I’ve always spent my life running. I traveled the world as an electronic music DJ, touring every country, club, and festival. It was my passion, a dream that came true, but it was also pretty exhausting — jumping between time zones and sleeping when you can. Before that, I worked in finance as a broker in the City of London and then Hong Kong, which was also a crazy lifestyle. And previously, I was Scottish judo champion for many years and left school to pursue that — so my life was train, train, train to become Olympic judo champion.
But when I was DJing full-time, something forced me to stop. My girlfriend Tiff was diagnosed with terminal cancer, aged 29. They found a pea-sized lump in her chest, a form of breast cancer, and she got that removed. But when they did more tests they found the cancer had spread to her liver, spleen, spine. You wouldn’t have known if your saw her — she looked healthy and totally fine — but they gave her 18 months to live. It evoked the judo player in me — we’ll just do whatever it takes to beat this thing. We moved to Los Angeles, and then Taiwan, chasing a cure. But in 2016, she passed away. Grief is always hard, but it’s especially hard when it’s somebody who still has so much life to live.
When she passed, it put me in a bad headspin. My conditioning from a young age was that if you train hard and do the work then you win — whether that’s the competition in judo, or the deal as a broker. But I had lost this fight and I blamed myself. Maybe we should have gone left instead of right? Why didn’t we speak to this doctor instead of that one? There was a lot of self-loathing. I had spent all my life savings, and some, on traveling and treatments. So I moved back to Scotland, where I grew up, and I was a shell. I didn’t want to speak to anybody. When people said go to a therapist, I said, “No. What are they going to do? They weren’t there. They don’t know.” I just put this big wall up. If anyone asked, I was fine.
I never would have listened if someone had told me that breathing could have helped me. It just seemed too simple. But then, I was meeting my mum for Mother’s Day, and I hadn’t got her a present. She’s into yoga, and very open to different wellness practices, and something popped up online about a breathing workshop. So my mum and I went as her Mother’s Day gift, and it was one of the most profound experiences of my life.
I walked in that room, just there for my mum, and was thinking, “Oh, geez!” It was all very New Age, and a little wacky. But as I practiced this breathing, I started to feel these physical changes in my body, and all this emotion build up. Then I felt like my girlfriend was there holding my hand. I had transcended our normal 3D reality, and was having an out-of-body experience with my girlfriend who had passed away. It was amazing, powerful, beautiful, and sad — it felt like all that weight I’d been holding onto had been released. But it made no sense to my logical brain. I thought I had either gone mad, someone had spiked my drink, or there’s this third thing — this thing called breathing that I’d overlooked my whole life. I asked the facilitators a lot of questions, and they gave kind of vague, spiritual answers. So I decided to dig some more.
I started working very closely with one of the facilitators to work through my grief. This gave me the space to feel without words, which for me was exactly what I needed. I didn’t want to show that I was feeling down or vulnerable. But I could go to these classes, where no-one would judge me, and I’d cry and release and feel amazing for doing so. It was therapy without words. Talk therapy is an amazing tool, and I wish I was open to it back then. But our breath can take us to this bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind, so we can access parts of ourselves that words can’t even describe. Words are the best we’ve got for communication in many ways, but words are trying to put feelings into boxes. Our breath can take us to the actual feeling.
Feelings are energy, a triggered response that moves through the body, and we usually trap it with our breath — we hold our breath to stop the emotion flowing. Breathwork allows us to move through the energetic signature of that emotion. Also, the more I practiced, the more I could see my physical energy improving. I was doing CrossFit at the time with some old friends from judo, and I’m not the burliest of guys, but I was flying up the leaderboard. The only difference was that I was doing a lot more breathwork.
Initially it was all about me, and trying to feel good. It became my own little secret Fight Club — I was going to these sessions to have this emotional experience, then going back to my normal life. Then the more I was doing it, the more I thought that my dad and a lot of my friends, a lot of whom were men, needed to know about this. But they would probably run a mile if they walked into that room where I had my first experience. So I went off to try and demystify the mystical, and find out as much as I possibly could about breathing.
I trained in many different breathing modalities, different yoga practices, anything that was breath-related, to try and put together the pieces. I worked with Patrick McKeown on his ‘Oxygen Advantage’ program, and did my own research with Olympic swimmers and rowers. I learned about the tools that free divers use to go deep underwater, as well as how Sherpa people have adapted to living high in the mountains. And I did some seminars with Wim Hof, who is an absolute character and a breath of fresh air. The sports stuff is very different from the emotional release side of things, but I was taking all these different schools of training and pulling it together.
