Many of us know breathwork as meditation with benefits, helping unwind the stress from our bodies. But when Brigid Moss tried it, she gained a greater life lesson than she expected.
You can tell by the new name for breathing – ‘breathwork’ – that things have got serious. There are now apps, podcasts, books and workshops. They promise not only to increase your lung capacity and fitness, but also to use something we do without thought, simply to keep ourselves alive, to release emotional and mental blocks. And even, perhaps, to reach a higher state of consciousness.
Breathwork has its roots in the 1960s. When LSD was banned, researchers who’d been using psychedelics for therapy and to explore consciousness looked for new ways to reach altered states. They came up with holotropic and rebirthing breathwork, both of which were pretty hardcore: all-day sessions, drumming, therapy work in pairs. They were based on controlled hyperventilation, changing the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood and so changing your brain state. And oxygen has an advantage over LSD – it’s legal.
I hadn’t heard any of this 13 years ago when I had a trial session with Alan Dolan – a breathwork teacher who now trains the new wave of teachers. Alan was taught by a protégée of one of the 1960s gurus and his updated technique is a lot more user-friendly. Now, you only need to do five to 20 minutes a day, and you can do it alone.
When I met him back then in a hotel function room – at the cusp of the breathwork renaissance – I didn’t know what to expect. I remember him looking like a yogi: slight, with blue eyes and a blond-grey ponytail. After a brief chat, he instructed me to lie back, keep my mouth open and breathe in, down into my belly (see overleaf for the full instructions).
I lay back on the soft mat and tried to breathe as he suggested… but I couldn’t. My breath stuck in my throat. Alan put his hand on my stomach to help me, and I froze. He sat behind me and asked me to lean back on to him, to breathe with him. I panicked. I made my excuses and left. I chalked up my inability to complete the exercise to anxiety and a sleepless toddler. Plus, I wasn’t expecting to get into such an intimate clinch with a stranger. In the 1960s, they would have called me uptight.
Fast forward 13 years and I’m a lot looser and happier. Therapy has helped me work through my anxiety. But I still feel stuck in old patterns; sometimes jittery, dark or angry. I learned from Donna Lancaster, author of The Bridge, that old emotions can get stuck in your body, so it takes working with your body, not talking, to release them. I kept hearing that breathwork can act like a reset button, fast-forwarding therapy by getting the old stuff out, so I decided to revisit Alan. Could breathwork help me finally learn to let go?
Alan still teaches in London, but he now spends most of the year running four-person retreats in Lanzarote. He invites me to come for two days of breathing. The villa is in a pretty village of white houses called Nazaret, nestled in the hills between two coastlines, with a blue-tiled pool and a view of black volcanoes.
There is delicious vegan food – falafel with orange sauce, and vegetable tempura with cauliflower rice – and there are bodywork sessions to release knots in my neck, skull and sacrum. But I’m here for the main event: the one-to-one sessions with Alan. They take place in a square, white room, the floor filled with a futon covered in cushions. There are crystals and oils on side tables and the room smells of palo santo wood, used to cleanse the space.
I’m nervous. Alan seems exactly the same; gentle voice, maybe a little greyer. He says I look completely different to when he first met me; I feel it too. He tells me people release their pent-up stuff in different ways; yawning, sneezing, runny nose, farting. My bum cheeks clench: oh god, I hope mine isn’t farting.
We start the breathing. My breath dries in the back of my throat. It’s bloody uncomfortable. I still can’t do it! But when Alan holds me this time, I manage not to seize up completely. I struggle through 30 minutes.
Talking at lunch, Alan explains how breathwork puts the body into autopilot recalibration. My inability to let go is a fight between my ego – my thinking mind – and my body. My body is relaxing, yawning away. But my ego is taking a last stand, telling me, ‘It’s uncomfortable!’ ‘It’s unbearable!’ Our egos like things to stay the same. To them, what is familiar feels safe. For my ego, my overactive nervous system and holding on to tension feels safe.
That afternoon, there’s a group breathing session with the three others on the retreat. My jaw hurts and I can’t shut my mind up. The others seem to be getting more ‘results’. Jane spends the session crying; afterwards she says she came here to release something specific and she did. Ellen says she produced copious snot. And Harvey says that every session has felt like bliss. Afterwards, Alan says we all hold internalised stress in different places – the jaw, spine, lumbar area – and breathwork helps it leave the body, like sitting on a blow-up mattress to get the air out.
In the next afternoon group session, I begin by feeling the same; pent-up, angry. This time, we are breathing to music, acoustic guitar with sad lyrics, something about fear. Suddenly, I can see my anxious 22-year-old self. I’ve got my eyes closed, but it’s as clear as if she’s in front of me. It’s not a hallucination because I know it isn’t real, but she is there. I feel how scared she was to get on the Tube, to show people her flaws. I start crying about all the things I was too scared to do in my 20s: go travelling to Asia, push myself at work. And then, I feel in awe that I did so much despite the fear: finding work I love; going through IVF and therapy; and moving house on my own. I feel warmth and tenderness towards her – or me. In my mind, I see and feel myself gently hugging the younger me. Afterwards, it feels so good that I have been kind to my anxious younger self.
I’m sad to leave the magical little world of Nazaret, but my sense of calm comes home with me. A few weeks later, I speak to Harvey, who stayed for a full week. He says his lifelong anxiety has gone. Every session, he felt mentally lighter, as if something had evaporated. ‘I’m trying new things, saying yes, but just floating into them,’ he tells me. ‘Whatever used to make me double-think every decision has gone. Every day, I wake up feeling slightly better. I do my breathing and sometimes something from the past pops up, appears then disappears. I didn’t realise I could be this happy.’
I’ve read that researchers think breathwork might put you into a similar state to psychedelics, which change your brain so you can access memories and old emotions and make sense of them. I think my final experience was an example of that. My approach to life has always been to feel the fear and do it anyway. But when we are scared, we hold our breath. And so, I spent a lot of my life holding my breath.
Alan helps me understand this. ‘If you take one thing away, it’s to breathe with your emotions,’ he says. ‘White-knuckling doesn’t work. They accumulate in the body and come out as anxiety, depression, panic attacks or other physical manifestations of stress.’
Something changed in me, and in Harvey, but it was a gentle revelation, not a painful one. ‘The mind anticipates it’ll be a bigger deal than it is. That’s the resistance. But when you come to do it, it’s nowhere near as traumatic as you anticipate,’ Alan says. ‘There is a softer way to get through than toughing it out.’
Breathwork has showed me that the magic happens when you let go. I want to float into things, to say yes. And so, my new life mantra is: feel the fear and keep breathing.