HomeLifestyleI tried a breathwork class where I breathed on beat to music, and it was so powerful it made me cry
I tried a breathwork class where I breathed on beat to music, and it was so powerful it made me cry
Breathwork — AKA conscious or controlled breathing — is gaining traction as more people discover the benefits.
Research has shown that it can help with depression, stress, insomnia, high blood pressure, burnout, and more.
I recently attended a breathwork session with Richie Bostock, known as the Breath Guy, for the first time and was astounded by how powerful it was, even moving me (and many others) to tears.
Bostock says breathing is "the body's very own Swiss Army knife," because it affects everything.
Campaigner for men's mental health Ben Bidwell told Insider that he believes the practice is particularly helpful for men, who tend to suppress emotions more than women.
Most of us are breathing incorrectly, according to Bostock, and there are four key elements to doing so properly.
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It's a rainy February morning and I'm lying on the floor of an event space in central London, eyes closed, tears rolling down my cheeks. The room is full of people doing the exact same thing: just lying, breathing, and crying.
The reason for this? Breathwork.
I'm at health, fitness, and wellbeing festival Live Well London attending a breathwork session with a man who's become something of a celebrity in the world of wellness: Richie Bostock. But if you know him, you'll know him as the Breath Guy.
As someone who spends both a lot of personal and professional time in the health sphere, I'd seen more and more people talking about discovering the power of breathwork over the past year or two. But honestly? I was highly skeptical.
How could something as simple as breathing — which we all do all day long — have any real profound effect?
But all it took was one breathwork session for me to understand. It's not an understatement to say I was blown away by the experience.
What a breathwork session entails
As the first day of the festival, Friday is the quietest day of Live Well, yet Bostock's breathwork session was completely oversubscribed — there weren't enough mats for us all, and as one of the people at the back of the queue (I was getting a coffee, sue me), I was forced to nab some floor space at the back of the room.
We were squished in like sardines, but there was a palpable excitement in the air — for some, anticipation to experience something they've enjoyed before, for others like myself, intrigue as to what was to come.
The very charismatic Bostock asked us to raise our hand if we'd done breathwork before, and more than half of the room did. A year ago, he said, about 10% of people had.
After a brief introductory chat — Bostock deliberately doesn't tell people too much in advance so they don't know what to expect — it was time to lie down, close our eyes, and get started.
Bostock took us through a session designed to created a blissful sense of energy, meaning you're calm but feel like you can take on the world. It sounded pretty sweet to me.
We would be doing what he calls "bow breathing," which entails breathing both in and out through the mouth. To me and many people, this is unnatural, but I think that's the point.
"It's about using breath purposefully to change our being," Bostock told the room. "Conscious mouth breathing to create an effect."
The technique is called bow breathing because it's inspired by a bow and arrow. The idea is that the out breath requires no work, like the letting go of an arrow. "Just let it fall out of you," Bostock said.
The session involved breathing to music — deep breaths in, relaxing out — and the atmospheric music helped a lot, making all the effects feel more powerful.
The pace changed at times, and it was harder than I expected. But Bostock's calming voice definitely helped.
A few times, we held our breath — but unusually, we did so after breathing out. I was amazed to be able to hold it for so much longer than I expected.
Towards the end of the session, Bostock took us through a visualization which I had not been expecting. I don't want to give too much away, but we were told to think about someone or something we love or are grateful for. And this is when the tears started.
I wasn't sure why I was crying, but I couldn't stop the tears rolling down the sides of my face (fortunately I wasn't wearing any makeup that day).
From the sounds around me, I could hear other people were crying too. And when we finally opened our eyes, I could see I wasn't alone.
Bostock explained that doing the visualization after the breathwork impacts the emotion in the brain so much more deeply, and it can force people to look at things in their lives and feel them.
"By using certain techniques, we are able to turn down the volume of the logical mind and allow for the emotional centers of the brain to play a bigger role in our conscious experience," Bostock explained to Insider over email afterward.
I was overwhelmed.
Breathing is 'the body's very own Swiss Army knife'
Aside from being moved to tears, I did feel somewhat lighter after the session. And I wasn't sure whether I'd been brainwashed or genuinely did feel both calmer and more energized. What had just happened!?
