Ecstasy. Bliss. Epiphany. Such states are often linked to drug use. But what if you could achieve a moment of true release in a healthy and safe way?
t was on a borrowed yoga mat in the 1970s clubhouse of my local pitch-and-putt club that I entered this realm of elation in a breathwork class.
Lying beside my curious yoga-teacher stepmother and about 20 other men and women, to the loud beat of drumming music and scent of incense, my inward journey began.
By the end of the hour-long class I felt I had gained a new sense of perspective. The conscious mind, typically streaming through an unstoppable chain of domestic queries — what’s-for-dinner-is-it-time-to-collect-the-kids-when-is-dad’s-birthday — shut off. Instead came the slow whisper of my soul.
The beats of the music danced on my collarbone. I was riding a wave of joy, grinning from cheek to cheek, unaware of everyone around me. I felt the music
I remembered who I really was underneath the moniker of mammy. When the class ended, I didn’t want to open my eyes. And this feeling of elation stayed with me for days.
Holotropic breathwork promotes a continuous inhale and exhale pattern with no pause in between, flooding the body with oxygen. Some claim holotropic breathwork, developed in the 1970s, may stimulate a psychedelic experience that encourages a greater awareness of your emotional state.
I’ve never taken acid and don’t plan to. With increasing numbers of studies investigating the possibility (as yet unproven) that psychedelics could bring benefits for mental health, I was intrigued to try something safe and legal.
So what can you expect from a breathwork class? Focusing on deep abdominal breathing can soothe the nervous system, taking us from a state of ‘fight or flight’ stress into a ‘rest and digest’ phase. This aspect is something most of us are already familiar with.
The 4-7-8 technique adds in counting beats while exhaling and inhaling; you breathe in for four beats, hold that breath for seven beats, before exhaling for the count of eight.
A longer exhale encourages us to completely empty our lungs. Alternate nostril breathing involves holding one nostril closed while breathing through the other.
The ‘breath of fire’ uses engaged core muscles to push the exhale out. This is said to provide a sense of steadiness. Working with a skilled instructor is essential to help navigate some of the more challenging techniques to avoid side effects like hyperventilation, tingling in the hands and feet, irregular heartbeat, ringing in the ears or changes in vision. Daryl Noonan from Wolf Academy guided me through my breathwork. But my journey with breathwork began a year ago.
Alongside meditation, cold-water therapy, nutrition, exercise and stress reduction, it was one of the tools I used to shake myself loose from the clutches of panic.
Now, anxiety does not touch me. I can navigate life’s challenges without disappearing into the manhole of despair. I notice the beauty of my toddler’s blonde curls or the warmth of a fresh cuppa. I remember to be grateful for the blessings in my life and the other hearts in my house.
It was from this stable platform that I discovered the joy breathwork can bring. A high that beat a post-run endorphin hit. I was exulted in a way I’d only ever felt post-childbirth, or in the basement of a Temple Bar disco many years ago. Chasing the state of euphoria is what the illicit drug trade relies on.
A growing number of studies show breathing techniques are effective against stress, anxiety and insomnia. This power has been recognised in Chinese and Indian traditions for millennia. Promising research has suggested breathwork can alkalise your blood PH, reduce inflammation and elevate your mood.
So how could breathwork help us? Many people are experiencing ‘panger’, post-pandemic anger, after two years of stress. Just as Covid stole our freedom, increased costs of living limits our choices. This worry and stress affect our body. Racing heartbeats, an impending sense of doom, sweaty palms — these signals of panic and anxiety are familiar to many.
Looking at the government, an employer or someone else to fix everything makes us a victim. Managing our internal reactions to external circumstances is an art.
The anger, fear and sadness we experience are emotions that need to be felt in order to be released. Sometimes we have to taste the saltiness of our own tears.
The prevalence of stress, depression and anxiety in our society indicates that our lifestyles are at odds with our natural state of being. We all hold trauma from childhood, or significant unfortunate events that can happen.
The process of breathwork can allow these memories to surface in order for us to process them. For me, unresolved issues bubbled to the surface when I began breathwork. Those early sessions concluded with tears streaming down my face.
With the help of a counsellor, I realised my workaholic tendencies that had partially caused my state of anxiety ultimately resulted from my lack of self-worth. I wrongly believed that if I didn’t achieve success, I wasn’t deserving of anyone else’s love or respect. This realisation was a turning point.
Releasing trauma is a trendy topic. Non-fiction books dealing with this sit at the top of our best-seller charts such as Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score or Vex King’s Healing is the New High.
Proponents of breathwork include Selena Gomez, Gwyneth Paltrow,and Gisele Bundchen, but the practice has reached new audiences during the pandemic through Dutch motivational speaker, Wim Hof.
But even Frank Sinatra practised special breathing techniques that allowed him to sing smoothly. Ol’ Blue Eyes revered the ability of the lungs to reset our emotional states, “Take a deep breath, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”
As the challenges we face take a new shape this autumn, finding a way to listen to our own inner guide could lead us to peace.