London - It’s called Transformational Breathing, the latest health craze to hit Hollywood – and it’s something I had no doubt was total nonsense.
Goldie Hawn uses it “to manage stress” and has now introduced it to her daughter Kate Hudson. Naomie Harris, star of Skyfall and Mandela, the forthcoming biopic about Nelson Mandela, also swears by it.
Would that kind of endorsement alone persuade me to attend a class in a breathing technique that claims to be able to help depression, chronic pain, migraine, insomnia, anxiety and even asthma? Probably not.
But two things have convinced me to attend a session hosted by Alan Dolan, aka “the breath guru”, in London. First, studies show that meditation, which uses breath control, is not only effective in treating anxiety, it physically alters the structure of the brain to make you more emotionally stable. Second, I have a long, illustrious history of anxiety.
My twenties were blighted by unbearable panic attacks and an anxiety disorder that triggered a four-year addiction to sleeping pills.
An array of treatments, including cognitive behavioural therapy, brought it largely under control. It’s years since I had a panic attack, but every now and then anxiety can grip me, manifesting in hypochondria, insomnia or stress that leaves me unable to concentrate or even vaguely enjoy myself.
I’ve tried meditation before but I always give up as I don’t ever feel it’s doing anything. Now I’ve decided to place my faith in Alan, a slight 50-year-old with a goatee and a soothing voice. He describes the mechanics of the technique. “First of all, the inhalation and exhalation are of different lengths – about three to one.
“If you breathe in slowly for three counts or three seconds you exhale quickly for one – imagine you are trying to steam up some glass.
“The longer inhale allows you to access more oxygen and energy. The exhale allows you to access any emotional energy that’s been held in the system. It’s like clearing out the trash.”
The next rule is to breathe with your mouth open – fairly wide, so you could at least fit a finger between your teeth. Alan says this helps increase the volume of air breathed in and out.
“The other vital aspect is that you don’t hold the breath at the peak of inhalation or exhalation but keep it moving. That’s what puts you into an altered state of consciousness.”
Anyone prone to anxiety is generally welcoming of any state other than an anxious one, so I keep listening. Alan instructs me to sit down with my back against some cushions, to close my eyes, open my mouth and place my hand on the bottom of my abdomen so I can feel it rise up each time I breathe in.
This ensures the diaphragm is used more than the upper part of the lungs, which are deployed during exercise or panicky breathing. Initially, I can’t do it. There is so much to think about – keeping your hand on your belly, your mouth wide open, sticking to the unnatural rhythm of the longer inhale while also keeping the breath moving.
My mouth becomes dry and my mind and body try to revolt against this strange process. But Alan encourages me to keep going and gradually I find the rhythm.
The further into the session we go, the more strange things start to happen. First I crave indulgent food such as chocolate fondant. Then my body temperature seems to rise. I start sweating.
Tingling is next, flooding up from my fingers through my arms, and through my feet into my shins.
After what seems like about 15 minutes, Alan tells me to bring my breathing back to a slow, regular rhythm and gently open my eyes.
That’s when the most dramatic effect becomes apparent. Everything is slow – my mind, my reactions, my movements. The sense of calm is profound. It is, for want of a less hippy word, blissful.
“How long was I doing that for?” I ask. “An hour,” replies Alan.
For the rest of the evening I luxuriate in delicious, euphoric calm. The next day I’m back to normal but with one chief difference: I know that by changing my breathing I can feel dramatically different. In the days that follow, when I feel stressed or unable to sleep, I take Alan’s advice and practise it on my own for 10 minutes. It works, although not to the same level of calm as the first time, presumably because I’m only doing it for a fraction of the time.
Much of this is similar to the effects noticed by devotees of meditation, and yet the technique is different. So what could be happening physiologically?
Dr Oliver Firth, who specialises in treating divers with decompression sickness, explains: “It’s a rising carbon dioxide level that triggers a breath. By deliberately slowing down your breathing, carbon dioxide levels build up in the body, and carbon dioxide does have quite a soporific effect on people, causing them to feel relaxed.”
This is, however, still debated. But I’m in no doubt: where meditation failed, transformational breathing succeeded. It’s the pill I wish I’d had all along. – Daily Mail