WORDS: MARIELA SUMMERHAYS

For one born to Sydney – belonging to the flattest continent in the world, after Antarctica, and whose city limits are bordered by ocean – landlocked, peak-dotted Colorado is something of a revelation. Drive in any direction for a few hours, and you will come face-to-face with mountainous ranges. Its capital, Denver, is 1.6 kilometres above sea level, and with 58 peaks that top 4.2 kilometres in elevation, it is unsurprising that Colorado boasts the highest mean altitude of all its country’s states.

It is, I am shocked to discover, not easy for me to breathe.

In my everyday life, I am aware of my breathing in exercise; even more so in times of anxiety, when I consciously slow each inhale and exhale. Here though, any activity feels, however small the degree, somewhat effortful (hospitable Coloradans nod in acknowledgement, and urge me to drink copious amounts of water throughout the day, “it’s the altitude, it’ll help,” they say.) As the days pass, I have somewhat acclimated to this new way of breathing, and I do not meditate on the sensation longer. There are, however, those who contemplate on breathing always, believing it to be a channel to their best selves, and best lives.

Breathwork expert, Rory Warnock, counts professional athletes, Olympians and Paralympians – and multi-billion-dollar companies including Google, Amazon and Uber – among his clients. Upon my arrival back home, and with my lungs easing into the patterns to which they’ve been accustomed my whole life, I ask Warnock about his work, which focuses on that most vital of human functions.

“I was able to find peace and a sense of calm in the breath. I was able to regulate my racing mind and control the negative thought patterns,” Warnock shares about finding the field of breathwork after struggles with anxiety and depression. “As I dove deeper into the science, I became obsessed with understanding how to enhance mind and body through evidence-based breathwork.”

Warnock stresses that the better we can regulate our internal environment, the better we can control our external world.

Credit: Getty

“The breath is directly linked to our autonomic nervous system, responsible for how stressed or how calm we feel,” he says. “Therefore, we can use the breath to down-regulate, to feel more relaxed and calm in the moment. As soon as the mind or body becomes agitated, you can use specific breathing tools to feel more balanced.”

This science is corroborated by many ancient practices, most famously in pranayama, a principle in yoga where prana or vital life force, is encouraged to flow through an awareness and direction of breath.

In addition to regulating emotion, we can breathe optimally or sub-optimally to affect performance, Warnock asserts.

“Even though breathing, for the most part, is an involuntary and subconscious action we do 25,000 times per day, we can also take conscious control over the rhythm, rate and depth at which we breathe,” he says.

Discovered in 1904 by Christian Bohr – and popularly known as the ‘Bohr Effect’ – breathing in a functional pattern (“nasal, slow and deep”) will reduce the onset of fatigue, meaning we can perform to a higher ability for a longer duration.

“By using the nose, and breathing less, we can actually enhance oxygen delivery into the tissues,” Warnock explains.

The importance of optimal breathing becomes more imperative as one moves beyond where humans typically settle. The oxygen saturation of haemoglobin determines the content of oxygen in blood, and after the human body reaches around two kilometres above sea level, the saturation of oxyhemoglobin begins to decrease rapidly.

As this story is being written, Norwegian mountaineer, Kristin Harila, is likely still acclimatising back to life at sea level, after many weeks where oxygen thins. After being denied permits to climb Chinese peaks, Cho Oyu and Shishapangma, Harila ended her bid to be the fastest woman to summit all 14 ‘eight-thousander’ peaks in six months last year. But she immediately reattempted the feat.

“I’m never scared when I climb. I just have to be there, because you have to be focused on where you are,” Harila explains to me, weeks before she embarks on the mission a second time. Above eight kilometres is commonly referred to as the ‘death zone’, a height where it is generally believed to be one that no human body can acclimatise.

Credit: Getty

“You cannot do, or you cannot think, about anything else. You just have to think about the next step. Breathe in, breathe out. One foot after another.”

Perhaps as poignant as the physical challenges undertaken when pursuing such feats of mountaineering, are the financial challenges, and the social, the emotional. In conversation, Harila is forthright about her resolution to undertake them all.

“I needed to figure out something else, because life is so much more than just having this job to get your money,” she shares, referring to quitting her corporate career to pursue this endeavour. “So that was another risk; for sure it was a risk to do that. Quit without anything to go to.”

Harila and her guide, Tenjen Sherpa, would go on to achieve the world record of being the fastest to reach all highest 14 peaks after only 92 days.

When asked what has been revealed through his works, Warnock, too, is made aware of just what humans are capable of. He describes his mission as simple: to help as many people as possible feel happier and healthier, to live a more fulfilled life.

“We often look at the external, before the internal. We search for medication, or a new shiny piece of technology, but often we already have what we need. If you want to feel calm, there’s a breathing technique for that. If you want to increase energy, there’s a breathing technique for that. Some breathwork practices can be challenging and uncomfortable, but this is how we grow and develop.”

To experience a different, more peaceful way of living, is to at first, be challenged and uncomfortable. Warnock advises bringing attention to your breath in moments of stress or anxiety; consciously breathing in through the nose for four seconds, and exhaling for six, extending the length of each breath. To stretch yourself beyond your current limits is to be challenged and uncomfortable; to beat fatigue and re-energise, ensure that you aren’t engaging in short, shallow audible breaths through the mouth as can be habit, but rather deep nasal breathing.

In order to be one born to a city of ocean views, but discover the beauty of Colorado mountains, is to be challenged and uncomfortable.

“To progress, mentally and physically, consistent practice is key,” says Warnock. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient, enjoy the process and thrive in the outcome.”

THIS FEATURE IS PUBLISHED IN THE 15TH EDITION OF GRAZIA INTERNATIONAL. ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.



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