I began to realize our breath is a tool that we use throughout the day. And it’s an energy tool, like fuel in a car. The oxygen combines with glucose and creates electricity so our cells function. This exchange depends on how much energy we need in the moment. The mind is constantly scanning for threats — looking for tigers — and if it sees a threat it sends a signal to the breath, the breath will change, and this exchange will get flow to our muscles so we can run to safety or fight off the tiger. This has gone on for thousands of years. Fortunately, there are not too many tigers roaming around anymore, but we do have a lot of tigers in our head — and our breathing response does not know the difference between the tiger in the room and the tiger fabricated through thoughts. It triggers the same response. So if we are experiencing stress caused by fearful projections of the future, or emotional charge from our past, then our breath tends to change. The brain experiences some sort of stress, sends a signal to the breath to respond, the breath then responds and sends a signal back to create a state of being: I’m stressed.
But by having awareness of our breathing, we can use it as a tool to take charge of our nervous system. If we calm our breath, our mind will follow. Similarly, if we’re feeling exhausted, we can use our breath to create positive stress to motivate us and give us energy. So our breathing can be this tool that gives you a real sense of empowerment and control over our day, instead of being at the mercy of what’s happening around us. We can have these tools at our disposal if we want to switch off, or switch on.
For example, if we’re stressed, I say, “If in doubt, breathe it out.” If we double our out breath compared to our in breath — breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, then out for eight seconds — the tranquilizer kicks in that can overcome that stress response. Our sympathetic state is what fires us up and gets us ready to act, and that can be very useful sometimes — it can save our life. But by doubling the out breath, we can activate our parasympathetic state, which is our rest, digest, and repair mode.
Some of these techniques are like putting a plaster on to get you through that moment. I’ve got a weekly show on BBC Radio 1, and I get nervous before every show, even though it’s something I love to do. As soon as I get into that chair, the nerves kick in and I feel the flutters — but then I slow my breath down, calm that nervous system response, and I feel ready. But if we feel like we’re always being triggered, that’s when deeper breathwork steps in. We have experiences and traumas that we’re holding onto, like a bag of bricks that we carry around. Ultimately, instead of just putting a plaster on — or putting that bag of bricks down for a minute, only to pick it up again — we can use breathwork in a deeper format to empty the bag, so we feel lighter and less triggered by our environment.
Breathpod is a wellness collective, based in London, and a small team of us do online and in-person events. Then my Radio 1 show, the ‘Decompression Session‘, covers a lot of breathwork, and also offers practical coaching tools to empower people to feel a little better. Some of the topics are lighthearted, like how to cure a hangover, while others are deeper, like working through grief or anger. I play some cool, uplifting tunes too. Music is also a big part of what we do at Breathpod, it allows people to move through this practice in such a beautiful way. My book ‘Breathe In Breathe Out‘ has been another great way to share these tools with people. And I do a lot of work with brands and businesses. I’ve just started working very closely with Nike as one of their first ever global breathwork trainers. So I’m working delivering breathwork training both internally, within the different teams at Nike, but also externally with their consumers. I’ve been working closely with high-level athletes — including Olympic athletes, UFC fighters, and some sports teams as well, such as the US rugby sevens team — on how we can use our breath as a tool to enhance our performance.
As for me, it’s undoubtedly the best thing I have ever come across for my personal wellbeing. I saw this quote when I was getting into breathwork, along the lines of “Sometimes when you’re in a dark place you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.” It really stuck with me. I feel like combining music with the breathwork is what I’ve been training for my whole life.
I did my monthly online workshop last week on Zoom, and somebody messaged me straight afterwards to tell me about an experience that was similar to the one that started this journey for me. She said her husband had passed away 10 months ago, and in the session she felt like he was there with her. She said it felt very real, helpful, and was everything that she needed to experience — that it gave her hope and connection. I’ve also been helping people with long Covid, who were really struggling with inflammation in the lungs, and helped them rehabilitate and get back to better than they were before. Things like this really inspire me to carry on. It’s really such a lovely thing to support people, whether it’s through the ups and downs of life’s challenges, going for gold at the Olympics, or running their first charity 5k. It’s all giving people tools to empower themselves and live a better, healthier life.
Stuart Sandeman was talking to Mr Feelgood’s Pete Samson
Stuart will be hosting a live breathing session and signing copies of his book at Barnes & Noble on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, on March 28. And check out Breathpod’s online events here