our lung capacity. Breathing through my mouth will allow me to draw in more air down to the lower lungs and flood my red blood cells with oxygen. Most importantly, I must stay ‘connected’, with no pauses between inhaling and exhaling.
I soon get the hang of it and almost immediately feel the physical effects. It starts with a tingling in my hands and arms. Alan has primed me to expect a sensation like pins and needles or Champagne bubbles flowing through my veins, but this is way more intense. They are throbbing, as if my body is expanding Incredible Hulk-style, as the blood rushes around. At times, the pressure is so great that it’s as if someone is pressing down on my body.
It’s unnerving, but as Alan murmurs positive affirmations, such as ‘I am good enough’, and gently applies acupressure to stress points, mainly my hips and collarbones, the hour flies by. Afterwards, I feel charged with energy, like one of the women in Naomi Alderman’s futuristic novel The Power who can take down men by pointing a finger at them and zapping them with electricity.
Tottering to my room, I catch sight of myself in the mirror; pupils dilated, I look dazed and confused – in a way I haven’t been since I used to go clubbing (decades ago). Can I really do four days of this? I crash out and go straight to sleep. Later that day, I attend the group session, which is slightly less intense. There’s a different energy in the room, but the physical sensations remain.
The following morning, I wake after a fitful sleep with a pounding headache, which continues on and off over the course of my stay. As the days drift by, I find I’m unable to focus on anything; I can’t concentrate on a book or look at a screen. Jim, Liz and I spend our time talking about our experiences or simply sleeping. A beach walk feels like a major expedition – the thought of Christmas shopping is simply unimaginable. But, in our final one-to one session, Alan says, ‘Let’s see if we can get you to Nirvana…’.
With each breathing session, I’ve gone deeper into my body and, by now, the feeling is comfortingly familiar. While I wouldn’t call it blissful, it feels more natural and when the session ends, I surprise myself by finding tears flowing down my cheeks. The strange thing is that I don’t feel sad or emotional, in fact, I feel strangely calm, but every sensation is heightened – touch, sound and vision – it feels quite psychedelic, with the brightness turned up to max. ‘There you go, you made it,’ says Alan. ‘Just wow!’, I scrawl later in my journal.
Back home, and doing daily 10-minute sessions every morning, my exhaustion is a distant memory. I feel charged with energy and ready to handle anything the festive season (and Southern Railway) can throw at me. Connected breathing is one of the best antidotes to stress and anxiety, and at this busy time of year, I’m using it to find calm in the chaos.
Now get breathing
The beauty of the conscious breathing technique is that it can be done anywhere you can find a bit of privacy. Start with a five-minute session at the beginning or end of the day and increase up to 10-15 minutes.
1. Lie on your back on the floor in a safe, secure environment where you won’t be disturbed. Place a pillow under your head and shoulders.
2. Begin to use your mouth to breathe – make sure it’s open wide enough by checking you can get your index finger between your upper and lower teeth.
3. Breathe deeply into your abdomen, aiming for just below your navel. Imagine you are inflating a balloon in your stomach with each inhale.
4. Without pausing, take a short breath out – a gentle puff, as if fogging a mirror. The emphasis is on the inhale, the exhale is a short, soft sigh.
5. Your breath needs to flow, so imagine it is like a swing, continuously moving.
6. Once you have finished, close your mouth, and breathe through your nose. Notice any emotions and physical feelings and allow them to just be.
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It is no small coincidence that the wellness industry is thriving at a time when stress has reached epidemic levels, the NHS is in crisis, health insurance is inadequate and millennials are insatiably hungry for tech-based solutions to age-old problems. Longer working weeks, fewer hours of rest and a fixation with smartphones has created an appetite for fitness and mind-body therapies currently worth $542 billion*.
From yoga and mindfulness to gong baths and breathing techniques, practices that were once the butt of bad jokes have been given a thoroughly modern overhaul (and some much-needed scientific validation) for a generation of anxiety-ridden insomniacs. Here we detail three apps from 2018’s most forward-thinking wellness leaders.
Breathing techniques have been used for millennia to engage the parasympathetic system (responsible for the body’s unconscious actions), lower stress hormones and calm overactive minds. The brand of “conscious breathing” employed by breath guru Mr Alan Dolan aims to open up the full capacity of the lungs (workaholics and urbanites tend to use just 25%) in order to release excess emotional baggage, increase oxygen to starved tissue and recharge energy levels.
The technique was a game changer for Mr Dolan himself. A former PR manager in the aerospace industry, he achieved his financial goals only to remain deeply unsatisfied. The shift he experienced from breath work encouraged him to formalise a method that has tangible effects on his clients’ daily lives: smokers can be reformed, the anxious can find ease and the vast majority experience some level of emotional release.
