It's a Friday night and instead of my usual ritual of grabbing dinner and drinks with friends, I'm lying down on my back in an airplane hanger in Marina del Rey about to experience my first breathwork practice. I try to get comfortable on my yoga mat that's sitting on a hard concrete floor surrounded by a variety of gym equipment (the space had been transformed into a strength and conditioning gym called Different Breed). A man in a T-shirt that reads "Spiritual Gangster" explains to me—and the circle of strangers around me—what we're about to experience, and his first sentence already makes me anxious.
Instructor Rob Starbuck says it's quite "normal" for our arms and feet begin to tingle during the 25-minute breathing exercise and not to be alarmed if we feel emotional. I try not to think too much about it, but the thought alone of lying here for 25 minutes gives me pause. Then, Starbuck informs us that we'll finish the practice with a unified scream followed by a few visualization exercises—completely normal for a Friday night in Los Angeles, right?
While I've grown to be open about my struggles with anxiety, the idea that a simple breathing exercise could bring me to tears in a public space and alleviate the weight of personal trauma was not something I anticipated. But I can honestly say, after spending nearly a half hour doing nothing but breathing in and out through my mouth, that's exactly what happened. Dumbfounded by the power of this seemingly simple breathing exercise for anxiety, I sought out the breathwork instructor after class to learn exactly why it works, what the benefits are, and how anyone can do it.
What is it?
According to Starbuck, breathwork is something that's difficult to put into words, and I'd have to agree with this sentiment. "It's an experience that most people have never tried before and if they have, struggle to accurately explain it … but I hear 'life-changing' the most," he tells me. Essentially, the practice involves breathing in a very specific way for an extended period of time with the goal of experiencing a release of emotions, tensions, and anxieties.
What are the benefits?
The benefits of this breathing exercise can be different for everyone. For Starbuck, it allowed him to release a traumatic experience that he later realized was the root of the majority of the fear in his life. "Breathwork has increased my clarity, creativity, and confidence in life and will connect you to the real you—the you that is underneath all the old stories, limiting beliefs, masks, identities, and roles we play in our life," he explains.
How does it work?
This type of breathing allows you to tap into areas of the subconscious that are the most emotionally charged, according to Starbuck. He describes the practice as akin to taking a look under the hood of your car. "We simply don't have access to this state in normal conscious awareness, yet these subconscious programs are running our life—positively or negatively," he says.
During the actual practice, you can expect to experience not only mental side effects, but physical ones as well. The physicality of the exercise is no joke and Starbuck points out that free divers use similar techniques to train themselves to hold their breath for extended periods of time. Because you're flooding your body with oxygen, it's common to experience and tingling sensation in the hands and feet known as tetany. "The breath aims to move the energy that is blocked within your system so the more you do breathwork the less this happens," he explains.
How do you practice?
In order to try this breathing exercise for yourself, start by lying down on your back. In a three-stage, open-mouth breath sequence, you'll create a circular breath that enters your mouth into your stomach, travels to your chest, and leaves through your mouth again. Although it sounds like a long time, you'll want to do this for close to 30 minutes, according to Starbuck.
My experience with breathwork also included music, Starbuck's encouraging words, and a unified scream of release at the end. It may sound strange, but it was an incredibly cathartic experience that left me in tears that I couldn't even directly pinpoint the cause of. All I do know is that it's often tempting to keep emotions bottled up inside, but when I focused on my breath, I felt like I shed layers of the trauma, anxiety, and grief that had piled up without me noticing.
Starbuck recommends the exercise to anyone who is looking to make changes in their life but isn't sure where to start. Give it a try for yourself at home or seek out a class in your area. It's truly a game-changer for anxiety and stress relief.