THE ROYAL EXCHANGE: How and why did you first become interested in breathwork?
RICHIE BOSTOCK: Believe it or not, I wasn’t always teaching people how to breathe for a living. Some time ago, my dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease with no real widely accepted cure and a myriad of different, and sometimes difficult, drug treatments. Because there was no set treatment plan for MS, I was always on the lookout for different lifestyle changes and alternative treatments that could be useful for him. Eventually I came across a podcast by a Dutch man called Wim Hof, often referred to as ‘The Iceman’. In this podcast, he talked about a method of breathing he had developed through his own experiences that was fantastic for physical and mental health. What caught my attention was that he mentioned the method seemed to be really effective in helping people with autoimmune diseases, including MS. 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.
To cut a long story short, I travelled to Poland to attend a week-long training course on Wim’s technique and found the effects to be profound, especially the breathing aspects. When I returned I taught my dad the technique. Fast-forward a few years and my dad breathes and takes cold showers every morning and his MS has not progressed at all. After this I was obsessed with finding out what else people were doing using the breath, and this has led me to travel across five continents, learning from many modern breathing masters and witnessing the transformative effects of breathwork.
TRE: What do you think are the main mental and physical benefits of learning to breathe with purpose?
RB: The way you breathe affects just about every system in your body, such as your cardiovascular system, endocrine system, digestive system, nervous system and immune system. Because we have conscious control over our breath, by simply learning how to use your breath as a tool (the way nature intended you to), you can quickly affect the systems and functions in your body, improving your physical and mental health and performance and emotional wellbeing. You can think of your breath as your body’s very own in-built Swiss Army knife that, when you know how to use it purposefully, can quickly help you to reduce stress and anxiety, increase energy levels, rebalance hormones, heighten focus and concentration, improve sleep and digestion, heal emotional trauma, alleviate chronic pain, improve cardiovascular health and even improve athletic performance – just to name a few.
TRE: How do you use breathwork in your day-to-day life?
RB: I am always aware of my breath and will notice how it fluctuates throughout the day. Once you develop a relationship with your breathing, there is so much information that it can give you as to your mental and emotional state. I use my breath throughout the day to shift my state to match whatever it is I am doing. For example, if I feel tired and need to focus on doing work, I will use a breathing technique for a few minutes to optimise my state to be energised and in the zone.
TRE: To give people an idea of what breathwork means, can you describe what you might do in a class or workshop?
RB: I define breathwork as any time you intentionally become aware of your breath and use it to improve your physical and mental health, performance and emotional wellbeing. That means the scope of techniques that I cover in my workshops is very broad and will depend on what the purpose of the workshop is. After all, the way we breathe is central to just about every part of life.
Here is how I categorise the different types of breathwork techniques that I may cover in a workshop:
First, everyday breathwork: quick techniques you can use throughout the day to change your state and, for example, decrease stress, anxiety, and nervousness; create more energy, and help you get to sleep.
Second, corrective breathwork: these are techniques to correct your breathing mechanics to improve your day-to-day breathing, such as learning to breathe with your diaphragm.
Third, performance breathwork: techniques to help you perform better in a physically demanding activity, whether that be increased athletic performance or to speed up recovery.
Fourth, mind-body breathwork: techniques and practices to further improve your physical, mental and emotional health and vitality, including Pranayama, Qi Gong, Buteyko Method, Wim Hof Method, and techniques for medical issues.
Fifth, integrative breathwork: these are methods of breathwork for therapeutic purposes, healing and spiritual experience and exploration including rebirthing, Holotropic Breathwork, Transformational Breathing, and BioDynamic Breathwork.
TRE: Our audience includes a lot of people who work in the City and have high-pressured jobs – can you describe how breathwork could help them to both stay calm and to feel empowered?
RB: We live in such a fast-paced and ever-changing world, which can often feel very challenging and overwhelming. 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 over-stimulated 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.
As a result, I see a large proportion of the general population breathe in a way that is anatomically sub-optimal, leading to unnecessary physical, mental and emotional distress. 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 – their shoulders travel vertically and their chest puffs out. Here you are using your neck, shoulders and upper chest muscles to expand your chest to breathe in air. These muscles are secondary breathing muscles and are meant to be used in short bursts when we need to breathe quickly, such as when we catch our breath after sprinting. They are not designed to be used 24/7 and will result in fatigue that can cause 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 breathe in this way you would cause your body to go into a stress response – doesn’t sound so smart, does it?
It is incredibly useful to get into a habit of checking in on your breathing throughout the day and to pay attention to where the breath is moving in the body. Do you feel yourself breathing up into the chest? If so, practice the ‘coherence breathing’ technique (outlined below), all the while focusing on breathing into the lower abdomen, feeling your ribs and belly expand horizontally, while consciously relaxing your neck, shoulders, chest and upper back.
TRE: How would you recommend someone get started in breathwork?
RB: A simple place to begin to build a relationship with your breath is to start getting comfortable in breathing more slowly. While many people habitually breathe at a faster- than-natural rate, consciously slowing down your breathing for a few minutes has been scientifically shown to shift your body into your parasympathetic (also known as ‘rest and digest’) response, promoting functions such as digestion, and helping you to sleep better and to feel more calm.
You can try this yourself with a technique called ‘coherence breathing’. Research on this technique has shown how breathing at a rate of five breaths per 60 seconds can help you to balance your nervous system in just a matter of minutes. To start, inhale through your nose for six seconds. Then exhale through your nose for six seconds. Repeat this cycle for at least 3 minutes, but there really is no limit as to how long you can go. If six seconds feels like a struggle, reduce it to five or four seconds and get comfortable breathing at that rate first. You can then gradually build it up to six seconds.
TRE: Can breathwork help with physical training and getting fitter too?
RB: Absolutely! Learning how to regulate your breathing during physical exercise can help improve endurance, increase power and speed up recovery.
TRE: What we can expect from your book Exhale?
RB: Exhale is the book that I wish I had when I first began my breathwork journey. It answers all the questions that I had as a beginner. This book holds the essential and best parts of my learning over the years and distils the expertise from many modern breathwork masters, elite athletic trainers, psychologists, doctors and health practitioners into a simple step-by-step guide for you to start to breathe with purpose. I give you the science behind why your breathing is so important, a way to assess your own breathing to see if you are doing it correctly and the best breathwork techniques and strategies that I have accumulated from my years of learning and experience from all over the world.
TRE: This year has been really difficult for so many people. How do you think breathwork can help those struggling with everything 2020 has thrown at them?
RB: During the height of the national lockdown, I had nearly 1,500 people joining in on my online breathwork classes. The feedback I was getting was that it was such an effective way for people to let go of the crazy world outside of them, and to experience a total mental and emotional reset. Some people found it helped them to relax and sleep, while others had cathartic experiences letting go of the stress, tension and trauma from this experience we are all facing.
TRE: 2020 seems to have been a big year for you – you launched a book and turned 30 for a start! What do you hope 2021 has in store?
RB: My work is always evolving, so expect to see new online offerings being released throughout the year, which I am really excited about. My absolute favourite thing to do is to breathe with people in person, particularly in large groups. The energy of having hundreds of people in a room breathing together is immense! So I do hope that we will be able to come together, and breathe together, again soon.
Exhale, by Richie Bostock, is now available to purchase – find out more on Richie’s website: thebreathguy.com
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