Why Getting Familiar With Your Own Breath Might Just Save You

Why getting familiar with your own breath might just save you

Take a deep breath and dive into the world of breathwork, where sweaty yoga mats and rhythmic realisation meet profound self-exploration

IF YOU TOLD ME when I was a naïve 21-year-old that by age 47, I’d be spending a Saturday afternoon at a holotropic breath-work class, I would have suggested you go and see a doctor.

The canvas tote bag that carries my towel, water and a fresh shirt features a painting of Saint George Michael, dressed in a robe in gay pride colours, holding an organic cigarette.

So, this is where I have landed; a two-hour breathing practice on my back, overlaid with loud, rhythmic and mesmerising music.

The session is an adjunct to the 200 sweet, hot vinyasa flows I have attended in 17 months at the One Big Heart studio in Camden, NSW. And two in late December with the arrogant, sun-soaked, beautiful people on bicycles in Byron Bay. An unassisted handstand still evades me. Like most things in life, it’s all in my head. I know that. Before Christmas, I conquered three minutes in an ice bath at 3.5-4.0 degrees Celsius. What is wrong with me?

A decade of distance running on roads and in the bush to get fitter and deal with PTSD following a melanoma diagnosis, now 18 years ago, has given way to a 5000-year-old practice of mindfulness, deep breathing, physical discomfort and self-exploration.

It’s a room heated up to 30 degrees plus, filled with hot bodies, moving in sync for 60 to 75 minutes. Previously called Bikram, a name which has largely been dropped due to its founder featuring in an eye opening Netflix special, and certainly not for the right reasons, it’s a transformative practice.

“Transformative” and “transformation” are words that have been used in modern business so many times in the past decade that they are now meaningless.

But they have true meaning here.

My rubber yoga mat reeks of sweat and needs to be periodically hung on the line and doused with water. It’s less than 12 months old and already has small holes in it. No matter how many times a particular singlet has been hot washed, the stench of my body odour bacteria still lingers. It’s now a rag.

This breathwork class, my first, starts with a brief history. The practice was created in 1975 by psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof only because Richard Nixon had banned the therapeutic use of psychedelic substances like psilocybin and LSD during his administration’s catastrophic war on drugs. Grof was looking for a way to treat people suffering from the likes of PTSD, anxiety and depression – central nervous system afflictions that affect most people at some stage and thanks to social media, are only getting worse.

Fast forward to 2024 and Australia has been the first country in the world to legalise these substances for use in psychotherapy.

We all lie down and we are encouraged to take long, deep breaths, the kind that hit the bottom of your stomach. The music booms but it’s not uncomfortable to the senses. I breath in unison with it, over and over and over again. Oxygen fills every cell.

Thoughts start bubbling up, things that I think about intensely when I am not in the studio, walking and running out in nature or asleep.

Fascism in the United States, plutocracies masquerading as democracies, demagogue leaders, corporations avoiding tax, the media’s obsession with the indiscretions of TV stars, sporting results and sportspeople, why musicians don’t make good music anymore. The usual stuff.

Sport always gets me thinking about my dad and his generation of men who are unable to express their emotions. Our conversations typically centred around football, cricket and car registrations. His dad was sent away to shoot at other people in the mosquito-infested tropical jungles of South-East Asia. Something is bound to go wrong years later back at home.

Dad didn’t know how to relate to me when I was growing up. He told me this two weeks before he died from cancer. I wish he told me that much earlier. But it’s okay. Well, it’s not okay but it’s still not his fault, he was a good man. I can’t help but think that if I knew this years ago, we most certainly could have done something about it.

I’m still breathing, long and deep. My hands and feet are tingling. I can’t feel or move my right foot. My right shoulder and upper arm are moving involuntarily.

I pull back on the heavy breathing a bit so I can gather the feeling back in my foot and to make sure I don’t float away. I hear the sound of a didgeridoo just above my left ear.

At this point, I’ve lost track of time. In fact, I’ve lost a bunch of things, perhaps even my ego. Yoga teaches us that our ego is our enemy; that our closest relationship in life is not with a parent or a partner, it’s with our own breath. It’s impossible to hold a pose properly if it’s not accompanied by proper breathing.

But this is a whole new level, it’s an altered state of consciousness, reached without the help of any substance. This is supposed to be a good substitute for medical psychedelics. It’s probably not quite there but it’s got to be the next best thing. I feel relaxed and kind, my mind lifted into an empathetic and judgement-free state. I care nothing for money, race, culture or status. The late American ethnobotanist, Terence McKenna, who I listen to intensely in the car on the way to 6:00am classes during the week, regularly opines that culture is not our friend.

McKenna says that culture insults, disempowers and uses us, filling us with false happiness. He says that culture is a perversion and what is important is the felt presence of experience. It’s a view that I tend to agree with, particularly today.

Our breathing slows down as we gather in a circle in the middle of the room in silence. My left hand touches the sweaty mid-back of a male stranger. I feel connected to the group as we wind down as one. My teacher places his hand on my chest and back on the way out to make sure that I’m ok before I go back out into the world.

I’m not really walking, more floating out towards the car park in the cool afternoon air. Trees have a shine to them, flowers look brighter. I stroll into a random supermarket thinking that I will somehow find some Japanese food.

I’m wishing I could see my dad again, wondering why showing love was so difficult for those men and realising that it’s so important for this generation to break the chain.

Now . . . about that handstand.

Byron Connolly is Sydney-based writer, running and yoga enthusiast. He completed the North Face 100 ultra marathon in 2012 and 2013. He’s also won a few Parkruns

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