'I learnt how to breathe properly – and waved my city life stress goodbye'

breathwork
'I learnt how to breathe properly' Getty

I'm lying on a cold basement floor in Central London. The lights are low and there are 20 or so other motionless bodies lying around me. No, this isn't some weird IRL Birdbox experience, but my introduction to one of the most intriguing holistic health trends going: breath work.

What is breath work?

Yes, you already know how to breathe. But breath work is the practice of paying conscious attention to the way that you're inhaling and exhaling. The aims vary – in some sessions, you might be looking for an altered mental state to help address trauma, in others, a calming of the nervous system, to create feelings of wellbeing and mental clarity.

The practice is rooted in ancient spiritual traditions, including those of yoga: you may be familiar with pranayama, one of the eight limbs of yoga, which encompasses various yogic breathing practices.

In seventies, a practice termed 'Holotropic breath work' was popularised in New Age circles in the west. Founded by a proponent of psychedelic therapy, its aim is to induce different states of consciousness in people, without the use of drugs such as LSD. Today, it's enjoying something of a revival. In the UK, practitioners all all over the country listed on dedicated website Transformational Breath.

One such practitioner driving the boom is Australia native Richie Bostock (@thebreathguy). Previously a management consultant in Brisbane, he quit the corporate world to teach martial arts in 2015, before travelling to Poland to meet with Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof – a major proponent of breath work.

He then trained under various other breath work professionals, before setting up his own business, Xhale Breathwork, based in the UK. Nowadays, he offers up guided breath work sessions via his app, Flourish, and is currently based in Bali, Indonesia, though he does return to this country occasionally, to teach – such as at the class I'm attending.

'Breath work is when you consciously use your breathing to change your state of being, or physical, mental or emotional state,' he tells me, before the session begins.

(The claims around the practice get bolder. In their 2012 book, The Healing Power of the Breath, psychiatrists Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg say that breath work can: 'Restore balance to stress response systems, calm an agitated mind, relieve symptoms of anxiety and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), improve physical health and endurance, elevate performance, and enhance relationships.')

Breathwork training: how does it feel?

Lying on the cold floor, waiting for the class to begin, I feel trepidatious. A Google search around breath work earlier this afternoon threw up some pretty 'out there' tales – from reports of out-of-body experiences to descriptions of sobbing and twitching with total abandon for 20 minutes.

As an avid runner and gym-lover, who flirts with yin yoga from time-to-time, I'm a functional fitness type; more tuned into tracking how many miles I've clocked than exploring the more spiritual side of wellness. Honestly, the thought of deep diving into the esoteric world scares me, slightly.

But Bostock's dulcet tones encouraging me to deepen my breath have their intended effect, and I start to sink into the motions: in for five—hold— out for five.

As I focus more on the breathing itself, thoughts of how I need to book in a gas meter reading dissipate and I start to feel weirdly—well, trippy. Like the grey abyss between reality and sleep, my body floats, my mind swims and I half zone out to a far more relaxed world where deadlines and Lidl lists are a thing of the past.

Although I didn't experience any crying or shaking, a quick glance around shows a few spontaneously raising arms and twitching limbs. My left foot starts to tap of its own accord. It's weird, but floaty and pleasant.

How could Breathwork help you?

In the studio, Bostock explains that he believes that our breath is linked to every single function in our body. Breath work, if used as a tool, therefore can help to reduce stress and lower feelings of anxiety, as well as inducing meditative states.

The sell is simple. Master the art of breathing and you've got your own little defence mechanism in place for times of overwhelm: whether you're standing on a crowded tram platform or have just received a dressing down from your boss.

I leave the class feeling light. As to my sleep that night? It's the best eight hours rest I've ever had.

When I wake up the next morning, filled with the sunny optimism that only a grade A slumber can bring, I know that soon I'll be back on that cold Central London floor, ready to tune into my breath.

Try it yourself: a basic Breath work exercise

Bostock encourages you to use your breath daily as a tool—be it at home, on the bus or walking to work.

Try the following exercise:

  • Start with empty lungs and breathe into your belly through your nose for a count of 5 seconds,

  • Hold your breathe for a count of 5,

  • Exhale for a count of 5

  • Hold your breath for a count of 5

  • Repeat this pattern for at least 3 minutes or until you have felt yourself fully calm down.

The best Breath work experts to follow on instagram

Want to make breath work part of your daily routine? There's no easier way to remind yourself to take a breath than to come across a quick breath work practice while you scroll. Below are three more of the best breath work experts in the biz…

@puravijoshi

Puravi is a Lond0n-based breath work, yoga and meditation teacher. Keep up to date with her for in-person classes, tips on maintaining good mental health and to stay in-the-loop about her upcoming retreats.

@tiwariyoga

Follow yoga, breath and meditation teacher Angie for super handy de-stressing techniques, advice on how breathing practices can re-connect you with a partner and lessons on honouring the roots of yoga.

@iceman_hof

He's one of the OGs in breathwork, Wim Hof uses breathing techniques (alongside cold exposure) to boost health.

@breathewithjames

James Dowler offers online breathwork classes to help alleviate emotional issues and improve physical health.

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