Bostock says breathing is "the body's very own Swiss Army knife," because it affects everything. "You can make big changes in your physiology in minutes with your breath."
I only experienced one example of a breathwork session, and the idea is that you can use the techniques you learn in various ways.
A deep breath in through the nose then sigh out is a breathwork technique, Bostock told me. That's why people call it a sigh of relief.
If you're feeling stressed at work, you could chain some sighs together to calm yourself. "You're just using a natural reflex which we already have in the body and you'll feel an effect," Bostock said.
You can use breathwork to create energy too, or improve decision making, creativity, focus, or sleep.
Breathwork is gaining traction for its simplicity
Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, sophrology … we're not short of techniques that are supposed to destress and bring more calm and peace into our lives. So what makes breathwork so special?
Bostock believes the power lies in its simplicity.
"We live in such a fast-paced and ever-changing world which can often feel very challenging and overwhelming," Bostock told Insider.
"As a result, reported levels of chronic stress and anxiety are higher than they have ever been in recorded history, taking a toll on our physical health, emotional wellbeing, and mental performance. Everyone is looking for tools and solutions to combat their busy and often overstimulated lives.
"The number of people doing breathwork has exploded because of its simplicity and effectiveness. You don't have to have had experience meditating or practicing mindfulness.
"It doesn't require you to have to think or feel in a certain way, you just breathe and you will experience something new. I see breathwork playing a very big part in bringing more peace and balance to a fast-paced and sometimes chaotic world."
Breathwork can be particularly powerful for men
While most women are raised being encouraged to talk about their emotions, this has traditionally not been the case for men — and it's for this reason that an increasing number of men are turning to breathwork.
Ben Bidwell is a campaigner for men's mental health, co-host of podcast The Naked Professors, and all-round advocate for men showing vulnerability, and he's seen first-hand the effect breathwork can have on men.
"I did a men's weekend retreat a few weeks ago and the most powerful thing we did was breathwork," he told Insider.
He explained that many of them were moved to tears and discovered all sorts of new emotions.
"The men were really opening up from this breathwork, it was quite incredible, he said. "And I've seen that a few times."
Bidwell believes breathwork can take men into a different space.
He continued: "Men in particular who are very caught in this rational mind, constantly trying to control and work everything out. Suddenly through the breathwork, they go into their heart, this space of love and empathy and kindness and connection, and all these beautiful feminine energies that we all have within us.
"Suddenly we tap into it, we feel it and wow, it feels really lovely. It's powerful."
Bidwell himself first discovered breathwork a couple of years ago, and he was as skeptical as the next person.
People are often skeptical at first
I'd been invited to try breathwork a few times in recent years, but had always said I was too busy, thinking it just wasn't a valuable use of my time — I could get an actual workout in instead or do something more productive, I would think.
This was Bidwell's initial thought too, but when he ultimately did try breathwork for the first time a couple of years ago, he was "just blown away."
"I was like, wow, like what is this?" he said. "I'd never taken a drug in my life, but it felt like I'd just got close to the experiences some people describe on drugs. My body became alive. It felt like there was more to my body than I previously understood."
From there, Bidwell did a "mesmerizing" one-to-one session with Bostock, and he's now a convert to the "euphoric" power of breathwork, trying to do a session every month or so.
"I do it because it's a great form of access to my heart," he said. "You're in a very meditative state. You're very present in that moment.
"I walked into my last breathwork class last Thursday — it was pissing it down, I'd been on the run all day, going from meeting to meeting, got drenched, couldn't find the venue, was really stressed, and I turned up 15 minutes late for the breathwork class."
But the session completely turned Bidwell's mental state around, and even left him feeling like he "couldn't wait to experience taste" after his "senses came alive from the experience."
Studies reinforce devotees' feelings
The concept of breathwork — also called controlled or conscious breathing — certainly isn't new, but it is gaining momentum, as more people discover benefits such as reduced anxiety, less stress, and better sleep.
And studies support this too: Research suggests controlled breathing may be a good treatment for depression, stress, PTSD, insomnia, high blood pressure, burnout, and even boost the immune system.
