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.