Through all the years I’ve been trying to stay healthy by eating well, exercising, taking vitamins, attempting to meditate, it’s only now I really understand that breathing properly is the simplest trick most of us miss in the equation. We can be forgiven of course, as it’s something we all do automatically – approximately 12-18 times a minute of every day. We don’t have to give it a second thought, and quite frankly, who needs ‘learn to breathe’ added to our endless to-do lists. But doing exactly that has made huge changes in the way I feel and look. I can relax more deeply, sleep better, meditate for longer, my digestion functions a whole lot better, I feel taller, lighter (a bonus when running) and I even detect more colour in my skin which others have noticed.
It’s work in progress though – as I sit here in front of my laptop writing this, I know I’m not breathing properly. Modern life – poring over iPads, driving, toting designer handbags, sitting in front of the TV and computer – all conspire to make us lean forwards, hunching our shoulders over and collapsing into our diaphragm, the major muscle which drives our breath. There’s often a sub-conscious emotional element to this too – if we’re hurt, grieving or broken hearted, our instinct is to curl over for comfort – the same goes when we feel threatened. The upshot is, we end up with with constricted breathing, air only going to our chests, using a fraction of our natural lung capacity. We feel anxious and tired rather than full of life.
The good news is we can change breathing habits relatively easily. The first stage is connecting with it – I started doing this through yoga. I’m not the bendiest yogi, yet I kept going back because I loved the talk through breathing and relaxation at the end of the class (known as Sivasana). Even after a long, stressful day, I’d come out feeling revived and restored. I began to practise at home, which led me into meditation and I found that slowing the breath brings the mind to a peaceful place. I’ve tried many yogic breathing techniques – yogis call this Pranayama – meaning breath control. My favourite became Kapalbhati where, sitting cross legged with a straight spine, you pump the navel in and to exhale quickly through the nose while the inhale takes care of itself. It’s dynamic and can be tricky at first, but once you master it (best done with a yoga teacher), it’s good for clearing the lungs, toning the digestive system, leaving you glowing afterwards. I found out later it’s sometimes known as ‘shining skull’ breath because of this.
Then I met Alan Dolan who teaches a therapeutic breath technique called Transformational Breath. In the first session, I found myself taking huge, deep belly breaths for nearly an hour to a peculiar rhythm, eyes closed, propped up with a stack of Indian embroidered cushions. Sounds bizarre, and it was. I slid into a deeply meditative, almost ecstatic state, and I felt like I could ‘let go’ of a whole lot of emotional baggage (often held as tension in the body: Alan uses acupressure massage during the session to help release it). I felt energised and uplifted afterwards, if exhausted and dehydrated. Everyone has a different experience; it can be relief of physical symptoms such as breathing difficulties, anxiety, low energy, as well as working on the more emotional side of letting go of trauma, giving you a confidence boost or a feeling of clarity. Regular practice is recommended – you learn the technique as a ‘take home’ as well as going to sessions. Alan teaches groups and one to ones around the country as well as at his gorgeous retreat in Lanzarote, see breathguru.com for details.
Whilst I go breathing sessions whenever I can, the fact is, we can all connect with our breath at any time. It doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, the simplest way to relax right now is to stop and let yourself breathe (no effort, no control). Feel how by allowing your body to be breathed, you are instantly more at ease. Taking around 10 breaths like this will help you find your own rhythm, one where you’re not forcing or pushing. You’ll probably find it a struggle at first, but think of it as observing your breath. And as you do, look for a natural pause at the beginning and end of each breath. Allow yourself to ‘drop into’ that pause and you start to feel a real stillness and peace. This is where the feeling of breathing properly starts to kick in. Soon, like me, you’ll be addicted.