Despite the name, it turns out that 'breathwork' is not as simple as 'inhale, exhale, repeat'.
For ages, I’ve been reading blogposts and Instagram captions about this 'new' respiratory-focused wellness trend and yet, for some reason, I'd never been able to get up the energy to look into it. Breathing is breathing, I presumed. I’ve been doing it forever; why on earth would I need to take a class in it?
Unlike me, you’re probably aware that breathwork is one of those wellness trends that's very popular in LA right now, along with things like adaptogens, Goop and poke. It's slowly worming its way over here – there are already physical classes on offer and, as of last month, Richie Bostock aka The Breath Guy is available in your bedroom via home training platform FIIT.
So what is breathwork? Well, it's not new by any stretch of the imagination. It's been around in Western culture in some form or other since the 1960s (and in Eastern culture for centuries) and is defined by its advocates as the practice of using the breath to alter a person's mental or physical state. It has been claimed to help improve symptoms of anything from anxiety to schizophrenia, insomnia to multiple sclerosis. For the record, while there are studies that provide the basic research to warrant further exploration of things like the effects of deep diaphragmatic breathing on attention spans and negative emotions, there aren’t studies that fully prove breathwork has medical benefits. In fact, the American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Complementary & Alternative Cancer Therapies warned in 2009 that it could cause 'distress'.
Nevertheless, I’m willing to give it a shot. For starters, lying in a room and breathing sounds like an ideal substitute for my actual exercise class, and secondly, I heard breathwork gets you high as a fricking kite.
I decide to meet Richie first to see what I’m letting myself in for. He is extraordinarily nice, with a big smile and an Aussie accent, as friendly as can be. His explanation of breathwork is as follows: "The way that we breathe is linked to every single system, every single function, every single part of our body. So much so that if we start to change the way that we breathe, it actually starts to change the way that all these systems fire."
Richie's dad has multiple sclerosis and after coming across a guy called Wim Hof (a Dutch guy, also known as The Iceman, who's a fan of heading out barefoot in the snow and getting down to some hardcore breathwork that way), Richie introduced his dad to Wim’s techniques. The results he has seen have been so successful that he says his dad's MS has "stopped in its tracks". (The latest studies in this area say that breathing exercises may be beneficial to patients with mild to moderate MS, but it "remains to be seen" if they can help delay the development of the disease.) I ask Richie what his father’s doctors say on the matter and he tells me they’re "amazed".
Anyway. I am here for Richie’s class because I, like you, am an anxious millennial. I want to sleep better, I want to feel confident and I want to be less stressed. Richie tells me he can help. He says he had a student who hadn’t slept for more than an hour and a half a night who now regularly sleeps for up to six hours. He tells me he has students who are ready to come off their anti-anxiety meds after just five weeks of regular breathing (FYI definitely do not come off your meds without talking to your GP or psychiatrist first and working out a plan). He even says he can help digestive issues like IBS. I ask him if the class is safe, thinking about the American Cancer Society's warning, and he laughs. "No one has ever died from breathing," he says. Any 'distress', he says, can come when you’re using breathwork to explore past trauma or deep emotions – something you won’t be doing in your everyday, run-of-the-mill breathwork classes.
So how does my class go?
It’s pretty wild, I’m not going to lie. There’s calming music which sounds like the John Lewis advert version of your favourite song, and Richie delivers instructions in an easy-to-follow and earnest manner. The breaths we do are special breaths; one's called 'the archer' and one's called 'the one-two breath'. Lying on our backs, we do them in sets. It's not as easy as it sounds.
Before long, I begin to get a pressure behind my ears, then my fingers begin to tingle and my head starts to swim, like I’ve stood up too fast. My fingers curl up into a Chandler Bing Pacman-induced claw and guys, after a while, I literally cannot move my hands. It’s not scary but it is pretty intense. By the end of the session (I think we do about 20 minutes) I am actually floating. If anyone else was groovy enough to dabble in early '00s 'drugs' like poppers or laughing gas, it feels like I'm experiencing the effects of them. I feel light, spacey and a little bit trippy. And no substances, illegal or legit, were involved. I literally breathed my way to feeling high. It’s pretty cool.
The feeling fades pretty quickly once class is over, although my hands take several minutes to feel normal again. Other people in the class did not appear to have the claw hand thing but Richie assures me it’s not abnormal. "It came from a temporary gas imbalance in your blood," he says. "You were breathing out quite hard which resulted in low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, which can sometimes cause numbness in the hands, feet and the face." Breathing normally restores the balance.
What doesn’t fade is my alertness. I am more hyper than the Duracell bunny by the time I get home, and it's 9pm on a Tuesday. I pace about the flat until bedtime, telling my boyfriend about my day at breakneck speed.
The last thing Richie promised us before we left was that a really great night's sleep was ahead of us and you know what, he wasn't fibbing. I conk out immediately and don't wake until my alarm the next morning.
So yeah, breathwork – pretty wild, but at the same time, kind of fun. And while a sceptic like me is going to wait to see the scientific receipts before I start crowing about its long-term benefits, I definitely wouldn't rule out giving it another go.