Mr Dolan’s popularity means private sessions aren’t always immediately available, a conundrum that led him to create an app that features a series of easy-to-follow instructional videos for each day of the week.
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Use your lungs to improve your mind — and get high. Susan d’Arcy takes a class with the Breath Guru
We can, literally, do it in our sleep, but, according to Alan Dolan, we’ve been doing it all wrong.
Dolan — 55, from Manchester — is the Breath Guru, and his mission is to get people breathing better. So much better, in fact, that their memory will be improved, stress levels lowered and even depression lifted. There are City boys who’ve trained with Dolan who say he’s helped them sharpen their focus. There are pop and rock stars who report that his breathing technique gives them a bigger buzz than drugs. The actress Naomie Harris is a past student.
Dolan is an advocate of “conscious connected breathing” and, earlier this month, I flew to his retreat on Lanzarote to see if he could put some puff in my pipes.
Varieties of so-called “transformational breathing” have been big among Hollywood sorts for a while. I tried it in LA last year and loved it, but my instructor told me that it was too dangerous to practise at home on my own. Dolan, on the other hand, promises he can teach me all I need to know in a long weekend, setting me up for a lifetime of happy, connected inhaling and exhaling.
His retreat is an unpretentious three-bedroom villa in the well-to-do hillside village of Nazaret. When he first appears, I can’t help thinking he looks like Noel Edmonds gone native: same beard, same cheeky grin, but wearing a Captain America T-shirt, low-slung shorts and a footballer’s hairband to tame his flowing locks. He is unnervingly cheerful, but I like him. When I tell him I’m not interested in a spiritual awakening, thank you, just getting a better brain, he understands.
Fifteen years ago, he was bashing out press releases about military aircraft for BAE Systems, driving a Porsche Boxster and deeply depressed. He resigned, retrained as a breath coach, regained his mojo and moved to Lanzarote. Now, 14 years on, he wants to share the secret of his happiness.
His white-walled Breath Room is only fractionally longer and wider than the two king-size mattresses on the floor. There is Buddha artwork on the walls, incense fills the air and Robbie Williams sings Feel through the speakers. I’m on edge, and not just because of Robbie’s high notes. I’m sitting with my knees raised, arms protectively hugging my shins. Dolan is sprawled across some scatter cushions, limbs so loose they could have been deboned.
He tells me babies breathe from their bellies, which keeps them connected to their root chakra and their inner selves. As the appeal of Peppa Pig fades, so does our breathing technique, and we start to use only the upper chest. This is not good. He tells me that connected breathing will access my entire respiratory system, oxygenating cells more efficiently, thereby improving my general health, clearing out my emotional baggage and tuning me in to God and the universe. He stops and smiles: “Yeah, I know you think that’s piffle.”
He instructs me to lie back, inhale through my open mouth down into my belly and exhale gently, also through my mouth, as if I’m fogging a mirror. Crucially, I must then inhale again immediately, creating a continuous loop — ie, connecting my breath. I’ve flown 1,700 miles to be told to breathe in after breathing out?
This is not like relaxation exercises or yogic breathing. Almost instantly, my mouth is bone-dry. I panic, cough and protest that I need to swallow. Dolan gently insists that I don’t. I keep pausing. I correct that, but then exhale too forcefully. Finally, I get the hang of it, mostly.
Thirty minutes later, Dolan says I can breathe through my nose again. Suddenly, I know what those hard-partying rockers are on about. My body is flooded with a wonderful energy. The sensation lasts for about 10 blissful minutes before being replaced by a sense of clarity and concentration, which remains for the rest of the day.
“You just hyperventilated,” my husband sneers when I phone him after my first session. According to Dolan, hyperventilation is about exhaling more than you inhale, decreasing levels of carbon dioxide and leading to faintness. The average person uses just 30% of their lung capacity when they breathe, he says. His strategy is about utilising the spare 70%. Either way, I’m counting the hours until my next session.
By my fourth session with Dolan, I can breathe through my mouth without swallowing for 30 minutes, no problem. This doesn’t affect my subsequent levels of euphoria and lucidity, but it makes getting there more pleasant. My fellow students are similarly seduced. One is a fiftysomething property developer who realised he had to address his stress levels as he struggled into an ambulance with a suspected heart attack. He reports feelings of elation, vibrations through his body, and a few tears. By day three, he looks 10 years younger. The other is a twentysomething actress on her second visit in six months.
In between my two daily workshops, I laze by the pool or in the hot tub, looking at the distant volcanoes, go for excellent massages and eat the retreat’s cracking vegetarian meals.
