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What's the deal with breathwork?

What's the DEAL with breathwork?

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A couple of weeks ago after a chance encounter in a Bondi dog park, I found myself lying on the floor of my house with a friend breathing in and out like my life depended on it. In, out, in, out, hold, repeat to the sound of music that fell somewhere between tearing up the dance floor and sad bangers. So THIS was breathwork, my first positive experience after several failed attempts including one that involved me actually saying “fuck this” outloud and bailing 10 minutes in. This time was different. Run by Sydney based Rory Warnock (@rorywarnockwellness), the session focuses on the “what” and the “why” behind breathwork, instead of just the “this is how you breathe now”, with cracking tunes and Rory’s natural calming demeanour alongside it. 

Rory has done an excellent job at making the science of happy feel accessible, and focuses on the physiological, as well as the psychological. Before I knew it, I started to feel good shortly after the start of his remote session. Not just good, fucking GREAT. After 40 minutes of manipulated breathing (which flew by), I felt a wave of euphoria wash over my entire body, and I started to seriously consider the possibility that I’d been spiked. Around the same time as this surge of feeling high on my own supply, I realised my friend was quite clearly loving life too when she had an EXTREMELY audible orgasm right next to me. 

After the session I felt a high better than money can buy (probably), and got in touch with Rory to get to the bottom of what in the actual fuck just happened to us?


IJ: So my first question is how did you get into breathwork? 

RW: It wasn’t something that I ever planned. I was doing things that probably weren’t positively impacting my mind and body, wasn't really feeling fulfilled in my job, was living for the weekend and partying too hard. I wanted to find a way to make myself feel happier and healthier through a more holistic approach to improving my mental health, which is when my girlfriend Georgia suggested that I go to a breath session. I had no idea what it was, but went along anyway and the rest is history. I became obsessed with understanding how it can benefit the mind and body, mental and physical, physiology and psychology. I got hooked on the idea that I could better myself with just my breath. 

IJ: It’s really striking how you can generate this crazy feeling with something so simple. I never realized how powerful it can be when it's done properly. 

RW: That’s the thing, it can get quite complicated when you get into science, but when you bring it back to basics, we have the ability to manipulate our breath in different rhythms, rates and depths to create a certain desired outcome. Whether that be trying to improve your oxygen uptake, becoming a more efficient runner or finding altered states of consciousness and diving deeper into self, mind and body. 

IJ: What concepts and ideas underpin your work?

RW: Mental and physical health, physiology and psychology. Dr Ela Manga talks about the A. R. T. of breathwork. A being ‘awareness’, R being ‘regulating’ and T being ‘transformational’. Your first step to self-development is self-awareness. If you're not aware you can't change. The regulating aspect is the more functional breathing, trying to regulate your physiology and become more balanced. We live in such a world of stress that we're always in that ‘fight or flight’ high arousal state. It’s about trying to regulate and come back to homeostasis. T for ‘transformational’ relates to the out of body aspect, the feeling of “holy shit, what just happened?” I also like the idea of a triangle, with emotions, breath and sleep on each corner. Everyone talks about sleep these days, but if your breath is off, you're not going to have optimal sleep, therefore your emotions are going to be off and you're going to wake up feeling like shit. It’s all intertwined and interconnected. 

IJ: I think a lot of people think that because your breath is innate it's just doing what it's going to do, and it’s a real mental gear change to realise you’re actually in control of it. 

RW: Yeah I love what you said there about control. I do this work with people with severe anxiety, severe depression, O. C. D and P. T. S. D, pretty heavy stuff and I've seen a lot of things in that room. When people start to feel overwhelmed, I always remind them that they’re in control. If they start to feel overwhelmed by breathing too fast and thinking “fuck this is too much”, they can always slow it down. 

IJ: Why do you think so many people are resistant to it? 

RW: I think a lot of people get put off, especially your classic corporates, because they think it’s yogis in the mountains sitting there with crossed legs, similar to how people view meditation.  I think it's also because we breathe 20,000 times per day. People think “I breathe all the time. I don't need you to tell me how to do it.” Which is when I say “you also eat every day, but do you do that as well as you could?”

IJ: Sometimes there's things you have to kind of buy into and suspend reality to feel the effects of. Do you think breathwork is one of those things that if you do it properly, you will have a reaction to it?

RW: 100%. I always say that breathwork is active and meditation is usually passive. I'm not having a go at meditation here. I meditate as well, but it's just a different approach. With breathwork you can do a 20 minute session and you'll feel an immediate sensation. People like to get out of their heads and into their bodies. 

