I haven’t always breathed brilliantly. My overriding childhood memory is of a Wright’s Coal Tar Burner flickering in the corner of my bedroom, in an effort to ‘open up my passages’ (as my mother rather unglamorously put it). Heaven knows what the coal tar did to my lungs, long-term, but having coughed my way through childhood I’m one of those people who – when there’s a bug going round – will experience it going ‘straight to my chest’, if I succumb.
Or I did. In the past few years, things have improved enormously – and I think it’s down to several factors. Ah, those of you who know me might say: you moved to the brisk and breezy coast, 15 years ago. But actually, these past three years, I’ve been spending several nights a week in pollution-choked Central London, so that can’t be it. (Although I do always make a point of avoiding the city centre’s most clogged arteries, always walking on backstreets so I’m not breathing the diesel belching out of black cabs, in particular.)
I put it down to having written a book on yoga, a few years ago – Yoga for Life, which you can actually find on VH – which had me really thinking about breathing properly, for the first time in my life. As a bonus, what I also discovered is that right breathing does double-duty as a relaxing technique. (Always room for more of that, in our busy lives.)
There are a couple of techniques which I honestly believe really work to keep my lungs strong and resilient. ‘Nad Shodhana’, or ‘sweet breath’, is alternate nostril breathing – which you do by pressing lightly on one nostril, breathing in with the other, holding, releasing the finger and exhaling through the opposite nostril. But the technique that I really treasure, and which I think has helped me is called ‘ocean breath’ – because it sounds a bit like the pull of a calm sea on a sandy beach. It’s technically known as ‘Ujjayi’ breathing (say it ‘ooh-jie’). Or, slightly more heretically, as the ‘Darth Vader’ breath, which is the best clue I can think of as to how this should sound when you do it right. It happens to be truly brilliant for focusing the mind: if you have a project to complete and you’re finding it hard to rein in your thoughts, do some ‘ocean breathing’. And – useful at this time of years – it’s also brilliant for building internal heat: on a cold day, ujjayi breath is wonderfully warming. And this is how you do it.
Start by… Finding a comfortable seated position, or alternatively, lying on your back. Putting a bolster under your knees can be good.
- Start by taking long, deep, slow breaths through your nostrils.
- Slightly contract the back of your throat to make a hissing sound as you breathe steadily in and out. (It’s sort of en route for a snore, but not quite; it shouldn’t be forced – but if someone came close, they should be able to hear this breathing.)
- Lengthen your inhalations and exhalations as much as you comfortably can, while still feeling relaxed and comfortable. While you’re doing it, listen to your breathing; just the sound can be as calming as one of those ‘ocean wave’ relaxation tapes.
To be sure you’re getting it ‘right’, hold your hand up to your mouth and breathe out as if you were trying to fog up a mirror or a windowpane. To get the ‘fog’, you have to constrict the back of your throat. Now close your mouth and do the same thing, but breathing through your nose. And that’s it: you’re ujjayi breathing. I think of it as Jane Fonda for my lungs, only a lot calmer. And no snazzy leotard required.
There are a couple of other things which I think have helped my ‘chestiness’. A practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine told me to eat an apple every day – rather in line with that ‘prescription’ to keep doctors like him at bay, but in TCM it transpires that apples are considered especially good for the lungs. In winter, I also often put a dab or two of frankincense essential oil on my chest – a tip from my beauty editor and This Works founder colleague Kathy Phillips, which I find very helpful.
And last but not least – because don’t we all love a great product? – I want to single out two aromatherapeutic treats which definitely have a place in my breathe-easy arsenal. First off, Temple Spa Breath of Life Aromatherapy Inhalation Essence, which packs a menthol-y punch, together with notes of lavender, eucalyptus and tea tree. (If this doesn’t clear your passages, nothing will! But great for a cold, because of that.)
The second must-have is yet another in the Aromatherapy Associates Bath & Shower Oil collection, which as many readers know features my ‘desert island’ must-haves, Inner Strength and Deep Relax. But when I’m feeling cold-y or just need to breathe more clearly, I turn to the fabulous Support Breathe Bath & Shower Oil: an absolute miracle worker with its eucalyptus, tea tree and pine blend. A capful in the bath, 15 minutes breathing the fragrant steam, and I’m a different woman. With different lungs.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d just finish with this wonderfully inspiring Swedish proverb, which seems really timely for a new year. ‘Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; hate less, love more – and all good things are yours.’ So here’s wishing you a wonderful 2017. (With clear passages…)