As I prepare to leave, I feel refreshed, focused and free from the computer ache that usually plagues my neck and shoulders. I am aghast, however, to discover that there is no breathing session on departure day. “I don’t want you in an altered state at the airport,” Dolan explains. I beg for one more session. Duty-free never seemed so serene. Back home, I’m now on 20,000 deep breaths a day and officially addicted.
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When asked what he does first thing in the morning, Marcel Duchamp reportedly replied, “Breathe.” In addition to being one of the patron saints of the Madness issue, Duchamp was right on trend: Breathing classes, workshops, therapies, and retreats are on the rise, and there’s lots of money being made. Kelly Conaboy inhaled.
Do you breathe? I mean: Do you breathe?
Your hippie friend says holotropic breathing is the new ayahuasca. Your Goop-y friend does breath exercises in the salt room at their spa. Your super-scheduled friend has a breathing app on her phone. And your friend who owns the self-improvement aisle at the bookstore has been going to breathing therapy for months.
Like it did with yoga in the ’90s, Western culture has opened its mind to breathing, née pranayama, as a tool to wield against anxiety, stress, and physical ailments, as well as a way to trip the fuck out. The practice of mindful breathing has traveled through time from the world’s oldest living religion, Hinduism, to the world’s newest religion, Wellness, and counts Gwyneth Paltrow, Karlie Kloss, Oprah, Emma Watson, and the New York Knicks among its practitioners. It is often dubbed as a quick way to relieve stress and, indeed, “the new yoga!”
The association with capital-W Wellness is unfortunate. Though the Wellness movement’s goals may be pure (and that’s giving it the benefit of the doubt), the path it takes to secular enlightenment is often through a field of toxin-filled money landmines and junk science, which can give one a sense of knee-jerk, often correctly cynical, disapproval. Because the concept of Wellness stretches so broadly—natural makeup is Wellness, and so is cultivating a sense of inner peace, and so is salad—it has an association with luxury that can sometimes feel discordant (like, uh, luxury meditation).
And when the luxury peddled at the Church of Wellness is breathing, the absurdity is hard to ignore. Breathing is one of life’s simplest pleasures and can be done anywhere, anytime, at little-to-no cost—go ahead, try it now. But those who are looking for something a little more high-end can get their kicks with a four-day breathing retreat in a beautiful poolside villa in Lanzarote (one of the Canary Islands), or private $550 breathing classes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; there was even, of course, a dedicated breathing room and breathwork sessions offered at the New York City Goop summit.
Is paying someone to show you how to breathe ridiculous or a surprisingly reasonable way to grow healthier? I live in New York City, a Western Wellness capital rivaled only by L.A. And like everyone else with access to Twitter, I’d love to feel more balanced, calm, and free from sickness and symptoms. And so, with credit card in hand, I set out to learn firsthand: Is breathwork bullshit?
My first foray into capitalistic respiration cost less than a green juice. For $3.99, I obtained a breathing app from the man who runs that Lanzarote retreat I mentioned earlier, “BreathGuru” Alan Dolan. The eponymous program comprises two guided breathing sessions and a few videos featuring the guru himself. I’d rather never watch a video, but the guided breathing sessions are nice. It’s pleasant to lie down and breathe for either 10 or 30 minutes, which are the two options. Nothing much is demanded of you, and breathing is a clinically proven stress reliever (you can read about this March 2017 Stanford University study on breathing’s positive effects on emotion, if you’d like). The app is more expensive than the typical cost of breathing, but you also get to hear New Age music and a man breathing with you—maybe you like that.
The BreathGuru’s claims don’t stop at stress relief, however. “Degenerative diseases, cardiac problems, and cancer are linked to oxidative stress and cellular free-radical damage, and breath is a key factor in prevention,” Dolan said in a Net-A-Porter article on the power of breathing. “When the breath is out of kilter, your body’s fight-or-flight mode is heightened. But get the breath right and cells are flooded with oxygen, so the body begins to recalibrate and release toxins.”
It always strikes me as particularly insidious when cancer is brought up in the promotional material of Wellness salespeople. But I am trying to breathe and remain relaxed, so I spoke to Geoffrey Chupp, M.D., a pulmonary medicine professor at Yale University and director at the Yale Center for Asthma and Airways Disease, about whether or not all this stuff was bullshit.
“There’s a desire to say that if you breathe right, you’re going to have less cancer, but it’s a more complex relationship,” he said. “What’s pretty clear is that having healthy lungs contributes to having a healthy body. And having healthy lungs means that you have to use them, and you have to use them properly, and you have to take care of them. I think the link is that breathing exercises, the fads and the traditional ones, are ways of keeping your lungs healthy.”
