I’d agreed to go along to a breathing workshop thinking no more than it couldn’t do any harm and that it might make for a fun article. I left with the possibility that I had found a missing piece of the jigsaw. Something that might just make my depression and anxiety bearable. Shame it had taken me 65 years to get there.
Even now, several days later, I am struggling to understand quite what happened to me. All I can do is offer up my best impressions based on what I remember, as well as on what I don’t, as thankfully I left my audio recorder running throughout the session. Together they may approximate to what for me was a remarkable truth.
I’d spent the first 20 minutes of my session talking to Alan Dolan, aka the Breathguru, about his practice. What he did and how he’d come to be doing it for the past 20 years. Then he’d asked me if I was ready to begin. All I needed to do was to follow his instructions and to keep breathing into my abdomen and exhaling gently, as if fogging a mirror. The connected circular breath.
First I lay down on the grey sofa of the unremarkable King’s Cross flat Dolan uses when he is in London – his normal base is in Lanzarote, where he runs retreats. Dolan arranged a cushion under my head to make sure I was comfortable and gave me a pre-session briefing. He would be touching various pressure points from time to time; if any area felt particularly sensitive, I wasn’t to worry. It was just some old feelings that had been stored in the body being processed. My bullshit radar, which was already quite high, ratcheted up another level or two. Me and the New Age have seldom been on nodding terms.
“Just close your eyes and do nothing,” Dolan said. That was more like it. I could manage that. “Now just notice how things are feeling. Notice the sofa.” He then threw in a question that took me off guard. If miracles were possible, “What would I like to bring more of to me in my session?” I wasn’t to answer, but to think about it.
I did so for a moment before realising it was a no-brainer. I’d come to see Dolan because I was both curious and desperate. For the last year, I’ve been haunted by nightmares and every morning I wake up in a state of acute anxiety. I feel like I’ve failed before the day has even started and sometimes it can take several hours before I feel mentally strong enough to get out of bed. It’s no way to live. If miracles were possible, I just wanted my anxiety to stop. If only for a little while.
We returned to the mechanics of keeping my mouth open throughout the inhale and the exhale. This is different to other breathwork techniques, such as the method championed by James Nestor in his best-selling book Breath. It was surprisingly difficult to remember, especially when breathing out. I eventually got into a good enough pattern and at this point Dolan said he was going to make a short invocation. Neither I nor my audio recorder picked up exactly what he said. All I caught were the words “sacred space ... guidance ... support” and “I dedicate this session to all sentient beings”.
Again, I could feel myself resisting. Couldn’t we just be getting on with this without the hippy stuff? As if he could read my mind, Dolan said that it was fine to be thinking negative thoughts. They were bound to come up. The trick was to acknowledge them without dwelling on them too much. To let them pass through my mind. I gave myself a talking to. Dolan wasn’t doing this for his benefit. He almost certainly had far better things to be doing on a bank holiday afternoon than see me. So the least I could do was keep my negativity in check.
“That’s very good,” Dolan said, as he rechecked my breathing and started applying pressure to various areas of my body. When he touched the top of my left thigh and the groin, I winced. He encouraged me to listen to the sounds of the room and to be aware of my surroundings. And here’s where it starts to get seriously weird. Because when I play back the recording, all I can really hear is the noise of the traffic and the police sirens outside on the Pentonville Road. But at the time, everything felt perfectly silent and still. There was just me, my breath and Dolan instructing me it was safe for my body to tell its truths.
What I now know from the recording was only a few minutes later but on the day felt like an age. I became conscious that there was yogic music with a woman chanting playing in the background. Weirdly, I had no recollection of it having started. Somehow it felt as if it had always been playing. What was even stranger was that I found it almost comforting. Normally that sort of thing sets my teeth on edge. But now I was in a state of deep relaxation. My head felt too heavy to lift while my body had become part of the sofa.
“Start breathing through the nose again,” Dolan instructed, as he gradually brought me round from the blissed-out trance in which I could happily have remained for the rest of the day. It was several more minutes before my body didn’t feel like a dead weight and I could raise myself into the sitting position. “You did well,” Dolan said. “You were very open. Very intuitive. You can read other people well. What you really need to learn is how to protect yourself.” “Mostly from myself,” I thought. Even so, I felt absurdly proud. As well as totally seen.
Dolan had one last surprise. He asked me to imagine my feet were connecting with the ground some five storeys below. That I was putting down roots and was in touch with the Earth’s gravitational pull. I swear that as I went through this visualisation I could feel my feet getting hot. Almost unbearably so. So hot, I had to lift them off the ground to cool off. My spiritual hocum meter was going to have to be recalibrated.“How was that?” Dolan asked.
“Wow,” I replied, fumbling for speech. “I feel deeply relaxed.” Though that scarcely began to describe how I felt.
“Perfect,” he replied. “Then my work is done.”
Mine might just be starting. Dolan had asked me what miracle I wanted and he hadn’t just delivered respite from my anxiety. He had taken me to an altered state of consciousness. One that could be attained through just a few minutes of connected breathing.
I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety in the mid-1990s, though in hindsight it had dogged me through much of my adult life – not least in my 20s when I medicated with heroin. An act of profound self-harm, punctuated with numerous overdoses. After I cleaned up with the help of Narcotics Anonymous, my mental health improved considerably for about 10 years; but around the time I turned 40 things began to seriously unravel. I started getting severe regular panic attacks and I became totally dissociated. The outside world didn’t feel real and my conversation had become monosyllabic. I felt as if I was falling apart.
I was referred to a superb psychiatrist who had me admitted to hospital where I remained for more than a month as we waited for the antidepressants to take effect. Eventually I was allowed out, and some months later I returned to work. Ever since my mental health has at times been a struggle, despite having been in therapy for more than 30 years. I started before my first breakdown, along with exercising regularly and adjusting my medication as required under the guidance of my shrink.
But nothing I’ve tried has ever been foolproof, and there have been long periods when life has been a white-knuckle ride. Trying to remain at work, keeping the show on the road when inside I’m falling apart. It is not always possible though. Last year, during the second lockdown, the panic attacks and sense of despair became so intense that I could no longer cope and I was again admitted into a psychiatric institution. There I gradually improved enough to be allowed home but not so much as to feel any sense of normality again.
You could say I was ready for someone like Dolan. But I’ve tried all sorts of other coping mechanisms – alongside the meds, the group therapy and exercise, and nothing has really worked. Yoga and meditation should have been a shoo-in but I could never make the time or fight off my own inner sense of ridiculousness at the thought of doing them. So I can’t avoid the irony that something that most people would agree was far further out on the alternative therapies scale has been the one that has proved effective. Or that I came across it by chance and that it worked despite my psyche’s best attempts to sabotage it.
Work it undoubtedly did, though. As it has for many of Dolan’s other clients, from Russell Brand and some anonymous Hollywood A-listers to ordinary people like you and me. Since my one-to-one with Dolan, I have been using the Breathguru app to guide me through breathwork at home. It hasn’t been as powerful as my original session, but Dolan assures me that this is quite normal. It is just a matter of finding 10 spare minutes every day and putting it to practice.
All that is needed is you, your breath and a pillow for your head to access a moment of profound calm. A feeling of peace and tranquillity when all seems well in a troubled mind. Who knows whether it will last, but I’m up for the journey. Join me. Cast off your chains. You have nothing to lose but your scepticism.
Breathguru costs from £25 for an online group workshop to £200 for a one-to-one session. Visit breathguru.com.