How can something as simple as breathing transform your life? When his girlfriend died of cancer, Stuart Sandeman was surprised to discover his new path in life through the power of breathwork
I squeezed her hand three times. It was our code. I’m here. I care. I love you. I had to be strong for her. But as I stared across the desk at the doctor reading his notes, I was barely breathing.
It was only a couple of months earlier that my girlfriend, Tiff, had found a pea-sized lump on her chest. Until that day we’d been having the time of our lives. She was 30, and a fun-loving fashion buyer. I was 31, a DJ without a care in the world. But then cancer joined our party and dragged the needle violently across the record of our lives. Now we were here, sitting in silence in the oncology unit of the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, waiting for the specialist to give us the news.
“The scans confirm your cancer has metastasised. We’ve found tumours in your liver, spleen and brain.”
In the months that followed, we did everything we possibly could. We travelled from LA to New York, from London to Taipei, searching for a cure. Yet nothing seemed to work.
When Tiff passed away six months later, I shut down. I bounced between outbursts of anger and complete withdrawal. The image of strength I’d always projected was beginning to show cracks. I needed something else.
Eight weeks later, I found myself, by chance, in a breathing workshop with my mum. It was a gift I’d bought her for Mother’s Day.
“Hello,” said a smiling woman dressed in white. “You must be Stuart. Come, take a seat in the sharing circle.” My heart sank. Jeez, I thought. I hate this sort of thing. On went some New Age trance music and everyone in the room began to puff. I opened an eye to check the whole thing wasn’t a prank. But my mum seemed to be getting into it, and the workshop was my gift to her.
After a couple of rounds of breathing and shaking and shouting, something pretty bizarre happened. I could feel electricity surging through my entire body, the kind of vibrations you feel when standing in front of a giant festival speaker. A wave of emotion roared up inside me. And then, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I cried. I cried and cried and cried. And not only did I feel the weight of grief being pulled off me, but I felt as if a lifetime of tension I’d unknowingly been carrying around was dissolving into the atmosphere. I felt a strong presence surrounding me and had the very distinct feeling that Tiff was there. It was weird. It was powerful. It was life-changing.
I never could have imagined that something as simple as breathing could transform my life. I mean, really? That thing we do all day? And yet in the year that followed that Mother’s Day session, a regular breathing practice didn’t just release me from the pain and uncertainty of grief. My energy also increased, my mind cleared, my fitness levels went through the roof. My nightmares stopped and my sleep became deeper. Even the voice in my head began to sound a little kinder. I felt hopeful for life again.
I threw myself into the world of breathing. I studied a number of breathing modalities – and yes, there are a few: some very practical and scientific, others more spiritual and mystical. I read research journals. I hung out with consultants, yogis, healers and gurus. Within 12 months, I’d set up my own small private practice with the goal of introducing more people to its life-changing power.
Client by client, people underwent miraculous transformations. I watched stressed-out city workers find calm. I saw painfully shy children grow confident. I observed people in the grip of depression become happy and optimistic for the future. I even helped chronic insomniacs sleep through the night. People young and old, sceptical and open-minded, shed the weight of negative emotions they’d been carrying around with them for years.
I felt as if a lifetime of tension I’d unknowingly been carrying around was dissolving into the atmosphere
Many cultures have a long history of using breathing to help people endure the slings and arrows of fortune. Chinese qi, Sanskrit prana, Egyptian ka, Hebrew nefesh and ruah, Greek psuche and pneuma, Latin anima and spiritus, Polynesian mana, Iroquoian orenda. They all highlight the importance of breathing for the body and mind, and its connection to something deeper.
What I’ve come to understand is that our breath is the bridge between our physical, mental and emotional states. It’s a powerful tool to improve our health, heal us from negative events in our past and even access higher states of awareness. It’s the key to the door that connects the conscious and unconscious mind. If we can control one, we can control the other. It transformed my life, and it can transform yours.
How to breathe right, according to Sandeman
1. Be aware and stand up straight
Breathing right begins with awareness. How are you breathing right now? Take a second to pause and focus on your breath. Is anything affecting your breathing? Are your clothes too tight? Is your posture hunched or frozen? If so, stand up, spine straight, roll your shoulders back and breathe through your nose, and deep into your torso.
2. Nose, nose, nose!
Your nose is designed for breathing. It filters the air, making sure it’s clean and at the perfect moisture and temperature. Your nose flushes inhaled air with nitric oxide, which kills off germs, helps to open your airways and improves circulation. Your nostrils also slow the rate at which you breathe so you feel calm. If you are a mouth breather, a quick fix is to use mouth tape for 20 minutes in your day.
3. Breathe in, belly out
The diaphragm is your main breathing muscle and when you breathe with it your belly moves out before your chest. Diaphragmatic breathing helps you relax, decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure while improving your core stability. Try lying on the floor, putting your hands on your stomach and breathing into your hands for a count of five. Then breathe out through the nose for five. Try not to use your stomach muscles.
4. Go slow
If you calm your breath your mind will follow. Slow breathing activates your ‘rest-digest’ response, lowering your heart rate and slowing down your racing thoughts.
5. Find your flow
Try this: breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four. Repeat. That’s called box breathing and it balances the autonomic nervous system, helping you find your flow in the day. It can lower your blood pressure, calm you down, lift your mood and leave you motivated and alert.
Extracted from Breathe In, Breathe Out by Stuart Sandeman. Out now, published by HQ.
Main image: Zoe Lower
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