IJ: Absolutely. I remember in your session you brought up the fact that people might be feeling some physiological sensations in their body that can feel super weird, and you reminded everyone that that was totally normal. Do you think that’s something that people find scary? 

RW Yeah, great question. People sometimes struggle when they start to feel these feelings. They think “why the fuck is this happening? Am I losing control of my body?” But that's when I'll remind them that it's normal. You're creating these physiological shifts and you're in control of your breath and body. It's just manipulation of C02 and 02, that's all it is. You breathe actively for about three minutes then you have a little rest at the end where you breathe normally and come back into balance very quickly. Your body is an incredibly intelligent machine.

IJ: During your session it felt as though there was sort of a crescendo near the end where there was a rush of sensation and emotion. What's actually happening in your body when that happens, because it feels like you're on drugs?

RW: I'm glad you noticed it. It's almost reassuring for me to know that you're getting that feeling. When you hold your breath in an exhale for about a minute, no oxygen is getting into your body. When you start breathing again, and take a huge breath back in and hold it for about 10 seconds, all that good oxygen is swimming around the body, absorbing into the working cells, flooding into every little corner which is where that feeling comes from.

IJ: Yeah, I literally felt high. It's really changed how I see something that I kind of took for granted. Oxygen is a vibe. It's also interesting how people can experience confronting feelings during a session, or extreme good vibes (like an orgasm). Why do you think that is?

RW: The orgasm aspect could be just complete pure pleasure. When you actively breathe like that the blood comes away from your peripherals, meaning you maybe get a little bit cold in the hands, feet and ears, and then your blood rushes to all the main organs that essentially keep the body alive, including the brain. Because of that rush of blood to the prefrontal cortex, all these different thoughts from your subconscious come into the conscious. But the research that’s coming out now over the last five years has been more than what’s come out over the last 50 years, so it's ever-evolving. 

IJ: I think you need to feel a level of trust with the facilitator, and your style seems to really suit a lot of people. Why do you think that is? 

RW: I appreciate you saying that, because I want to be that person who is vulnerable to open the gates for people to do the same with me. I've had a lot of difficulties with my mental and physical health, but I often think people see I’m just trying to help other people feel happy and healthy and live a good life. A lot of people say they feel safe with me. I see a lot of crying, a lot of hugging and I love to be that vulnerable arm that more and more people can actually rely on. 

IJ: Do you think there's been a surge of interest in it recently? 

RW: Yeah, understanding holistic approaches to improving mental health has become very popular, especially after large corporate pharmaceutical companies getting slammed for the seriously detrimental effects their products have on consumers. People have started to think “okay, maybe what these yogis have been doing for 3000 years ago is actually a thing….” The Western world has ignored all these ancient traditions. Even Wim Hoff is very open about the fact he didn’t invent his method. It's called Tummo and it’s an ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice. He just made it very sexy, which is great. 

IJ: Yeah, he just gave it a rebrand. What’s your advice to someone who might feel intimidated to try it? 

RW: Just come along, give it a go, and we'll start with breath awareness. I'd understand why they're feeling nervous and then figure out which breathing practices would help. This isn't me blowing my own trumpet, but I feel what I offer is quite different and very inviting to a wider audience. Now I’m working with the likes of Google and Amazon and across 5 spaces - medical, corporate, educational, athletic and charity. These people are starting to value it as well to improve their employees health and actually feel happier.

IJ: Yeah, totally. I’ve never been to a session like the one you offer, and I think you’re making it feel far more accessible. 

RW: Amazing, thank you. I'm very passionate about that which is why I've kept my zoom prices at $10. I had a lot of internal dialogue about whether I was devaluing what I do but I'm so passionate about helping people live a more fulfilled life, and if they can do that through a few breathwork sessions a week, then I’m a happy boy. 

IJ: Oh my god! That’s so pure. This is a really broad question, so feel free to just go wherever you want with it, but what do you think the biggest changes in your life have been since you became a regular breathwork practitioner? 

RW: It's hard because breath has helped me so much in my life, but I've also changed because of the breath. My whole lifestyle has changed. I used to be very angry and snap a lot because my anxiety came out in aggression. I really struggled to manage my emotions, but now I feel that anger come up before it comes out. I use certain breathing techniques to calm my heart rate and nervous system. It helps me focus, it helps me relax, it improves my athletic performance. It plays a part in everything from sleep to emotions, to performance, to focus, to the immune system, to bettering your relationships.

If you’re interested in giving one of Rory’s sessions a red hot crack (10/10 would recommend), or just want to know more about the power of breath, you can find heaps of information on his website here.

Article image credit @sjanaelise

Article written by Ianthe Jacob