I tried breathwork for the first time - and my emotional reaction took me by surprise

·5-min read
Photo credit: Oscar Wong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Oscar Wong - Getty Images

We breath 22,000 times a day, according to the Canadian Lung Association. But how many of us actually consciously think about this automatic act? You may think about your breathing pattern when you're anxious, exercising, or meditating - but breathwork is its own entity, and the ancient practice is a hot topic in the wellness industry right now.

However, breathing exercises for health benefits have been around for centuries, and reportedly date back to 2700 B.C.E, when the Chinese practice Qigong, which utilises over 3,000 breathing techniques, emerged.

Despite having dabbled in meditation, yoga and breathing exercises, I was intrigued to learn more about the breathwork practice and discover its benefits. With that in mind, I spoke with experts about the practice and participated in a class led by The Breath Space expert, Jamie Clements - and, my emotional reaction to the session was what surprised me the most...

What is breathwork?

"Breathwork is any way we consciously use our breath to shift our physical, mental or emotional state," explains Jamie.

He sees breathwork as a "remote control" for the nervous system. When the breath slows down, the heart rate follows, activating the Vagus Nerve which runs from the brain to the abdomen, and signals to the body and mind that it’s time to relax.

Photo credit: Catherine McQueen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Catherine McQueen - Getty Images

However, there are multiple breathwork techniques, all of which have different benefits for your physical and mental health - from helping you relax and sleep better, to helping reduce anxiety, improve concentration and boost energy.

"We can use the breath to create a sense of calm and relaxation through down-regulating the nervous system, or in the other direction to create energy, focus, motivation and boost our immune system," Jamie explains.

What are the benefits of breathwork?

"Breathwork can have benefits for people with mental health issues like anxiety, chronic stress and depression," says Jamie. "It can also help with sleep, energy, focus, auto-immune issues, asthma and much more."

According to Mr Thomas Routledge, consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at London Bridge Hospital, we only use a fraction of our lung capacity. "A typical breath whilst resting is only 10% of your total lung capacity. You mostly increase breathing capacity by taking more frequent breaths."

Not only does breathwork exercise the organ, and expand your lung capacity, it balances the body’s pH level to ensure your body functions at optimum level.

Breathing science expert and founder of Breath Hub app, Nevsah Fidan Karamehmet, explains: "Breathwork is essential to balance the dysfunctional breathing habits… Individuals get full efficiency of their lung capacity and body pH balance is provided."

My breathwork experience

Breathwork first came on my radar after watching TV series Freeze The Fear With Wim Hof. In one episode, celebrities undertook a breathwork session with "The Iceman", which triggered their emotions, while some started convulsing, others noted an otherworldly presence.

Admittedly, I was dubious about their reactions, but everyone’s experience is different. According to Jamie, breathwork can be a "very calm experience" or "a very cathartic and potentially psychedelic-like experience".

Turns out, mine, was the latter.

Photo credit: knape - Getty Images
Photo credit: knape - Getty Images

In the breathwork class, Jamie focused on one particular technique: Conscious Connected Breathing. This practice is a continuous cycle of inhalations and exhalations, solely through the mouth, with no pauses. He describes it as a "deeper, healing modality of breathwork".

"This type of breathwork allows us to experience an altered state of consciousness, connect with the subconscious mind more deeply and release stored emotions held in the nervous system," Jamie says.

I was eased in with controlled inhalations through the nose and exhalations through the mouth to relax the mind and body, which is a common starting point in meditation. But, when Jamie upped the ante and introduced the Conscious Connected Breathing technique, the deep inhalations and exhalations sparked an impulsive reaction from my body that I had never experienced before.

Initially my fingers and hands felt a tingling sensation, which spread up my arms, before they began to cramp. The spasms intensified and moved to my upper body, down my legs, and tears started to flow.

While this may sound like an exorcism in a horror film, Jamie reassured me this reaction is completely normal, and is caused by "physiological changes in our blood gases, which lead to tightness and constriction, and from the energetic release from the nervous system - all very safe."

Photo credit: Anna Efetova - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anna Efetova - Getty Images

Alongside the cramping overwhelming my body, and emotions rising, I felt the cold and started shivering, so I slowed my breathing and stretched my limbs, to try and control my body’s reaction with Jamie's direction and encouragement.

"Always listen to your body and know you can slow down at any point. However, a lot of the benefits come from being able to surrender and allow yourself to feel whatever emotions and sensations are coming up," he adds.

At the end of the session I felt calmer, relieved, and lighter emotionally, as thoughts, stresses and anxiety ebbed away. I have always been a private person, and only express my emotions to my trusted loved ones. After living through a pandemic, losing close relatives, feeling heightened anxiety, and experiencing many moments that have had me swallowing the lump at the back of my throat with urges to scream and sob - this breathwork session was what I never knew I needed.

The breathwork class was a safe space to release everything, which sparked mental, emotional and even physical pain left unprocessed, it provided clarity and enlightenment for me to trust everything will be ok.

Whether you're struggling with a situation in your life or not, breathwork tunes into your subconscious, and will help free your emotions in whichever form your body chooses, which is refreshing, and indeed, cathartic.

Despite being initially sceptical about breathwork, one class has been life-changing for me. Breathwork provided me with an immediate release, but it has had long-lasting benefits too, as I have learnt to recognise, process, and control my feelings, simply by breathing.

For more insight from Jamie, and to join a breathwork class, visit his website The Breath Space.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health condition, visit the NHS website for information and support.

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