Take a deep breath: Discover the power of oxygen at a transformational breathing retreat
Friday 06 April 2012
Lanzarote airport. Sugar-hyped children. Suntans. A smattering of leopard print. One lone female on a plastic seat, weeping. Reader, she was me, after an intensive breathing retreat.
Rewind a week. I'd decided to try out transformational breathing, a practice with a growing number of acolytes who believe that good health and spiritual peace can be claimed with appropriate breathing. I'd looked at the Breathguru.com website and hesitated. (The most striking image was a photo of a man looking zen in white trousers under the strapline "You are the guru, your breath is the key".) However, alongside this was the persuasive statistic that most of us use only 25 per cent of our lung capacity, missing out on a dazzling array of health benefits. The idea of some winter sun in the Canary Islands clinched the deal.
Alan Dolan, the 38-year-old facilitator behind Breath Guru, meets me at the airport. In the flesh he looks much less New Agey, just rather friendly, and is dressed in a pair of battered shorts. Before we start the breathing he takes me on a tour of the island. Some 125km off the north coast of Africa, Lanzarote is the most easterly of the Canary Islands – and the landscape is a strange one, thrust up 15 million years ago as a product of the Canary hot spot, an outpouring of molten rock spat up after the break-up of the African and American continental plates.
In the south, lava from eruptions some 300 years ago have left the land streaked black, rising up to sooty mounts. Further north it is less stark, with lichens and the odd plant colouring the dark earth. While it is alien, it is not forbidding, but airy and expansive. The coastline is stunning: we pause on cliffs dropping into a deep blue sea; the shoreline unfurls, wild and untouched below. There are shades of Morocco in the swaying palms, and the beaches are evocative of the more spartan Greek islands.
Most of those who arrive on package holidays are corralled in three resorts on the southern coast. Elsewhere, the real attraction is activity: Club La Santa is a giant sports complex which attracts athletes and amateurs from all over the world. We pass cyclists and runners, and hang-gliders and paragliders are bright against the dark hills. The 9km-long black-sand beach at Famara has a seductive surf break when the wind is offshore, and when it blows onshore is perfect for kite-surfing. A plethora of triathlons is held here each year, including the world's second largest Ironman gathering.
At last, we reach the small town where Alan has his house. It is called Nazaret. "I do get the odd Jesus Christ joke," he smiles. His villa is spacious, with excellent views. It's the kind of place to which you'd be proud to retire, if the life of an expatriate appealed.
So what is transformational breath? "The reason I love it so much is that it is different things for different people. Essentially, it uses oxygen to boost the energy in your body, and through that to clear the bad stuff. A lot of what I see breathing do I would have thought miraculous." His enthusiasm spills on. "Sometimes our body is in the red zone; I like to cut that off at the pass, clear the canvas so you can paint what you wish to paint. One client referred to a retreat as a recalibration of her entire being."
On the corporeal plane, increased oxygen intake apparently boosts sporting performance and the immune system, and can play a part in fighting disorders such as hypertension and insomnia.
The secret to a transformational breath is a wide-open mouth, air drawn deep into the belly, then gently released. Unlike many yogic breath patterns the exhale is shorter than the inhale. Also there is no pause between in and out: the goal is a "connected breath".
To begin with, it's tough to keep the flow. As I get used to the technique it becomes difficult to occupy my concentration, but easy enough to float off on the rhythm. As I breathe, Alan applies gentle acupressure to points on my body relating to the Chinese meridian lines. To my surprise, his touch triggers powerful reactions; he lightly knocks his fingertips beneath my clavicle and my whole body strings out with not-quite-painful but extreme sensation. At one moment, I have sudden, brief pains in the joints of my fingers. Another, there is an odd fizzing across my forehead; then an itch in my skin as though I've suddenly become allergic to my clothes.
The hour vanishes, leaving me extraordinarily light and relaxed. My eyes feel wider, whiter, my lungs somehow larger, somehow cleaner on the inside. That night I sleep instantly, deeply – rare for me – and have crazy, vivid dreams.
Transformational breathing has its roots in the 1960s work of Stanislav Grof and Timothy Leary, who used holotropic breathwork (and, it has to be said, LSD) in a quest to expand consciousness. It embraces the idea of prana, of breath as life force, the source of all energy.
Alan is happy to discuss the experience in terms of the way oxygen has been proved to be attracted to the body's cells through electromagnetic charge – and hence speak of Einstein and biomechanics. Or in terms of Aldous Huxley's "the aliveness of everything". His bookshelves juxtapose spiritual guides by Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle with writing by the poet Rumi and psychologist Steven Pinker, as well as texts on nutrition and biology.
After each succeeding session, instead of feeling energised, I feel shell-shocked. I had hoped to test the waves at Famara. Or perhaps to look at some of the buildings designed by Lanzarote's favourite son, the artist and architect César Manrique. (He's the activist behind Lanzarote's fierce planning legislation which guards against high-rise development. Houses here on the island are traditional one-storey white cubes edged with green paintwork; advertising hoardings are banned.) Instead, I lie poleaxed on a lounger, enjoying Alan's special green juices, made with kale and ginger, listening to the wind in the palm leaves and absorbing the sun.
"The most common issues I've seen over the last year have been anxiety and stress," Alan tells me over a dinner of elegantly spiced vegetarian curry: the meals are made by Rebecca, a former client who, after one retreat, sold her house in the UK to set up a restaurant on the island.
There seem to be few ailments that he has not helped. Off the top of his head he mentions a Falklands veteran who, after 20 years of post-traumatic stress, regained composure in four sessions; a lawyer and functioning alcoholic who ditched the booze and took her first holiday in 30 years; a shy woman with low self-esteem who finally started to dance salsa. Others include the bereaved, smokers wanting to quit, and professional sportsmen eager to boost their performance.
Alan, who came to transformational breathing eight years ago after careers in teaching and management, suggests that 10 minutes a day is sufficient to improve health radically.
I find it hard rationally to accept the spiritual side, preferring to err on the established values of oxygen and of any disciplined regime. Yet, as I return to the airport, I find myself loath to board the plane. Lanzarote has been a revelation. When Alan warned me I might find peculiar emotions rising, I certainly didn't expect this sudden outburst of tears.
Oddly, when they subside, I feel marvellously calm. Serene. Perhaps I had finally arrived at that blank canvas.
Travel essentials: Lanzarote
* The writer travelled with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), which offers flights from Gatwick and Liverpool to Lanzarote, from £29.99 each way. Lanzarote is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), Thomson (0871 231 4787; flights.thomson.co.uk) and Monarch (08719 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk/flights).
* Three-night retreats with Alan Dolan of breathguru.com, including a transformational breath session per day, full board and transfers, start at £590 per person. Other activities include yoga, massages, volcano climbing, surfing and kite surfing, all priced at £70.
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