what is breathing therapy?
It’s like meditation, only way, way easier.
Welcome to safe + sound , our new fortnightly column exploring the lengths people take to find a little spiritual wellbeing in this manic world. From womb rituals to shamanic healing, we’ll chart the growth of these new-age therapies and trial them for ourselves to uncover the crux of their allure. This week, we realise we haven’t been breathing to our full potential for all this time.
Of all the spiritual therapies I’ve heard about, breathwork was the one I was never really that sure of. I get it, breathing is important, but do I really need to pay for someone to tell me that? As it turns out, yes, I do.
I went along to a breathwork session run by Breathpod, the biggest name in breathing therapy right now. It’s run by Stuart Sandeman, an ex-DJ, ex-stockbroker who found breathwork himself after hitting an intense depression when he lost his girlfriend to cancer. He’d tried almost every alternative therapy going, but then saw an advert for a breathing class and decided to take his mum for mother’s day -- “She likes yoga and stuff like that.” It turned out to be pretty transformative, allowing him to feel a deeper connection to his late girlfriend, but also helping him work through the grief he had been holding back for so long. A few years later, and he set up Breathpod, teaching his own form of breathwork to individuals as well as companies like Nike, Google and Calvin Klein.
So what is breathwork? Well, it’s a form of therapy that requires you to tune your breath in certain ways to chill the mind, work through dormant emotions and improve your ability to breathe more deeply day to day.
The room looks like a yoga studio; everybody lies on a mat, but there’s also blankets and pillows to get comfy. The class starts with some warm up exercises, helpful if you’ve never really considered whether you’re breathing right before. Rather than whale song or chimes, the class is accompanied by a bespoke soundtrack designed to chill the mind.
Then, the bulk of the class takes you through what Stuart calls overbreathing, which is taking intense inhales and super relaxed exhales with no break in between. “It’s about super-ventilating the body, not hyperventilating,” Stuart explains. “That’s really just a play on words, because this technique of over-breathing is technically hyperventilation, as more air is coming in than is going out. But when you call it that, people freak out, because it makes you think of panic or rapid panting. I coined the word super-ventilation for this technique because the exhales are relaxed and don’t force oxygen from our bodies.” It definitely takes some getting used to and can make you feel a little lightheaded, but Stuart swears it’s completely safe. “There’s been many studies done on overbreathing. We bring in more air, so there’s a change in the body’s pH, a change in calcium levels and the body becomes an increased alkaline environment. But we balance this out with the toning.”
In between five minute periods of overbreathing, you do something called ‘toning’. It’s kinda weird. You inhale deeply and then on the exhale you make a noise assigned to one of the seven chakras -- it’s a hell of a lot of loud oohing, ahhing and eeeing, made all the more awkward by the fact everyone has to stamp their arms and feet and shake their body while they do it. You repeat this process for each chakra and thankfully, you get used to it.
The effect will differ from person to person, but Stuart lists physical sensations like tingly, buzzing and body vibrations as potential sensations. He also said some people find themselves laughing their heads off, crying their eyes out or feeling really angry. “You find this work can release a lot of unfelt feelings, but you breathe your way through them,” he says. For me, the process made me feel expectedly lightheaded, but also made my face and hands tingle.
It seems this kind of therapy is really taking off. “Breathwork sessions are currently some of the most popular on the site,” reveals Alex Holbrook, founder of spiritual bookings site Otherness. “People are finding traditional therapies are not resonating with them or working anymore and so we get a lot of enquiries into our breathwork guides too, focusing around managing anxiety and depression.”
Stuart attributes the spike in interest to the sorry state of the world right now. “We use breathing to control emotional transitions. Whether it’s a sigh, or a big breath, the mind goes to the breath when we have something to shift.” he says. “The whole world is in this massive state of transition, there’s such amazing stuff happening but there’s also a lot of destruction and unrest. The breath helps us think of a bigger macro space. Breath is the life force connecting all plant and animal life so I think it helps us move towards that for that deeper connection we’re all craving.”
If you struggle with the whole switching off element of meditation, you’ll no doubt find breathwork much easier. “Breathwork is technically a form of meditation, but rather than being a passive therapy, the breathing kinda tricks your mind into thinking you’re doing something,” explains Stuart. Your mind is satisfied focussing on the task at hand, while your body does the rest. It can take a hell of a lot of practice and dedication to reach this higher, relaxed state through meditation, but Stuart reckons it takes only three to five sessions to get there through breathwork.
The idea isn’t that you start breathing like this 24/7, but that you do start to pay greater attention to breathing deeper into your diaphragm. “It can help you learn a few breathing techniques to apply if you are anxious or stressed and can totally change how you react to situations,” adds Alex.