Taking control of the breath is being hailed as the ‘next big wellness revolution’, promising to improve sleep, boost immunity and reduce stress. Elle Blakeman meets expert Richie Bostock, aka The Breath Guy to understand why we should add conscious breathing to our to-do list
‘Inhale slowly through the nose and imagine that you are sucking up any feelings of stress, worry, density, anger or frustration,’ Richie Bostock is saying. ‘Then exhale and visualise all those feelings being released out to mother nature who can deal with them.’ I sigh my breath out dramatically, picturing dark clouds of stress leaving my body for good, it’s tiring and strangely emotional.
The wellness industry has a habit of taking things that once came naturally – sleep, daydreaming, eating when hungry – rebranding them and selling them back to us at a premium, supported by endless experts, gadgets and apps. Which is to say I was perhaps slightly sceptical about the recent hype surrounding the ‘art of breathwork’. Surely this one of the increasingly few things in life we don’t actually have to think about, let alone work at? Well, yes and no.
Breathing is the only system in the body that works both unconsciously and can also be consciously controlled. Cultivating an awareness of our breath can connect us to how we think and feel like nothing else can.
‘We take between 19,000 and 27,000 breathes every day and most people don’t pay attention to a single one,’ says Bostock, a breathwork coach, author and speaker. ‘The world would be so different if we did.’
With a calm, easy-going demeanor and kind open face that looks largely untroubled by the world, he’s a walking advert for the balancing nature of his practice. ‘I really believe this is the next big wellness revolution,’ he explains. ‘It’s all about coming back to the body and allowing it to heal itself.’
At a time when many of us consult some form of technology to see how we are feeling, rather than checking in with our bodies (sleep trackers, calorie counting apps and so on), the idea of going backwards – in a good way – sounds rather wonderful.
According to Bostock and many other breathwork experts, everything from traffic to late nights in the office and even tight jeans have conspired to take us away from our natural breathing patterns into something altogether less healthy.
Compare how a baby or toddler breathes – tiny bellies instinctively expanding to fill the lungs with air – with our more clipped adult style which often starts and ends in the chest, the breath being one of the first casualties of stress or overwhelm.
‘It’s already in our language – we use phrases like “it took my breath away” or “take a deep breath” – we know that our breath makes a difference to how we feel,’ explains Bostock.
‘We all experience trauma everyday – even if we’re not always aware of it,’ he says. ‘Micro traumas accumulate – the traffic jam, the upsetting news report, the run-in with a colleague – and affect the way we breathe. But when you breathe consciously you can access what is happening with this unconscious part of you. By doing this you can process these traumas as they happen, providing an emotional release. In effect you complete that nervous system experience and close the circle.’
Essentially, we can turn down the volume on the thinking brain and let the body take over to physically process stress.
‘Breathwork is meditation for people who can’t meditate,’ suggests Bostock. ‘In meditation you’re using your mind to get a hold of your mind, which is a really big ask for some people, but with breathwork you’re using your body to get hold of your mind, you can physically do something.’
‘And what’s so exciting is anyone can do it. You don’t need anything but yourself, you don’t need to be super fit and it’s free!’
Bostock has just written his first book on the subject: ‘Exhale – How to use breathwork to find calm, supercharge your health and perform at your best’, a comprehensive guide to the art of breathwork honed over years of research that has taken him to teachers and gurus all over the world.
‘I wanted to try and create a map of the territory,’ he explains. ‘There is a lot out there, but no one was able to put it all together in one place before, so I took it upon myself to do that.’
His own interest in breath work started when his beloved dad was diagnosed with MS. With no medical cure, he set about looking for alternative therapies and lifestyle changes that could help manage the illness.
‘It always amazes me how just one book, documentary or podcast can completely change the course of your life. This is exactly what happened to me,’ he says.
In the course of his research he came across a podcast interview with a ‘crazy Dutch man’ named Wim Hof. Commonly referred to as ‘the Iceman’, Hof holds more than 20 world records relating to cold-exposure activities and has developed a method – The Wif Hof Method – that involves a combination of cold exposure (cold-water swimming, ice baths and so on) and breathwork to enhance mental and physical fitness.
‘It really was just a gut feeling, I felt like there was something there and I just had a strong urge to go on one of his courses. I remember thinking: “Well the worst that can happen is that I’ll get some cool stories about stomping around in the snow in Poland”.
What happened there changed his life.
‘Most people go on about the cold exposure because that’s the ‘sexy’ headline stuff, but I was bowled over by the breathwork, it was just profound. I couldn’t believe the array of emotions that came up when doing it, it took me completely by surprise,’ he says.
When he returned home, he was so enthusiastic about what he had learned that he managed to convince his dubious father to try out the breathwork and start taking cold showers (this, in combination with a change in diet has stopped any progression in his MS for years). He also started researching again.
‘I have one of those personalities that when I find something interesting, I become obsessed,’ he explains. After realising what a change the breathwork from the Wim Hof method made to his life he set about seeing if there were any other techniques he could explore.
‘I didn’t know where to start so I just googled ‘breathwork’ – the word wasn’t even in my lexicon before I heard that podcast – and I discovered people from all over the world doing this in different ways.’
He became a dedicated student of the practice, spending the next five years travelling all over the world meeting guides in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and South America, and studying under some of the world’s most revered breath masters including Wim Hof, Judith Kravitz and Dan Brule. Following this, Bostock decided to settle in London and to set up his own company – Xhale breathwork – in order to share what he had learned to others.
‘My passion is trying to understand how all these different breathing techniques affect us. And this is what I love to share and teach – breathwork design for some sort of healing or experience.
Bostock’s great strength is his clear enthusiasm for his craft along with an uncanny ability to translate many ancient ideas and practices into something totally accessible for any level. His work has an air of London cool about it, sell-out workshops packed with millennials taking place in venues like Ministry of Sound and Shoreditch yoga studios. He has also launched a subscription app – Flourish – to allow converts to practice at home or on-the-go (useful for those of us often triggered by day-to-day stress).
People often cry in his classes, which he takes as a compliment. Most report leaving feeling lighter than they have in years, having shed years of toxic energy and emotions.
For those of us who are totally new to the practice, how would he recommend starting? ‘The first step is to just acknowledge the fact that your breath makes a difference and be aware of what it does. So notice when it gets deeper or more shallow, notice it first, then you can start to change it.’
‘It’s such an empowering practice. It’s the quickest way to influence your nervous system so we can get to influence ourselves and deal with our emotions in real time. But the most important thing is to have fun. There’s no need to push it too hard, just follow what feels right for you, enjoy it and just feel good for no reason other than you are breathing.’
Exhale: How to Use Breathwork to Find Calm, Supercharge Your Health and Perform at Your Best by Richie Bostock is out now