As I sit and write this, I’m holding my breath. Not literally. I am alive (!), but, hunched over my Macbook, belly pulled in, my breath is constricted. It’s what many of us do subconsciously, most of the time. So much so, that Alan Dolan, Breath Coach thinks we are using just 30% of our lung capacity.
Why does this matter? Put simply: we’re not functioning as well as we could. How often after a day at work do our faces look drawn and we feel tired and listless? That instantly changes if we manage a run or to go to a yoga class. The colour and energy comes back as the oxygen returns to our systems. But it’s not just superficial. “Breath is life, it affects us on all levels - our minds as well as physically via our cells,” says Dolan. “When we breathe properly we go from survive to thrive.”
Of course, this is not new. The ancient yogis have practiced Pranayama - breath control exercises - for thousands of years, and being breath conscious is the basis for martial arts such as T’ai Chi. What’s making this relevant now seems to be the speed at which we’re living. “Many clients I see are in a constant spin and can’t focus,” says Katie Light, Holistic Therapist. “They sound breathless - I can hear it in their voice.”
Good news is that the breath can instantly switch us out of this type of 24/7 stress state where we ‘chest breathe’ as Yoga Teacher, Howard Napper explains. “When we reconnect with our breath it changes the biochemistry of our nervous system. We go from the sympathetic (fight or flight) into the parasympathetic (rest and digest).”
For such an easily accessible thing, the benefits can be profound. For me it started through yoga, then sessions with Alan Dolan who teaches Transformational Breath (more on this below). Now I’ve learned to tap into my breath consciously - especially when I’m in desk-mode. I can relax more deeply, sleep better, meditate for longer, my digestion functions a whole lot better, my posture’s better and I feel taller, lighter (a bonus when running) and I even detect more colour in my skin meaning I don’t feel the need to pile on blusher or reach for the BB Cream so often.
Best of all, it doesn’t take much to reap the benefits. You can go for specific therapy, or try simple exercises yourself - read on to find out what I learned from the experts on how to reconnect with our breath.
Transformational Breathing: Alan Dolan
Breath Coach, breathguru.com
When I signed up for a Transformational Breath session with Alan, I had no idea what to expect. During the one-hour session, I found myself lying on a couch, propped up with a stack of Indian embroidered cushions, eyes closed, taking huge, deep belly breaths through my wide open mouth to a peculiar rhythm to direct the breath into the lower belly, where we need it. There is no pause at the end of each breath. ‘This is what re-calibrates the body energetically,’ says Alan. I slid into a deeply meditative, ‘out of body’ ecstatic state, and I could feel myself letting 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 was fizzing with energy and joy afterwards, plus exhausted and dehydrated - all normal.
Everyone has a different experience; it can be physical, emotional or both. One thing’s for sure, you will glow afterwards as tension goes. Alan gives the example of a woman whose wrinkles literally melted away in front of him as her stress released. “The muscles in her face let go, the increased blood flow brought new oxygen in, so she looked 10 years younger, as if she’d had a facelift,” which even surprised him after 10 years as a practitioner. Regular practice is recommended - you learn the technique as a ‘take home’ as well as going to sessions.
Tip: “Less is more. Relax and surrender to your breath. Don’t try to ‘work it’ as that stresses the body out and is ultimately counter-productive.”
Visualisation Breathing: Katie Light
Holistic Therapist, thelighttechnique.com
“I know straight away if someone is breathing well,” Katie Light tells me. “They stand tall and firm, their posture is upright and they are focused and together - they get things done.” What worries Katie is that so many of us have ‘forgotten’ how to breathe properly, even if we are breathing all the time. “If no one tells you how to take a deep breath - for example, when a therapist asks you to do this before a massage - how are you supposed to know?”
Breath is at the centre of her much in-demand multi-layered treatments (which include NLP and Reiki). Through a combination of guided visualisation - asking her clients to scan their bodies and sending the breath to the parts of the body it needs to go, Katie brings them back to a deeper more grounding form of breathing which eventually becomes second nature. “Where we hold the tension is a very individual thing - some feel a knot in their chest, others lower down in their solar plexus, and often these are patterns set between the ages of 0-7. Releasing them can be surprisingly easy, it is about becoming aware, along with the visualisation to ‘memorise’ and re-set the natural breath.”
Tip: “Before you go to sleep take 10 conscious breaths. Place one hand on your tummy, and as you breathe in, try to expand it. You may have to make it happen at first, but it will become second nature. You’ll be amazed at the difference this makes.”
Breathing for Cellular Vitality: Howard Napper
Yoga Teacher, howardnapper.com
We tend to think of the physical postures when we think about yoga, but that is just a fraction of it, says Howard. “Yoga positions are the tools, but the breath is the thread that runs through the practice - it is my favourite subject.” And is why he now focuses his teaching on breath more than perfecting headstands, particularly in his yoga for stress classes. “Most people I see are lacking in energy, and biologically speaking, breath is energy in the body. It is vital for cell health of which there are around 100 trillion in our bodies. When we breathe properly, cells are being fed and we feel vital.”
One of the best things I learned from Howard: our lungs aren’t our breathing apparatus, yes, they’re the organs, but the main breathing muscles (the transverse abs and diaphragm, commonly known as the core) are. “When we have poor posture, we shallow breathe, there is no support for the lumbar, hence we get lower back problems,” he explains. “Proper breathing involves dynamic core strength - which means proper contraction and expansion of the deep core muscles, beyond the superficial ‘six pack’ muscles.” In other words, we’re cultivating great posture and core strength from the inside when we breathe right.
Tip: “Focus on the exhalation. Very simply, give it away - say to yourself let it go, let it go, let it go. Most of us are subconsciously holding on because we’re in fight or flight mode. If you follow the exhale to the point where it disappears, resist grabbing for the inhale, you will be amazed. It is impossible to feel stressed.”
Breathing for Fitness: Tim Weeks
Training Director, Psycle London; www.timweeks.co.uk @PsycleLondon
As a former Olympian himself before training Olympic athletes, and the brains behind the new indoor cycling method about to take London by storm, Tim knows a lot about fitness. I love that he’s so straight talking when I ask him about the breath, which he explains is as one with the effectiveness of our heart and lungs or Cardiorespiratory Fitness. “It is the single most important thing for your health. The lungs underpin everything in fitness - they are the engine to get nutrients around the body. This is what we work on with elite athletes first, before diet or flexibility.” So, his advice, rather than spending time and money on the latest juice diet, is to do anything which uses your heart and lungs.
And it’s super refreshing to hear that he’s not one to suggest that it need be anything complicated. “If you love yoga, that’s great. However, the most efficient ways to improve fitness levels are running and swimming. I always recommend running as you just need to put your trainers on and go - swimming involves a lot more faff so you’re less likely to do it.” What about if we get a stitch? “It’s normally caused by either cramp in the diaphragm or the gut tugging on the diaphragm because we’ve eaten recently. The answer is to stop, breathe, and stretch. Lean away from the pain or put pressure under your rib cage with your fingers, which is the instinctive thing to do.”
Tip: “Walk every day to increase your CRF levels. It’s simple, any of us can do it, and once we know it’s easy, we can progress to running. This is the best investment we can make for a our lung health and long term health.”