For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a really anxious person. In high school, I was formally diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is defined as having persistent and excessive worry about various things—money, health, family, work, etc.—to such a degree that it impedes on your life. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, "Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern."
Since my diagnosis, I’ve employed various methods to cope with my anxiety—therapy, medication, and regular exercise when I’m not paralyzed by depression. I’m also lucky to have a solid network of understanding friends and family members who are just a call or text away when I’m wound up.
That’s not to say I don’t have bad days. Sometimes I become so fixated on something that eventually it'll send me down a vicious spiral of emotions, with seemingly no end in sight. My stomach and chest tightens. My palms get clammy and my breath becomes heavy. In these moments, I usually cope by crying it out, or I go to sleep.
But that’s not always feasible. For years, therapists have recommended I try some deep breathing as a way to manage overwhelming feelings, but I’ve never heeded their advice. Breathing exercises—sounds nice, but that’s going to do nothing for me, I’d think to myself, scoffing at the idea. A work trip, however, has completely changed my perspective on its effectiveness.
Recently, I was invited to attend SoulCycle’s first-ever retreat in Austin, Texas, curated by the luxury travel group Black Tomato. A relaxing and rejuvenating four-day getaway, the trip offered various group-bonding activities from SoulCycle classes to exploring Rainey Street (a popular district in Austin known for its lively nightlife and historic homes). Of all the activities, though, one in particular deeply resonated: A breathwork class.
Breathwork is an active meditation technique that uses the breath to purge the body and nervous system of emotional debris.
What Is Breathwork?
"Breathwork is an active meditation technique that uses the breath to purge the body and nervous system of emotional debris,” Erin Telford, the LA-based practitioner who led our circle during the retreat, explains. "The experience moves emotional energy and facilitates [the] release of strong emotions like anger and sadness. It can help you to find a home in your body and your heart, and help you learn to trust yourself. It leaves you feeling softer, open, and less burdened,” she continues.
I have to admit—going into it, I was a bit nervous and highly skeptical. While I’ve read rave reviews about the practice and its transformative power (people claim it's freed them from repressed trauma and helped quiet their overactive brain), I wasn’t sure it would work for me. Still, I decided to try it at least once before passing judgement.
What Is a Breathwork Class Like?
At the beginning of the session, we sat in a big circle and shared a thought we wanted to let go out of. I talked about my father, who walked out of my life when I was younger. Telford instructed us to lay down on our backs and took us through a breathing exercise. We were told to take deep breaths—into our abdominals and chest before exhaling through our mouths. To get in the zone, I closed my eyes and focused on my breath. About ten minutes later, I started feeling a tingling sensation in my stomach, as if had some pent up tension waiting to be released.
Some people wailed. Others let out primal cries. I screamed.
While all of this was happening, Telford played ambient music and applied essential oils on different parts of our bodies (with consent). Halfway through the session, she implored us to release any emotion we were feeling. Some people wailed. Others let out primal cries. I screamed. Right as things started to intensify, she had us return to a normal breathing pattern and applied more essential oils. Towards the end, I started hallucinating. Images of my dad, who I haven't seen in years, popped into my mind and tears rolled down my cheeks.
The Benefits of Breathwork
I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had—and although it brought up uncomfortable emotions, I ended the session feeling completely at ease. All the pent up tension in my body dissolved and I was able to process some deep-seated emotions surrounding my anxiety.
"Breathwork is so powerful in getting to the roots of anxiety, as it increases your capacity to feel strong emotions and physical sensations (and still feel safe in your body). Once you can do that on the mat, you're even more capable in your normal life," Telford says.
The Final Takeaway
Consider this skeptic converted. I’m really glad I discovered I breathwork. Since the retreat, I’ve done some deep breathing on my own (sometimes following the same pattern Telford taught us), and it’s been helpful in calming me down when I’m wound up. Through the power of breath, I’m finally starting to get a handle on my emotions.