Wim Hof, AKA the Iceman, is speaking almost hypnotically as he encourages me to breathe like I’ve never breathed before.
‘Breathe in, breathe out – don’t stop. Let’s give it all we’ve got!’ he says. I think my lungs are going to burst. After 30 deep inhalations, the order comes to breathe out completely, hold it there, feel my heartbeat, slow it down – and not breathe again for a minute.
A minute! No wonder they call the guy crazy. Then the strangest thing happens. His soothing voice fades and I feel tension fall from my shoulders, heading south and into the floor. Calm surrounds me like a warm blanket and when I remember to breathe in again, I check my watch. More than a minute and a half has passed. But where did it go?
Welcome to the world of breathwork: the latest must-try for the dedicated seeker of inner calm and outer health. It’s probably no coincidence that a newly discovered interest in it took off during a pandemic that tragically took breath from so many. Now it seems to be everywhere: in online workout classes, at gyms and all over Instagram.
As long ago as 1,000 BC, Chinese Taoists and Indian Hindus believed some kind of energy, an internal breath, passed through us, and respiration best to tap it
Among its most vocal proponents is Gwyneth Paltrow. Hof was virtually unknown before he appeared on The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow on Netflix in January 2020, doing breathwork and jumping into icy water. Within weeks the world had shut down due to Covid and Hof was a household name. The breathwork I tried is from one of his YouTube videos – it’s had 50 million views. But what is it, and will it do you any good?
First, controlled breathing as a pillar of meditation has existed for thousands of years. As long ago as 1,000 BC, Chinese Taoists and Indian Hindus believed some kind of energy, an internal breath, passed through us, and respiration was the best way to tap it. Hindus called it prana, and this is harnessed as pranayama, or breath control, in yoga.
Numerous pieces of scientific research have found that this kind of breathing and meditation really helps alleviate stress and anxiety. Mindfulness (which has breathwork as a core element) has proven so effective that it is now recommended by both the National Health Service and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
Dr Danny Penman, author of The Art of Breathing – and co-author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, which has sold more than two million copies – is a passionate advocate: ‘Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the ones between the ribs, and it’s helped by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs. When you’re upset, anxious or stressed, the abdomen tenses and prevents the primary muscles from working. Instead, they begin tugging against each other, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work. But these are only designed to shoulder 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed.
‘If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.’
I’m not feeling stressed, but I do some breathwork with Penman. He tells me to sit comfortably, close my eyes and focus on breathing – slowly in for a few seconds, out for a few more – and to let my mind wander if I want it to. (It’s a myth that true meditation involves thinking of nothing; that’s virtually impossible.) In a few minutes I realise that I had been tense, and that now I feel much more relaxed and focused.
Penman, who calls himself ‘as spiritual as a house brick’, says, ‘Simple breathing exercises – even just a three-minute breathing space – will quickly help you calm down. Do that a few times during a stressful day and you will have a far better day, be far more in control of your life and the situations you encounter.
‘And if you’re able to meditate for longer than that, your life overall will be materially better. Countless studies now show that breath-based meditation, such as mindfulness, has a dramatic impact on levels of anxiety, stress and depression.’
But not everything is rosy in the rapidly growing breathwork garden. Penman, and other practitioners who have been working in the field for many years, are concerned that its sudden popularity is leading to inexperienced self-proclaimed ‘facilitators’ bursting on to the scene. During a quick search on the internet, I found ‘accredited’ teaching courses that involved no more than 15 hours’ online tuition. Then, for $500 (£454) plus an annual £130 subscription, you could call yourself a breathworks instructor.
There is no overarching internationally recognised qualification, nor is there any regulation – a concern, given that some practitioners claim to induce out-of-body experiences, hallucinations and deep psychological interventions to tackle trauma, while others offer unnecessarily elaborate and complicated New Age-style courses.
‘It’s a bit like the Wild West out there right now,’ says Vidyamala Burch, co-founder and director of the respected charity Breathworks, founded 21 years ago to offer mindfulness teaching courses to help people deal with pain, illness and stress. ‘In mindfulness instruction, you can check with BAMBA (the British Association of Mindfulness Based Approaches) to find qualified instructors. Ideally in the breathwork field there would be something like that – you’re playing with something very powerful with breathing.’
Tom Granger, author of the awardwinning beginner’s book Draw Breath: The Art of Breathing, says that gentle techniques are ‘very unlikely’ to cause problems, but that some people might experience anxiety or panic attacks: ‘Any techniques that involve hyperventilation have a wide number of contraindications for people with pre-existing health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure or a history of severe mental health problems. A good coach will recommend you do not try hyperventilative techniques if any apply to you.’
More than one coach told me that deeper techniques designed to draw out physical or psychosexual trauma should only be utilised by very experienced practitioners. Performed by an inexperienced coach, said one, they could ‘do more harm than good’.
Several instructors, including Vanessa Dietzel, of the Dutch-based International Breathwork Foundation, told me they were looking to one organisation to tame the ‘Wild West’: the US-registered Global Professional Breathwork Alliance (GPBA). Set up in 2001, this accreditation body has strict rules on training, practice and ethics. For example, it won’t recommend any instructor who has not completed at least 400 hours’ training over two years. It has accredited 31 schools worldwide, including a handful in the UK.
In the new breathwork boom, more mature members of the GPBA may have been left behind by Instagrammers and internet chancers. But the GPBA is getting its act together, says co-founder Jessica Dibb: ‘We recently established a new, highly experienced board. We have a more user-friendly website on the way, and we’re going to be better with social media.
‘Breathing is like a medicine, a nutrient that can make an instantaneous change to the brain. It transcends socioeconomic status, gender, language, culture, disabilities, race. It belongs to the people, and we will do our best to make sure it’s brought to them properly and safely.’
And if they’re able to do that, then we can all breathe more easily.
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