So the purported health payoffs aren’t just a marketing ploy? “There’s probably pretty good data out there supporting the benefits of [breathing exercises] for a lot of diseases,” he said, “including psychiatric diseases and anxiety, cancer, heart attacks, and most important in my field is asthma.”
Dr. Chupp told me about a study, published in the Journal of Asthma in 2011, on the benefits of yoga and breathing exercises on asthma; it was inconclusive, but showed in some cases that patients had better asthma control if they exercised. The connection between your breathing and your brain is well known in both sickness and in health, he explained—breathing has a chemical effect on your blood, and a chemical and hormonal effect on your brain. When you’re anxious, you breathe quickly; when you breathe deeply, you can decrease anxiety.
“The normal response to exercise is to bronchodilate,” meaning to increase airflow to the lungs, “so I think a lot of these [breathing exercises] are basically facilitating that and ensuring that your airways are being ventilated,” he said. In deep (vs. shallow) breathing, you fill your lungs to their full capacity, so you’re trading a larger amount of carbon dioxide for oxygen with which to oxygenate the blood. This is proven to ease anxiety, and sounds good to me.
Heartened by the cosign from a medical professional, I decided to take the next monetary step toward breath perfection: I visited MNDFL—an extremely good-looking meditation studio chain with three NYC locations—for its $25 BREATH class. “Feeling stressed or anxious?” MNDFL’s website asks. Yes! I’m so glad you asked. “This is a good class for you. Learn to focus on your breathing in order to become more present. Work with the breath in a way that allows you to be more calm and not get too lost in your own head.”
MNDFL’s space—wooden, bright white, light-flooded—is dotted with large, leafy green plants. It faces a floor-to-ceiling window that frames a large outdoor moss version of the MNDFL logo. It’s a calm, beautiful, perfectly branded breathing space, and I’d booked my spot online, which was very convenient. I sat cross-legged on a cushion early in the morning surrounded mostly by beautiful women in casual business attire. We breathed in a fairly nonstructured way, and listened to a very soothing woman talk to us about our breath and our thoughts. Periodically, she would give us tips: Focus on your breath; give a bit of attention to nagging thoughts and then let them go. It was essentially a meditation class, and it was extremely fine.
Here’s the thing about mentally therapeutic techniques, such as breathwork: Shilling them without knowing much about the mind of the client can be tricky. I spoke with Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at New York Medical College and part of the husband-wife team behind Breath Body Mind (an evidence-based breathwork initiative that aims to “integrate the best of conventional and natural treatments”), about what she sees as the potential missteps of mass-distributed holistic mental care.
Mostly, she said, the issue stems from not understanding or explaining potential side effects. “We see very famous people recommending their brand of a breathing practice, and that’s going to be fine for 95% of people,” she said. “But we know some people will have a bad reaction. Anyone can take an idea and put a little twist on it and make it sound like their own special thing, but if they don’t really understand how that affects the system, physically and psychologically, then their little twist may add something that’s not good for people.”
But the mass-distributed breathwork is growing, and with it research, evidence, and acceptance. “Most recently, the National Veterans Association made the decision that veteran treatment facilities should offer mind-body practices,” Dr. Gerbarg said. “They’re open to it, and they’re now officially offering it in a way that incentivizes VA facilities to find people to teach these kinds of programs.”
One solution—a pricey one, of course—is one-on-one breath sessions. These are offered in places ranging from yoga studios to well-appointed lofts to your very own apartment, usually with a Skype option available for out-of-town breathing. The one I tried, a $180, 60-minute session called Rebirthing, was a surprisingly wonderful experience. It didn’t start out that way; the night before, I had to fill out a very insane 38-question form, which asked what time I was born, what my most negative thoughts about relationships are, and what I was like as a child. At the start of the session, the breathworker and I went over my answers together, which was slightly uncomfortable.
But afterward, the very kind breathworker just watched me breathe while I lay under a blanket on a little massage table—big deep breath in, big deep breath out, big deep breath in, big deep breath out—for an hour. She told me my hands and face and legs might get numb and rigid during the breathing, and, wow, they did. It was very odd. But I did not suffer a breakdown, which I was nervous about. I also did not invent a memory of being involved in a Satanic sex cult, which I was also nervous about. After, I felt briefly energized and slightly happier, and she told me I was a very good breather, which I include not as a brag, but as a fact.
