How I finally tackled my crippling anxiety at a Sri Lankan breathwork retreat

Adam Turner (left) at Sen Wellness in Rekawa in Sri Lanka
Adam Turner (left) at Sen Wellness on the Rekawa Nature Reserve in Sri Lanka

Out of nowhere, the thought of dying popped into my head, and it wouldn’t leave. Shivering and breathing more heavily than acceptable in a room full of meditating strangers, I opened my eyes to quell a full-blown panic attack.

Overhead, nine Brahminy kite eagles circled above a mushroom-shaped, fairy-tale-like building, its thatched roof poking out from the dense green mangroves that swallowed it. Soon, the morbid ruminations dissipated and all I could hear was the mollifying sound of water sluicing against the shore of a nearby lagoon.

It wasn’t how I expected to end my first sunrise yoga session at Sen Wellness – an Ayurvedic wellbeing sanctuary in Rekawa Nature Reserve on an untamed sandbar on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Ironically, I’d signed up to do a five-day breathwork retreat to help tackle my anxiety, which previous therapists had told me comes from a deep-rooted fear of death.

Health anxiety has blighted my life for 15-odd years. A migraine is always a brain tumour. A lingering cough: lung cancer. Chest pain – “Somebody call an ambulance; I’m having a heart attack”.

These irrational thoughts quickly descend into obsessive checking behaviours, reassurance-seeking and debilitating panic attacks – resulting in sleepless nights, and days, weeks or months of mental torture.

The exterior of a thatched cabana at Sen Wellness
The exterior of the thatched accommodation at Sen Wellness

I’m not alone: according to a survey by the Office for National Statistics in March 2023, almost a quarter of UK adults reported having high levels of anxiety. It’s something which affects a great number of us, and which is still badly under-recognised and under-treated – particularly among men.

So I meditate, do yoga, take medication and go to therapy. I prioritise sleep, eat pretty well, and have cut down on booze drastically. But, having received a life-changing diagnosis recently, things had worsened, so I was looking for another weapon to add to my arsenal.

Breathwork had previously seemed slightly too woo-woo to a naturally cynical northerner. But somehow Sen made it sound more accessible.

Sri Lankan-born, London-based osteopath Sam Kankanamge built the sanctuary almost 10 years ago to offer his clients a place to heal as an extension of his clinic on Harley Street – in his words, “a 45-minute consultation every couple of weeks can only go so far”.

When I arrived, I was far from relaxed after a bonkers two-hour bus ride from Ahangama (picture bright murals, disco lights and blaring music), then a half an hour’s bumpy tuk-tuk ride from Tangalle. I was first greeted by a sole frangipani tree in the middle of a circular pond covered with water lilies, then by Frances, a barefoot Australian woman with thick curly hair, armed with a coconut and a genuine smile.

She began to show me around the sanctuary, which sits between a sprawling lagoon and a long, wild, people-less sandy beach. There are several outbuildings and a large, circular main structure draped in prayer flags, hand-painted Buddhist wall hangings and patterned sarongs, with tables full of books and day beds scattered liberally.

In the woody, crescent-shaped yoga shala, I admitted to Frances that I knew little about breathwork or its benefits. “It’s essentially a practice that cultivates awareness and connection between breath and body,” she explained.

“It’s a tool that can help ground you in moments of anxiety and, with regular practice, can recalibrate your nervous system. The best thing is, the breath is always present – you always have it with you.”

Though I was on a breathwork programme, there were various bespoke retreats operating at the same time, all following a similar schedule, which was written on a chalkboard at the reception. Herbal tea at 5.30 before a 90-minute sunrise yoga session at six; Ayurvedic treatments from 9.30; lunch at half past one, then more treatments, plus yoga and meditation.

Sen Wellness
As well as a seven-day breathwork programme, other bespoke retreats are on offer

Dinner (based on Ayurvedic principles – so no meat, wheat, sugar, dairy, processed foods, deep-fried foods or carbonated drinks) was served family-style, meaning that I got to know the other guests during mealtimes.

Among them were a vivacious Indian entrepreneur on a weight-loss kick, two quick-witted Australian women seeking R&R, and a charming Icelandic investor who had recently lost both of his parents (his sister had visited Sen nine times). Some visitors were fighting severe, long-term illnesses. Others just needed a detox.

Everyone was on a journey of some kind – self-care, relaxation, discovery or recovery. As the lovely

Helen, a yoga teacher from Hertfordshire, told me, “It seems everyone arrives at Sen at just the right time.”

The interior of a luxury cabana at Sen Wellness
The interior of a luxury cabana at Sen Wellness

I was also introduced to Ayurveda for the first time. From the Sanskrit for “science of life”, this ancient Indian medical system is based on the idea that health and wellness depend on a healthy balance between the body, mind, spirit and environment. The aim is to promote sound long-term health, instead of fighting disease.

The belief is that everyone has a unique blend of three Doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha). Mine – a mix of Vata and Pitta – had some traits that rang true: forgetfulness, skin problems and anxiety.

We each underwent a lengthy consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor. At mine, Dr Udari – a warm, studious woman wearing a beautiful pink saree and a disarming smile – went through the usual things your GP asks, adding a few less-than-conventional questions, like, “Do you prefer hot or cold food?”. She then suggested treatments (massages, steam baths, acupuncture etc.).

My favourite one took place in a dark room blindfolded. The Shirodhara consisted of a therapist dripping hot oil slowly onto my forehead, which sounds like a torture method but was anything but. Immediately, my body uncoiled, and my mind fell silent as I drifted in and out of sleep, bothered only by an unfamiliar smell of something like chip fat and herbs.

Adam Turner with Dr Udari, an Ayurvedic doctor
Adam Turner with Dr Udari, an Ayurvedic doctor

Some breathwork sessions led to similar feelings of deep relaxation, accompanied by tingling fingers and toes. Other times, my mind danced between feeling utterly overwhelmed with sadness and incredibly joyous. Most classes were centred around circular breathing – essentially creating a constant flow of inhalation and exhalation using the diaphragm.

Time always slowed down. “Thirty minutes? It felt like three days.” I’d say to Frances. “It’s powerful stuff,” she’d reply. Afterwards, the squirrels and monkeys charging through the bushes and birds twittering away in the palms would always sound louder.

The landscape – the ethereal crimson sunsets, the sublimely green mangroves, the turquoise ocean – always appeared more intense.

And gradually, I began to surrender. My anxiety softened, and my mind drifted from having catastrophic thoughts to worrying whether the resident frog would be in my toilet or hiding behind the shampoo bottle in the shower when I returned after dinner.

During my final breathwork session, I thought of my own death once again. But this time, it was more vivid, like an LSD trip. I saw myself saying goodbye to friends and family at a sunny villa in Spain. But this time, rather than feeling overcome with dread and panic, all I felt was peace.

Adam Turner was a guest of Sen Wellness (020 7486 3371;, which offers the seven-day Breathwork and Heart Connection Programme from £1,840 per person, including accommodation in the Eco Cabana.