It can be difficult to catch your breath in fast-paced societies, awash with unhealthy food and ridden by pollution.
So it’s no wonder an increasing number of people are attending conscious breathing workshops, where you repetitively inhale and exhale deeply for up to 90 minutes to help address anxiety, addiction, stress and a whole host of health problems.
Across the UK, there are a growing number of workshops and events in studios, corporate offices, the natural history museum and even parliament, where MPs and peers have been learning breathing techniques during yoga classes.
The NHS also promotes breathing exercises to reduce stress, and wellness influencers such as Wim Hof, Russell Brand and Fearne Cotton have lauded the rewards of the practice.
“Conscious, connected breathwork is now reaching the world,” says Geert De Vleminck, chair of the International Breathwork Foundation. “People are always seeking to find happiness, joy, real love and to be healthy.”
He explains that many troubled people fail to address their issues and instead busy themselves with drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, television, shopping and superficial beauty.
But breathwork can be transformative, De Vleminck asserts, describing how he was taking antidepressants and could not sleep at night until he began conscious breathing. “It released so much trauma from the past and made me free again.”
The Guardian recently attended a breath workshop in London attended by a group of men recovering from a variety of serious addictions.
They howled and groaned while continuously open-mouth breathing laying on their backs before reporting experiences of intense catharsis, the release of repressed memories and a subsequent profound sense of calm and connectivity, along with lightheadedness.
“We’ve known the benefits of conscious breathing, mindfulness and meditation for a long time but haven’t implemented them,” says Hannah Goodman, the founder of Grounded Life, which held the session.
“Levels of mental health issues, the increased use of medications like anti-depressants, work absenteeism due to stress-related symptoms, and rising rates of suicide are evidence that our current relationship to dealing with trauma or stress isn’t working.”
Goodman trained as a breathwork facilitator four years ago, during which time the number of people qualifying as respiration gurus has started “booming”.
“The breath is finally starting to take the centre stage, it is after all the centre of us and why we are here,” she says. “I’m really happy to be part of this growing movement.”
Spearheading the wave of popularity is Richie Bostock, also known as “The Breath Guy”. He regularly holds sold-out sessions for up to 100 people at venues such as the Ministry of Sound in south London.
“It’s absolutely exploded,” he says. “I will have taught at 19 festivals this year. I taught at British Summer Time last month and 2,000 people were laying down doing breathing techniques.
“It’s becoming a really big thing because it’s so simple. You can feel so good just from breathing.”
He claims that people with insomnia have attended just one of his sessions and have slept for six hours that evening.
“It’s almost too good to be true,” he concedes. “But I haven’t met one person who has come out of a class and said they don’t get it. I have so many clients who feel ready to taper themselves off anti-anxiety medications in a matter of weeks.”
Accelerated deep breathing, also known as holotropic breathwork, has been described as a way to “get high without drugs”, with research finding that the rhythm of breathing modulates neural activity in a network of brain areas involved in smell, memory and emotions.
Dr Emma Seppälä, a psychologist who holds positions at Yale and Stanford universities, says studies have found breathing practices can significantly increase well-being while decreasing anxiety and trauma.
“Research shows that emotions and breathing are tightly linked, each emotion has a specific pattern of breathing that goes with it,” she says.
“By changing your breathing, you can trigger the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system – the opposite of the ‘fight or flight’ response. Your body calms down. As a consequence, you relax and feel better.”