Of all the Wellness-centered breathwork offerings out there, holotropic breathing is one of the most, well, out-there. The technique was engineered in the ’70s by Stanislav Grof, M.D., and his wife, Christina, psychotherapists researching the effects of LSD. The practice, meant to mirror LSD’s effects, is done by inhaling and exhaling quickly—essentially mildly hyperventilating—while lying on your back, typically for about three hours, and usually to a soundtrack of meditative music. The trippy experience is practiced in the name of accessing otherwise inaccessible parts of the psyche, letting go of past trauma, and decreasing anxiety.
I asked Dr. Chupp what happens in your body when you do this, mostly because I was afraid I might die while trying it. “What you’re probably doing is getting rid of carbon dioxide, so you’re changing the acid-base balance in your body,” he said. According to Google just now, the acid-base balance is based on the levels of carbon dioxide (an acid) and bicarbonate (a base) in the blood. “That would need to be studied pretty scientifically, at almost a molecular level, to understand what the effects are,” he added.
“For people who are looking to have some sort of very intense experience, this can provide it,” Dr. Gerbarg explained. “People who are very psychologically healthy and well put together can tolerate it fine.” But holotropic and even rebirth breathwork can be upsetting—even destabilizing—for those who aren’t as psychologically sound. “It’s creating an altered mental state. So people used to do this as a way to have trips and other psychological experiences,” she said. She specified that she wasn’t criticizing the techniques, because they can do a lot of good, “but I do believe that some of those practices are not safe for the general public in the way that we use them.”
She advised practicing these techniques—if one must—one-on-one with an experienced breathworker, rather than in a large group.
But I’d already signed up for my group holotropic session, so I blew off the suggestion (sorry, Patricia!) and found myself in a group of Rag & Bone–looking people in a second-floor loft space in Lower Manhattan. The class took place at Woom, and luckily, it was not a nightmarishly bad experience in the ways I feared most (Satanic sex cult recovered memory). The holotropic breathwork was part of a Friday night five-part sound meditation session ($40) and lasted not for the standard three hours, but for 20 minutes. The room was full of very beautiful people in loose clothing who were hanging all over one another before the session began, which made me realize this was perhaps a thing people did before they had sex. (I was alone.)
For the session, everyone lay on blankets on the ground (extremely uncomfortable because the five-part session lasted two and a half hours, but I’m not complaining—I would never complain) and put blindfolds on that said “LOOK INSIDE” on the inside part. During the breathing practice, the instructor moved around the space banging a gong faster and faster, to the tempo of our breaths. The sound of everyone hyperventilating together was, I must admit, to my ear (and I say this without judgment): extremely not pleasing. About 30 men and women all going [inhale] [HUUUUUHHHHH], [inhale] [HUUUUUHHHHH], [inhale] [HUUUUUHHHHH] for 20 minutes is simply not something I am naturally inclined to enjoy, and that’s fine. The breathing was at a much faster pace than the breathing during rebirthing, and while I got a bit of the same numbness, I got none of the pleasant feelings and also chest pain.
But I am only speaking for myself. In the final part of the session, we were invited to share our experiences: One man said he could feel “toxin after toxin” leaving his body, and one woman said she felt herself going back to the womb. (Remarkably, she did not add, “Like you will be going back to the Woom, every week, for more meditation,” so I don’t believe she was an advertising plant.) I am happy for them, and I genuinely hope they did not feel my light negativity.
I don’t see breathing’s rise in popularity as a bad thing, though that is admittedly an odd sentence to have to write. “I think it’s gaining popularity because it makes people feel better,” Dr. Chupp told me. “There doesn’t have to be data for things to become popular. It just has to make people feel good.” He added that he believes if more studies were done, “and they probably should be,” they’d attest to breathing’s power.
Basically, breathing is good for you, and people deserve to practice absolutely anything within the realm of decency that helps them feel even the slightest bit better. But it’s important to take a moment to pause and consider what you’re buying, why you’re buying it, if you should be buying it, and from whom you’re buying it. Slow down; be mindful of your mindful breathing. Take a deep breath. Exhale. [HUUUUUHHHHH].
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Mindfulness in nature, wild fitness, all-day yoga, this is our round-up of Spanish retreats to experience this season. Namasté.
Conscious breathing in Lanzarote – Breath Guru’s retreat is located in a rural location in the most easterly part of the Canary Islands. This luxury sanctuary is a villa that only accommodates 4 guests at a time to ensure maximum relaxation (and learning). Daily 1-1 breath sessions with Alan Dolan – the owner and guru – takes place in the complete privacy of a therapy room and can be coupled with massage, personal training, or even volcano climbing. The rest of the day is spent sunbathing on the local beach – Famara – and enjoying freshly made vegetarian meals.