Along with stress management, breathwork can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and PTSD and can reduce the perception of chronic pain. Photo / Getty
Sinead Corcoran Dye fills her lungs with air and feels grounded.
My initial, bitchy and cynical first thought when I first came across breathwork was that the wellness industry has become a joke. Why would people pay to breathe when we can just do it for free? I thought this while huffing on my vape and waiting for my anxiety medication to kick in, while I panted like a chihuahua in labour.
You’re probably like me, minus the vaping-chihuahua part. You’ve been breathing since birth, right? But apparently there’s a difference between regular breathing to stay alive and actual breathwork.
A true breathwork practice is about the intentional manipulation of breath, similar to what you might do in a yoga or meditation class.
For centuries, spiritual practitioners have used controlled breathing or breathwork in prayer and meditation.
Breathwork techniques were used in several ancient cultures, but mainly originated in modern-day China, India, and Tibet – and according to Google Trends, searches for “breathwork” have increased six-fold over the past five years, and we’ve probably got a pandemic to thank for that.
Sarah Lamb, a breathwork coach and guide at Breathe Free, located at The School Of Modern Meditation in Auckland, says she’s had a huge influx of clients post-Covid, and that while everyone managed to get through lockdown in one piece, in the wake of it everyone needs mental health help more than ever.
And it’s not as woo-woo as it sounds – the science backs it up.
Research shows conscious breathing could be one of the fastest ways to combat the stress of everyday life. A 2017 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that participants who completed 20 breathwork training sessions over eight weeks had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared with those who did not receive the training. Cortisol is responsible for our body’s stress response and high levels of it can cause chronic inflammation.
Along with stress management, studies have shown breathwork can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and PTSD and can even reduce the perception of chronic pain.
It works by increasing your breath rate and opening the airways in the lungs more widely so the body can take in more oxygen, which alerts the parasympathetic nervous system. Once activated, the PNS slows down and relaxes the body.
Of course, I tried it out, and did an hour-long session with Sarah. While I thought she would be guiding me through long, slow, yoga-esque breathing, we actually did circular breathing which is way more hectic. It’s where you breathe in and out continuously without stopping to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system through mild hyperventilation – which at times was quite scary!
While I’m used to constantly panting thanks to my anxiety, this was way more intense – and your tongue dries out into sandpaper because you don’t swallow. But Sarah assured me it was normal to need to take breaks because my body wasn’t used to breathing properly.
Sarah says people usually do a couple of private sessions with her and then migrate into group classes, which are held online and in person each month.
“If people are having a particularly challenging time such as grief, anxiety/stress disorders, insomnia, depression or cancer recovery, I will continue to see them privately for as long as they need support. Sessions are usually two to three weeks apart minimum, so there is time to integrate what you experience. I have some clients I’ve been seeing monthly for over a year,” says Sarah.
All her clients are also given recordings of the sessions so they can practise at home, and next year she’s set to launch an app to provide breathwork on demand.
During my session I did feel a bit panicky from breathing so intensely for such a long period, but Sarah coached me through my freakouts and let me take little breaks when it all got too much. Post minor hyperventilation, I felt a bit shaken but also hugely invigorated and relaxed at the same time. Sarah says through regular breathwork I will reduce my stress and anxiety, soothe and restore my nervous system and have a deeper connection to myself and my intuition.
The practice also promises to increase feelings of inner peace and signal to my brain that my body is a safe space, which, as someone who suffers with a dissociation disorder, is exactly what I need to stay connected to myself.