Fit in my 40s: could breathwork help me stay calm?
Charlène Gisèle is a yoga teacher and breath facilitator, and she is here (on Zoom) to teach me how to breathe. Many strands of yoga have an element of breathwork, which is characterised, generally speaking, by concentrated, rhythmic breathing, designed to use the full capacity of your lungs.
She calls her sessions Natural High Breathwork. The idea derives from the 1960s work of Stanislav Grof, who with “Holotropic breathing” tried to reproduce the effects of LSD. To go full Holotropic, you need a practitioner beside you, like a shaman. But Gisèle can give you a natural high via video call.
Breathing is fundamental – in the moment, you’ll get a buzz; over time, it will renew your vigour and calm your spirit. It can cure your sleep apnoea, restore your pelvic floor and perhaps even reduce your belly fat (not sure how, but stay with it). “Not everyone wants to do a downward dog in front of their boss,” says Gisèle, “but this is something you can do at your desk.” I can see why she thinks that; when she does her breathwork, she has this delightful look of pleasant surprise, as if she’s found a tenner in her jacket pocket. When I do it, I look horrified, appalled, all nostrils, like a dragon who’s just been stabbed.
Gisèle has divided her breathwork into five distinct types, each connected to an element. The breath of fire is a short intake of breath with a forceful exhalation, quite fast and rhythmic, for one minute, then a break, then another minute. It can make your face or extremities tingle, but its main effect on me was a mild headache, like I’d sniffed a solvent. The concentration required is quite intense because regular breathing comes so naturally that the default is to slip back into it; so it’s quite a relief when the breath of fire stops.
The second, “dynamic breath”, is the reverse: an active inhale and passive exhale, again for one minute. My headache magically disappeared.
I still hadn’t experienced any tingling in my hands or feet – and there’s a more extreme effect that can happen, T-rex syndrome, where your hands go into claws. But give me a chance, I’ve only done four minutes.
The third breath is a deep inhale and then a foghorn sound as you exhale. I’m supposed to imagine myself as a ship, bobbing above my ocean of concerns. Astonishingly, I can. Then there’s a humming breath, where you make a noise like a bee and try to feel the vibrations in your jaw, which is apparently very good if you’re on the edge of panic. I’m nowhere near panic, at this point. I feel great.
Finally, with one hand on your belly and the other on your heart, a grounding breath to connect you to your spirit. “Don’t be ashamed of your belly,” Gisèle says. “Let it fill like a beautiful balloon.” I can manage that. “Really feel your heart with your other hand, send it some love.” I can’t feel my heart at all. Could I have died? Or is this just how it feels to be calm?
What I learned
We breathe 22,000 times a day without thinking. So a few minutes of conscious breathing seems doable
Quick fit: three more exercises you can do at your desk
Work standing up
Probably the easiest fix for the perils of a sedentary office lifestyle is to get a standing desk. Even if you go 50:50 – sit in the morning, stand in the afternoon – you’ll still burn an extra 1,000 calories a week. A few, rather small-scale studies have shown that standing also regulates blood sugar and prevents or mitigates lower back pain.
Perfect your posture
If you think you can just tell yourself to sit up straight, you’re kidding yourself. You’ll just slide back into a slouch as soon as you start thinking about anything else. However, you cannot argue with a swiss ball – if you’re not sitting right, you’ll fall off. It activates your core at the same time and is much more effective than a wearable posture tracker which costs five times as much.
Press your palms together so that you feel the stretch in both joints; then press the backs of your hands together and curl your fingers under, for a delicious reverse-stretch. You can also do little wrist curls using a water bottle as a weight. It’s important not because you want ripped wrists but because so much in the core exercise territory – press-ups, planks – can be derailed by weakness in this relatively tiny joint.