Found to help with everything from insomnia to anxiety, Virginie Khateeb explains what breathwork is, and how you can do it
It may seem silly, the idea of taking breathing lessons. After all, haven’t we all been successfully breathing on our own for our whole lives? Well no, it turns out – not successfully at least. “Every day we take 20,000 breaths but most of us are shallow breathing,” says Virginie Khateeb, a photographer, breathwork and Reiki instructor, and founder of Holding Space Studio.
When we shallow-breathe, Khateeb explains, it affects our stress and anxiety levels, our immune system and our digestive health. Deep breathing, on the other hand, increases oxygen which can increase energy, and can help with insomnia as well as immediate and long-term reduction of stress and anxiety. “Breathwork also helps to relax the mind, process emotions, and improve focus and balance,” says Khateeb.
How we breathe is associated with different emotions: when you are feeling calm and safe your breathing is usually regular, deep and slow. However, when you are feeling frightened, angry or panicked it tends to become short, fast and shallow. Changing how you breathe can change how you feel: slowing down your breath can signal relaxation and stimulate the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the regulation of functions like digestion, heart rate and respiratory rate. Shallow breathing sends the message to the brain that you are under threat, so, by stimulating your vagus nerve, you can tell your body that it doesn’t have to respond to any immediate danger and you calm down.
“I suddenly had a huge release, crying then laughing than crying, tears of joy, tears of relief” – Virginie Khateeb
This is what happened to Khateeb, who attended an Inspirational Breathing session while searching for a way to shift her chronic anxiety and was blown away by the results. “My whole body softened into a deep state of relaxation and letting go and I suddenly had a huge release, crying then laughing than crying, tears of joy, tears of relief, it continued an hour after the session had stopped,” she says.
Stunned by the huge impact the session had on her, she decided to learn more and eventually trained in breathwork in 2020 before opening her own holistic healing studio in January 2021. “I had the gut feeling that I discovered the simplest yet the most powerful healing tool available to us, the breath,” she says. “I wanted to be able to share this gift with people.”
So what exactly is breathwork? How does it work, what does it involve and how does it help? Khateeb explains everything you need to know.
WHAT IS BREATHWORK?
Breathwork refers to any type of breathing exercises or techniques where you intentionally change your breathing pattern. Often used as a stress-reduction technique, it is a simple yet powerful and effective tool to support your physical and mental health, Khateeb explains.
“By paying attention to the way you breathe and breathing deeper than you usually would, you can change the way you think and feel,” she says. “Breathing is the only system in your body that is automatic and can be controlled consciously. Breathwork is a process of consciously connecting your breath.”
WHAT HAPPENS DURING BREATHWORK?
There are a number of different breathwork techniques. Some aim to relax you, while others can help energise and activate. The rate and rhythm of the breathing creates these different reactions.
In a session, Khateeb says she will guide clients with movement, breath, sound, self-massage and relaxation. “Typically I work with a conscious connected breath. A connected breath is a continuous breathing pattern where each breath flows into the next without a pause in between,” she explains.
At Holding Space Studio, sessions can range from 90 to 120 minutes and take place in person or online. Emotions will very often surface during a breathwork session, while physical sensations such as tingling, light-headedness, trembling, and temperature shifts can also occur. It’s best to wear loose clothing and warm socks, and avoid caffeine and alcohol 48 hours before a session.
IS BREATHWORK HEALTHY? WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
Studies have found that breathwork can be effective for: stress, anxiety, grief, asthma, phobias, panic attacks, depression, headaches, insomnia, sports recovery and more. Anecdotally, Khateeb says after her first session she felt a huge relief, much lighter, present and connected to herself.
“In the long term, it massively reduces stress and anxiety, increases my ability to manage strong emotions like repressed anger, increases my immunity, presence, focus, self-compassion and much more.”
WHO CAN DO BREATHWORK?
“Breathwork is great for everyone who breathes!” says Khateeb, although there are some conditions that make breathwork unsuitable including but not limited to pregnancy, detached retina, epilepsy and schizophrenia.
As someone in the fashion industry, Khateeb often works with creatives who she says are increasingly turning to breathwork as a natural way to connect to an expanded way of thinking and feeling. “It can work in a similar way to psychedelics in taking us into a different way of thinking due to our change in brain waves.”
When working with creatives, she uses a breathing technique that can help to change your mind and thinking by moving you from a beta brain wave into more expanded states like alpha and theta. “Deep breathing improves blood flow in the brain. Your breath can enhance positive emotions, reduce stress, improve your sleep, gut health, clarity, confidence and increase intuition, all of these are connected to creativity,” she says.
“We tend to have our inspiration when we’re in a more expansive, relaxed and present state – away from ‘doing’ mode. Creatives tend to connect with breathwork as they’re open to trying new tools to bring them inspiration, they’re often curious and innovative.”
HOW CAN I START BREATHWORK?
Many of us live in a state of stress as we juggle our professional and personal lives. Taking just two minutes to pause and breathe can make a big difference in helping us feel calm and at peace. A good technique to try for beginners is the 4-7-8 method which helps bring in relaxation, focus and can aid with sleep, Khateeb says.
“You breathe in through your nose for the count of four, hold for the count of seven to allow carbon dioxide to increase which triggers the nervous system to move into the parasympathetic state – the off switch of stress – and then exhale through your mouth for the count of eight which allows everything to relax.”
HOW CAN I LEARN MORE
If you are aware of breathwork it’s likely you will have heard of Wim Hof, the Dutch Ice Man whose popular Wim Hof Method combines breathwork and cold water immersion techniques. You can check out some of his guided breathwork videos here.
For a more personal touch, Khateeb’s studio Holding Space offers one-on-one online and, for those in London, in-person sessions. Next month, they will be launching “Breathe”, a self-care membership for “creatives and visionaries” with Sophie Trew, a renowned health coach and fellow Breathworker.
Through the membership, they will offer weekly talks and workshops including meditation, lucid dreaming and gut health. They will be running free introduction workshops in early May to give people a taste of what’s to come in Breathe. Sign up to be on the waitlist and to join them here: www.letsbreathe.me/.