Breathing. For us humans it’s automatic. You stop breathing, you’re dead. We don’t need to even think about doing it. Or do we?
Think about the way our breathing changes throughout the day – the long slow breaths we take as we wake up and yawn, the rapid gulps for air during a morning workout, or even the way we pant uncontrollably during sex. We slow our breathing down to alleviate pain and distress. It’s not such a jump to wonder: Could we lead better, calmer lives if we could control our breathing?
An array of ‘breathwork’ classes have sprung up claiming just that. They say they can teach people to tap into ‘conscious breathing’ and focusing on the breathing process by bringing it to the forefront of our mind.
I decided to sign myself up for a couple. The first was a tantra workshop called ‘The Big O’. Organisers Natalie Piere and Lauren Cooney say the idea is to bring the principles of a Tantric lifestyle out of the ancient shadows and into a relatable format for Londoners wanting to improve their experience of love, sex and life.
Like lots of people, I had preconceived notions that a tantric session would be based around sex. I was wrong. Our mixed-gender group was invited to make a giant circle and take a couple of long, considered deep breaths together, letting out a gentle “ahhhh” sound as we exhaled. Natalie and Lauren called this ‘intentional breathing’, because you have to think quite hard about the action. We spent the rest of the session working in pairs and learned how vocalise our boundaries, vulnerabilities and desires.
The pair believe that intentional breathing is vital for self-love and solo sex routines. “It’s not about racing yourself to see how fast you can bring yourself to orgasm, it’s about awareness and attunement,” they told me. “When you breathe, focus on different parts of the body: genitals, perineum, womb – or womb space for male bodies – solar plexus, heart, third eye, crown. Touch the area at the same time as breathing – energy flows where attention goes.”
It sounded like typical hippie BS, but my partner and I left the class feeling more connected than we’d ever felt before, despite not touching each other. Not even once.
Breathwork isn’t quite as out there as it seems. The idea of breath regulation, or pranayama in Sanskrit, is a familiar concept in yoga. “ Prana means life force, yama means to retain or to control and ayama means to extend,” explains Amisha Ghadiali, a yogi and the founder of the Presence Collective, a subscription-based online community for conscious living.
“In yoga traditions, it is said we have a finite number of breaths per lifetime, and we can use these practices to elongate our life by using our breath more efficiently and consciously. But the breathing element can be left out in modern yoga because of the emphasis on making people move and sweat in many urban studios.”
Some breathwork workshops, like the next one I sample, cut out physical fitness completely and simply focus on breathing. Stuart Sandeman is the founder of Breathpod, which centres ‘transformational breathing’ – what he describes as unconventional breathing techniques for better health and wellbeing.
“Naturally, as humans, we hold our breath to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed by our feelings and emotions. As this process becomes habitual, like when we hold back anger or tears, we lose the ability to breathe deeply and fully,” he says. “When we limit the effectiveness of our breathing process this can show up as physical illness, general lack of energy, feeling emotionally drained, fatigue, and can trigger stress, anxiety and depression.”
Breathpod focuses on open-mouthed breathing, something we don’t usually do (for good reason, as it makes your mouth as dry as the Sahara). We lie on yoga-style mats and spend the next 90 minutes listening to loud atmospheric music, working on our intentional breathing – with interludes of releasing tension by shaking our arms and legs and making noises.
There were definitely people in the room experiencing catharsis. I looked around to see one man shaking with emotion and another woman crying her eyes out. But it didn’t quite do it for me – I must be more of a hot yoga and mindful orgasm kind of girl. To find out more about the science behind some of the techniques or whether it’s all just hot air, I spoke to a doctor to get the facts.
“The rise of breathwork coincides with the recognition that people within urban communities are often living in a constant state of stress, with high levels of adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our bodies,” mental health specialist Dr Anna Haigh says. “Rebalancing our levels of dopamine and oxytocin provide lots of health benefit, including reduced blood pressure and better immune health.”
However, Dr Haigh is cautious about how much good these breathwork classes can achieve by themselves, especially if you're just throwing yourself into them without prior medical consultation.
“But drawing attention to our bodies via intense breathwork can cause an extreme reaction, particularly if when people have embodied mental or physical injuries,” she says. “If you do have a history of trauma, seek a qualified professional before embarking on any kind of breathwork journey.”
So are breathing classes just late-capitalism on steroids or a trendy kinkster hobby? Well, I reckon we might be able to reap the benefits as long as we take a deep breath and leave our cynicism at the door.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.