Some scientists believe breathing can actually change the body's nervous system, like Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of "The Healing Power of the Breath."
He told the New York Times that conscious breathing sends signals to the brain to change the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system which can boost digestion, slow heart rate, and promote feelings of calm.
Bostock said he now does a lot of corporate work, as companies discover the benefits breathwork can bring to employee wellbeing.
How one man became the Breath Guy
"I teach people how to breathe for a living," Bostock said. "It's a strange profession but it's an important one."
And it couldn't be further from his previous career working in management consulting at one of the big international consulting firms.
It wasn't until his father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that he stumbled upon breathwork while researching lifestyle changes and alternative treatments that could help.
Bostock discovered a Dutch man named Wim Hof, who is known as the Iceman and has a cult following — he recently appeared on an episode of Netflix docu-series "The Goop Lab," in which Gwyneth Paltrow's staffers can be seen crying and shaking during a breathwork session with Hof.
"What caught my attention is that he mentioned the method seemed to be really effective in helping people with autoimmune diseases, including MS," Bostock told Insider.
"After researching his method more I learned that it had two main elements: cold exposure activities such as cold showers and ice baths, and breathing techniques."
Bostock went to Poland to spend a week learning Hof's technique, which, after finding it so "profound," he then taught to his father.
"Fast forward a few years and my dad breathes and takes cold showers every morning, and his MS has not progressed at all!" Bostock said.
"After this, I was obsessed with finding out what else people were doing using the breath, which has led me to travel across five continents learning from many modern breathing masters and witnessing the transformative effects of breathwork."
Bostock and Wim Hof are by no means the only people preaching about the power of breathing either — Professor Patrick McKeown, for example, is another world-renowned breathing expert, and Erin Telford is one of the biggest names in the US.
Major cities like London have seen an increasing number of studios providing breathing sessions too — you can do breathwork with Bostock at Re:Centre, for example, and there's the soon-to-launch House of Wisdom, which describes itself as "London's brand new city oasis, aiming to help you reconnect with your inner power to achieve rebalance and connection."
The center will offer a class called Inner Axis Movement: "Incorporating breath-based qigong sequences, inspirational visualizations, and effective relaxation techniques, it is a centering practice backed by science that can be a wonderful antidote to fast-based city living."
Most of us are breathing incorrectly
Bostock believes that not only are most people not aware of how much breathing can affect our health, but we're also doing it wrong.
"I would say that 80% of the general population breathe in a way that is anatomically sub-optimal, leading to unnecessary physical, mental, and emotional distress," he explained.
"The most common dysfunctional breathing pattern I see is a chest or clavicular breathing pattern which is very common in people who are chronically stressed.
"This pattern is obvious when a person inhales and their shoulders travel vertically significantly and their chest puffs out. Here you are using your neck, shoulders, and upper chest muscles to expand your chest to breathe in air."
Bostock says that these muscles are meant to be used only in short bursts when we need to catch our breath quickly (after sprinting, for example), not all the time, which can lead to fatigue and neck, shoulder, and back pain.
"On top of that, this style of breathing is neurologically linked to sending the body into a stress response by activating your sympathetic nervous system, so even if you had no reason to be stressed, if you breathed in this way you would cause your body to go into a stress response — doesn't sound so smart does it?" he said.
How to breathe properly
You don't need to go to a class to reap the rewards from breathwork though, according to Bostock.
"While being facilitated and being part of a group can greatly enhance the energy of a breathwork session, you can, of course, do it yourself at home once you gain some understanding of the techniques — it is very effective!" he said.
While at rest, there are four basic elements to breathing properly:
Breathe low — "down into the belly first, feeling your lower ribs and abdomen expand"
Breathe slow — "between 9 and 12 breaths per minute"
Breathe through the nose — "that's what it's there for!"
Let go of your exhale — "don't blow out your exhale, just relax and let the air escape naturally."
It almost seems too simple, doesn't it? But as someone who has always struggled with mindfulness and meditation, breathwork seems like a much more accessible way to destress and calm both my body and mind. I can't wait to go to another session.